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About this book

The slow retreat of the British empire in the century after the First World War has had dramatic implications for Britain itself, its former colonies and the global balance of power.

The Transformation and Decline of the British Empire provides a broad-ranging and accessible introduction to the key debates and discussions about this process of imperial decline. Drawing on the lively scholarship which has developed over the last twenty-five years, it offers both new students and established scholars a guide to the existing literature on British decolonisation, including subjects such as the rise of anti-colonialism, the impact of empire on British politics and culture, the significance of migration, the wars and insurgencies which accompanied the end of empire and the role which capital and labour played in imperial decline. Mawby also examines the way in which the historiography has developed through conversations and debates between scholars, the impact which present day concerns have on historical writing, the significance of new documentary findings and the impact of theoretical considerations on current controversies.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
Everybody knows that the British Empire no longer exists but nobody is quite certain when it ended. One of the many difficulties with identifying a precise date or period for the ‘fall’ of the empire is that its years of decline were also years of dramatic transformation in the politics and society of both metropolitan Britain and the overseas territories that the British had once governed in the imperial periphery. The independence ceremonies of newly liberated countries are perhaps the most conspicuous markers of national reassertion and imperial decline; but long before the British abandoned formal political control of their Asian, African and American colonies, relations between metropolis and periphery were undergoing very significant changes which ramified well beyond the confines of politics. And even after all were agreed that the formal British empire was no more, its influence was still strongly felt in the former colonial territories, in Britain itself and in the international system.
Spencer Mawby

1. Anti-Colonialism in the British Empire

Abstract
It is impossible to write about the end of the European empires without giving some consideration to the emergence of anti-colonial ideas in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Yet the first thing which aspiring students of anti-colonialism are likely to notice is the absence of a general text devoted to the subject. Although at one time this historiographical oversight could be ascribed to the reluctance of modern historians to engage in large projects devoted to abstract political concepts, we are now awash with semi-popular investigations of notions such as internationalism, global government, environmentalism, human rights and the Third World. Vijay Prashad’s study of this last phenomenon comes closest to offering a broad overview of the non-European response to the decline of European imperialism [16]. Perhaps the negative connotations of the terminology play a part in explaining this omission, and the corollary neglect of non-alignment and the Non-Aligned Movement, whose history overlaps that of anti-colonialism, offers some corroboration for this supposition. There are difficulties in analysing a movement which is defined by what it is against, particularly when the concept against which it is defined is as large in scope and as contested as colonialism or imperialism.
Spencer Mawby

2. Britain and Britishness

Abstract
Anniversaries, either in the form of commemoration or celebration, are one of the most significant ways in which the past intrudes into the culture of the present. In the case of the British Empire these intrusions are becoming more frequent. Although it initially appeared that the centenary marking of the outbreak of the First World War would focus exclusively on the trenches and the home front, the BBC eventually recognised the imperial dimension of the conflict, which included the deployment of over a million Indian soldiers and nearly half a million Canadian troops, with the broadcast of David Olusoga’s two-part documentary Forgotten Soldiers of Empire. Olusoga was able to extend his discussion of the role of soldiers from the European colonies in his book-length study, The Worlds War [15]. But it is also possible to look for the imperial legacy in more unexpected places. When the time came in 2013 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the BBC’s science fiction institution, Doctor Who, Simon Winder took the opportunity to explain how the fortunes of the early Doctors were tied to those of the declining British Empire.
Spencer Mawby

3. Migration

Abstract
The study of migration offers an opportunity to consider how changes which occurred in the last years of the British Empire affected the lives of ordinary people and it would be an inattentive historian who overlooked the conspicuous and compelling role that migration has played in the development of public history in Britain. There are a variety of practical, theoretical and even reputational reasons why those people who participated in, or endured, voluntary or coerced relocation during the era of British decolonisation make attractive subjects for historians. The most mundane of these is that many of the migrants are still alive and willing to tell their stories; and in places like London, Birmingham, Leicester and Bradford they share the city with universities. Yet geographical proximity is not the determining consideration because for many years such migrant communities were ignored by historians. More recently the study of people on the move has been given impetus, first by the injunction to write ‘history from below’, then by the requirement for inter-disciplinarity and currently by the emphasis on transnationalism.
Spencer Mawby

4. Counterinsurgency, Intelligence and Propaganda

Abstract
Military history is the scholarly field in which the concerns of the present day press most keenly on the study of the past, and no issue in British imperial history has greater contemporary relevance than that of the means by which agents of the colonial state suppressed dissidence and elicited complaisance in the last years of their rule. At stake are the personal fortunes of the survivors of colonial insurgency, the reputation and liabilities of the British state and a set of wider questions about how states conduct irregular wars against non-state actors. And for all of these reasons, historians interested in the role of the armed forces and intelligence services in policing the empire and fighting colonial counterinsurgency have often found themselves in conflict with the post-imperial British state over issues of access to the documentary record. Under the Waldegrave Initiative on Open Government, from 1993 the British government has attempted, on the one hand, to grant historians access to some previously classified material, while on the other, retaining its right to arbitrate on which historical documents are made available.
Spencer Mawby

5. Capital and Labour

Abstract
Decolonisation is often depicted as a process of political reform in which power was transferred from representatives of European imperialism to a new class of nationalist politicians. In such accounts conflicts tend to take place at the conference table and are about incremental shifts in the balance of constitutional authority. The Indian Round Table conferences of the 1930s and the Lancaster House conference on Kenya of the early 1960s are pivotal moments in this kind of narrative. But there is a different tradition of writing about 20th century imperialism which is concerned with the relationship between European capital and African, Asian and American labour. Whereas the termination of European political control was marked by the celebrations which accompanied independence, there was often continuity in the sphere of economics. Although strikes and industrial relations reforms may be identified as key events in securing liberation, the old imperial periphery remained dependent on Western capital long after the new national flags were hoisted above government buildings. Relations between business and workers before political independence did not change dramatically in its aftermath and this observation may even destabilise the very notion of decolonisation.
Spencer Mawby

Conclusion

Abstract
One of the consequences of the end of the British Empire has been a tidal wave of commentary about the end of the British Empire. What this book has attempted to demonstrate is that this scholarly inundation has been beneficial and that we now have a better understanding of the character, causes and consequences of decolonisation. Two developments have been particularly significant in this process: firstly a revised interpretation of the decolonisation strategy pursued by the British government which emphasises the activism of the imperial state during the last years of empire and secondly a new and revisionary reading of decolonisation as a global process which paid no respect to the arbitrary and artificial frontiers that marked out nations and empires on the map. To the extent that the former emphasises the significance of outward pressure from the metropolis into the periphery and the latter accentuates the role of exogenous, global processes in shaping imperial history, these two interpretations are in tension with one another. Even as they offer a new depiction of the actions of the British government and its representatives overseas, traditional historians in the activist camp still rely on orthodox assumptions about the central role of an elite group of policymakers.
Spencer Mawby
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