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Imperial Euthanasia?

Review by: Michael R. Anderson University of Texas at Austin

Imperial Euthanasia?, Ronald Hyam (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 464 pages

Ronald Hyam did it again. Hyam’s Britain’s Imperial Century, 1815-1914, first published more than 30 years ago, remains the single-best historical synthesis of the British Empire at its height. With this new volume, Hyam has produced an engaging and comprehensive study of British decolonization in the 20th century that will provide one of the key starting points in any future discussion of the subject.

The central thesis in Britain’s Declining Empire contends that international pressure, more than any other factor, forced Great Britain to retreat from its formal empire in the middle decades of the twentieth century. The Cold War necessarily played a large role in this story. The British, in Hyam’s view, wished to control and direct colonial nationalism in the attempt to prevent the spread of global communism. The United States and especially the United Nations, however, increasingly came to the conclusion that any continuation of formal colonialism was incompatible with the struggle against communism. In order to retain its power and prestige, Great Britain acquiesced to this new international situation in a series of stages, from Clement Attlee’s “proto- decolonization” in the immediate post-war years to Harold Macmillan’s “wind of change” speech in 1960. The “avoidance of … international criticism … became almost the primary reason for speeding up transfers of power” during these years, Hyam writes (p. 181).

Hyam acknowledges the major competing explanations for decolonization— financial crisis and colonial nationalism—and then dispatches them fairly perfunctorily. Financial weaknesses did prove fatal to Britain’s ability to influence the global economy (and thus debilitating her “informal empire”) but did not have as large a factor on ending formal colonial holdings, apart from Cyprus, Malaysia, and a few others, Hyam writes. The existence of successful colonial nationalist movements, moreover, did not mean that nationalists themselves held the balance of power: “The really significant historical question to ask is how the imperial power had got psychologically to the point where it was prepared to open the door to self rule when nationalist leaders came and knocked” (p.403, italics added).

This question is a good one, and it serves to sharpen Hyam’s narrative by focusing on the imperial administration in London, specifically within the Colonial and Foreign Offices. In a series of lively pen portraits, Hyam provides a sketch of some influential colonial officers in the decades after World War I. He does not posit an “official mind” per se, yet he does find a remarkable degree of consistency in character and approach to imperial policy, marked by gradualism and pragmatism. Even Winston Churchill, somewhat surprisingly, is portrayed within this open-mindedness; Hyam finds that Churchill’s decisions on colonial policy were marked by “compromise, reconciliation, and even- handed justice, however paternalistic the presentation might be” (p.172).

Hyam’s achievement in synthesizing 50 years of British colonial policy and imperial withdrawal in Africa, Asia and the Middle East in fewer than 500 pages prove remarkable, yet his narrative coherence, centered on political decision- makers in London, admittedly restricts the view of the total decolonization experience. The words and actions of colonial nationalists themselves are dim and fleeting; their impact is necessarily filtered through the eyes of imperial administrators. In a concluding metaphor, Hyam likens the end of British imperialism as a kind of euthanasia, and emphasizes “the relative ease and quiet of it all” (p. 404). This conclusion rings true from a British perspective; whether it holds throughout the former empire seems to be a matter for another project.

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