- Britain’s Declining Empire: The Road to Decolonisation, 1918–1968
This is a magnificent book—intelligent, informative, lucid, and witty. It surveys a critical half-century of British imperial withdrawal on the basis both of deep knowledge of Colonial Office and other government records and of long thought about the idiosyncrasies of the colonization and decolonization processes. The book shows, among many other things, how white settlers were introduced into East Africa to make the Uganda railway pay, how Kwame Nkrumah advanced independence for the Gold Coast (as Ghana) by helping to save the cocoa industry from the cacao swollen-shoot virus, and how Malcolm MacDonald’s expert conciliation of the United Malays National Organization (the Malay nationalist party) was linked to his intense appreciation of Malay female beauty.
Ronald Hyam does not pull his punches, describing Ernest Bevin’s 1948 proposal of an all-embracing Western Union as a “noble, crazy, cosmoplastically hallucinatory scheme” (p. 137) and noting that Winston Churchill’s biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert, “has little interest in the world outside Europe (defined—as by the Eurovision Song Contest—to include Israel)” (p. 169n). Hyam emphasizes personal agency, and his capsule portraits of key figures are sharply memorable: A. V. Alexander, Clement Attlee’s defence minister, was “a supporter of Chelsea F.C. and a wizard at billiards” (p. 107); Alan Lennox-Boyd, Macmillan’s first colonial secretary, “had a vigorous, masterful manner, which stood him in good stead in his dealings with all kinds of people, from colonial governors to rent boys” (p. 175); and the white prime minister of the Central African Federation, Sir Roy Welensky, “was less well educated than his African opponents; if he had been an African, his educational attainments would not [End Page 155] have been sufficient to allow him to vote” (p. 365). Hyams offers four cricketing metaphors for Britain’s imperial retreat. He decides that it was neither “bowled out (by nationalists and freedom fighters),” nor “run out (by imperial overstretch and economic constraints),” nor “retired hurt (because of a collapse of morale and ‘failure of will’).” Instead, Britain was “booed off the field (by international criticism and especially United Nations clamour)” (p. xiii). Ultimately Britain preferred to resist Communism and avoid a third world war than to retain an empire and so undertook a generally successful withdrawal.