Presentation on theme: "The end of the British Empire. In the last decade of the Victorian era, an obscure public schoolboy made a prophecy about the British Empire's fate in."— Presentation transcript:
The end of the British Empire
In the last decade of the Victorian era, an obscure public schoolboy made a prophecy about the British Empire's fate in the coming century: “I can see vast changes coming over a now peaceful world; great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine; and I tell you London will be in danger – London will be attacked and I shall be very prominent in the defence of London... I see further ahead than you do. I see into the future. The country will be subjected somehow to a tremendous invasion... but I tell you I shall be in command of the defences of London and I shall save London and the Empire from disaster”.
WINSTON CHURCHILL was just 17 when he spoke those words to a fellow Harrovian, Murland Evans. They were astonishingly prescient. Churchill did save London, and indeed Britain. But in the end, not even he could save the British Empire.
By the time Churchill died in 1965, all the most important parts of the British Empire had gone. WHY? Throughout the 20th century, the principal threats to British rule were not national independence movements, but other empires.
These alternative empires were significantly harsher in their treatment of the subject peoples than Britain: Belgian rule in Congo had become a byword for the abuse of human rights. Such was the rapacity of King Leopold II's Regime that the cost in human life due to murder, starvation, disease and reduced fertility has been estimated at 10 million – half of the existing population. There was nothing hyperbolic about Joseph Conrad's portrayal of the 'horror' of this in Heart of Darkness.
The French did not behave much better than the Belgians in their part of Congo: population loss was comparably huge. In Algeria, New Caledonia and Indochina too, there was a policy of systematic expropriation of native land. German overseas administration was no more liberal. The Herero population, who sought to resist the encroachments of German colonists, was reduced from around 80,000 in 1903 to just 20,000 in 1906. A proclamation was issued which declared: 'every Herero, whether found with or without a rifle, with or without cattle, will be shot'.
Japanese colonial rule in Korea was conspicuously illiberal. When hundreds of thousand took to the streets to demonstrate for the Declaration of Independence, the Japanese authorities responded brutally. Over 6,000 Koreans were killed, 14,000 were injured, and 50,000 were sentenced to imprisonment. We should also remember the quality of Russian rule in Poland, where they pursued aggressive policies of 'russification'.
Yet all this would pale into insignificance alongside the crimes of the Russian, Japanese, German and Italian empires in the 1930s and 1940s. By the time Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, the most likely alternatives to British rule were: Hirohito's Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere; Hitler's Thousand Year Reich; Mussolini's New Rome. Nor could the threat posed by Stalin's Soviet Union be discounted.
It was the staggering cost of fighting these imperial rivals that ultimately ruined the British Empire. In other words, the Empire was dismantled not because it had oppressed subject peoples for centuries, but because it took up arms for just a few years against far more oppressive empires. It did the right thing, regardless of the cost.
After World War I, the Empire had never been bigger. But nor had the costs of victory. No combatant power spent as much on the war as Britain, whose total expenditure amounted to just under £10 billion.
That was a steep price to pay. Before 1914, the benefits of Empire had seemed to most people, on balance, to outweigh the costs. After the war the costs suddenly, inescapably, outweighed the benefits.
On 23 April 1924 King George V opened the British Empire Exhibition. It was intended as a popular celebration of Britain's global achievement, an affirmation that the Empire had more than just a glorious past but a future too, and in particular an economic future. More than 27 million people flocked to the 100- acre site of the exhibition; indeed it was so popular that it had to be reopened in 1925.
Visitors could marvel tangible examples of the Empire's continuing vitality – above all, its economic vitality. The exhibition cost £12 million was the largest ever staged in the world. The irony was that, despite a government subsidy of £2.2 million, the Exhibition made a loss of over £1.5million, in marked contrast to the profitable pre-1914 exhibitions. Indeed, in this respect, there were those who saw unnerving parallels between the Empire Exhibitions and the Empire itself
Perhaps, even more worryingly, the exhibition became something of national joke. The creeping crisis of confidence in Empire had its roots in the crippling price Britain had paid for its victory over Germany in the First World War. The death toll for the British Isles alone was around 3 three quarters of a million, one in sixteen of all adult males between the ages fifteen and fifty.
The economic cost was harder to calculate. Now, after all, it proved extremely difficult to restore the foundations of the pre-war era of globalization. After the war, restrictions to the international freedom of movement of labour proliferated and became tighter. The biggest economic change of all wrought by the war was in the international capital market.
Britain resumed her role as the world's banker. But the great machine that had once worked so smoothly now juddered and stalled. One reason for this was the creation of huge new debts as a result of the war: not just the German reparations debt, but also the whole complex of debts the victorious Allies owed one another.
At the nadir of the Depression in 1932 nearly 3 million people in Britain, close to a quarter of all insured workers, were out of work. Yet the significant thing about the Depression in Britain is not that it was so severe but that, compared with its impact in the USA and Germany, it was so mild. What brought recovery was a redefinition of the economics of Empire. In 1931 the sterling bloc became the world's largest system of fixed exchange rates, a system freed from its gold mooring.
There was also a a radical change in trade policy, which consisted in setting preferential tariffs for colonial products. Even as the Empire grew more economically important, its defence sank inexorably down the list of political priorities. In the 10 years to 1932 the defence budget was cut by more than a third – at a time when Italian and French military spending rose by, respectively, 60% and 55%.
In 1918 Britain had won the war on the Western Front by a huge feat of military modernization. In the 1920s nearly everything that had been learned was forgotten in the name of economy. The stark reality was that, despite the victory and the territory it had brought, the First World War had left the Empire more vulnerable than ever before.
War had acted as a forcing house for a host of new military technologies – the tank, the submarine, the armed aeroplane. To secure its post-war future, the Empire needed to invest in all of these. It did nothing of the kind. The politicians got away with it for a time because the principal threats to the stability of the Empire appeared to come within (Ireland and India) rather than from without.
Yet amid all this inter-war anxiety, there was one man who continued to believe in the British empire. In his eyes, the British 'were an admirably trained people' who had 'worked for 300 hundred years to assure themselves the domination of the world for 2 centuries.
In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler repeatedly expressed his admiration of British Imperialism. What Germany had to do, he argued, was to learn from Britain's example.
'The wealth of Great Britain', he declared, 'is the result of the capitalist exploitation of the 350 million Indian Slaves.' That was precisely what Hitler most admired: the effective oppression of an 'inferior' race. And there was an obvious place where Germany could endeavour to do the same. 'What India was for England', he explained, 'the territories of Russia will be for us'.
If Hitler had a criticism of the British it was merely that they were too self-critical and too lenient towards their subject peoples. As he explained to Britain's Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax in 1937, the way to deal with Indian nationalism was simple: 'Shoot Ghandi, and if that does not suffice to reduce them to submission, shoot a dozen leading members of Congress; and if that does not suffice, shoot 200 and so until order is established.'
Hitler insisted that he had no desire to bring about the destruction of the British Empire, an act which 'would be of any benefit to Germany... [but] would benefit only Japan, the USA, and others.' The Empire, he told Mussolini in June 1940, was 'an important factor in world equilibrium.'
It was precisely this Anglophilia that posed perhaps the gravest of all threats to the British Empire. On 28 April 1939, Hitler made an important speech in the Reichstag. It was a final bid to avert war with Britain by doing a deal based on co-existence: the British would be allowed to retain their overseas Empire if they would give Hitler a free hand to carve out a German Empire in Central and Eastern Europe.
Churchill, to his eternal credit, saw through Hitler's blandishments. Nevertheless, Churchill was defying not just Hitler; he was in some measure also defying the military odds. Granted, the Royal Navy was still much larger than the German. Granted, the Royal Air Force had enough of an edge over the Luftwaffe to stand a reasonable chance of winning the Battle of Britain.
But in May / June 1940 the 225,000 British troops who had been evacuated from Dunkirk had left behind not only 11,000 dead and 40,000 captured comrades but also nearly all their equipment. The British were tankless. Above all, with France vanquished and Russia on Hitler's side, Britain now stood alone.
The peroration of Churchill's speech to the Commons on 4 June 1940 is best remembered for its sonorous pledges to fight 'on the beaches... in the fields and in the streets' and so on. But it was the conclusion that really mattered: “... we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until in God's time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the old.” Europe had been lost. But the Empire remained.
In December 1937 the Chinese city of Nanking fell to imperial forces. With explicit orders to 'kill all captives', the army ran amok. Between 260,000 and 300,000 non- combatants were killed and, in grotesque scene of torture, prisoners were hung by their tongues from meat hooks and fed to ravenous dogs.
Imperial troops competed in prisoner-killing competitions; one officer challenged another to see who would be first to dispatch a hundred Chines PoWs. The destruction left half the city in ruins. Women suffered the most. This was imperialism at its very worst. But it was Japanese imperialism, not British. This tragic historic episode reveals precisely what the leading alternative to British rule in Asia stood for.
There were degrees of imperialism, and in its brutality towards conquered people Japan's empire went beyond anything the British had ever done. And this time the British were among the conquered. Britain built a naval base in Singapore in the 1920s as the lynch-pin of Britain's defences in the Far East. By the end of 1941, not enough was done to protect the base from the threat posed by Japan.
When the Japanese attacked the base in Singapore, British defences were totally unprepared. For Britain the choice was between the horror of a Nanking-style Japanese assault and the humiliation of abject surrender. On 15 February 1942, despite Churchill's desperate exhortation to fight 'to the death', the white flag was raised. Never in the history of the British Empire had so many given up so much to so few.
In the First World War, American economic and then military support had been important, though not decisive. In the Second World War, it was crucial. The wartime alliance with the US was a suffocating embrace; but it was born of necessity. Without American money, the British war effort would have collapsed. The system of Lend-lease whereby the US supplied her Allies with arms on credit was worth $26 billion dollars to Britain.
With few exceptions, the British political elite, unlike the mostly socialist intellectual elite, found it extraordinarily hard to accept that the Empire had to go as the price of victory. But Britain's own bank account made it clear that the game was up. Once Britain had been the world's banker. Now she owed foreign creditors more than $40 billion.
The transfer of power There was something very British about the Suez Canal military base. –When Egypt's leader, Colonel Nasser, pressed the British to speed up their withdrawal from Suez, at last they agreed to begin the evacuation of the base.
The transfer of power –However, when Nasser proceeded to nationalize the Canal, British restraint cracked. –For their part, the Americans could not have been much more explicit about their opposition to a British military intervention in Egypt.
The transfer of power –On 5 November 1956 an Anglo-French expedition landed on the Canal, claiming that they were peace-keepers trying to pre-empt an Israeli-Egyptian war. –Nothing could have revealed Britain's new weakness more starkly than what happened next.
The transfer of power –Britain could not prevent the Egyptians from blocking the Canal and disrupting the oil shipments through it. –Then there was a run on the pound as investors bailed out. –Indeed, it was at the bank of England that the Empire was effectively lost. –As the Bank's gold and dollar reserves dwindled during the crisis, the Chancellor of Exchequer had to choose between devaluing the pound or asking for massive American aid.
The transfer of power –The latter option put the Americans in a position to dictate terms. –Suez sent a signal to nationalists throughout the British Empire: the hour of freedom had struck. –But the hour was chosen by the Americans, not by the nationalists.
The transfer of power –The brake-up of the British Empire happened with astonishing speed. –Thus it was that the British Empire was broken up rather than being taken over; went into liquidation rather than acquiring a new owner. –It had taken 3 centuries to build. –It took just 3 decades to dismantle.
The transfer of power –When faced with the choice between appeasing or fighting the worst empires in all history, the British Empire had done the right thing. –Even Churchill, staunch imperialist that he was, did not have to think for long before rejecting Hitler's squalid offer to let it survive alongside a Nazified Europe. –In 1940, under Churchill's inspired, indomitable, incomparable leadership, the Empire had stood alone against the truly evil imperialism of Hitler.
The transfer of power –Even if it did not last for the thousand years that Churchill hopefully suggested it might, this was indeed the British Empire 'finest hour'. –In the end, the British sacrificed their Empire to stop the Germans, Japanese and Italians from keeping theirs. –Did not that sacrifice alone expunge all the Empire's other sins?
Conclusion –The British Empire is long dead. –What had been based on Britain's commercial and financial supremacy in the 17 th and 18 th centuries and her industrial supremacy in the 19 th was bound to crumble once the British economy buckled under the accumulated burdens of two world wars. –The great creditor became a debtor.
Conclusion –In the same way, the great movements of population that had once driven British imperial expansion changed their direction in the 1950s. –Emigration from Britain gave way to immigration into Britain. –The imperial legacy has shaped the modern world profoundly.
Conclusion –Without the spread of British rule around the world, it is hard to believe that the structures of liberal capitalism would have been so successfully established. –Those empires that adopted alternative models – the Russian and the Chinese – imposed incalculable misery on their subject people.
Conclusion –Without the influence of British imperial rule, it is hard to believe that the institutions of parliamentary democracy would have been adopted by the majority of state in the world, as they are today.
Conclusion –India, the world's largest democracy, owes more than it is fashionable to acknowledge to British rule. –Its elite school, its universities, its civil service, its army, its press and its parliamentary system all still have discernibly British models.
Conclusion –Finally, there is the English language itself, perhaps the most important single export of the last 300 years. –Today 350 million people speak English as their first language and around 450 million have it as a second language. –That is roughly one in every seven people on the planet!
Conclusion –Of course no one would claim that the record of the British Empire was unblemished. –On the contrary it often failed to live up to its own ideal of individual liberty, particularly in the early era of enslavement, transportation and the 'ethnic cleansing' of indigenous peoples.
Conclusion –Yet the 19 th -century Empire undeniably pioneered free trade, free capital movements, and, with the abolition of slavery, free labour. –It invested immense sums in developing a global network of modern communications. –It spread and enforced the rule of law over vast areas.
Conclusion –Though it fought many small wars, the Empire maintained a global peace unmatched before or since. –In the 20 th century too it more than justified its own existence, for the alternatives to British rule represented by the German and Japanese empires were clearly far worse. –And without its Empire, it is inconceivable that Britain could have withstood them.