- Britain's Declining Empire: The Road to Decolonisation, 1918-1968
Whether coming to praise or bury J. R. Seeley, it would seem that the British imperial historiography can still not shake the need to apostrophize him. And, of the handful of phrases found in a few opening paragraphs in Seeley's 1883 Expansion of England that have been revived and so influenced work on the history of the British empire in recent years, none has become more ubiquitous than Seeley's now (in)famous pronouncement that Britain had "conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind." Seeley's observation was not that the empire had been acquired accidentally-though the phrase has come to symbolize that trenchant debate as well-but that it had happened without altering the "imaginations" or "ways of thinking" among eighteenth-century Britons about who, what, and where was "British" history after the expansion of modern empire.1
At first glance, one would not expect a book about the high politics of decolonization to have much at stake in this enduring quarrel over the extent to which the acquisition of modern empire "mattered" to Britain. However, though the question only comes up explicitly four pages from the book's end (406), Britain's Declining Empire does seem to have this core dilemma at its center: if the British Empire was conquered in a "fit of absence of mind," was it perhaps lost that way as well?
Though this book follows immediately on Ronald Hyam's now three-decades-old, but recently reprinted, Britain's Imperial Century, 1815-1914, readers will find, as Hyam himself calls it, "a sequel with a different character" (xi). Eschewing the more holistic approach of its antecedent, this book is self-consciously focused on the "political aspects" of the end of empire (xi). While careful to make clear that there was no "monolithic 'official mind'" at work-evoking yet another celebrated phrase in the nineteenth-century imperial historiography2-Hyam's British Empire clearly rises and falls (but mostly falls) with the ministers, officials, diplomats, colonial governors, and civil servants in charge: that is, the "several government departments . . . involved" in governing empire (12). As such, the empire's fortunes were tethered to the personalities, proclivities, and ill-fated projects of the particular people at the center of decision making.
On the one hand, such a centrifugal approach is perhaps necessary for Hyam because of his understanding that the British Empire was both literally and figuratively all over the map. From India to Pitcairn, the empire as he describes it was a patchwork of sizes, shapes, jurisdictions, considerations, and concerns, everywhere posing very different problems and requiring particular approaches and circumstantial solutions. In its argument and structure, which tends to migrate from one colonial theater to another, the book does give its reader both an intellectual and visceral sense that the only place "empire," and thus its decline, could have any coherence would be at its center. Of course, on the other hand, the focus on policy and policy makers is more than simply the consequence of a good-faith effort to give order to chaos. It is also part of the book's argument. If empire can be seen, writ large, only from its center, then the problems with empire follow from there as well-that is, not immediately from the various and dispersed colonial and international pressures on it but from the increasingly "dysfunctional" system in the interwar years that confronted those challenges with bad judgments, particular policy preoccupations, "exotic fantasies," and ultimately unrealizable "grand conceptions" (12-13, 30). These vacillated from the absurd and "ironic" (e.g., C. K. Ogden's attempt to codify a universal, pared down English as a sort of imperial Esperanto) to the problematic and ambitious, including experiments in politics and governance, [End Page 583] from A(tlanticism) to Z(ionism), with indirect rule in Nigeria and land policy in Kenya situated somewhere in between.
World War II and the loss of...