The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire: The Demise of a Superpower, 1944-47
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'I have not become the King's First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.' Winston Churchill's famous statement in November 1942, just as the tide of the Second World War was beginning to turn, pugnaciously proclaimed his loyalty to the world-wide institution which he had served devotedly for most of his life. The majority of the British people, who believed they were fighting the war to beat the Germans and preserve the Empire, shared his view. Yet less than five years after Churchill's trenchant speech, and despite -- apparently -- winning the war, the British Empire effectively ended with Indian Independence in August 1947 and the end of the British Mandate in Palestine in May 1948.
How did this rapid change of fortune come about? In January 1945, just before the conference at Yalta between Churchill, Stalin and Truman, where the disposition of so much of the post-war world was made, Lord Wavell, the Viceroy of India wrote in his diary: 'I wonder if the Prime Minister, who is the biggest man of the three, will still be able to assert his dominant personality. A great triumph if he can, the oldest man of the three, with the weakest hand to play.'
Peter Clarke's book is the first to analyse in detail the losing hand which Britain was dealt in the last year of the war, and then to see how that hand was played over the next two years by Churchill's successors. Its originality lies in the detailed narrative which shows how military, political and economic developments bore down upon each other. It makes superb use of the copious letters and diaries now available of the major participants and many involved observers to show how decisions were taken, and of contemporary newspaper reports and contemporary witnesses to show how those decisions were received: it recreates both the geopolitics and the atmosphere of the period. Not least, it analyses dispassionately the role of the USA: how Roosevelt and his successors were determined that Britain must be sustained both during the war and after, but that the British Empire must not; and how the tension between Allied war aims, suppressed while the fighting was going on, became rapidly apparent when it stopped. The book thus also describes the short pivotal period when American influence finally took over from the British in world politics.
Beaver-brook was out of the war cabinet and that Sir Stafford Cripps took his place, with the title of Lord Privy Seal. These were ones that Churchill would not have made willingly. Cripps, expelled from the Labour Party just before the war for advocating a popular front with both Liberals and Communists, had just returned from a posting as British ambassador in Moscow, trailing the glory of the Red Army. This helped give him an almost messianic status, as a prophet of high-minded austerity,
it’s just like Attlee himself!’50 The rival party leaders had ten hot sticky days ahead of them before the votes were counted at home. Yalta had taken eight days. The initial expectation was that Potsdam would be over before they had to depart. There was bound to be a different style in the absence of the inimitable FDR, the man who had taken the United States into the war and who alone knew his own exit strategy. Moran brooded about the effect on Churchill – ‘now Roosevelt was dead he found
ANGLO–U.S. TALKS IN PERIL OF COLLAPSE (Daily Herald, 23 October) How to pay for the war – he had used this as the title of a pamphlet in 1940 – was once Keynes’s big problem. Now there was a new question: how to pay for the peace? Pending demobilization, and with occupied countries to feed, the costs of the peace were not very different from the costs of the war – except that there was no Lend-Lease to help cover them. In this situation, the urgency of the Washington negotiations was matched
billion by 1939. But it reached £6 billion in 1940, the first full year of war – an increase of 50 per cent over 1933. Levels of output, moreover, remained at least as high as this throughout the war, reaching a peak of £6.6 billion in 1943.54 This was a command economy in many ways, subordinating market forces to maximum mobilization and war production. Full employment replaced dole queues as labour shortage became the main problem, with the trade unionist Ernest Bevin, as Churchill’s Minister
November optimistically reported that agreement was near, covering not only transitional arrangements after victory in Europe but also some resumption of British exports, necessary to escape dependency on American dollars. On the same day, however, closer to the real source in Washington, Morgenthau had his premonition of bad news confirmed from Admiral Leahy, the White House chief of staff: ‘the President said he never promised them anything at Quebec, and that we should handle this just the