The Second World War was a key event in reshaping the geo-political map in the second half of the 20th century. The conflict resulted in a power shift from European imperial dominance towards US and Soviet hegemony , and a change in the organisation of nations characterised by the breakdown of imperial structures, particularly Britain’s. Certainly, many historians have pointed to the British Empire’s rapid post-war decline, arguing the war itself was a decisive factor in bringing British authority to an end. Before going any further, it must be reminded that WWII alone cannot explain the decline of the British Empire, and other factors such as the rising education of colonial subjects should not be overlooked.
However, this article aims not to compare the impact of the war with that of other issues. Rather, it will highlight some of the direct and indirect consequences of the war itself on British authority within the Empire. Importantly, it must be pointed out that one’s definition of authority, or indeed that of Empire, might be of great importance too: for instance, imperial authority might be discussed in terms of how militarily or economically powerful Britain was in the post-war years . By contrast, others historians have looked at the image Empire abroad, and the consequences of the war on the relationship between Nationalism and British identity as an indicator of imperial decline. In the same way, one’s definition of Empire may be more or less inclusive, focusing on Britain’s colonies, but possibly ignoring the impact of the war on relationships with the “informal” empire. For the purpose of this article, I will look at the impact of WWII on the “formal empire”, and the different ways in which it impacted British imperial authority.
One of the main historical debates about the war concerns whether it united the Empire under the British flag, or instead created divisions and a sense of British self-interest over the protection of its oversees territories. Despites Churchill’s 1943 declarations of imperial bonds being “stronger than ever” and promises to “all go down or come through together” , the Empire rapidly showed to be anything but united. Whilst in May 1941, the British had been defeated in Iraq by their own subjects’ rebellion, Indian nationalists protests such as the 1940 disobedience movement initiated by Gandhi occurred as a result of not being consulted about entering the war. In addition, British claims of fighting to protect democracy was received with cynicism by Indians, who themselves did not enjoy political freedom under British rule . Resentment towards the British handling of the war also manifested itself within Dominions. In 1941, Australian Prime Minister John Curtain angrily declared that “Australia can go and Britain can still hold on”, expressing the view that the US rather than Britain may be a more reliable ally. Hence, it is evident that although there was a consensus within colonies that Hitler had to be stopped, Churchill’s claims of harmony were not reflective of the reality of Empire. In terms of British authority, those challenges faced during the war gave therefore stood as a prelude to the great opposition and discontent Britain would face in implementing policies in the post-war era.
In addition to the negative impact of Britain’s policy makers among colonial subjects, WWII had a massive impact in changing individual’s views about the Empire as a ruling ideology, and about British imperialism in particular. Indeed, as well as portraying the Empire as disunited, the war enabled colonial subjects to be exposed to new ideas which would influence the way they esteemed their rulers. As Lawrence James understood, the war “had produced fighting men less deferential, more politically radical and aware of the world than their predecessors in 1918” . In other words, the war had militarily and intellectually trained colonial peoples yet to gain freedom, allowing them to witness with envy the political autonomy of western nations, as well as exposition to Japanese racial and Soviet anti-capitalist propagandas . Furthermore, the shift of ideas about Empire was not limited to colonies, but also appeared at home where the growing popularity of American culture in Britain, and among the working class in particular contributed to spread new egalitarian ideas . Hence, the experience of WWII brought about new ideas which again would shape the opposition British authority would face in the post-war years, both at home and abroad.
Another immediate effect of WWII was to ruin Britain’s myth of military grandeur. Indeed, it is evident that one of the reasons why Britain was capable to control such large territories and populations with such a reduced military force lied primarily in her ability to create the illusion strong military power. For instance in the years 1858-1947, the Indian Civil Service is estimated never to have exceeded 1000 whilst he population of India was as much as 400 million by the end of British rule . However, the war brought numerous military embarrassments such as the loss of Singapore to a smaller Japanese army , the naval humiliation that constituted the sinking of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales in December 1941 or the events in Dunkirk which despites British propaganda were perceived by many as a retreat before stronger enemies . Undoubtedly, the loss of such psychological military power was a massive blow to British authority over the Empire, and it was not long before it showed: in August 1942, the Indian National Army began fighting alongside Japanese troops with only 42,000 men to overthrow the British Raj by force . This was arguably one of the most important factors in Britain’s inability to preserve its authority after the war, because it showed the world that Britain would not be able to keep the Empire by force even if she wished to, and post-war forceful anti-colonialist incidents such as the Suez Crisis and the Mau Mau Revolt may be seen as inevitable, long term consequences of the military weakness the British had revealed in the war.
Finally, the war left Britain facing a significant economic crisis, which “wiped out 28 per cent of the country’s wealth” , leaving Britain with an estimated £1,200 million debt to India and $30 billion worth of goods in debts to America under the Lend-Lease programme . According to historians such as Niall Ferguson, the war debts, in particular to America, were not just a weakening factor for British imperial authority, but the main reason why Britain gave up the Empire as a whole. Arguing that Britain had to put her colonies “for sale” to satisfy anti-imperialist US, he claims that the Empire “went into liquidation rather than acquiring a new owner” . There are major issues with this theory of imperial decline in that it dismisses colonial nationalism as having any impact whatsoever on British politics, emphasising on an external factor as the only explanation for the end of British authority. Nevertheless there is no doubt that the financial situation Britain was left in by the end of WWII was a massive handicap to the continuity of British imperial authority, which she effectively could no longer afford to keep.
Ultimately Ferguson does not claim that financial debts in general were the reason for decline in British rule. Rather, he argues that the fact that those debts were owed to America, which the war had turned into “the most powerful nation in the world” , was the crucial factor because it created a military and economic dependence on openly anti-imperialist US. In terms of impact, this suggests the war directly reduced British authority on a global scale, and indirectly decreased authority within the Empire as Britain was cautious not to upset its new allied superpower. On the other hand, it must be pointed out that the equally growing importance on the Soviet Union as a leading power meant that the US did not always entirely reject British imperial authority, and for instance much preferred to see communist uprising in Malaya suppressed by the British than gain independence . Therefore although the Empire clearly suffered from the power shift which followed the war, in some cases British rule benefited from the rivalry between Soviets and Americans.
Many alternative theories suggest that the changes and decline of British authority which occurred following the war were inevitable, arguing that the war was nothing more than a catalyst in the process of decolonisation. For instance, it has been argued that the rise of colonial nationalism was a long term result of British education, which promoted liberalism and the formation of a middle class elite that would have the political power to gain independence . According to Marx, the origin of imperial decline lays in the nature of capitalist economy itself, which he argues is the “highest stage” towards socialism . This claim, which implies that WWII had a limited impact on British authority, remains nevertheless hypothetical and has at time been disregarded as counter history. Nonetheless, those ideas suggest that the causal relationship between the war and imperial decline may not be so straightforward.
On the whole, it is evident that the war impacted massively on international politics and relations, and it is no surprise that the Empire was also affected. As highlighted in this article, many theories have been put forward about WWII as an ideological shift in Britain and abroad, a war of ideas from which colonial subjects came back changed by new expectations. In addition, the war changed Britain’s financial and strategic international status in favour of America and the Soviet Union. Whichever of those arguments one decides to hold as most significant, and it is certainly a combination of several, it is evident that British authority was severely weakened by WWII, resulting both in losing credibility as a superpower, and the emergence of new political adversaries at home, within the Empire and internationally.
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