When and Why did British Decolonisation begin?

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When and why did British Decolonisation Begin?

        British decolonisation was a gradual process which punctuated the years interceding the aftermath of the Second World War in 1945 and the handover ceremony of Hong Kong to China as a special administrative region in 1997. However, when regarding as to why this process began, one must consider the factors which were involved, of which include the British metropolitan, global, and colonial perspectives. Although each one of these perspectives can be attributed in some way to the beginning of the end of the British Empire, not one can stand scrutiny of being a direct trigger to decolonisation. Rather, their interlocking relations to one and other created an atmosphere conducive to decolonisation. Such an atmosphere would inevitably lead to decolonisation based on practicality, as opposed to sheer necessity.

        The British metropolitan is a defining factor in the creation of an atmosphere conducive to decolonisation. The reasons for this is routed in the socio-economic changes which had occurred in the aftermath of the Second World War and how these changes took precedent over the issues of the Empire. Indeed, one can see an, almost, indifference towards the issues of empire, as both the political parties, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, appeared to debate very little on the issue of decolonisation following the end of the war. The impression given is that decolonisation was not actively initiated by government, but was a product of other policies and concerns. This could explain how the pro-imperialist Conservative governments actually saw more colonies to independence than that of the anti-imperialist Labour counterparts, as they were meeting the requirements of other policies through decolonisation, as opposed to the policy of decolonisation itself. 

Such policies which would stimulate decolonisation relates to Britain’s economic state following the Second World War. The expenditures of the war had claimed 25 per cent of Britain’s national wealth and had run up debts amounting to £3 billion to ‘Allies, Dominions and Associates’. One can see how Britain’s financial resources were devastated and in the light of this financial turmoil it would not be unsurprising for Britain to then concede overseas territories in order to concentrate funds on domestic issues, as opposed to imperial defence. This relates to Britain’s rise as a welfare state, championed during Clement Atlee’s Labour government of 1947-51. The people of Britain were far more interested in their own well-being from the financial backlash of the war and were not well disposed to money being spent on imperial defence. The resulting argument which could be made was that ‘as the Welfare State began to live the Empire began to die’ and that ‘one reason why colonies were hustled toward independence… was precisely to release west European resources for domestic welfare spending’.  Indeed, the withdrawal from India, Burma, Ceylon, Palestine and aid to Greece was shadowed by the fuel crisis of 1947, indicating that among other factors, economic concern did play a part. Therefore, evidence suggests that metropolitan did contribute to the atmosphere conducive to decolonisation, as the end of the war brought the onset of more pressing socio-economic issues for government than the maintaining of costly imperial possessions.

However, although it could be argued that Britain’s financial position affected the onset of decolonisation, it cannot be seen as a definitive reason for decolonisation to begin. The precedence of the welfare state is put into doubt, as can be seen with the fact that later on in the process of decolonisation, as seen with the Korean War in 1950, Attlee’s government was still prepared to invest money and man power overseas, at the expense of the domestic economy. Moreover, the idea that financial hardship could be alleviated through decolonisation is questionable. Although decolonisation had begun during an economic crisis it was not directly linked to it. In fact, the peaking of intra-imperial trade after the war would indicate that British interests were in favour of continued empire. These contradictions in metropolitan policy suggest that there was no clear direction in regards to empire. Rather, the metropolitan was surprisingly ‘indifferent to the future of the British Empire’ This indifference, although not directly associated with the start of decolonisation, formed an atmosphere conducive to it.

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        After the Second World War, the global dimension of politics had changed drastically. The British Empire was no longer seen as the power house it had once been. Its finances were in turmoil and Hitler’s defeat had cast colonial ideologies into an unfavourable light. Such an opinion is reflected with the establishment of the United Nations Organisation and its strong stance against empire.  It would seem natural, that in order to maintain some influence and power, Britain would decolonise. This global requirement for decolonisation is all the more apparent with the rise of the United States of America and the Soviet Union ...

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