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Britain's strategy was to repress any challenge to the friendly regimes it wanted to institute as it withdrew from formal political control. It was an era dominated by the linked challenges of frenzied nation-building and counterinsurgency. A book published next month charts this era of realpolitik with chilling detail; Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon's conclusion in Imperial Endgame is that "liberal imperialism can only be sustained by illiberal dirty wars. Britain's imperial endgame demonstrates that it is possible to achieve success in each.

Whether moral or not is a question best left to philosophers and kings. But there is an even bigger myth about the end of empire that could be dismantled by the contents of Hanslope Park's attics. Namely, that it was the end at all. Retreat in some areas, such as India, contrasted with continuity in others, such as the Middle East.

In many places the mechanisms of projecting British power simply reverted to those used in building the empire in the first place: avoid formal political control and use trade, finance and military power to build alliances with client states who could secure British influence. Use military intervention when necessary for instance, SAS involvement in the Dhofar rebellion The only postwar innovations were first, to incorporate the US as imperial successor, and second, to add aid as another strategy for British influence.

But the bigger picture is of continuity; that's why the notion of apologising for empire is so odd — it's not really over yet, we just became junior partners to our successors, the US.

  • | Imperial Endgame | | Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon | Boeken.
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There are two reasons why all this is of interest — or should be — to more than historians: first, much of British decolonisation policy is with us still — similar aims, methods, language and justifications. The continuities are unnerving; politicians were talking of protecting "our way of life" half a century before Blair did. When counterinsurgency stalled in Afghanistan, Malaya was the model examined most closely.

Second, this imperial endgame explains so much about today: for instance, the growing crisis in Bahrain , where new arrests over the weekend appear to herald a fresh bout of violent repression, and why we are not currently bombing this Gulf state with as much enthusiasm as we are Libya. It has been one of the most successful chapters in British imperial domination; the Al Khalifa dynasty signed its first treaty with the British in and they finally "left" in The British have backed a repressive regime in a very cosy, mutually advantageous relationship of finance, military training, arms deals and royal ceremony one of the less edifying aspects of the imperial endgame has been the use of the royal family to flatter and seduce client regimes, however unpalatable.

That meant staying on in the Middle East even after the breakdown of British control in Palestine and its hasty evacuation in In Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and the Gulf, the British were determined to hang on to their treaties and bases, including the vast Suez canal zone. They wanted help from Australia and hoped for Indian support against Soviet influence in Asia. Across the whole spectrum of party opinion, British leaders had no doubt that Britain must uphold its status as the third great power, and that it could only do so by maintaining its empire and the Commonwealth link.

Europe, by contrast, they saw as a zone of economic and political weakness. It was Britain's overseas assets that would help to defend it. In the s, British governments struggled to achieve this post-war imperial vision. They had already reinvented the Commonwealth in in order to let India remain a republic, overturning the old rule that the British monarch must be head of state in a Commonwealth country. They accepted the need to grant increasing self-government and then independence to some of their most valuable colonies - including Ghana and Malaya in - on the understanding that they remained in Britain's sphere of financial and strategic influence.

The British governments took up the challenge of anti-colonial revolts in Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus.

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They invested heavily in up-to-date weaponry and fretted over the slowness of the British economy to resume its old role as the great lender of capital. By the end of the decade, things were not going well. Staying in the Middle East had led step-by-step to the confrontation with President Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, and the disastrous decision to seek his overthrow by force in collusion with Israel. The Suez Crisis was a savage revelation of Britain's financial and military weakness and destroyed much of what remained of Britain's influence in the Middle East.

In the colonial territories, more active interference in social and economic matters, with a view to speeding the pace of development, had aroused wide opposition and strengthened nationalist movements.

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It was becoming much harder for Britain to control the rate of political change, especially where the presence of settlers as in Kenya and the Rhodesias sharpened conflicts over land. Britain's position as the third great power and 'deputy leader' of the Western Alliance was threatened by the resurgence of France and West Germany, who jointly presided over the new European Economic Community EEC.

Britain's claim on American support, the indispensable prop of imperial survival, could no longer be taken for granted. And Britain's own economy, far from accelerating, was stuck in a rut.

With conditions as they stood, it was now becoming increasingly difficult to maintain even the semblance of British world power. In the s, British governments attempted forlornly to make bricks without straw. Britain tried and failed twice to enter the EEC, hoping partly to galvanise its stagnant economy, partly to smash the Franco-German 'alliance'. To avoid being trapped in a costly struggle with local nationalist movements, Britain backed out of most of the remaining colonies with unseemly haste. As late as , it had publicly scheduled a degree of self-government for Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika.

All became independent between and British leaders gamely insisted, and no doubt believed, that Britain would remain at the 'top table' of world power - a status guaranteed by its nuclear deterrent and its continuing influence in the ex-colonial world, and symbolised by the Commonwealth which the ex-colonies had joined. The situation did not go as planned.

Britain's failure to stop the white settler revolt in Southern Rhodesia in was a huge embarrassment and drew fierce condemnation from many new Commonwealth states. In South East Asia, protecting the new federation of Malaysia against Indonesian aggression became more and more costly.

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Meanwhile the British economy staggered from crisis to crisis and the burden became unsustainable. Devaluation of the pound in November was followed within weeks by the decision to withdraw Britain's military presence east of Suez. When Britain finally entered the European Community in , the line had been drawn under Britain's imperial age. But the ending of an empire is rarely a tidy affair. The Rhodesian rebellion was to last until the late s, Britain fought a war to retain the Falkland Islands in and Hong Kong continued, with tacit Chinese agreement, as a British dependency until The British at home had to come to terms with an unforeseen legacy of their imperial past - the large inflow of migrants, mostly from South Asia.

In the 21st century, old imperial links still survive, particularly those based on language and law, which may assume growing importance in a globalised world.


Even the Commonwealth, bruised and battered in the s and s, has retained a surprising utility as a dense global network of informal connections, valued by its numerous small states. As the experience of the empire recedes more deeply into Britain's own past, it has become the focus of more attention than ever from British historians.

He makes it clear that the reality was very different. Withdrawal from empire was difficult, dangerous and dirty and the politicians, diplomats, soldiers and policemen who brought empire to an end did so in a way not brought out as powerfully and persuasively before. For anyone worried about how things might end in Iraq or Afghanistan, Grob-Fitzgibbon's excellent, dispassionate, forensic analysis will make uncomfortable but illuminating reading.

Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon has no time for conventional pieties. Junking the tired story of disarray and humiliation, he shows how Britain ruthlessly disposed of the Empire on its own unsentimental terms. This strategy often involved dirty tactics and dirty wars but the objective was clear: to keep newly-independent states within Britain's sphere of influence. It's abold re-telling of the decolonisation story, pulledoff with great style and panache.

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Imperial Endgame is an excellent history of the British counter-insurgency campaigns marking the end of colonial rule, above all in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, and Aden. One of the most valuable aspects of this book is its retailing of the atrocious methods Britain often resorted to in order to attempt to keep 'order' in the face of all these postwar challenges to its colonial rule.

In recounting the methods employed by Britain to maintain 'order', the author presents a much-needed counterweight to the elegantly phrased, and intentionally reassuring opinions so often encountered in the recorded views of contemporary policy-makers. That he does this by considering so diverse a range of case studies only serves to make his account more compelling.

Colonialism & imperialism ·

In short, this book offers a timely and valuable corrective to any lingering historiographical complacency on British disengagement from empire. As such, it promises to enrich discussion of a central theme in contemporary British and world history, and deserves to have a wide readership. October,