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  • Lord Hailey, the Colonial Office and the Politics of Race and Empire in the Second World War: The Loss of White Prestige
  • Sonya O. Rose
Suke Wolton, Lord Hailey, the Colonial Office and the Politics of Race and Empire in the Second World War: The Loss of White Prestige (London, Macmillan, 2000 and New York, St. Martin’s, 2000)

Suke Wolton’s The Loss of White Prestige is an informative analysis of the complex politics of race and empire during World War II. Wolton’s concern is to understand why race came to be discredited as a language of difference justifying British colonialism. By focusing on the Colonial Office and, in particular, the ideas of Lord Hailey, Wolton shows that over the course of the war a new raison d’etre for British imperialism became consolidated. The author supports other scholars of race and politics in this period such as Paul Rich and Elazar Barkan by maintaining that Nazi racism per se did not discredit the use of white superiority to articulate and defend British policy. Wolton concludes that three factors, in combination, led to a changed language: the association of racial ideology with the enemy, the fear of political unrest and revolt in the colonies, and the necessity to develop a “new language”, in particular to reach some workable accord with the U.S. on the question of Britain’s colonial relationships.

The author suggests in the second chapter that early in the war Lord Hailey supported the policy of indirect rule, but by 1943 he argued against that policy and the “dual mandate” in favor of British rather than African institutions taking responsibility for promoting colonial development. Wolton suggests that Hailey’s transformation “is an indication of the shift in outlook of the British Colonial Office.”(p.39) It came about, in part, because of a growing recognition that “white prestige” in the colonies was ebbing. Hailey and others in the Colonial Office became increasingly aware of “racial consciousness” and the possibilities of “a black revolt”. Wolton suggests that a major turning point during the war was the fall of Singapore in the Far East. Drawing on the work of Christopher Thorne, Wolton maintains that the Pacific war was experienced in London and Washington as a potential threat to white authority. The “shock of defeats by Japan”, the author concludes, compelled the Colonial Office to reconsider how the colonies were administered.(p.63)

Chapter Three considers the growing investment by Colonial Office officials in confronting the color bar, both at home and in the colonies. Wolton proposes that Colonial Office resistance to American racial discrimination against both black Americans and British colonial subjects is indicative of the general shift that she suggests was occuring over the period of the war. Although acknowledging that the Colonial Office did not directly confront the Americans about their treatment of black British people, she suggests that a film made by the Ministry of Information with the cooperation of the Americans for newly arrived American servicemen cautioning GIs to respect British racial tolerance was indicative of how much was changing on the part of both governments with regard to race. Yet, although Wolton does not say this directly, her evidence suggests that only very minimal progress was made. What progress was made, Wolton argues, “may have encouraged the department to eventually consider race relations not only as something politically important but also as something that they could contain.”(p.93)

In the fourth chapter Wolton considers Hailey’s increasing commitment to Britain’s role in the economic development of the colonies as a way to legitimate the empire. Economic development was constructed as necessary for the colonies prior to their achieving a “self-governing status.” Wolton proposes that the Atlantic Charter and its principle of “freedom from want” was significant in the construction of this argument.

In the final substantive chapter of the book, “Reformulating Imperial Authority,” Wolton argues that Hailey’s idea of using the term “partnership” to replace “trusteeship” gained ground in the U.K., and significantly, it received the stamp of approval of the United States. Hailey also successfully argued for the extension of the idea of social...

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