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  • British Government Policy and Decolonisation 1945–1963: Scrutinising the Official Mind
  • Philip Murphy
Frank Heinlein , British Government Policy and Decolonisation 1945–1963: Scrutinising the Official Mind. London: Frank Cass, 2002. 337 pp. £39.50.

Over the past fifteen years, a range of specialist studies have drawn on newly released documentary evidence to reassess the process of British decolonization. Among the most important of these studies have been the weighty volumes in the series British Documents on the End of Empire. Up to now, the best general survey has been John Darwin's Britain and Decolonisation: The Retreat from Empire in the Post War World (London: Macmillan, 1988). Yet this was written before official files on the key period of the late 1950s and early 1960s became available. Frank Heinlein has largely succeeded in satisfying the need for a work of synthesis that incorporates the most recent scholarship. His book, based on a 1999 doctoral thesis, makes good use of the secondary sources available at the time he was writing and supplements these with his own extensive research in the Public Record Office (now known as the National Archives) and other repositories. The result is a clear, sophisticated, and generally convincing account of Britain's management of imperial retreat. Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to Heinlein's book is that it is a worthy successor to Darwin's Britain and Decolonisation, and one that deserves to be equally widely read.

Having achieved so much, Heinlein unnecessarily complicates his task by invoking the elusive concept of the "official mind" first devised by Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher more than forty years ago. Although Heinlein is highly successful at mapping out the thought patterns of the British state, he is slightly less effective at relating these thoughts to the policymaking process. At the margin of one telegram from Robert Armitage, the governor of Nyasaland, expressing his trenchant views on some matter of policy, a senior British minister scribbled the indignant note: "Do we or does he run the Empire?" This is a good question, and Heinlein might have been expected to give rather more systematic attention to it. One of his central findings is that the British generally attempted to stay one step ahead of nationalist demands, conceding power before it was forced from their hands. Maintaining the "goodwill" of colonial peoples was seen as the best means of preventing the violent collapse of the colonial system and as the only hope of preserving some link with the United Kingdom in the postindependence era. Yet one is left without a clear sense of why this view tended to prevail when so many powerful figures in the British government still cherished unreconstructed illusions of great-power status. Was it that the policymaking agenda tended to be set by the territorial governor, whose sense of the fragility of British rule was always highly acute? Did "he" rather than "we" really run the Empire? This was probably true in many instances, although it was far from universally so. Robert Armitage himself is an example of a governor who was left behind by the determination of ministers and officials in London to press ahead with rapid constitutional [End Page 154] change. Producing a thorough analysis of the wiring of the official mind will not be aneasy task; but even after the appearance of Heinlein's book, it is one that needs to be done.

A related issue, and one that will be of particular interest to readers of this journal, is the extent to which geopolitical calculations shaped the process of withdrawal from empire. Heinlein notes that decolonization "became an inherent part of cold war politics" (p.106). In a variation of the argument outlined above, British officials asserted with increasing frequency from the late 1950s onward that the only way to block the spread of Communism was to retain the goodwill of nationalist leaders by satisfying their demands for a swift transition to independence. Yet, was this Cold War logic really a significant cause of decolonization or merely an ex post facto justification for actions taken under duress? Support for the former view comes from Heinlein's assertion that the British...