At the beginning of 1937, Britain was the only global power with interests in every continent and, in theory, the means to defend them. The British system was a close approximation to a world empire. Its prestige had been dented by recent events, and its wealth diminished by depression. But no other great power could match its combination of military (mainly naval) and economic strength or its latent ability to coerce its enemies. The intimidating scale of its territorial extent, including its self-governing member states and colonial possessions, made it hard to imagine the ultimate defeat of such a global leviathan. Indeed, life outside the limits of empire seemed scarcely conceivable to the sturdiest nationalist – at least as a realistic prospect in the foreseeable future. In what was still an imperial world across much of Afro-Asia, there were few free places on the map.

But empires can disintegrate with astonishing speed. The collapse of the Soviet empire at the end of the 1980s took almost everyone by surprise, not least the school who had proclaimed the imminent decline of American power. In the British case, the change was almost as sudden. By the middle of 1942, Britain, the imperial centre, was effectively bankrupt and dependent upon American aid. With the fall of Singapore in February, the invasion of Burma, and the German advance into Egypt (the battle of Alamein was fought scarcely 100 miles from Cairo), the British system looked set to collapse. Its precarious survival and the eventual victory of 1945 were a tribute to its residual strength, but not the sign of a full recovery. The post-war empire was a pale shadow of its former self. The cohesion of its constituent parts had been badly damaged. Much of its wealth had been lost or redistributed. By 1968, the last vestige of its world power status had vanished.

Revolution and Empire

It is commonplace to attribute this dramatic descent to the overextension of imperial power, the final cause in Gibbon's account of the decline of Rome. At best this is a truism, at worst a tautology. The British system was sustained not by the unique resources of Imperial Britain, but by a combination of elements not so much ruled as managed from London. It is the failure of the combination that needs to be explained. A more serious objection to the ‘overstretch’ explanation is its determinism – as if the downfall of the British system was an inevitable outcome which contemporaries were too blinkered to see for themselves. Of course, the British system broke up because it lacked the resources to overwhelm its enemies. But that is only half the story. No less important was the fact that the struggle to survive was waged in an age of revolution: a Eurasian revolution that cumulatively (but very quickly) destroyed almost all the global preconditions on which the British system had depended since the 1830s.

It is arguable that the roots of this revolution lay in the very changes from which the British had profited so much in the past: the gradual integration of the world's politics and economics into a universal system. As the world became a single market, and more and more of its regions came to depend upon international trade, commercial rivalry had become more intense. The strains of economic transformation were felt more deeply; the threat posed by commercial disruption to social stability became more obvious. At the same time, the ‘globalising’ climate in trade and diplomacy intensified the trend towards competitive state-building, since only well-organised states could secure social order, economic development and international sovereignty. Partly because of the easier diffusion of ideas and values across districts, countries and continents that technology made possible, socio-economic change and state-construction provoked rival forms of cultural mobilisation: to make states or break them; to build new communities, or refurbish old ones. Ethnic nationalism became the secret weapon of modernising states, and also a potent means of subverting them.

Before 1914, these sources of tension in world affairs had been eased by three countervailing influences. First, the rapid growth of international trade softened the impact of economic competition and enhanced the appeal of the open economy. Secondly, the political structures that had grown up since the 1870s survived the stresses of external rivalry and internal revolt. The European great powers who had partitioned so much of the world had settled their differences peacefully if grudgingly. Partly for ideological reasons (a shared conceit about their civilising mission), partly from self-interest, they showed little desire (though some) to stir up trouble in each others’ empires. Despite alliance systems, war plans and mobilisation timetables, they preferred to rattle their sabres rather than use them. Thirdly, the conservative elites who retained their grip over the dynastic empires of East and Central Europe had kept in hand the ethnic nationalisms that threatened the stability of the European states-system. The result had been not a durable peace but an uneasy equilibrium whose fragility was eventually revealed in the July Crisis of 1914. In the four years that followed, much of Old Europe's political architecture was abandoned or destroyed. As the war reached its climax in 1917–18, it seemed as if the progressive collapse of political, social and economic order would spread a revolution across Europe and ignite a revolt of the subalterns in the colonial lands beyond. If this terrifying prospect had receded by the mid-1920s, as we saw in the last chapter, it did not vanish for long. The peace of the 1920s was the prelude to a revolutionary age, although it was not until the mid-1930s that its full global meaning had begun to emerge and the prospect of ‘holding the centre’ grew increasingly faint.

The revolution of the 1930s was the overthrow of the international regime so laboriously reconstructed between 1919 and 1925. Economic in origin, the revolution was systemic in scope, affecting almost every aspect of international order. Its most obvious dimension was in geopolitics. After 1930, the ‘weak’ powers became strong and the ‘strong’ powers weaker. Less than three years after Hitler's accession to power in January 1933, Germany had repudiated the terms of the Versailles treaty and began to create a great-power army, an air force and a modern navy one-third as large as Britain's. By reoccupying the Rhineland in 1936, and building the ‘West Wall’ (the ‘Siegfried Line’), Hitler made Germany far less vulnerable to an attack from France, and much freer to pursue his designs in the East. The German revolt against Versailles had been closely followed by Italy's. Although Italy was the weakest of the three European victor powers of 1919, her strategic position bisecting the Mediterranean, fear of her air power, and the new alignment between Rome and Berlin (the ‘axis’ of November 1936) created a new military balance in the Mediterranean Sea. The third great change was the growing might of the Soviet Union. Amid the gross upheavals of collectivisation after 1928, rapid industrialisation, the Stalinist terror and the purges (which had led to the murder of some 40,000 officers in the Soviet army by 1938), the Soviet Union had become a great military and industrial power whose military spending ranked second only to that of Germany.1 The rise of Stalin's state held a profound significance for the successor states of Eastern Europe, for East Asia, and above all for Nazi Germany.

The growth of Soviet power was the link that connected East Asia to Europe. It helped to provoke the Japanese conquest of Manchuria and the rapid dissolution of the Washington regime. After 1931, much of North China was caught up in the escalation of Soviet–Japanese rivalry.2 Japan's military intervention in Shanghai (1932) and the attack on the Kuomintang government's authority in the northern provinces presaged the drastic remaking of East Asia's political geography. In 1935–6, Tokyo's search for allies against the Soviet Union led to closer relations with Germany, and then to the Anti-Comintern Pact of November 1936. When the Sino-Japanese War broke out in earnest in July 1937, and Japanese control extended remorselessly over China's coastal regions (Hangkow and Canton were occupied in October 1938), the political revolution in East Asia was all but complete. There, as in Europe, the champions of the post-war settlement seemed weak and divided, reluctant to challenge the revisionist powers, let alone to match their military power. For all the fragility of its industrial base (carefully noted in London), Japan's military spending between 1933 and 1938 exceeded that of Britain or America.3

The revolt against the geopolitical order was also a revolt against liberal capitalism and its two great centres in London and New York.4 By the mid-1930s, a new world economy had emerged, bringing a drastic reversal of the post-war ‘normality’ of the late 1920s. Commercial liberalism was replaced by economic nationalism. Almost every state had built a wall of controls to reduce its exposure to external pressures – trade competition, capital movements and currency fluctuations – and the domestic unrest that followed closely behind. Instead of the old multilateral pattern, which allowed export earnings from one country to be spent in another, and paid for in freely convertible gold-backed currencies, world trade was more and more segmented into blocs that discriminated against each other by tariffs or exchange controls: the sterling area, the dollar bloc, the gold bloc, the Soviet world, the German sphere,5 the Japanese empire.6 It was widely assumed that, as a proportion of output, international trade was bound to decrease and all economies become more and more self-sufficient.7 In abstract principle, as one contemporary noted, the drift towards autarky might be expected to reduce economic friction. But only in theory, since autarky sharpened the difference in living standards between the less well endowed and their more fortunate neighbours, and increased the incentive to bring economic resources under political control.8Worse still, by trapping the producers of primary products within a single bloc, it lowered their prices, reduced their purchases, restricted their growth and dried up investment.9 In the brave new world of declining trade, there would be less and less scope for the globe-wide trade in services, shipping and capital on which Britain had waxed fat in the recent past.

The third great mine to explode beneath the liberal order was the violent escalation of ideological warfare. The conflict of ideas was itself nothing new. What made the 1930s an ideological battleground was the widespread fear of catastrophic change. The political appeal of revolutionary Marxism, somewhat muted by the late 1920s, was hugely inflated by the visible signs of the collapse of capitalism. To anti-communist parties, interests and opinion, the massive scale of the social crisis required an urgent riposte to the Marxist challenge. The new mass media, their assumed domination over mass opinion, and the comparative novelty of democratic politics in Europe and East Asia (Japan adopted universal manhood suffrage in 1925) made the war of ideas (or slogans) the vital front in the political struggle. But there was no grand alliance against the communist threat. The striking feature of the European scene was the ferocity with which the anti-communist ideologues of fascism and Nazism attacked ‘bourgeois’ liberalism as decadent and corrupt, and parliamentary government as an obsolete sham.10 On Europe's imperial periphery, the devastating impact of the economic crisis on agrarian communities, and similar fears of social catastrophe, exposed colonial and semi-colonial regimes to a rhetorical onslaught from both Marxists and nationalists.

Ideological warfare had a seismic effect on international politics. It turned diplomatic differences into wars of manoeuvre and territorial disputes into set-piece campaigns. To the ideological warriors of the 1930s, secret diplomacy and the squaring of interests in smoke-filled rooms were as repellent as they had been to the most idealistic Wilsonian. In the crowded cockpit of European diplomacy, the three-way split between fascist, liberal and Marxist governments made a firm coalition against aggressor powers impossibly difficult. Ideological ‘programming’ brought a widening gulf in the language and assumptions of national leaders and governments. As the tensions increased, the fog of incomprehension grew thicker. The familiar landscape of great-power diplomacy disappeared in the mist. Negotiation in the era of ideological war became a journey without maps.

The cumulative effect of this triple assault on the post-war order was the rapid erosion of its perceived legitimacy – perhaps the most insidious influence on the decade's diplomacy. After 1930, it seemed more obvious than ever that the humiliating treatment handed out to Germany in 1919, and the attempt to deny her a great-power status, were unjust and unwise. As the value of empires rose in a world of trading ‘blocs’, it became harder to deny the imperial claims of ‘civilised’ states like Germany, Italy and Japan. It became commonplace to speak of ‘have-not powers’ whose unequal share of international wealth was widely seen as the primary source of international tension. But it was one thing to acknowledge that legitimacy was lacking in international politics, quite another to find ways of repairing the deficit. Almost everything conspired against a new equilibrium. It was hardly surprising that the effort to agree on a revised post-war settlement in Europe and East Asia should have come to nothing. Instead, the pressures of geopolitical ambition, economic crisis and ideological struggle had created a revolution in the making in Europe and East Asia by the later 1930s. At opposite ends of the Old World, new imperialisms had emerged that were far more powerful than those of fifty years earlier and much more disruptive of the existing order. Far from being confined to a remote periphery, they concerned the fate of Eurasia's heartlands. Far from being restrained by the European balance of power, they rejected its claims and aimed to destroy it. Far from doubting the value of new colonial possessions, they treated territorial expansion as the key to survival. And, since the world was already partitioned between sovereign states and established empires, this new imperialism meant the forcible overthrow, by war or coercion, of the existing pattern of international property.

Dilemmas of containment

With the advantage of hindsight, we can see that the revolutionary crisis of the 1930s was dissolving the Eurasian preconditions of British imperialism. The peculiar evolution of the British system, and the secret of its viability, had depended upon two vital corollaries. First, that a strategic balance would prevail in Europe, precluding a single continental empire in West Eurasia. Secondly, that East Asia would remain ‘passive’, more acted upon than acting, confined within its regional bounds, with its sea communications under foreign control. It had been these conditions that had allowed the British to push their lightly defended bridgeheads of trade and settlement into the Asia-Pacific, to concede self-rule to their settler colonies without a levy for external defence, and to construct their extraordinary Indian Raj. Only under conditions of exceptional stability in Europe could they have dared to keep so much of their army so many weeks away in their Indian garrisons. It was those garrisons that (in the last resort) had secured their claim on India's resources to help build a secondary ‘Anglo-Indian’ empire in Afro-Asia.

British public attitudes towards the defence of empire and of Britain's world interests were complex and ambivalent. On the one hand, there was after 1930 a widespread revulsion against the thought of war. On the other, except among a very small minority, there was no sign of revolt against the imperial system or the commitments it imposed. The key assumptions of the late-Victorian outlook were still in place. Indeed, their persistence may help to explain why the imperial system was so rarely discussed as a dispensable burden, or as an entity separate from the British Isles. Despite the rise of American power, it was still widely thought that Britain held the ‘central place’ in the world economy. She remained after all the world's greatest trader and investor, with the most diverse portfolio and the largest business network. The economics of sea transport and the flow of communications still worked in her favour. In geopolitical terms, this centrality meant an intermediate position between Continental Eurasia and the Outer World. In the early 1930s, the benefits of this had seemed more obvious than ever. In the Home Islands, the Middle East and India, the British held forward bases from which to intervene in the Continental world, but without becoming part of it. This was the crucial advantage. To be wholly in the Outer World (like the United States) without purchase in Eurasia, was to risk commercial exclusion from the wealthiest and most populated parts of the globe. Without any influence in Continental politics, an Outer power might find the Old World unified against it, driving it into defensive isolation, or threatening it with encirclement and attrition.11 A purely Continental power, by contrast, was forced into constant territorial rivalry. Its frontiers were always at risk. The fixed costs of its defence were always high. Access to the Outer World was always in doubt. The scope for political and economic freedom was narrow, impeding its economic and social development. But the intermediate power – Britain – had the best of both worlds. It was less exposed to territorial friction. It was hard to isolate and even harder to encircle. It could draw on the products of the Outer World and deny them to the Continent. And, with a modicum of luck or skill, it could ensure that no Continental combination could be formed against it – or, if formed, last long.

These assumptions about Britain's special trajectory in world affairs – what we might call ‘British exceptionalism’ – meant that mainstream opinion had been remarkably sanguine that the progressive devolution of political power to the white dominions, India, the Middle Eastern states and, ultimately, perhaps, the other divisions of the British system, would not destroy its ‘natural’ cohesion. It assumed that, under almost all imaginable conditions, membership of Britain's imperial association would be far more attractive than the status of client to a Continental power or a notably indifferent United States. For small or weak states in the modern world, isolation was a mere delusion. Even in India, where anti-colonial nationalism was fiercest in the 1930s, the British expected a new generation of political leaders to turn its back on Gandhi's atavistic utopia once real self-government came into sight.12 For India's self-interest, whether strategic or commercial, was bound to tie it to the maritime world that the British had made, not to Inner or East Asia. Autarkic self-sufficiency (as the sub-continent's whole history seemed to prove) was out of the question.13This passive imperialism of the status quo coexisted amicably with public attachment to the League of Nations as the guarantor of international peace, and with faith in ‘collective security’ as the most effective deterrent against a would-be aggressor. When the Baldwin government seemed on the verge of betraying the collective principle it had so recently endorsed (in the general election of 1935) by agreeing to the dismemberment of Ethiopia, public outcry forced it to repudiate the Hoare–Laval pact (the offer to Italy) and sacrifice Hoare as Foreign Secretary. Public fear of involvement in war (fuelled by scares over mass slaughter from bombing) made the rearmament programme a delicate issue. The British people, Churchill warned in April 1936, would reject rearmament ‘except as part of the League policy’.14 But, as the limitations of the League were brutally revealed by the fall of Ethiopia, and the threat from Germany became more explicit, this consensus broke down. An influential section remained fiercely opposed to the use of force. The veteran campaigner, Norman Angell, led those who urged a tougher response to international aggression in a reconstructed League modelled upon a devolved democratic British Empire–Commonwealth.15 There remained a wide measure of public agreement that the Versailles settlement was unjust and unworkable, and must be revised by ‘peaceful change’; and a corresponding antipathy to Britain's involvement in a continental war aimed at propping it up. Imperial isolationists (the target of Angell's criticism) sought to square the circle. Lord Lothian, Leo Amery and Edward Grigg (all former Milnerites), and The Observer's editor, J. L. Garvin, wanted to bind the Empire together as a cohesive bloc and limit any continental commitment to the barest minimum for Britain's home defence.16 They saw little objection to a German advance into Eastern Europe if it served to promote an Anglo-German détente. ‘Realist’ appeasement was even blunter. Its public champion was E. H. Carr, ex-diplomat, polemicist and a pioneering professor of international relations. Carr treated collective security as a utopian fantasy and turned a ruthless eye on Britain's international weakness. Restoring equilibrium to the international system required peaceful concession to the have-not powers – a view that led him to approve of the outcome of Munich.17

The most subtle exponent of British grand strategy in the 1930s was Basil Liddell Hart, the leading writer on the theory of war. His main achievement was to reconcile the contradictions in British public opinion: horror at the prospect of another ‘great war’; confidence in Britain's ‘manifest destiny’ as a global power. He denounced the continental campaigns of the First World War as a disastrous departure from Britain's ‘historic strategy’. The ‘British way of warfare’, he argued, was to combine all the elements where Britain was powerful to defeat the threats to her global system. A small professional army would use amphibious mobility to throw the enemy off balance – not engage in the brutal combat of the Western Front. Sea-power would throttle a landlocked aggressor. Economic warfare would demolish its civilian morale. ‘Moral war’ would subvert its self-belief and ideology. The aim was to avoid a new Armageddon, one decisive battle on which all would turn. The ‘indirect approach’ (Liddell Hart's key concept) was intended to dissuade an aggressor as much as defeat him. A cold war of diplomacy and suasion, on the Byzantine principle of ‘watch and weaken’, could be waged indefinitely at sustainable cost. Its central virtue in the political climate of the 1930s was to make the defence of empire compatible with mass democracy.18 The unanswered question as war drew nearer was whether it would be enough to save Britain's system from catastrophic defeat.

The uncertain state of British public opinion was a major influence on policy. For a time, the political and practical limits to rearmament seemed to argue against a futile attempt to hold on to everything. Perhaps the profligate sweep of Britain's possessions and spheres (expanded still further after 1918) was too vast to defend. Perhaps some retrenchment was wise. It was widely acknowledged that seizing Germany's colonies after 1918 had been an act of injustice. Some colonial concession might pave the way for a European détente.19 The same might have been said for the imperial ambitions of Italy and Japan. At a time of depression, Britain lacked both motive and means to finance the progress of her ‘undeveloped estates’. A more equitable share-out of the colonial world might improve diplomatic relations and curb the costs of defence. But, for all their agonising over how to protect them, British leaders showed little desire to shrink their global commitments. Indeed, the whole logic of their policy – and of the resort to appeasement – was a tenacious defence of Britain's worldwide claims.

The paradox perhaps is more apparent than real. Returning Germany's lost colonies to a Nazi regime raised awkward questions about their status as mandates. The attempt to do so would have roused humanitarian outrage. Some of them, anyway, were not Britain's to return. Nor was it easier to practise partition diplomacy on the few sovereign states that survived in Afro-Asia – the obvious lesson of the Ethiopian debacle. Any acknowledgment of Japanese claims in China (as opposed to outlying provinces like Manchuria) would have faced similar protest and the intimidating prospect of American hostility. A further objection was the uncertain reward for such painful concessions. Hitler showed no disposition to trade a European settlement for colonial small change. There was no serious chance that Tokyo's army-dominated governments would agree a limit on their deepening involvement in mainland China. British leaders had to bear in mind that to acquiesce in more than modest adjustments to the post-war treaties would ruin their claim to represent legality and order in international affairs. This inhibition was closely connected to another constraint no less powerful for remaining implicit. Governments in London were all too aware that their imperial system was in a delicate stage of constitutional transition. The dominions’ independence had been formally ceded in the Statute of Westminster. India's promotion to (qualified) dominion status was clearly foreshadowed in the 1935 Act. Imperial devolution made it harder to be sure of the dominions’ support for British commitments in Europe, of which their governments had always been wary. But it also placed a premium on British prestige as the primus inter pares of the ‘British nations’. Any public admission of Britain's military weakness, or of her reluctance to defend all her worldwide interests, might weaken her grip on dominion loyalty. Official doubts about the navy's ability to reinforce Singapore in a Far Eastern crisis were carefully concealed from the dominion premiers at the Imperial Conference in 1937. Similar arguments about imperial prestige applied with even greater force in India, Egypt and the Middle Eastern states.

With so few concessions to make, and no reliable clues as to where Germany's, Italy's and Japan's ambitions might lead, there was little alternative but to strengthen the base of British military power as quickly as possible. From 1936 onwards, the strategic debate became more and more fraught. The ‘Anti-Comintern Pact’ signed between Berlin and Tokyo in November 1936, despite its avowed purpose, warned that the two main ‘revisionist’ powers might combine their assault on the Eurasian peace settlement of 1919–22, and its main champion, Britain. Deterring Japan, insisted the Admiralty, meant sending the ‘Main Fleet’ to Singapore. But sending the Fleet east would leave the Mediterranean defenceless for an indefinite period, exposing Malta, Suez and Egypt. By May 1937, the planners were saying that the Fleet could only set out if Germany and Italy had declared their neutrality in an East Asia war – an unlikely scenario.20 A ‘new standard navy’, matching the sea-power of Germany and Japan, would not be enough if Italy entered the war. Nor could it defend Britain against what seemed the greatest danger of all, not a cross-Channel invasion but a ‘knock-out’ blow from the air. To counter the threat of such a German attack, the Defence Requirements Committee insisted on ‘air parity’ with Germany: a heavy bomber force; 2,000 planes with the vital reserves; and the industrial capacity to match Germany's effort. When the Treasury came to add up the bill, the figures were daunting. The maximum sum that could be spent safely over the following five years, Cabinet ministers were told, was barely enough for the navy and air force, let alone the army as well.21

Thus, by the time that Neville Chamberlain became prime minister in May 1937, the strategic outlook had become suddenly bleaker and was getting much worse. In July, full-scale war broke out between China and Japan. In August, there was fierce fighting in Shanghai, and, by September, a Japanese blockade of the China coast. Japan's invading army would soon be more than a million strong. In November 1937, Italy joined the Anti-Comintern Pact to affirm solidarity with Germany and Japan. Meanwhile, in what was Britain's most likely outside source of supply, the American Congress passed the Neutrality Act to bar the sale of munitions of war to any belligerent. The raising of loans there (a major recourse in the First World War) had already been blocked by the Johnson Act three years earlier. But Chamberlain was a strong and self-confident leader whose administrative ability and careful stewardship of public finance since the 1931 crash had earned him his name as a safe pair of hands. Like most mainstream opinion, he was strongly against a continental commitment for the British army, or an alliance with France that might drag Britain into an East European war. He also opposed too fierce a response to Japan's advance into China, preferring the ‘indirect approach’ of giving the Kuomintang government some financial assistance. On this, and on his eagerness to bury the hatchet with Italy, he was at odds with Anthony Eden, his Foreign Secretary.22 Unlike Eden (and the Admiralty), Chamberlain saw little point in challenging Japan to win American goodwill,23 and privately disparaged Washington's diplomacy as no more than words. In early 1938, he resisted Roosevelt's proposal of a peace initiative as untimely, pushing a discontented Eden into resignation.

Chamberlain took what he considered a realistic view. He favoured the build-up of naval strength, though not on the scale that the Admiralty wanted. But he regarded the deterrent of air power as a greater priority. With a heavy bomber force at Britain's disposal, there would be almost no danger of a German ‘knock-out blow’, since the RAF's retaliation would be swift and devastating. With the ‘knock-out blow’ ruled out, Hitler would have to reckon on a ‘long war’, if he aimed to fight a war at all. In a ‘long war’, almost all experts agreed, German chances were slender. There would be stalemate on the Western Front, where France was defended by the Maginot Line, and stalemate in the air. The longer war went on, the tighter would be the British blockade on a German economy that was already overstrained. And the more likely it would be that the United States would relax its prohibition on providing cash and supplies. With every month that passed, the Western Powers would grow stronger and Germany weaker. In light of this, it seemed very unlikely that Hitler would be rash enough to risk a second German defeat. The best he could hope for was some territorial gains, a colony or two and an informal hegemony in Southeastern Europe. So the centrepiece of Chamberlain's grand strategy was to inveigle Hitler into a European settlement. Once that was done, the ‘brutal friendship’ between Rome and Berlin would quickly fade. When Europe was restabilised would be the time to deal with Japan's opportunistic imperialism. There was a wide consensus (that included Churchill) that Japan would not dare to attack British interests directly unless Britain had already been defeated in Europe.

Chamberlain's design had a seductive coherence. His critics disliked his political tactics but they found it hard to gainsay his strategic assumptions – in public at least. It was widely assumed that the ‘have-not’ powers could not sustain their huge military budgets for much longer without drastic damage to their civilian economies. The chances that they could agree upon war aims and synchronise their strategies against a set of great-power enemies that might include the United States and the Soviet Union as well as Britain and France, seemed remote. It seemed more likely that, after huffing and puffing, a new equilibrium would emerge in Europe. In the short term, it was vital to avoid an ‘accidental’ conflict. Thereafter, the greatest danger that faced the British system was of bankrupting itself by overspending on defence and risking a new financial crisis on the scale it had faced in 1931. If that were to happen, the Chamberlainites might have argued, the British world-system would disintegrate anyway.

Chamberlain's ideas were soon to be put to the severest of tests. In March 1938, the German army marched into Austria to impose the Anschluss – Austro-German unification – to wild local enthusiasm. Two months later, Hitler opened the campaign for the separation of the German-speaking Sudetenland from the main body of Czechoslovakia, with the transparent intention (after the Anschluss) of absorbing it into Germany. The Chamberlain policy now came to its crisis. It seemed hard to oppose in principle the right of self-determination for the Sudeten Germans. It was even harder to see in practice how Britain could prevent the outcome Hitler wanted, without forming an alliance with France and the Soviet Union.24 The danger to Chamberlain's policy was that, if Hitler imposed his will without regard to Britain and France (and then annexed the dismembered Czech state), their prestige would collapse, and with it the leverage they needed to make Hitler agree to a general settlement. This was the issue on which the crisis turned. Britain and France had already agreed to the Sudetenland's ‘return’ (in actuality it had never been part of Germany) when Hitler demanded (at the Godesberg meeting on 23–24 September) the immediate military occupation of the Sudeten areas to ensure ‘stability’. Chamberlain's own inclination was to press the Czech government not to resist. But a Cabinet revolt on 27 September, led by Halifax and Simon, his two colleagues in the Inner Cabinet dealing with the crisis, brought matters to the brink. The next day, the Royal Navy was mobilised. But a further appeal to Hitler, and intervention by Mussolini, prepared the way for the Munich Conference. At the fateful meeting on 30 September, Hitler agreed to delay occupation and allow an international commission to supervise the sovereignty transfer. But, far more important, from Chamberlain's viewpoint, was his agreement that all future change in European affairs should be settled peacefully between Britain and Germany. Hitler, it seemed, had lost his nerve. It was this piece of paper that Chamberlain flourished to such huge acclaim on his return to London, and with which he all but demolished his domestic critics.

The euphoria was pardonable. All roads had led to Munich. The Admiralty view had been strongly against a premature confrontation with Germany before the new fleet was ready.25 British intelligence about the bomber threat (badly flawed in practice) assumed that Germany enjoyed decisive air superiority26 and that Britain was still in the danger zone of the ‘knock-out blow’. Despite French belligerence, British leaders were highly sceptical of the French will to fight or their capacity to do so. It was widely doubted that British opinion would support a war to keep the Sudetenland Czech. A grand alliance with the Soviet Union and France, even had it been possible, would have courted the risk of a European war with an aftermath worse than after 1918. The fly in the ointment had been Hitler's last brutal demand and the angry reaction it evoked in Cabinet. The astonishing outcome had seemed the best of all worlds, the vital first step down the road to a settlement. Hitler had even reiterated the naval promises made in June 1935.27 But, as even Chamberlain himself may have sensed, it was too good to be true. Hitler's negative intentions soon became clear. And less than six months after the Munich accords he occupied Prague and added the rest of Czechoslovakia to the German Reich.28 The defence of empire had been based on the hope of a European peace: now it must be built on the virtual certainty of a European war.

With the final collapse of Chamberlain's grand strategy, British world policy fell apart in confusion. To salvage the shreds of his own credibility and shore up French confidence in British intentions, Chamberlain issued a guarantee to Poland: Britain would fight for Poland's ‘integrity’.29 As panic spread about German influence in Southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean, further guarantees (and financial aid) were extended to Turkey, Greece and oil-rich Romania. Now that resistance to Germany depended so heavily on France's will to fight, it was no longer possible to refuse a continental commitment. Introducing conscription was an early sign that sending a large army into Europe was no longer ruled out. The strategic implications went wider and wider. On the reasonable assumption that, when war came, Italy would join Germany in an attack on France, the old order of priorities was abruptly reversed. The Fleet would stay in the Mediterranean to protect vital interests (especially the Canal) and begin the assault on the ‘soft underbelly’ of the Axis powers. Whatever happened in East Asia, there would be no ‘Main Fleet to Singapore’, or anything like it, for an indefinite time. The Admiralty refused to abandon the Singapore strategy and insisted that a defensive force would be sent to cover any threat from Japan.30 Their nerve was tested in June 1939 when the British concession area at Tientsin, a treaty-port near Peking, was blockaded by the Japanese army searching for Chinese ‘terrorists’. The Chiefs of Staff decided that no more than two of the navy's eleven available battleships could be sent to the East if the confrontation turned violent: six had to be kept in Home waters, and three in the Eastern Mediterranean.31 At best, they could act as ‘some deterrent’ against a major Japanese move into ‘the South China Seas or Australasian waters’. If the Japanese moved south ‘in force’, the China squadron would have to leave Singapore and ‘retire westwards’.32 To relieve the crisis, the British ate humble pie.33Meanwhile, home defence loomed larger and larger. As rearmament quickened and its cost raced ahead of the projected budget (hurriedly increased from £1,500 million to £2,100 million), purely defensive needs assumed an ever higher priority: fighters (to defend) not bombers (to attack); escort vessels (to guard convoys) not battleships. The Admiralty's request for a building programme to match the expected new level of German construction (Hitler had denounced the 35 per cent limit) was quietly shelved.34 The ‘new standard navy’ would never be built.

Two further shocks lay in wait. Fighting the ‘long war’ had been the centrepiece of British grand strategy. Offensively, that meant blockade. Defensively, it meant Britain's using her financial muscle to outlast any enemy, to fund her allies and buy war materials from any part of the globe. In early July, the Treasury punctured this grand illusion. Britain's gold stock was larger than in 1914, it said, but much of it was ‘fugitive money’ escaping from Europe. A large fraction had gone (to the United States), and more would follow if and when the threat of war continued. In other respects, the situation was even worse. In 1914, short-term capital or ‘hot money’ had flowed back to London: in 1939, it was flowing away. In 1914, Britain had a foreign income stream of £200 million a year to help finance any overseas purchases and provide collateral on foreign loans. In 1939, £200 million was the total sum of Britain's saleable foreign securities. In the First World War, Britain had been able to borrow over £800 million from the American government. In 1939, such loans were banned by the Johnson Act against defaulting debtors. Even at pre-war levels of spending, the reserves in gold and foreign securities ‘would barely last three years’: in conditions of war, it would be very much shorter.35 In Cabinet, the Chancellor drew the brutal lesson. The longer that war was delayed, the weaker would be Britain's financial position.36 But the last shock was the worst. In the aftermath of Hitler's entry into Prague, British leaders had toyed with the idea of a Soviet alliance to restore the European balance of power. There were many doubts. Could the Red Army fight? Would the East European states desert to the Germans? Would the dominions disapprove (Canada and South Africa were said to)? Would Stalin embroil Britain and France in an East European war? Chamberlain's fear was that an alliance would trigger not stop an all-out war and recreate the catastrophe of the First World War. Perhaps for this reason the negotiations were desultory. It soon turned out that they were also academic. On 23 August 1939, the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact was announced to the world. Germany and Russia were to be friends if not allies. Russia's vast resources (including its oil) would be open to Hitler. The blockade had been broken before it began. Britain was at war less than two weeks later.

By a series of steps the policy-makers in London had led the British world-system into a strategic impasse of almost catastrophic proportions. They had placed home defence first because Britain's safety in Europe was the ultimate surety for her imperial power. But when it came to a fight they found they had no means of winning a European war. They had abandoned one ally (Czechoslovakia) that had a modern army, and chosen another (however gallant) that did not. They had done so on a premise – that time was on their side – which turned out to be wrong. They could do almost nothing to help their chosen ally, Poland, nor bring pressure to bear on their enemy, Germany. They had hesitated over an alliance with Stalin, only to find that he had joined their enemies. The weapon of blockade was struck from their hands. Planning to crush Germany by their financial power, they found their own war-chest shrinking with every month that passed. Their last hope of forestalling Germany's continental supremacy rested almost entirely on resistance by France. But ‘war to the last Frenchman’ proved a dangerous motto for the British Empire.

In less than half a decade, British world power seemed to have shrunk to undignified impotence, exposing the British system to an international war it had little chance of winning. With all the wisdom of hindsight, historians have assembled a catalogue of errors. But the deeper question is much more interesting. What shaped the course that took British leaders into the strategic quagmire of September 1939? Five factors exerted a magnetic force upon their geopolitical reasoning. First, the system they managed was dispersed and devolved. This had its advantages, but its resources could not be assembled quickly, or used to meet a sudden emergency. Neither the dominions nor India nor her commercial empire could contribute anything to strengthen Britain's hand in the pre-war crises when the initiative was lost. Secondly, British leaders were acutely conscious of the peculiar openness of their global system. There was no limes behind which to retreat, no East Wall or South Wall to keep out the ‘barbarians’. The British system was a marine archipelago: even India was to all intents a strategic ‘island’. Its survival amidst the new imperialisms depended upon Britain's ability to shuffle military power between its various segments, refusing to commit more than the minimum needed in particular places at a particular time. They had no choice but to maintain their huge fixed investment in an all-purpose navy even at the expense of their offensive capacity, since sea-power alone permitted the strategy of ‘shuffle’. Thirdly, almost no one believed that Britain should be an economic Sparta, with a controlled economy organised for war. On the contrary, ‘overstraining’ the civilian economy would be a self-inflicted and perhaps fatal wound. Germany, reasoned most British observers, was bound to ‘blow up’: the pressure of rearmament on its civilian sector would become unbearable. Britain's ‘free’ economy would win the day. And, if the worst came to the worst, its open structure and global connections would be the vital means of throttling Germany in the economic struggle. Hence what was needed was not an all-out drive but a skilful balance between immediate need and conserving strength for the longer war. Fourthly, for all their pragmatism and their inherited lore of imperial statecraft (a ruthless business), British leaders displayed a curious faith in the international system and its framework of law, perhaps because so much of it was their handiwork and it functioned de facto as an informal extension of their imperial system. They were loath to admit that, for other states, it offered little to ease their frustrations and grievances. They found it hard to conceive that ‘civilised’ governments would show contemptuous indifference for its rules and procedures. In their insular safety, they failed to grasp the cyclonic force of the ideological wars being fought in Eurasia. This was most tragically evident in Chamberlain's failure (and that of so many others) to grasp the unlimited scope of Hitler's ambitions, the savage nature of the Nazi regime, the tectonic scale of the coming conflict and the brutal imperatives behind the Nazi–Soviet pact. They were liberals at sea in a revolutionary age.

Finally, they were also the victims of a cognitive bias that had grown notably stronger in Britain's inter-war culture. The idea that Britain formed a world of its own was very old. Primacy at sea, the rewards of trade and the growth of ‘new Britains’ sharpened the Victorians’ sense of British ‘exceptionalism’. The assumptions behind it were tested to the limit in the First World War. Through a tortuous rationale, they were vindicated by victory. The horror of war on the Western Front and revulsion against what seemed a futile slaughter made it easy to claim a decisive role for economic blockade and what Liddell Hart would call ‘the indirect approach’. The crucial lesson of 1918 was lost. Mackinder's insistence that, without decisive action to stop a ‘heartland’ empire being formed in Eurasia, the ‘world-island’ would soon come to rule the world, was almost forgotten. Its corollary, that British world power required the closest attention to the European balance, seemed alarmist, impracticable and unnecessary. Hence the cavalier presumption that French power would suffice in a German war, and that the most ambiguous promise of British aid was all that was needed to steel French opinion for a future fight. Hence the failure to see that a geostrategic earthquake at their own front door could tear up the foundations of their worldwide power.

The road to Singapore

The immediate question on the outbreak of war was whether the British world-system would hold together. A year before, there had been grounds for unease. In Canada, Australia and South Africa, the prospect of war in defence of Czech rule over the Sudeten Germans had aroused strong misgivings. But there, as in Britain, Hitler's brutal repudiation of the Munich agreement was a turning point. The European crisis could no longer be dismissed as a question of frontier adjustment in Eastern Europe. In March 1939, in the Canadian Parliament, the Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, who had made the dominion's autonomy in external affairs a constant refrain since the early 1920s, all but acknowledged that, if Britain went to war, Canada was bound to follow. He rehearsed the importance of Canada's ties with Britain, and the unaggressive nature of British world power. ‘A world in which Britain was weak would be greatly worse for small countries than a world in which she was strong.’37 As a member of the Commonwealth, Canada would not escape attack by an enemy of Britain. But the crucial speech was made by King's French Canadian deputy, Ernest Lapointe. Since the conscription crisis of 1917–18, French Canadian antipathy to involvement in a ‘British’ war had been the most dangerous theme in Canadian politics. For the Liberals especially, even debating the issue held enormous risks since almost any definition of the party's view was likely to drive a wedge between its supporters in Quebec and those elsewhere in Canada. This was why King had strenuously insisted that no decision could be made in advance. But, by March 1939, this carefully disingenuous position had become untenable. It was Lapointe who spelled out the compromise. He shrewdly reminded Quebec that to declare neutrality would mean seceding from the Commonwealth, and breaking with the Crown and Westminster, where the power to change the Canadian constitution was still deposited – largely because of French Canadian fears that its ‘patriation’ would be exploited by the non-French majority. But his central argument was one of brutal realism. Canadian neutrality would mean the internment of British soldiers and ships of war. ‘I ask any one of my fellow countrymen whether they believe seriously that this could be done without a civil war in Canada.’38 On neutrality, British Canadian sentiment was far too strong to be thwarted.39 Quebec's price, said Lapointe, was a promise that there should be no conscription. King made the best of it. The idea of sending Canadian troops to Europe was out of date, he said. The defence of the Empire had been decentralised. The issue would not arise. The King–Lapointe formula was a political triumph. The huge popular success of the royal tour of Canada in the summer gave ample proof that Lapointe was right. When London declared war, the Canadian decision was the merest formality.40

For quite different reasons, the careful distinction made by Mackenzie King between entering the war and sending troops to Europe was forcefully echoed by Australian leaders. There was never any question of Australia's not following the British lead. ‘Let me be clear on this’, said the Prime Minister Robert Menzies in a broadcast at the end of April, ‘I cannot have a defence of Australia that depends upon British sea-power as its first element…and at the same time refuse Britain Australian co-operation at a time of common danger. The British countries of the world must stand or fall together.’41 But, in his speech on 6 September, Menzies carefully avoided spelling out the military implications of Australian entry; in fact, sending an expeditionary force to Europe along the lines of 1914 had been ruled out the previous day. Like the Labor leader John Curtin, Menzies and his cabinet regarded the first priority as the defence of Australia against the growing threat from the ‘Near North’. Throwing their lot in with Britain was to express Britannic solidarity, assert a reciprocal claim on British naval protection and seek the best available guarantee of Australia's survival as a ‘free white country’.42 In the New Zealand Parliament, the government's affirmation of loyalty to King and Commonwealth was seconded by the opposition, and the House proceeded without further ado to sing the national anthem.43 In South Africa, however, things were not so simple.

Since 1933, South Africa had been governed by a coalition between the National party led by General Hertzog, and the South Africa party of Smuts, supported by most ‘English’ voters. After ‘fusion’ in 1934, they came together as the United party. By agreeing upon South Africa's status as a fully self-governing dominion, with the King as head of state, fusion seemed to have buried the long-standing quarrel between ‘republicans’ and ‘loyalists’, and paved the way for a (white) South African identity common to both Afrikaners and English. With the return of prosperity, the United party trounced the Nationalist rump led by D. F. Malan in the general election in 1938. But Afrikaner opinion was volatile. 1938 saw a huge commemoration of the Afrikaner ‘Great Trek’ a century before, the crystallisation of the founding myth of the Afrikaner people, and its physical expression in the plans to construct a great Voortrekker monument. At precisely this moment, the crisis in Europe reopened the subject of South Africa's status: was Pretoria free to stay neutral in a ‘British’ war? For Hertzog, the price of fusion was a definite yes, and he held to this view when the theoretical war of 1938 became the actual war of 1939. To decide otherwise would split the Afrikaner people, wreck the fragile bark of racial good feeling (‘racialism’ in this period referred usually to English–Afrikaner antipathy) and smooth the path of Malanite republicanism.44 The Governor-General, Patrick Duncan, Smuts’ former lieutenant and an old protégé of Milner, raged privately against London's ‘war for Danzig’ and the damage it would do to fusion, the crowning achievement of South African politics since the making of Union.45 But, when Hertzog put his views to the fusion Cabinet, it voted against him by seven to six.

As a result, the debate in parliament on South African entry was quite unlike those in the other dominions, where (whether for or against) they were largely formal. Hertzog rejected the argument that Hitler was set on world domination and proposed a convoluted ‘neutrality’ by which South Africa would meet its obligations to its Commonwealth associates and the defence of the Simonstown base while playing no part in the ‘European’ war. He was opposed by Smuts. Smuts had been critical of British policy in Europe and had agreed to neutrality in 1938. But he was also convinced that South Africa would be irrevocably damaged by breaking the British connection and by the isolation that would follow a declaration of neutrality. Unlike most of the Afrikaner politicians, Smuts was convinced that a ‘white’ South Africa would only be safe if it absorbed the colonial regions that lay to the north – a future that the break with Britain would instantly abort. Smuts did not lay bare this reasoning. He avoided any hint of a ‘duty’ to Britain – the red rag to the Afrikaner bull. He emphasised instead the danger to South Africa (especially South West Africa) of Hitler's drive for world domination, and her need for friends. But perhaps his shrewdest hit was to yoke together a threat and a promise. Smuts carefully quoted the speech by Lapointe in which he conceded that neutrality was impossible, except at the risk of a civil war in Canada. And he was at pains to insist that there was no question of South African troops being sent to the war. In the vote that followed, Smuts carried more than half of the United party with him, as well as the English in the small Dominion and Labour parties. Neutrality was rejected by sixty-seven to eighty.46

In all these four cases, ‘Britannic’ feeling was a powerful force for alignment with Britain, and an implicit threat that neutrality was unworkable. In the quasi-dominion of Southern Rhodesia, it ensured that ‘automatic’ entry was enthusiastically endorsed by white settler opinion. In the Irish Free State (‘Eire’ since 1937), where it did not exist, and where hostility to partition trumped any sense of shared strategic interest, a pragmatic neutrality (sometimes described as ‘half in, half out’) was the only option. The debate in the Dail on 2 September 1939 turned more on the emergency powers that the government would assume.47 In most of the rest of the Empire, dependent status made participation involuntary. In India, however, the position was more complicated. Under the constitution of 1935, provincial self-government had been conceded to much of British (i.e. non-Princely) India, and, after the 1937 elections, most of the provinces were to be ruled by Congress ministers. Technically, since India had not yet attained its promised status as a federal dominion, it entered the war by the Viceroy's proclamation. But the real issue was whether the Indian ministers in the provincial governments would remain at their posts and serve a war effort directed by the Viceroy in Delhi.

It was an awkward dilemma. To abandon office after only two years might wreck the chance of entrenching Congress at the provincial level and reinforcing its leverage on the central government where the Viceroy was still supreme. On the other hand, well before the war, there had been a growing fear among many Congress leaders that the provincial ministries would prefer the fruits of power to a perhaps futile struggle against the federal constitution that Nehru had called ‘a charter of slavery’ (it balanced Congress’ influence against that of the Muslims and the Princes). The approach of war gave the High Command an opportunity to reassert its control over the Congress ministries, reunify the movement and restore the priority of political advance at the Indian centre by forcing the British to scrap federation. It insisted that Indian support could only be given if the London government renounced imperialism and promised independence to India, with immediate effect so far as was possible.48 At the provincial level, this ideological appeal was reinforced by more practical fears. Congress ministers were bound to be anxious that remaining in office, and aiding the war effort, would make them the target for public resentment when its costs were felt. So, when the Viceroy promised no more than a post-war review of the 1935 constitution, the Congress ministries in Bombay, Madras, the United Provinces, the Central Provinces, Bihar, Orissa and the North West Frontier Province followed the High Command's instructions and resigned in a body. What Congress could not do was to win the support of the Muslim League for its policy of pressure. Jinnah's price was predictably high: recognition of the League as the sole representative of all Indian Muslims. No agreement was possible.49 So, while Jinnah too had a bone to pick with the British Raj, Muslim cooperation was not withdrawn, and in the Punjab and Bengal Muslim-dominated governments gave unconditional backing to the imperial war.

For many months it was war in slow motion and a war without strategy. Chamberlain's plans were opaque, but the apparent aim was to contain German expansion without recourse to unlimited war. The first priority was to strengthen the air force, the vital shield against the ‘knock-out’ blow. The timetable for sending a large army to France was much more leisurely. Instead of the fifty-five divisions that Churchill wanted to match France's effort, barely twenty were planned for the second year of war.50 Far from rearming to the hilt with maximum speed, Chamberlain was determined to conserve British resources and avoid the sell-off of overseas assets. At the present rate of spending, calculated the American business magazine Fortune (a little wistfully) in the spring of 1940, it would be four years before Britain and France had to realise their direct investments abroad.51 Meanwhile, the Western Powers stood on the defensive: even at sea the Royal Navy was fully stretched to contain the German attack using U-boats and cruisers. One German raider in the North Atlantic, grumbled Churchill (now First Lord of the Admiralty), required the efforts of half of Britain's battle fleet.52 But, as the weeks of inaction stretched into months, the risk of disaster seemed more and more remote. The ‘worst-case scenario’ of the pre-war strategists had failed to materialise. Italy and Japan both remained neutral. Germany's failure to strike suggested a loss of self-confidence. On 4 April 1940, Chamberlain told a Conservative party meeting that ‘Hitler had missed the bus’. Hitler might have replied: some miss, some bus. Five days later, he invaded Denmark. On 10 May (as Churchill became premier), the Germans attacked in the West. On 14 June, they occupied Paris, and, on 22 June, received the surrender of France.

The fall of France opened the decisive phase of Britain's imperial crisis. While the hiatus had lasted, the internal relations of the British system had seemed little affected by the strains of war. But the collapse of France was a catastrophic blow, whose full implications had been scarcely imaginable before it actually happened. The disaster that had loomed only briefly over the British world-system in mid-1918 now arrived in earnest. Britain itself was exposed to invasion. France's coastline became the springboard for the German onslaught in the North Atlantic. French defeat was the signal for Italian aggression in the Mediterranean and a direct attack on British control over Egypt and Suez. It was an open encouragement to a Japanese advance into French Indo-China, as the forward base for the invasion of British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. It was the brutal demolition of almost all the assumptions on which confidence in the future of British world power had come to depend: the shield afforded by the European balance of power; the sufficiency of British naval strength once adequately modernised; the latent force of global economic power once properly mobilised. The Allied economic strategy, remarked a writer in Fortune, ‘like their military, had a Maginot Line – their free and fruitful institutions against which no reluctant army of slaves could possibly prevail. Behind these, as behind the immobile bastions in France, they hopefully undertook to fight a war of position, “of limited risks”, until they could laboriously convert their incredible wealth into goods of destruction. But the enemy, who was committed to a war of unlimited risk, did not wait.’53 Amid the terrible urgencies of an ever-widening war, both the material resources and sustaining myths of the pre-war empire began to look dangerously frail.

Between June 1940 and October 1942 a disastrous defeat in one or more theatre of war threatened the rapid collapse of British world power. The most pressing danger was the invasion of Britain itself, thwarted in the hour of maximum danger by the desperate struggle for air supremacy over Southeast England and the English Channel in the Battle of Britain. But the extreme vulnerability of Britain during the long year of war without any great-power ally meant that Chamberlain's financial caution had to be cast to the wind in the race to buy arms before it was too late. The long-war illusion had become the short-war nightmare. Meanwhile, a vast effort was being put into the build-up of air power, the one weapon with which Britain could strike directly at Germany. The new war in the Middle East also created a voracious demand for manpower, supplies and the shipping to send them. As the Mediterranean route grew more dangerous (and was eventually closed), the importance of the Cape and of reinforcements from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and India in the defence of Egypt became greater and greater. ‘On no account’, wrote Churchill in January 1941, ‘must General Smuts be discouraged from his bold and sound policy or working South African Forces into the main theatre.’54 By June 1941, Churchill intended Britain's Middle East forces to comprise some sixteen divisions: eight Indian, four Australian, two South African, one New Zealand and three British.55 But the calamitous intervention in Greece (partly to forestall the German overawing of Turkey), and the dramatic impact of Rommel's Afrika Korps on the North African campaign, wrecked the early hopes of a decisive imperial victory. By June 1942, the defence of Egypt and Suez, and Britain's whole position in the Middle East, had reached its lowest ebb. To Churchill and his advisers it was obvious that, if Egypt fell, the British world-system would be cut in half. In the North Atlantic, they faced a struggle that was no less decisive for British prospects. A huge proportion of Britain's naval capacity, including some of the most powerful ships, was diverted to convoying and the hunt for U-boats and the even more dangerous German surface raiders. By June 1941, the losses of shipping had become so heavy that further announcement of them was abruptly halted. The intense strain felt in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean meant that any sizeable reinforcement of British sea-power in Southeast Asia was out of the question, despite the warning signs of a Japanese advance and the rising tension between Tokyo and Washington. It was the impossibility of assembling a larger force in time that led to the fateful decision in October 1941 to send Prince of Wales, one of the Navy's most up-to-date battleships, to deter any Japanese move – but without the air-cover or flotilla defence that was its vital complement. The sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse within days of the outbreak of the Pacific War removed all chance of disrupting Japan's invasion of Malaya, and its epic climax, the fall of Singapore in the middle of February 1942.

The four-cornered assault on the British world-system did not bring about a catastrophic defeat, nor the total disintegration that haunted the strategists. But it did set in motion a rapid, cumulative and irreversible transformation of the pre-war structure of British world power. This was felt differently by the four dominions that had joined the war. In Canada, Mackenzie King's initial caution about sending troops to Europe had been quickly overcome.56 King and his colleagues were uneasy that too slow a mobilisation would expose them to attack by the Conservative opposition for lack of loyalty to Britain.57 But the fall of France in June 1940 was a turning point. It rammed home the danger that Canada itself might be exposed to attack if Britain were invaded or British sea-power disabled. In August 1940, joint planning for the defence of the North American continent was agreed by Roosevelt and King in their discussions at Ogdensburg. A long stride had been taken towards strategic integration between the United States and Canada. It passed almost unchallenged by King's Conservative critics58 – although not by Churchill, to whom King retorted that Canada was sending Britain military aid.59 It would be wrong to see the Ogdensburg agreement as the calculated transfer of Canadian security from one great-power patron to another, or as a deliberate switch from ‘imperialism’ to ‘continentalism’. In the frantic summer of 1940, Canadian leaders contemplated the prospect of a British surrender – in which all their available military strength would be swallowed up – and its effects upon their trade-dependent economy and fragile sectional politics. Canada might have to assume the leadership of the Commonwealth much sooner than anyone expected, Mackenzie King told his colleagues.60Once the immediate crisis was past, ministers like Ralston (a First World War veteran) and Macdonald were determined that Canada should be fully committed to the military as well as the industrial struggle. But, at the moment of Britain's greatest weakness, Ottawa had been forced to agree that its continental alliance should henceforth be permanent.61 The British connection was now to be limited by a third-party contract. Secondly, within a few months it was also clear that the Canadian supplies for which Britain was desperate could only be sent if Washington helped Canada to buy its American imports, and filled the foreign exchange gap left by Britain's inability to pay for Canadian goods in convertible funds (before 1939, Canada had met its deficit with the United States from its positive balance on British trade). The Hyde Park agreement of April 1941, said King, was the ‘economic corollary’ of Ogdensburg:62 strategic partnership implied economic integration. Thirdly, the savage battle of the shipping lanes that raged deep into 1943, and the huge Canadian effort that was needed to guard North America's eastern approaches against U-boat attack, gave cruel proof that Britain had lost (for the time being at least) the ‘empire of the North Atlantic’.63 Whatever the strength of the sentimental tie, the material basis of Anglo-Canadian relations had been altered for good.

Much the same was true of the Pacific dominions. Australia had joined Britain at war without hesitation, but the Australian government pinned its hopes on an early peace.64 Thereafter, it waged an unrelenting campaign for influence in London – through representation in an ‘Imperial War Cabinet’ (promptly rejected in London), through a personal visit by the Prime Minister, Menzies, in the spring of 1941, and by urging a meeting of dominion prime ministers.65 Australian ministers were deeply uneasy over the concentration of British naval and military power in Europe, and the lack of any real deterrent to a Japanese attack. To make matters worse, the prompt offer by New Zealand to send a division to fight in Europe had forced them to make a matching offer.66 By 1941, three Australian divisions were fighting in the Middle East, and the small Australian navy had been placed at Britain's disposal. As alarm about Japanese intentions grew, the Australian and New Zealand governments were forced to accept Churchill's reassurances that Japan would do nothing until Britain was defeated, and that, if they were attacked, the British would abandon the Mediterranean struggle and send army and navy to protect kith and kin. The military debacle of mid-1941, when the disastrous invasion of Greece and Crete wrecked an Australian and a New Zealand division, intensified Canberra's mistrust of Churchill. But the new Labor Prime Minister, John Curtin (who had originally opposed sending Australian troops abroad), was very reluctant to ask for the return of Australian troops. He accepted the argument that Singapore was the key to Australia's defence.67 When Australian troops were sent back from the Middle East (at Churchill's suggestion) after Pearl Harbor, their destination was Java. It was only after the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942 that Curtin insisted, after a furious exchange with Churchill, that the two divisions in transit – the dominion's sole trained fighting force – should be diverted not to Burma but home to Australia.

By that time, Curtin had already infuriated Churchill by his notorious New Year's message announcing that Australia ‘looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom’. What has often been seen as a symbolic repudiation of the old tradition of imperial loyalty was much more ambivalent. It is better seen as an anxious attempt to claim a full Australian place in strategic planning as America's main partner in the Pacific War (a claim badly received in Washington). In this role, Curtin was saying, Australia would not be Britain's poodle. Both Curtin and Fraser, the New Zealand Prime Minister, recognised that their own defence, as well as ultimate victory in the Pacific conflict, largely rested in American hands. But neither wanted to abandon the British connection or would have been allowed to do so by their public opinion. As the overweening scale of American power became more and more evident, they searched for better ways to influence Anglo-American policy and the post-war settlement. Closer Commonwealth unity (to secure British backing), local solidarity (as in the Australia–New Zealand agreement of January 1944) and the long-standing claim that the Pacific dominions should represent all Britain's interests in the South Pacific (as the ‘trustees of British civilisation’) were their preferred (and perhaps only) means to this urgent end. But there was no brooking the fact that, with the fall of Singapore (taking with it all hope of a British fleet being sent to Southeast Asia – Churchill had planned to send a battle squadron east in May 1942), the Pacific dominions had passed from the strategic sphere of the British system into that of the United States.

In all three dominions where there was a Britannic majority, the sense of being ‘British’ countries remained strong and there was a continued and intense commitment to the survival of Britain as an independent great power. The armies despatched by dominion governments told only half the story. Among RAF aircrews, where losses were highest and life expectancy shortest, dominion volunteers were out of all proportion to their population size.68 ‘England is the home of our race’, said an Australian Labor MP in June 1940. ‘We love England, and if England should go down, it would seem to me as if the sun went down.’69 But all three had been forced to find ways of compensating for the British weaknesses so starkly revealed between 1940 and 1942. All three had been forced to recognise that the old reciprocity of the British system could no longer be counted on. The unstinting commitment of the dominions’ manpower to an imperial war had been based on the assumption that British sea-power would keep their homelands safe. After 1940–2, that assumption could no longer be made: another great-power protector was needed whose claims might be greater. For the British system, the implications were profound. Since the late nineteenth century, the mutual and unconditional loyalty of the ‘British’ countries had lain at the core of British world power. Their relatively high levels of economic development (Canada's national income, calculated The Economist in 1941, was as large as Italy's70), their shared political values, and their astonishing capacity to mobilise their manpower for faraway wars, made them valued allies out of all proportion to their population size. Their oft-declared loyalty to King and Empire was an important source of psychological reassurance to the British at home that their global burdens would be shared in a crisis. Though it took some time before the pattern was clear, 1942 saw the end of this old imperial nexus. As they took stock of their interests in the worldwide war, it was to a new international order that they began to look to supplement, replace or incorporate the British connection.

It was ironic that this trend was weakest in the least Britannic of the overseas dominions. In South Africa, Smuts had won the support of enough Afrikaners to back South African entry. The volunteer army despatched to fight in East and North Africa was composed of Afrikaners as much as English South Africans.71 Smuts waged a vigorous propaganda campaign to win over South African opinion and counter the calls for peace made by opposition politicians after the fall of France. But in South Africa's case there was no Singapore, although, with the crisis of the North African war in July 1942, Smuts was anxious enough to start thinking of how South African forces might be withdrawn to stage a fighting retreat up the Nile valley.72 In 1943, after Alamein, Smuts was strong enough to win a decisive victory in a general election (another ‘khaki electie’ as his opponents complained). The pragmatic basis of Anglo-South African relations, helped by the specially favourable treatment in imports and shipping by which Churchill aimed to bolster Smuts’ popularity,73 was undisturbed by the presence of an alternative great-power patron in the Southern African sub-continent. But there were warning signs that the greater warmth that Smuts had brought to the imperial link would only be temporary. Afrikaner nationalism, frustrated in parliament, mobilised furiously among teachers and journalists and denounced Smuts’ government as a British lackey. The 1943 election was a formal triumph, but a closer analysis was less reassuring. The percentage of Afrikaners who voted for the United party fell from 40 per cent in 1938 to 32 per cent,74 while the nationalist opposition was united firmly behind D. F. Malan and an independent republic outside the Empire.75 The dream of fusion and Afrikaner reconciliation to the British system was fading away.

The second pillar of British world power was the Indian Raj. India had been the captive market for Britain's largest export, an important field for British investment and a vital contributor to Britain's balance of payments – though all three had suffered badly in the 1930s. But its greatest value after 1900 had been as the indispensable auxiliary to Britain's military power. The Indian budget had paid for two-thirds of the Empire's standing army. Its vast rural manpower formed an inexhaustible reserve against an imperial emergency. At the outbreak of war, however, India's military strength was in decline. The Indian army was unmechanised. Funds were short. The modernisation programme, for which London was paying, had hardly begun. Nor was it expected that Indian troops would play an important part in the European war. The main objective of the Army in India (a term used for the combined British garrison and the Indian army proper) was to defend the Northwest Frontier against Afghanistan. The Nazi–Soviet pact of August 1939 made it seem all the more important to keep watch on the Central Asian front against the ‘old enemy’.

As a result, although the Viceroy would have liked to enlist Congress support and keep their ministries in office, there was no sense of urgency on the British side. After May 1940, the picture changed dramatically. Over the next six months, the Indian army was almost doubled in size. In the following two years, the total strength of its combat arms rose to over two million.76 Recruitment, supply and the promotion of war industries became the central preoccupation of the Indian government. The cooperation of Indians (especially the educated) became more and more vital, and the wooing of opinion all the more necessary. Not surprisingly, then, the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, made another attempt to draw representatives of the Congress into the government. The ‘August Offer’ promised dominion status at the end of the war (no deadline had been offered previously), Congress seats in the Viceroy's ‘cabinet’, and an advisory council to bring a larger Indian voice into the war effort.77 The Congress refused. Dominion status, said Jawaharlal Nehru, was ‘as dead as a doornail’. India must be free to leave the Empire–Commonwealth.

The widening rift between the British and Congress was not just the result of nationalist mistrust of British intentions, or the pacifist inclinations of the large Gandhian wing. The real reason was the tacit but deepening commitment of the British to the claims advanced by the Muslim League. Since the Lahore resolution of March 1940, its leader Jinnah had insisted on a Muslim veto – in effect a League veto – on any constitutional settlement hammered out for India. An independent India must acknowledge ‘Pakistan’ – the whole community of Indian Muslims – as an equal partner in a confederal India.78 The League would negotiate an equal footing with the Congress. Of course, successive Viceroys had long recognised the Muslim claim to separate representation, to protection against a ‘Hindu Raj’, and to the right to govern the Muslim majority provinces. The grand federal scheme of 1935 had been designed to prevent the concentration of power in Congress hands by devolving heavily to semi-autonomous provinces. But, from 1940 onwards, the politics of war gave a fierce twist to this established policy. The most vital zones of the Indian war effort were Muslim majority provinces: Bengal, which contained more than half of India's industrial capacity; and the Punjab, the main recruiting ground of the Indian army. In both, Muslim-dominated governments had co-operated willingly.79 But their goodwill and stability could not be taken for granted – especially if talk of constitutional change raised the temperature of Hindu–Muslim rivalry. Nor would recruitment continue if communal tensions discouraged would-be sepoys from leaving their homes.80

The result politically was that, at the very moment when it was more important than ever to gain the cooperation of Congress, the British had less than ever (of what really mattered) to give away in return. The stalemate persisted until the end of 1941 and the early phase of the Pacific War. Then the rapid advance of the Japanese armies showed that India would soon be in the war's front-line and that its war effort would need to be cranked up to even higher levels. This was not the only worry. The dismal failure of Malaya's defence raised a disturbing question. What would happen if India were attacked or invaded? Would the internal administration fall apart as Indians refused to take orders or abandoned their posts? Would the Indian masses simply disown a colonial regime in which the largest party had no share of power? The prospect unnerved the government in London. The case for a new approach was strengthened by signs that the Congress ‘moderates’ might be more amenable, and even more perhaps by Churchill's grudging acceptance that some new initiative was needed to disarm American complaints against colonial rule.81Congress endorsement of the British war effort (then at its nadir) would be helpful evidence of the continued vitality of the British system. What was needed, urged Clement Attlee, in a burst of hyperbole, was someone who would save the British Empire in the East as Lord Durham had once saved Canada.82 Singapore fell thirteen days later.

The fruit of this rethink at the war's worst moment was to be a new constitutional offer. As soon as the war ended, India's political future would be handed over to a ‘constitution-making body’, free to withdraw India from Empire membership and the British system. Meanwhile, Indian participation in the Viceroy's government would be increased significantly. It would even include a defence minister with control over almost everything except operational matters. At the Viceroy's insistence (he threatened to resign), the offer was not published. Instead, it was taken to India (and published there) by Sir Stafford Cripps, widely considered Churchill's likeliest successor. Cripps began with high hopes that his old friendships in Congress would win him a deal. But two insoluble differences wrecked his prospects. The first (and less serious) was the Congress insistence on a direct say in defence operations – a demand to which London, the Viceroy and Cripps himself were unanimously opposed. The second (and more fundamental) was the British insistence that, whatever the model of independence proposed after the war, the Muslim provinces and the princely states would be free to opt out and make their own arrangements in negotiation with Britain. It would be up to the Congress to find an acceptable formula. This was the recipe for ‘Pakistan’ or – worse still ‘balkanisation’ – that the Congress feared most and rejected completely. With an imperial war effort ever more deeply dependent upon Muslim goodwill, it was also the recipe that London could not surrender. By early April, all negotiation was over (Congress gave its final rejection on 10 April), and Cripps was on his way home.83 Two months later, as the Japanese armies drove closer towards the Indian frontier, the Congress passed its ‘Quit India’ resolution, and set in motion a mass campaign to bring British rule to an immediate end.

The failure to agree with Congress did not prevent the British from using Indian resources and manpower to fight the rest of their imperial war. Nor did Quit India prevent the successful defence of the Indian frontier in the desperate battles of Imphal and Kohima. Nevertheless, the Cripps offer and its violent aftermath signalled the definite end of India's special place in the British system: the sentence of death was merely postponed. It was true, of course, that the federal scheme on which the British set such store had stalled politically before the war. It was also true that any further advance towards dominion status would have meant a progressive reduction in India's military contribution to imperial defence. The British garrison, for which India paid, would have had to go home. On the other hand, it was more than likely that, with the power to shape its successor regime (without a deadline, a ‘constitution-making body’, or a prior commitment that India could secede from the British system), the Viceroy's government would have secured special status for the Indian army, largely officered by British expatriates, and tied India closely (through a treaty or bases) into the global system of imperial defence. But for the Pacific War, India would still have been a financial debtor, a dependent part of London's sterling empire. But, in its desperate scramble for a constitutional settlement amid the political fall-out of the Singapore surrender, Churchill's Cabinet was forced to play almost all its trumps. Abdicating control over the constitutional process, let alone the timing of the constitutional convention, was a last-ditch effort to soothe away Congress outrage at the Muslim veto. Cripps’ ultimate failure and the violent unrest of Quit India that followed left the Raj a political bankrupt. It could repress disorder and gaol the Congress leadership (Nehru went to gaol for the rest of the war84). But it had no means of containing the rising tide of communal tension, and nothing left to trade with India's political leaders. The promise to go had been published abroad. In two revolutionary years, the British had ‘sold off’ what remained of their Indian empire to meet the pressing demands of their last imperial crisis.

The third blow was perhaps the hardest: the collapse of London's commercial empire, the ultimate guarantee, alongside sea-power and the Home Islands' resources, of Britain's global status. By the outbreak of war, that commercial empire was very different from what it had been in 1913. Then London had been the undisputed centre of a global trading system, and sterling the indispensable medium for international transactions. British investment, like British trade, was as much international as imperial: nearly half was placed in Latin America or the United States. The huge stream of income from Britain's ‘invisible exports’ was reinvested abroad to build up still further the enormous claim on overseas resources. The First World War had cut this empire down to size. Its dollar assets were sold to buy munitions in the United States (by 1929, claimed The Economist, only 3 per cent of British investment was in the US85). A huge debt was contracted. And heavy borrowing at home reduced the capital available to lend overseas. After 1931, when Britain went off gold and adopted protection, the commercial empire had become more and more a sterling empire. Following the Ottawa agreements of 1932, the British Empire countries with Argentina (and some other non-empire states) formed a trading bloc. With the exception of Canada, they also acted as a currency bloc, the sterling area. By the late 1930s, a large proportion of British trade was conducted within the sterling area and the post-war tendency to concentrate British investment in empire countries became even more marked – reaching 62 per cent of the total at the end of 1936.86 As the effects of depression bit deeper, Britain's portfolio of overseas assets slowly shrank. The marked shift towards investment at home, and a much less favourable balance of payments after 1930, made it hard to replenish the capital fund at the rate that was needed to maintain its value. Nevertheless, in a world divided into economic zones, London's commercial empire was second to none. London was still the banker to the largest group of trading countries. It had preserved the core of its old financial business, and its overseas clients (including the dominions and India) were among the soundest. Britain's overseas trade was as large as that of the United States – despite the huge disparity in national output. The invisible earnings from this great commercial network still paid for a quarter of her merchandise imports and supplied 5 per cent of the national income.87

The Achilles’ heel of the British system was its need for dollars. Before the war this was a manageable problem: protection and sterling area cooperation had cut the demand for American goods. Predictions of America's commercial primacy had been decidedly premature. In fact, America's record of economic recovery from depression had been much worse than Britain's. Nor was it obvious that there could be any escape to a permanent level of greater prosperity. The American economy had been badly squeezed by the general collapse of agricultural prices, affecting up to one-third of its workforce. To prop them up and defend manufacturing against outside competition meant heavy protection and a growing burden of internal debt. As imports shrivelled, American exports also suffered – from retaliation abroad and the lack of dollars in foreign hands. There was no ‘dollar empire’ of complementary producers to soak up the surplus of American industry. American resentment at economic misfortune was partly aimed at London's sterling empire, and at what were seen as Britain's persistent attempts to devalue sterling against the dollar.88Although the late 1930s had seen somewhat better relations (the Anglo-American trade agreement of 1938 had made limited concessions to American exports), there could be little doubt that breaking up (or into) London's commercial empire was the most obvious way of expanding America's trade in a deeply segmented international economy.

Until 1940, there was little chance that they could do so. Chamberlain had been very protective of the sterling empire and part of the rationale of his slow-motion war had been to reduce to the minimum the financial strain of additional dollar purchases. Britain's dollar assets were carefully husbanded and London built up a large stockpile of gold, buying the entire production of South Africa's mines in return for sterling. But, after June 1940, this cautious strategy was blown to pieces. In the desperate rush to re-equip Britain's armies for a war of survival, every marketable asset was pressed into service. Paying cash on the nail, the British purchasing mission bought all the American supplies they could find. By December 1940, more than half of Britain's pre-war stock of dollars and gold had been spent89 and the haemorrhage was such that the rest would have been spent by March 1941. In the event, the threat of bankruptcy, default and economic defeat was lifted by lend–lease. Even so, by September 1941, gold and dollar assets had shrunk even further to $1,527 million (approximately £340 million), out of which pre-lend–lease contracts and non-lend–lease items had still to be met, a total of more than $1 billion.90 Nor, of course, was lend–lease a gift without strings.

Roosevelt's eagerness to help Britain rearm was entirely genuine, and entirely self-interested. From his economic advisers, and the business interests represented in Congress, British pleas for financial aid drew a calculated response. They were determined not to ease London's shortfall in dollars and gold only to find that, when the war had ended, they were back where they started, facing a sterling empire. They were deeply suspicious that the British were hiding their fabled wealth. They demanded a visible sacrifice of British-owned enterprises in the United States.91 And they made three stipulations in return for lend–lease. British reserves were to be run down to the lowest possible level (a demand later eased); British exports, especially to dollar markets, were to be pegged back sharply – to less than one-third of pre-war levels; and, at the end of the war, the British would have to agree to abandon any trade discrimination against American exports. The sterling empire would be blasted open. Its industrial engine-room and financial power-house would be drastically weakened. In unspecified ways, it would have to make good the largesse of lend–lease.92 Its member states would look elsewhere. To J. M. Keynes, the ‘Churchill’ of the economic war, the negotiation with America was a gruelling struggle for what was left of Britain's commercial independence.93

This doomsday scenario was not entirely realised – for reasons to be explained in the following chapter. But there was little doubt that between 1940 and 1942 the pre-war balance of commercial power between London and Washington shifted for good and erased in the process Britain's century-old status as a (and, for much of the time, the) dominant force in the world's trading economy. This was not just a matter of exhausting Britain's assets in dollars and gold. In the sterling empire, too, the dramatic change in the scope of the war piled up new obligations overseas. ‘The growth of balances in favour of other parts of the sterling area is becoming unmanageable’, remarked Keynes in June 1942. ‘The more the war moves to the East, the more we spend in the Middle East and India.’94 By September 1942, Britain already owed India some £360 million for goods and services supplied to the war effort, wiping out the whole of India's pre-war debt to Britain. A year later, the figure was £655 million. Egypt was owed some £250 million. It would mean, said Keynes, ‘great prospective embarrassment’.95 What Keynes had in mind was obvious enough. The large sterling balances (i.e. the amounts Britain would have to pay sterling area countries at the end of the war) would mean much larger exports than before the war, to meet overseas debts and compensate for the loss of invisible income. Without the cushion of invisibles, it would be a constant struggle to avoid a deficit on the balance of payments. There would be no surplus to rebuild Britain's overseas investment, and the attractions of sterling as an international currency (a highly profitable status) would soon disappear. The vicious circle would close. Across the Atlantic, the new economic order had already been glimpsed. The Pax Britannica was dead, announced Fortune magazine in May 1942. Britain was ‘broke, her empire shrivelled…her banking and insurance income will never come back and her merchant marine is sinking’.96 ‘Since the Pax Britannica can no longer be counted on to defend America, what kind of world-power system does America propose to put in its place?’

The fall of Singapore

Churchill had convinced himself, and sought to convince others, that Japan would not dare enter the war until Britain was defeated or disabled. Under the terrible strain of the invasion threat, the Atlantic struggle and the see-saw war in the Mediterranean and North Africa, it was hardly surprising that neither he nor his Chiefs of Staff found much time to ponder the risks of defeat if Japan attacked Singapore and Malaya. Even after Pearl Harbor, Churchill fell back on the comforting mantra that Singapore could hold out in a six-month siege.97 Local army opinion took refuge in racial contempt for Japanese military prowess: the Japanese might beat Chinese armies; Europeans would be different. But, when the Japanese army invaded northern Malaya, its battle-hardened veterans were more than a match for its British, Indian and Australian defenders, many of them recently recruited, poorly trained or barely acclimatised. The catastrophic loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse, poor intelligence and the lack of air power combined with poor generalship to turn Singapore from an ‘impregnable fortress’ into the ‘naked island’. Once the British forces had abandoned the mainland and fled onto Singapore island, their fate was sealed. On 15 February 1942, 130,000 British Empire troops surrendered to a numerically inferior attacking force.

The symbolic importance of such a shameful failure was bound to be large. In The Times despatch from nearby Batavia (modern Jakarta), the obvious lesson was drawn. ‘“Soft” troops, unenterprising commanders, an apathetic native population – these are not the signs of a gallant army betrayed only by bad luck; they sound uncomfortably like the dissolution of an empire.’98 In his private diary, Churchill's most senior military adviser expressed a similar foreboding. ‘We are paying very heavily now for failing to face the insurance premiums necessary for security of an Empire! This has usually been the main cause for the loss of Empires in the past.’99 As defeat sank in at home, there were loud demands for a new approach to colonial rule, and a ‘colonial charter’ to win the hearts and minds of Britain's subject millions. Fresh impetus was given (as we saw earlier) to the search for an Indian settlement. A propaganda campaign was launched to make the imperial case in the United States, before opinion there hardened into an angry contempt for Britain's dysfunctional empire. But the meaning of Singapore was not just symbolic.

Singapore's fall was the brutal proof that the Eurasian Revolution of the 1930s and 1940s had reached its climax. The global preconditions in which a British world-system had been continuously viable since the 1830s and 1840s had all but disappeared in the storms of war. The European balance, precariously restored after 1918, had been comprehensively wrecked: indeed, German domination of Russia seemed more than likely in the early summer of 1942. ‘Passive’ East Asia had become an uncontrollable vortex of anti-Western imperialism. In this colossal emergency, the British system lacked the means to defend itself unaided and had not the faintest hope of restoring the status quo ante. The internal structure of Britain's pre-war system, as well as its ethos and assumptions, had been drastically destabilised by a geopolitical earthquake: the relentless consequence of Anglo-French strategic defeat in 1938–40. How much would survive in a modified form, were the Allies to emerge victorious, was, in 1942, anyone's guess.

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