14

RELUCTANT RETREAT, 1959–1968

The most curious aspect of the British reaction to Suez, once the immediate drama had passed, was the mood of public indifference. There was no grand debate about Britain's place in the world, no official inquiry into what had gone wrong. Neither main party showed any desire to rake over the details, perhaps because even those most against Eden's policy realised how deeply the crisis had divided British public opinion. Instead, all sides seemed anxious to treat it as an unfortunate accident, or as Eden's personal tragedy, as if the whole episode could be laid at his door. A desire to avoid any further embarrassment, or perhaps some awareness of what an inquiry might reveal, may explain this response. But what seems even more curious is that, after such a defeat, British leaders still showed an extraordinary faith that, with its sails duly trimmed, Britain must remain a world power. For, despite the conventional view that they hastened to scuttle their remaining commitments and fall back upon Europe, the reverse was the case. The dream of a British world-system, updated and modernised, haunted Harold Macmillan, prime minister 1957–63. A less robust version, more anaemic and ethereal, bewitched Harold Wilson, who led the Labour government of 1964–70. The rapidity with which what remained of the Empire was wound up politically, far from being planned, was a painful surprise. Official opinion had intended a ‘managed’ withdrawal, with a ‘transfer of power’ to carefully chosen ‘moderates’. Constitutional change would proceed on a schedule, and local politicians would have to ‘earn’ each incremental advance by displaying their fitness to govern. Respect for the institutions with which a benevolent Britain had endowed them, and a desire to maintain some form of ‘British connection’, would be the test of this. But, when these plans began to unravel, British policy fell into confusion. Behind the facade of memoranda and minutes, official anxiety sometimes bordered on panic. By the time that a general withdrawal from Britain's eastern commitments was eventually ordered in January 1968 (to take effect three years later), the familiar conception of a British world policy, inherited from the late Victorians, had almost completely dissolved. Amid a blizzard of vacuous reports into what Britain's interests now were, a future in Europe (as yet undefined) seemed the only fixed point on which (almost) all could agree.

Why was it possible to go on believing in a British world-system (however constrained) in the later 1950s? In fact, as is often the case, the logic of their situation appeared quite different to contemporaries who had no means of predicting the scale and speed of geopolitical change. Far from enforcing a drastic rethink, that logic encouraged their hopes of renewal and prolonged a Churchillian view of Britain's ‘manifest destiny’ for nearly a decade. The main source of hope was the rapid resumption of friendly relations across the Atlantic. Washington's fury at Suez was quickly assuaged. The growth of superpower competition and Khrushchev's global ambitions made the British too useful an ally to fall out with for long. Their curious attachment to an ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent could be safely indulged: indeed, it quickly led London to scrap its own missile programme for an American substitute. From the British viewpoint, this was a huge reassurance that, if they avoided the sort of catastrophic misjudgment of which Eden was guilty, they would enjoy the support – diplomatic and material – which they now knew was essential. It reinforced their belief that what remained of their empire, if properly managed, was an invaluable asset as the Cold War expanded. The process of transition from an empire of rule to an empire of influence was as yet incomplete. In plenty of places, a decade might be needed before a suitable class of political leaders could be trained up for the work of representative government. Nor was it obvious that colonial authority was bound to break down in the foreseeable future. Where it was still a ‘going concern’, it was hard to imagine its sudden displacement or who might push it aside. Constitutional change was essential. But it was easy to think that London held the initiative and could settle the timing.

In holding these views, British leaders were in tune with the main stream of public opinion. Another Suez adventure would have led to an outcry. But belief that Britain held a special place in the world was still deeply embedded in popular attitudes. This was only partly a residue of the imperial past. It also sprang from the feeling that Britain's parliamentary, industrial and cultural achievements embodied a wealth of experience and conferred a moral authority that no other country could match. No one could doubt (this was the premise) that British institutions were best, and that British motives for fostering them were altruistic and disinterested. A hasty withdrawal – as had happened in Palestine – might be forced by necessity. But it should not be a ‘policy’ or a deliberate plan. And, in the late 1950s, one other force was at work. Britain was still in the grip of its ‘post-war’ mood and mentality. A heroic conception of the British war against Hitler pervaded both popular culture and middle-class attitudes. It was purveyed by film, a huge war literature and an array of children's comics, then at the height of their influence before the full advent of television.1 Settling instead for a secondary role in the world was not easy to square with the service and sacrifice of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, Alamein or the D-Day invasion. It was an historical irony that patriotic support for some version of empire had been nourished by the war that had destroyed its foundations.

White hopes in Black Africa

One of the main justifications for retaining Britain's presence in the Middle East after 1945 had been that it would help to protect Sub-Saharan Africa from Soviet intrusion and subversion. Even Attlee, who had opposed staying on there in 1946–7, had imagined a neutralised Middle East as a ‘glacis of desert and Arabs’, barring the way to the valuable – and defensible – British sphere in Africa. Far beyond Attlee, and far beyond Whitehall, Africa's importance was now on the rise. With the loss of India, and all that it had meant for British power and prestige, Africa became the main theatre for constructive imperial energy.

Three kinds of assumptions helped to entrench what appears in retrospect a romantic delusion, cherished as much on the Left as on the Right in British politics. The first was that Sub-Saharan Africa was still a safe geopolitical niche, sheltered from the storms of the post-war world. Without a bridgehead in the Middle East, the Soviet Union lacked the will or the means to exert any influence in the African colonies, British, French, Portuguese or Belgian. Geographical access from the Soviet bloc was very restricted. Colonial Africa lay well behind the front-line in the emerging Cold War. There was little need for the British to take much account of external pressures on a continent still largely frozen in diplomatic time. Secondly, Africa's politics remained on the face of it extraordinarily placid. The political legacy of the inter-war years in the British dependencies had been ‘indirect rule’. The effect was to localise political life and marginalise those who wanted states and nations on the Western model. Colonial Africa thus lagged far behind Asia. There was nothing to compare with the vast popular movements that had revolutionised politics in India, China, Indonesia and Vietnam before and during the Second World War. Hence it was widely assumed that Africans were still in their political innocence. Their ideas and habits could be formed and moulded by the adept use of tutelage. Unlike Asians (‘Asiatics’ remained common usage in the 1950s), with their tenacious traditions, complex religiosity and hyper-sensitive cultures (to which the intensity of ‘Asiatic nationalism’ was usually attributed), Africans seemed likely to embrace Western modernity with much less ambivalence. So the colonial mission would be much easier, as well as more satisfying, than it had been in Asia.

Thirdly, there was Africa's place in the world economy. In the depressed 1930s, African resources had attracted little interest (with the exception of gold). But the Second World War and its turbulent aftermath transformed the prospects of its export commodities. In the era of shortage and Britain's ‘dollar famine’, they assumed a vast new importance. Colonial producers, after all, could be paid in inconvertible ‘soft’ sterling and at prices prescribed by official ‘marketing boards’. Strategic minerals like uranium, copper and tin; foodstuffs like cocoa and vegetable oils; and tobacco (the one indispensable luxury in the age of austerity): all were urgently needed to speed Britain's recovery, ease the pangs of denial, earn dollars or save them. Modernising the colonial economies became an official priority. Partitioned in haste, ruled on a shoestring, colonial Africa had come into its own. And with the richest parts – if not the largest share – of Sub-Saharan Africa, the British could expect to profit the most from this reversal of fortune.

The easy assumption that political change would proceed at worst on a leisurely timetable, allowing plenty of time for a controlled experiment in social and economic reform, did not last long. Within fifteen years of the end of the war, British power in Africa was in a state of collapse. Between 1960 and 1965, it vanished altogether. But, although the symptoms of weakness can be detected much earlier, it was surprisingly late before the loss of British authority had become a political fact and not a fear, a hope or a rumour. It is sometimes supposed that the British withdrawal was a serial affair: marked by the orderly transfer of power to successor regimes by due constitutional process. And so it was on the surface, with one crucial exception. The reality was that British plans for transition were swept away by the crises that afflicted much of the continent from early 1959 onwards, so that in the event the British departure was at best hasty and improvised where it did not break down altogether (as over Southern Rhodesia). Yet, until the crises set in, it had seemed quite realistic to treat colonial Africa as a cluster of regions, with different demands, different solutions and different political clocks. Hence the British applied different rules and imposed different timetables in the three main divisions of their African empire: in ‘British West Africa’, where there were no white settlers or major strategic interests; in the East African territories, where the settler interest was vocal (in Kenya), absent (in Uganda) or muted (in Tanganyika, a United Nations trust territory); and in South Central Africa, where a self-governing settler colony (Southern Rhodesia) was yoked in 1953 to the two ‘Northern’ protectorates, in one of which (Northern Rhodesia) the settler population was rapidly growing with the boom on the Copperbelt. Looming over British interests (and also their thinking) was the fourth great component of Britain's African imperium. The Union of South Africa was a fully self-governing dominion, and a sovereign state (unlike Southern Rhodesia). After 1948, it had an Afrikaner nationalist government. But, in the long view from London, it was a quarrelsome, irritating, but exceptionally valuable partner in the defence of what remained of British world power. The hope that its British connections (including the 40 per cent of whites who were ‘English’, i.e. English-speaking) would help liberalise its politics was not given up until after 1960.

By the mid-1950s (as we saw earlier), the British had accepted the need to stage a more or less rapid transfer of power in their main West African colonies, the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and Nigeria. Failure to press on in this direction, the Colonial Secretary told his Cabinet colleagues in September 1953, ‘would bring to an end settled government by consent and forfeit the goodwill towards the United Kingdom and the desire to retain the British connection which are common to all parties in the Gold Coast’.2 Two years later, as the timing of independence was gradually finalised, it was the crudeness and immaturity of the Gold Coast leadership that worried British observers. It was highly likely, concluded one, that Nkrumah would want to assert his new freedom in ‘embarrassing’ ways.3 But the die had been cast. The British forced Nkrumah to decentralise power to the regions (he faced strong opposition in the old Ashanti protectorate) before independence was granted. He also agreed to remain in the sterling area – perhaps in the hope of getting funds for development. British personnel were retained in the army and civil service. But the main British interest was that the Gold Coast should be a more or less respectable ex-colony, with a regime that would hold its disparate parts together – a task for which Nkrumah seemed better suited than any alternative leader. In Nigeria, meanwhile, the main British concern was to keep the southern regions in step with the northern. Here, too, they saw little future in denying the political leaders thrown up by the widening of electoral politics after 1945. As in the Gold Coast, they found that this new form of politics was far harder to manage than they had originally thought. Its practitioners proved to be surprisingly adept at exploiting resentment against the colonial state. Indeed, in its new role as agrarian reformer, productivity raiser and controller of prices, colonial rule was a much bigger target than in the inter-war years. The difficulty lay not in constructing a Gold Coast-type bargain with southern political leaders, but in preventing a huge gulf opening up between the forms of politics conceded to them and those preferred by the Muslim aristocracy who commanded the North. It hardly required the Indian case to show where that led.

These differences had come to a head when the Northern leaders (where more than half of the colony's population lived) opposed the Southern demand for full self-government by 1956. They feared the ‘democratic’ appeal that the Southern politicians might make in their own backyard and Southern domination of a new independent federation. British ingenuity was devoted, not to repressing the demand for self-rule (which was seen as impossible), but to solving the

dilemma with which we are faced: Either to give independence too soon and risk disintegration and a breakdown of administration; or to hang on too long, risk ill-feeling and disturbances, and eventually to leave bitterness behind, with little hope thereafter of our being able to influence Nigerian thinking in world affairs on lines we would wish.4

Among British officials there was sharp disagreement on the wisdom of imposing strict constitutional rules to protect ethnic and religious minorities if the result was to weaken the central government's ability to hold independent Nigeria together. But, when all the main Nigerian parties agreed at the Constitutional Conference in 1958 that they wanted independence by 1960, the British quickly caved in. ‘To continue to govern a discontented and possibly rebellious Nigeria’, remarked the Colonial Secretary, ‘would…present wellnigh insoluble administrative problems…It might even need substantial military forces.’5 The threat was enough. Independence was timetabled for October 1960.

It is clear that the British saw no major interest was threatened by conceding Ghana and Nigeria their full independence. Indeed, the reverse was the case. Their real concern was to avoid a political breakdown and a backlash that damaged their post-colonial influence and trade (around half of Nigeria's trade was with Britain). They saw as yet little reason to fear the growth of rival influence in an old British sphere. They persuaded the Nigerians to sign a defence agreement giving them over-fly and staging rights. ‘Nigeria’, the Cabinet was told authoritatively in February 1960, ‘will be a relatively large and stable community within the Commonwealth, likely to exercise increasing influence in our favour in the rest of Africa.’6 With a ‘loyal’ Nigeria, the remaining West African colonies could be cheerfully shrugged off. Tiny Gambia should be merged with a neighbouring (francophone) state, perhaps Senegal.7 Sierra Leone, where there were bitter divisions between the ‘Creoles’ of the old coastal ‘colony’ and the peoples of the interior ‘protectorate’, was at first considered too fractious to be allowed full independence. It ‘will be a small weak state unless it is tied up with its neighbours’.8 But only independence was politically practical and the promise was given in 1959. By mid-1960, the British seemed to have made (or be in the process of making) a largely successful transition from colonial master to post-colonial ally, from imperial rule to post-imperial influence.

Britain's African crisis

Preserving East Africa for British interests and influence was a quite different story. East Africa had much more strategic significance. It flanked the Indian Ocean where the British expected to remain the regional great power even after the debacle of Suez. It provided a way round the so-called ‘Middle East air barrier’ once military flights over Egypt and other Arab states were no longer an option. It might act as a support base for military operations in the Persian Gulf and beyond. In Kenya, a vocal British settler community, whose survival was threatened by a resurgence of ‘barbarism’ (for this was how Mau Mau was presented to opinion at home), could not be abandoned. Nowhere in the region was there a prospective successor regime to which the colonial state could be safely entrusted. In Uganda, where the British were eager to build a strong central government to press on with the task of economic development, they were frustrated by the resistance of the kingdom of Buganda (the largest and strongest of the ‘Bantu’ kingdoms in Uganda) which had enjoyed considerable autonomy from the earliest days of the British protectorate. The kabaka (ruler) was ‘exiled’ to Britain in 1953 and the British set out to make the Uganda Legislative Council the main focus of political life, partly to mobilise non-Bugandan opinion, partly to encourage Bugandan commoners to defy their chiefly elite. In Tanganyika, the aim had been to use constitutional change to keep a careful balance between the minority groups of Europeans and Asians and the African majority, which was fragmented into a large number of tribes. Insofar as the British had a ‘master-plan’ for East Africa, it was to promote an East African federation. This was the way, thought official opinion, to hasten economic development and to manage the conflicts between African, Asian and settler interests, especially in Kenya. It was fear of being merged into a ‘Greater East Africa’ that might give the settlers a voice in Buganda's affairs that pushed the kabaka into open defiance and temporarily cost him his freedom.

The British might have been cautious about change in East Africa, but they could not stand still. Against the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya, they deployed a huge machine of repression. They raised a loyalist ‘home guard’ among the Kikuyu and turned a blind eye to the atrocities that followed.9 They hanged scores of suspects, sometimes on evidence that was threadbare at best. They interned hundreds of thousands in ‘rehabilitation camps’ to sift out those deemed irreconcilably Mau Mau in sympathy. To pacify the rural unrest from which Mau Mau had sprung (Mau Mau was at heart a revolt of the Kikuyu landless against their aggrandising chiefly class), they devised the ‘Swynnerton Plan’ to replace communal land rights with individual title, creating a class of peasant proprietors – peaceable, conservative and (it was hoped) loyal. But it was also necessary to reform the political centre, to show ‘loyal’ Africans that loyalty paid and to push the white settlers (still the loudest voice in the colony's politics) towards greater cooperation with African leaders. The Europeans, said Evelyn Baring, the governor, ‘with the low whisky prices and high altitude pressures are both irresponsible and hysterical’.10 It was vital, London thought, to bring Africans into the government and ‘close ranks against Mau Mau’.11 At the end of 1957, a new constitution provided for fourteen African elected members in the Kenya legislature (giving parity with the European elected members) with the balance being held by twelve ‘specially elected members’ (representing Africans, Asians and Europeans) chosen by the elected members. But, under the vigorous leadership of Tom Mboya, the African members demanded nothing less than majority rule, and, when this was rejected, boycotted the legislature. The threat of ‘extremism’ and a new round of civil unrest shook London's nerve. When the leading settler politician, Michael Blundell (the son of a London solicitor), resigned from the government and announced the formation of a new multiracial party, the ‘New Kenya Group’, it seized the opportunity to announce a new constitutional conference to be held in London in January 1960. In Uganda, too, the effort to persuade the ancien régime in Buganda to support the gradual move towards an elective government for the whole of Uganda had reached an impasse by 1959. Only in Tanganyika, where both settlers and Asians were ‘of little account’,12 did there seem some chance of achieving London's ideal solution: an elective government, ‘moderate’, ‘progressive’ and ‘realistic’ in outlook, and willing to keep the British connection. Across the whole of East Africa, however, the pace of political change was still meant to be cautious. At the ‘Chequers meeting’, to which the East African governors came in January 1959, it was agreed that even internal self-government for Tanganyika and Uganda was at least a decade away. Kenya was a much more difficult case: here no definite timetable could be laid down at all.13

There was no mistaking the anxious tone of official discussion. ‘The long term future of the African continent’, remarked Harold Macmillan, ‘presented a sombre picture.’14 The British had found the drive to ‘modernise’ their African colonies more and more burdensome. They had wanted to make their colonial states more effective, improve the productivity of African agriculture, bring in new experts and impose new methods. They encountered, not surprisingly, intense local suspicion and the deep-seated fear that the real meaning of change was a larger white presence and more white control. Neither words nor deeds could prevent the growth of an African ‘nationalism’ which promised to block the loss of African rights by expelling white power. More worrying still was the fact that colonial governments, theoretically armed to the teeth with emergency powers, were poorly equipped to deal with large-scale unrest: the prospect of more Mau Maus aroused deep apprehension. A further cause for concern had appeared on the horizon. By the late 1950s, the advance of Soviet influence could no longer be ruled out and London needed to reassure Washington that its policies would not turn African opinion away from the West.15 But, before the British could settle their next step in East Africa, the whole of their African policy was galvanised by a crisis.

It broke over Nyasaland (modern Malawi), one of the three territories of the Central African Federation. The Federation had been the centrepiece of the Conservative government's African plans since its establishment in 1953. It was a new ‘dominion’ in the making, to be set one day beside Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It carried their hopes of a racial partnership between whites and blacks in a dynamic economy.16 But the Federation was also an unfinished structure, whose constitutional future had been left unresolved. Southern Rhodesia was a self-governing, settler-ruled colony, with a ‘colour-blind’ franchise but hardly any black voters. But Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland were protectorates, administered largely by British officials. Among the white politicians in the Federation, it was taken for granted that white political leadership would continue for the indefinite future. They were particularly anxious that the whites in Northern Rhodesia, mostly clustered on the Copperbelt, should acquire the same political rights as those in Southern Rhodesia and control in effect the protectorate's government. No one felt this more strongly than Roy Welensky, federal prime minister from 1956, and a Northern Rhodesian white.17 Indeed, if both Rhodesias were self-governing colonies, albeit still under white domination, the case for federal independence would become irresistible, and the whites would be able to force its concession. Meanwhile, London was torn between two conflicting demands: to honour their ‘promise’ (by nods and winks) to grant the Federation its independence in 1960; and to achieve enough self-rule in the two northern protectorates to be able to claim that independence enjoyed popular (including African) backing. By the late 1950s, reconciling these aims required something more than the wisdom of Solomon.

Nyasaland was the storm centre because, with only a handful of whites, it was clear that any advance towards electoral politics would give black politicians a much greater say in its government. It had been the scene of greatest resistance to the federal scheme in 1953, and hostility to federation as a veil for white rule remained deeply felt. In Dr Hastings Banda, it had a political leader who enjoyed unchallenged command over its main popular movement, the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC). When London promised to discuss constitutional change in 1959, Banda returned from the Gold Coast (where he had been working as a doctor) to lead the NAC campaign for an African majority in the protectorate's legislature and (by clear implication) against federation. But, in March 1959, the Nyasaland governor, Sir Robert Armitage, who foresaw the collapse of his government's authority unless the NAC were checked, and who knew that his masters in London were still deeply committed to federation, declared an emergency. Crucially, Armitage sought to strengthen his case with intelligence reports of a ‘murder plot’ by the leaders of the NAC against government officials. The NAC was proscribed and its leaders (including Banda) thrown into gaol. With reinforcements from Northern and Southern Rhodesia, the government began to round up the NAC activists. But, to London's dismay, in the operations that followed some fifty-one Africans were killed, nearly half in a single incident at Nkata Bay.18

The scale of the violence made an inquiry inevitable. Both London and the federal ministers in Salisbury (modern Harare) seem to have expected a favourable verdict. The NAC's ‘murder plot’, with its sinister echo of Mau Mau, would vindicate the measures that the government had taken. Anti-federation ‘nationalism’ would be heavily tainted with extremism and violence. With the NAC broken, African ‘moderates’ would take the political lead. Then they could claim that the ‘real’ African view was no longer so hostile to a federal future. But London and Salisbury were utterly wrong. When the Devlin Report was published in July 1959 (Devlin was a leading British high court judge), it dismissed the murder plot as an implausible fiction, denounced the Nyasaland government as a ‘police state’ employing illegal and unnecessary force, and (worst of all) endorsed the opinion that the vast majority of Nyasaland Africans were bitterly opposed to federation. After desperate efforts to discredit Devlin's conclusions,19Macmillan and his colleagues won the ensuing parliamentary debate. But their panic was real. With the almost simultaneous revelations of atrocious maltreatment at the Hola prison camp in Kenya, they feared a wave of revulsion from ‘middle opinion’ at home. Colonial brutality was a political albatross which the Labour opposition showed every sign of exploiting. In July 1959, a general election was close. And, though Macmillan was to score an electoral triumph in October, the scars of the summer remained. ‘No more Nyasalands’ became the unspoken motto of his African policy.

The logic of this was that, by hook or by crook, colonial governments must avoid confrontation and enlist the cooperation of African leaders. Emergency rule was a hostage to fortune that London had no wish to redeem. This did not mean that Macmillan was set on a rapid transfer of power or the swift imposition of African majority rule in the Federation and East Africa. Quite the reverse. His immediate step was to appoint Iain Macleod as the new Colonial Secretary in October 1959, perhaps chiefly because Macleod (who had no colonial experience at all) was free from any sentimental attachment to the colonial ‘cause’. Macleod was liberal-minded, courageous, intellectually tough, ruthless, brusque and not infrequently disingenuous (whites in Central Africa used a different word).20 There is a pervasive myth (which Macleod himself fostered) that he grasped from the outset the need to withdraw quickly and hand over all power to African leaders. The archival record lends this little support. What is certainly true is that he saw the urgency from the British point of view of engaging African politicians in a constitutional process that would head off ‘extremism’ – the category in which he included Jomo Kenyatta21 – and avert the recourse to coercion. What he came to see by the end of his tenure (Macmillan removed him in October 1961) was that, once the commitment was made to majority rule as a goal, and an instalment of power was conceded to African leaders, control was soon lost over the pace and direction of political change. The coercion needed to reimpose imperial authority increased geometrically with each increment of self-rule. And so did the odium of using it.

The first sign of this came in Tanganyika. Here Macleod had proposed (in November 1959) a schedule for gradual advance from partial self-government to reach full independence in 1968.22 ‘Having yielded to [Nyerere's] demand to have the major share of responsibility we should be on much firmer ground in resisting further premature changes’, he told his colleagues blithely.23 It might even be necessary to put off independence beyond 1968. Eight months later, when the strength of Nyerere's support was becoming more obvious, he told his advisers that July 1962 would be a ‘reasonable’ date for Tanganyika's independence.24 When Nyerere came to London in November 1960, the Colonial Secretary insisted that Tanganyika's advance would have to keep step with progress towards an East African federation – still the grand object of Britain's regional policy. Tanganyika ‘would only reach independence when the Federation became independent as a whole’.25 Three months later, he abandoned this condition completely. Now the goodwill of Nyerere and the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) had become indispensable. ‘His continuance in power is vital to us in East Africa, and if independence by the end of December 1961 is essential to maintain his position, I am sure we should agree.’26 It was, and they did.

Much of Nyerere's appeal to the British came from the careful ‘moderation’ of his public pronouncements and the unchallenged authority that he seemed to exert over a unified movement: good omens, they thought, for holding the territory together and keeping the British connection. In Uganda, the local material was a great deal less promising. The British stuck to their aim of making a strong central state and bringing the kingdoms – especially Buganda – to heel. Direct elections to a Uganda legislature would signal that this was where power now lay and encourage ‘national’ politicians to rally a following.27 The bait was the promise of internal self-government, the prize that would go to the leader who did best in the new electoral game. If the kabaka resisted, Macleod told his colleagues, he might have to be replaced.28 The old Buganda elite, said the Colonial Office sternly, would have to like it or lump it: it was the future.29 But Buganda did neither. Instead, its lukiko (or parliament) resolved to secede from the Uganda protectorate by the end of the year, and there were ominous signs that violence would follow. Meanwhile, the promised elections produced a clear winner: Benedict Kiwanuka and the Democratic party which appealed particularly to Catholic Christians and especially to commoners in Buganda itself. But Kiwanuka was anathema to the Buganda elite, and the temperature rose. Another Nyasaland was perhaps in the making. So London reversed course. A breakneck inquiry unveiled a new scheme. Buganda was now to have ‘federal’ status, and the Buganda government, not the voters, would select its representatives in the national parliament. Despite growing doubts over Uganda's future cohesion under such a regime, London accepted this formula.30 To sweeten the pill, Kiwanuka was promised internal self-government in early 1962. But he was now an embarrassment and was duly denounced by an incoming governor as a threat to stability.31 His main political rival, Milton Obote and his Uganda People's Congress, seized the chance that was offered. By allying with the kabaka, he pushed Kiwanuka aside. The prize of self-rule was now to be his. London was eager to make its escape. Its last precondition was more ‘federal’ autonomy for the smaller kingdoms along Bugandan lines before it conceded the final transfer of power in October 1962.

The pace had been frantic. Despite much verbal camouflage, this was not a planned march towards granting Uganda its nationhood, but a series of zigzags and u-turns, failures and fixes. From late 1960 onwards, almost its sole rationale was to avert local violence and find an African leader with a plausible claim to hold Uganda together. The rising chaos in the Congo, Uganda's immediate neighbour, made this all the more urgent. London did not fear confrontation with Ugandan ‘nationalism’, for it scarcely existed. What it dreaded was being sucked into a morass of anarchy or, still worse, civil war, caused by (if anything) its own state-building policies. There was at least the advantage that Uganda's affairs attracted little outside attention. It was quite the opposite with Kenya. Here Macleod and Macmillan could expect the closest possible scrutiny for the dispositions they made: from those who championed the cause of the settlers; and those who denounced the appeasement of ‘darkness and death’, the Kikuyu ‘extremism’ of which Jomo Kenyatta was still seen as leader. Macleod's own approach mixed opportunism with caution. Some months before taking office, he had met Michael Blundell and was deeply attracted to the ‘non-racial’ message of his New Kenya Group (of which Macleod's own younger brother, a farmer in Kenya, had become an adherent).32 At the Lancaster House Conference in January 1960 (promised eight months earlier by Macleod's predecessor), his aim was not to propel Kenya quickly towards independence (on which no promise was given), but to build a coalition between Blundell's supporters and ‘moderate’ Africans drawn in the main from outside the dominant Luo-Kikuyu grouping.33 Once again, the bait was a larger dose of self-government (and the scope that would give to attract clients and followers). To lend the African ‘moderates’ some much needed credibility, there was a firm declaration that the goal in Kenya was no longer race parity but majority rule. There were encouraging signs, reported Macleod in May 1960, that there would be no ‘monolithic’ African party.34 When elections were held in early 1961, two African parties emerged: the Kenya African National Union (KANU), led by Mboya and Oginga Odinga with mainly Luo and Kikuyu support; and the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), largely supported by minority tribes. ‘I am delighted to read your excellent news showing firming up of support for a KADU based government’, wrote Macleod to the governor in April. ‘If this comes off it will be wholly consistent with all our constitutional hopes at Lancaster House.’35 ‘I want to emphasize’, he went on, ‘how much I welcome…a Government based primarily on KADU and New Kenya Party, and very good chance there seems to be of leaving Kenyatta behind.’

The ‘great prize’ in Kenya was an African government that was ready to work with European interests, and soothe the fear of the settlers that they would be robbed of their farms by land-hungry Africans. What London hoped also was that a ‘moderate’ governing party would suck supporters away from the KANU majority (KANU had won more of the elective seats for Africans than KADU). The KADU ministers, said Macleod, must be ‘backed to the hilt’ and internal self-government (and by implication independence) brought forward.36 This prospect soon crumbled. The KADU leader Ngala was desperate for more power than the governor would give him. To win over KANU supporters, he joined in the call for Kenyatta's release. But his ministers performed poorly37 and his tribal coalition seemed more likely than KANU to pull apart at the seams. There hung over all the threat of more violence (there were 80,000 ex-detainees in Kenya, reported The Times38) if KANU were kept out of power. The governor's efforts to foster a coalition broke down. The British released Kenyatta in August, and by the end of October he had become leader of KANU. But both London and the British officials in Kenya remained deeply suspicious of his methods and motives and convinced of his guilt as a prime mover in Mau Mau. To escape from the deadlock (and avoid an emergency), there were fanciful schemes for a federal Kenya. London clung to the dream of an East African federation to dilute Kenya's ethnic and racial divisions. A new constitutional conference was to be convened in the spring. Before it met, a new Colonial Secretary, Reginald Maudling, confronted his colleagues with some unpalatable truths.

The object of the conference, he told them bluntly, was to pave the way for independence, strewn as it was with many difficulties and dangers. ‘It is not possible for us, even if we wished, to secure the continuance of European political power in Kenya…Arithmetic and African nationalism are against this. The best we can hope to achieve

is the orderly transfer of power so a securely-based and African-dominated Government which is genuinely anxious to see Kenya develop as a modern state to avoid chaos, civil war and a relapse into tribalism…Nor is it likely that we shall see in Kenya a Government which is actively pro-Western in its foreign policy. The most we can expect is one which is not committed to either side in the East–West struggle and one which…does not offer too many opportunities for exploitation and penetration by the Communist powers.39

‘Over everything broods the threat of Mau Mau, the influence of the ex-detainees in [KANU] and the persistence of personal violence.’40 London still schemed to engineer a split within KANU to isolate Kenyatta and the ‘men of violence and communist contacts’.41 But the hope was forlorn. A new constitution promised universal suffrage and internal self-government but without producing agreement between the Kenya politicians or assuaging the fears of minority tribes and European settlers. But as Maudling had hinted, the initiative now lay with the leaders of KANU, and in fact with Kenyatta. It was Kenyatta's command over his quarrelsome colleagues that procured at long last in October 1963 a settlement that satisfied the minority tribes and lifted the threat of a communal war. With a huge sigh of relief, London completed the transfer of power before the end of the year.

Just as they found in Tanganyika and Uganda, the British discovered in Kenya that the offer of internal self-government was a runaway train that refused to stop at the stations they built or to pick up the passengers they meant it to carry. What made Kenya so stressful was the threat of extreme violence and the vulnerable position of the European settlers whose fate was bound to arouse close attention at home. From late 1961 onwards (and perhaps even earlier), the British were no longer in power in Kenya. They had become brokers. They lacked the will to repress a fresh insurrection and dreaded an outbreak before they withdrew. The highest card in their hand was Kenyatta's reluctance to risk civil war, and his hope of attaining an agreed independence and the constitutional legitimacy that was in London's gift. It proved just enough.

It was, however, in Central and Southern Africa that the British had most to lose. This was where the bulk of their economic interests lay. Here, in the Rhodesias and South Africa, there were together perhaps some 1.5 million people of British stock and sympathies, as well as a long connection with African elites who (in varying degrees) admired British institutions and values. The British government's diplomatic representative in South Africa was also a proconsul who supervised the so-called ‘High Commission Territories’ (today's Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland) that London refused to hand over to the white-ruled Union. Of the Central African Federation's three territorial units, two remained for most purposes (including law and order) under Whitehall's control and that of its men on the spot. Despite some reservations about how the Afrikaner Nationalist government in Pretoria might behave in a world crisis, it was assumed that both South Africa and the new Federation would be Britain's regional allies, and provide the critical link (both air and sea) between Britain itself and its partners and interests in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. Like Australia and New Zealand, they would go on being part of what had once been called the ‘Southern British World’. But, between the late 1950s and the mid-1960s, this quasi-imperial connection vanished almost completely. The long British ‘moment’ in South-Central Africa ended. Its post-imperial ‘relic’ – the rebel white colony of (Southern) Rhodesia – was a galling reminder of how far and how fast Britain's power in the region had fallen.

The onset of crisis had been signalled (as Macmillan and his ministers were already aware) by the Nyasaland Emergency. It drove home the lesson that rule by coercion had gone up sharply in price – locally, internationally and in domestic politics as well. But the strife in Nyasaland had another dimension. It turned the future of the Federation into an urgent and highly controversial matter. London was already committed to ‘review’ the question of the Federation's independence (the long-standing demand of its white settler leaders) in 1960: it was this that provoked the Nyasaland protest. Now it had to decide how to conduct that review in light of the findings of the Devlin Report: that African hostility to the Federation was total, and could only be stemmed by rule based on force. To make matters worse, any concession that was made to the Nyasaland Africans, perhaps a louder voice in the protectorate's affairs, could not be withheld (or not very easily) from the African majority in Northern Rhodesia, where anti-Federation feeling was almost as strong. But, if doubt were cast on the adherence of Northern Rhodesia – with its mineral wealth and substantial white population of some 70,000 – the Federation was as good as dead.

It is sometimes suggested that, by late 1959, Macmillan and Macleod had decided to ditch federation as a useless encumbrance and push ahead as fast as they could with majority rule in the two northern protectorates. Two schools of thought converge on this judgment: those who believe that the Federation was betrayed by these two Machiavellis; and those who admire their ‘realistic’ appraisal that African nationalism was an unstoppable force. But though the archive reveals much double-talk and evasion, it stops well short of supporting this view. Nor is this surprising. Between 1959 and 1961, the British had good reasons not to want its demise: by 1962, perhaps, they had given up hope. Whatever its defects as a parliamentary democracy, the Federation was a bulwark of Western interests and influence with its own air force and army. ‘We should surely lean towards [Welensky] as far as is possible without compromising the discharge of our responsibilities towards the black peoples’, wrote one of the prime minister's closest aides with this fact in mind towards the end of 1958.42 The African leaders were an unknown quantity, and, when Macleod met Hastings Banda in April 1960, his account was derisive. ‘He is a very vain and ignorant man’, he told Macmillan.43 Nyasaland was impoverished, but entrusting the Copperbelt to an untried African government was a different matter entirely. Thirdly, if the Federation were demolished, the commercial and political links between its three units might break up completely, setting back the whole region's economic development and its hopes of stability. Fourthly, there was a practical question: it had not been easy to make the Federation: to pull it apart meant crossing a legal, constitutional and political minefield, with the prospect of ambush by the well-organised lobby of the Federation's British supporters. Last, and by no means least, if London threw the Federation over the side, what remained of its influence with the whites in South Africa would likely go with it. There is much to suggest that Macmillan himself was deeply mindful of this.

Yet, if the Federation was to continue, a decision on its future could not be delayed. Amongst white settler opinion (which looked enviously south at white South African ‘freedom’) there was a furious impatience to achieve the full independence already given or promised to the West African colonies. Most whites regarded the colonial administrations in the two northern protectorates as archaic survivals, undermining the influence of the federal government and encouraging African hopes of its eventual destruction. Without swift independence from London, it might be too late to check what they thought of as ‘extreme’ African nationalism sweeping down from the north. In Southern Rhodesia, where the whites already enjoyed almost complete independence, a powerful body disliked federation as a ball and chain holding them back from gaining full sovereignty. In April 1959, at the same time as they set up the Devlin enquiry, the Macmillan government extracted the grudging agreement of Sir Roy Welensky, the federal prime minister, to an ‘advisory commission’ to make recommendations on the Federation's future and (implicitly) on its prospects of independence. It was the only way, Macmillan insisted, to remove the issue from the party arena at home, and dampen the furore set off by the Central African emergencies.44 ‘We are your staunch friends’, he told Welensky, ‘and are with you on convincing the world that your Federation is a splendid conception with a great and honourable future.’45 When he met the Federal ministers during his African tour in January–February 1960, Macmillan repeated the argument that the commission would allow the Federation's virtues to be properly seen; its dissolution, he said, would be a disaster.46 But it was during his visit that Macmillan revealed that London intended to release Hastings Banda, regarded in Salisbury as the evil genius behind all African opposition.

Even in hindsight, decoding British intentions is far from straightforward despite the abundance of documentation that is now available. This is partly because there were sharp divisions in Whitehall, inside the Conservative party and within the Cabinet. The Federation's future became a political battleground that briefly threatened to divide the Conservatives as much as the question of India had done in the 1930s. Macmillan was anxious not to enrage the party's powerful right wing, where sympathy for a white-ruled federation was still deeply entrenched. He was also afraid of the Federation's becoming a party political issue, exposing him to Labour and Liberal attack. Despite his warm words to Welensky, he wanted to keep a distance between them, to keep up the pressure for political change, and uphold Britain's claim to stand for the progressive extension of African political rights. To keep all these balls in the air, Macmillan deployed a highly flexible language, at once evasive and cloying. However, Banda's release was a critical moment. Macleod as Colonial Secretary insisted that Banda must be set free in time to give evidence to the Monckton Advisory Commission. After furious arguments with the Nyasaland government and the Federal ministers, as well as within Whitehall, Macleod's will prevailed (he had threatened resignation). But his motive was not simply to speed Nyasaland on its way to a separate independence. Macleod was convinced that he could separate Banda from his extremist lieutenants. ‘The hard core does NOT include Banda’, he told Macmillan.47 Banda, he thought, would accept the need to keep Nyasaland calm. He might even be willing to give up his opposition to federation.48 To help to persuade him, Macleod proposed a reform of the Nyasaland constitution that would give the appearance of an African majority in its legislature – a cautious reform that even Welensky was prepared to approve.49 For Northern Rhodesia, he favoured a similar tactic, although here he ran foul of the settler politicians who already enjoyed considerable power and were fiercely opposed to even the shadow of majority rule. Macleod continued to regard federation as the best solution – the view he had held in December 1959.50 ‘If we were left to ourselves’, he wrote to Macmillan, ‘we could make a success of Federation as I am sure it will be re-defined by Walter Monckton…But I am very much afraid that [Welensky's] United Federal Party think of Federation and of their own Party as one and the same thing, and will in the end be too stubborn for our efforts.’51

So far as London had a coherent aim, it was to try to manoeuvre towards a ‘reformed’ federation that would command the assent of ‘moderate’ whites and blacks. This was what the Monckton Commission was meant to promote. Its report acknowledged the ‘almost pathological’ dislike of the African majority towards the Federation.52 But it also insisted that the multiracial partnership it was meant to embody was too important to fail. The solution lay in devolving most powers except external affairs, defence, and general economic policy to three territorial governments; conceding black majority rule to the northern protectorates; and instigating a drastic liberalisation of Southern Rhodesia's discriminatory laws. But it was heavy political going. The Federal Review Conference in December 1960, attended by most of the main Central African parties, black and white, quickly broke down. The following year, London forced through a new constitution for Northern Rhodesia designed with intricate care to yield the appearance of a black majority but deny it real power except in alliance with moderate whites, in effect the ‘officials’ nominated by the governor.53 Meanwhile, in Southern Rhodesia, the mainly white electorate agreed to a change that would create fifteen African seats in a parliament of sixty-five, with the prospect of more as the number of Africans qualifying to vote (on an education and property franchise) grew larger.54 (In return, London gave up its reserve powers over local legislation that applied to Africans only.) But these were deceptive successes. The reality was that, after mid-1961, the British lost almost all power to reshape Central Africa's politics.

There were several reasons for this. There was almost no chance of persuading most whites that a federation based on black majority rule in two of its three units was anything other than a reckless experiment that was certain to fail. Any doubts on this score were erased most of all by the violent chaos in the Congo, whose sudden independence in June 1960 was rapidly followed by an army mutiny, a massacre of whites and the collapse of central authority. The flood of white refugees that passed through federal territory was seen as a portent of the Rhodesias’ fate if white power were surrendered. But it was equally true that few blacks were willing to accept a federal system in which whites retained any real power. The Federation was too deeply identified with white control of the land, with the privileges of white labour (in the heavily unionised Copperbelt), with restricted opportunities for literate blacks (in public services) and the undermining of traditional authority in the countryside. African leaders who took the federal shilling were dismissed as stooges. Instead, in Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, political movements that opposed federation exploited the end of emergency rule to mobilise mass followings of daunting size. The compromise constitution for Northern Rhodesia announced in June 1961 was denounced by UNIP, the United National Independence Party led by Kenneth Kaunda (the son of the first African missionary in Northern Rhodesia), and greeted by a wave of increasingly violent disturbances. This was the test of London's commitment to a revised federation. But the prospect of being drawn into a new Central African emergency had even less charm in August 1961 than two years before. London had its hands full with the defence of Kuwait (against the threat of an Iraqi invasion). It had little faith that its colonial authorities could police the Copperbelt townships and regain control of the countryside from the African leaders. In December 1961, the June constitution was scrapped; the following March saw a modified version with a clear black majority. By the end of the year, elections in Northern and Southern Rhodesia had produced black and white governments who demanded secession. It only remained to divide up the spoils. The Federation had lasted ten years.

‘One's final impression is that the future of the Federation will depend…on an act of will’, wrote one of Macmillan's closest aides during a visit to the Federation in October 1959. ‘We must say – loudly, clearly, convincingly and repeatedly – that we intend it shall survive and succeed; and we must do something – something simple and striking – to show that we mean what we say.’55 But, by late 1960, the price of ‘something simple and striking’ had risen too high. ‘The Prime Minister and Colonial Secretary then said that they did not want an Algeria. That was the crux of the matter’, noted Macmillan's private secretary in November 1960.56 The diplomatic, military and political cost of an ‘act of will’ was now too great. London lacked the means to coerce white-ruled Southern Rhodesia or the African movements in the two protectorates. Military intervention had been discussed in June 1961 when London had feared that Welensky might take control of Northern Rhodesia by force. It was ruled out as impracticable.57 The independence of Northern Rhodesia (as Zambia) and Nyasaland (as Malawi) may have been a release. But the Federation's collapse was still a disaster for Britain. It left behind the insoluble problem of Southern Rhodesia. By that time, of course, Macmillan's fond hopes of preserving British influence in the rest of Southern Africa – the aim of his visit to South Africa in January 1960, and of the appeal contained in his famous ‘Wind of Change’ speech to the South African Parliament – were also in ruins. In 1961, South Africa became a republic: in political terms an isolationist move. When it sought ‘readmission’ to the Commonwealth (as convention required), there was fierce opposition from its Asian and African members. Macmillan's desperate efforts to find a compromise formula won little support and the South Africans withdrew in May 1961. What remained of the tense and uneasy ‘special relationship’ between London and Pretoria quickly evaporated.58

Designs and defeats

In Africa, as in the Middle East, the British had found that in giving up their authority they had also surrendered their influence. As the continent was drawn into the global Cold War, the limits of British capacity – ideological and material – became more and more glaring. The presumption that a self-governing Africa would remain a huge sphere where British influence was preponderant had ceased to be credible by the end of 1963. By that time, London was hustling its remaining dependencies towards the threshold of sovereignty as fast as it could: in the Caribbean via the failed experiment of a West Indies Federation. It had scrambled out of Cyprus in 1960, clutching its ‘sovereign base areas’ after a long guerrilla struggle from which no exit seemed likely and which was tying down some 27,000 troops. The settlement that allowed the British to leave was framed not in Whitehall but between Greece and Turkey at Zurich, and sprang from their fear of a communal conflict between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.59 The biggest commitments to which London was still tied lay on the maritime edge of the Arab Middle East (in the protectorates and trucial states of the Persian Gulf and in South Arabia and Aden) and in Southeast Asia. Here the British hoped to secure the future of successor states where they still had interests in oil, investment and trade. Strategically, they could be viewed as a remnant of the Anglo-Australian connection, long seen in London as a valuable adjunct to Britain's world status. But, by 1963, both were becoming much more costly and burdensome.

If by that date they were beginning to look like the redundant accessories of a now bankrupt enterprise, the change had been sudden. In the late 1950s it still seemed just possible that British world power would gain a new lease of life. The architect of this last, neo-imperial phase was Harold Macmillan. Macmillan had become prime minister in January 1957 in succession to Eden partly because he seemed more deeply imbued with the Churchillian ethos of British great power than his main rival, R. A. Butler, a doubter over Suez. Indeed, throughout his six-year premiership, he dominated British foreign policy as completely as Churchill, his model in this as in other respects. Macmillan set out to exude a breezy self-confidence and dispel the gloom and division that followed Eden's catastrophe. His immediate aim was to repair the damage Suez had done to Anglo-American relations and rebuild the personal friendships shattered by Eden's bitter quarrel with Dulles, the American Secretary of State, and his ‘breach of faith’ with Eisenhower. He was also keen to smooth over the angry reaction to Suez in parts of the Commonwealth, and embarked on a tour of Commonwealth capitals. As Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time of Suez, Macmillan had had a harsh education in the weakness of sterling. Well before the crisis broke, he had mused on the perils of a long confrontation. ‘It is absolutely vital to humiliate Nasser…We must do it quickly or our M[iddle] East friends…will fall. We must do it quickly, or we shall ourselves be ruined.’60 Macmillan was keen to restore sterling's status as an international reserve currency by making the pound freely convertible. To strengthen the export economy, he pressed on with the struggle to cut defence spending (‘It is defence expenditure that has broken our backs’, he had told Eden in March 1956),61 and the demands it imposed on the wider economy, not least through conscription. He was anxious to reassert Britain's authority in Europe – the aim behind ‘Plan G’ whose formulation had coincided with the intense preoccupation with Suez in late 1956. ‘The inner balance of Europe is essential to the balance of world power’, he declared as an axiom in March 1953.62 Finally, Macmillan turned a critical eye on the vast tail of dependencies that Britain still dragged in its wake. It is easy to exaggerate both the degree of Macmillan's detachment from the old ‘colonial mission’ and the coherence of his ideas about profit and loss on the colonial account. But there is little doubt that he saw (or soon began to see) that too little progress towards colonial self-rule would be a huge hostage to fortune as the scope of East–West competition grew wider. For that was the prism through which he now came to view the future of British world power.

From this list of intentions, we can infer the rudiments of a larger ‘plan’. Macmillan was anxious to stabilise Britain's external position and thought he could do so. In the phase of geopolitical rivalry that he saw opening up, the search for influence in the ‘uncommitted’ world had become the vital arena. Here Britain enjoyed a major advantage if its Commonwealth and colonial ‘assets’ could be sensibly managed. Its role as the co-architect of the West's world policy would become more important. Its claim to special status within the Western alliance would be enhanced. The imperial ‘legacy’, artfully repackaged as the great work of nation-building, could be turned to account at home and abroad. The Conservatives’ appeal as the party of ‘greatness’, badly damaged by Suez, could be resurrected and its disgruntled ‘imperialists’ reconciled. Meanwhile, economic expansion, low unemployment and the widening of ‘affluence’ would heal the scars of depression and reposition Conservatism in domestic politics. As the champion of the welfare state and of a ‘property-owning democracy’, its electoral position would be hard to assail. With its home base secure, a Conservative government could avoid the disasters to which (so it seemed) the French had succumbed. It could reject both imperial intransigence (of the kind that had trapped the French in Algeria) and a headlong retreat into an inward-looking Europe (the gross defect of the EEC project). It was a seductive vision and Macmillan (for all his mask of worldly-wise cynicism) was a man less of vision than of visions.

At first, things went well. Macmillan quickly restored good relations with Eisenhower with whom he maintained a close and frequent correspondence.63 At the conference in Washington in October 1957, he scored two hugely gratifying successes. The Americans withdrew the restriction on the sharing of nuclear knowledge in force since the McMahon Act in 1946. Eisenhower agreed to a ‘Declaration of Common Purpose’ which proclaimed the principles of inter-dependence and partnership, the combining of resources and the sharing of tasks, as the bases of Anglo-American relations – a ‘declaration of inter-dependence’ as Macmillan described it to an admiring Cabinet.64 Touring the Commonwealth was a definite signal that Britain's role as its ‘leader’ was taken seriously in London, and gave Macmillan the chance to exert his personal influence on its most prominent figures. The formal transfers of power in Ghana and Malaya in 1957 passed off smoothly, and the joint Anglo-American intervention in Lebanon and Jordan in 1958 softened the blow of the Iraq revolution which erased (literally) Britain's most powerful friends in the Arab world. The defence white paper of 1957, marking a shift to missile-based deterrence, promised large savings in manpower and money, lifting the burden on the civilian economy. The dash to convertibility at the end of 1958 heralded the transition from the post-war ‘siege economy’ towards Britain's (and London's) old place as a pivot of the global economy.

But, as Macmillan himself periodically sensed, the material base for his grand superstructure was dangerously fragile and liable to capsize. By the late 1950s, the British no longer possessed a world-system but only its shadow. Without India or the commercial empire once ruled from the City, without their old claim on the ‘white dominions’, or effective command of the ‘imperial oasis’ in the Arab Middle East, London peered out on an empire whose assets had been stripped. The desperate effort to retain a Middle East satrapy had died with a whimper: what was left was the rind. The brief post-war hope that Britain's African colonies would become a new India was already flickering out and would soon be extinguished. The burden of world power had thus been thrown back upon Britain itself: the costs of world influence would have to be met there. Everything rested on Britain's economic revival and on exploiting the leverage that the British enjoyed as a great power in Europe and as America's principal ally.

The strain was soon felt. Macmillan had intended that ‘inter-dependence’ would mean the coordination of policy between London and Washington, in which the British provided the know-how and the Americans supplied (most of) the military strength. The West's defence of its worldwide interests against the communist threat would be jointly managed by its two ‘trustees’. It would revive the elements of the wartime alliance in which the commands were shared out but the resources were pooled.65 By the late 1950s, however, the gross disparity in military power (the United States spent ten times as much on defence as the British), the growth of American overseas interests, and the Americans’ confidence in their own expertise (through a huge expansion in their diplomatic and intelligence machinery) made this expectation unreal. The American reaction to the threatened advance of Soviet influence was not to defer to British advice. Even in Black Africa, where American involvement had been small and came late, there was a rapid response to the signs of political change: the visit by Vice-President Nixon in 1957 was followed by the quintupling of economic aid between 1958 and 1963.66 The Americans were impatient with the crab-like progress towards majority rule in Britain's African colonies. They were extremely mistrustful of British attempts to solve the chaos in the Congo (with its worrying scope for Soviet intrusion) by a federal scheme that preserved much of Katanga's autonomy. In late 1962, they broke with the British to back Katanga's reconquest by a UN military force. And, on an old battleground of Anglo-American diplomacy, they simply imposed their will: in March 1961, after dogged resistance, Macmillan was forced to agree to send British troops to Laos as part of a joint intervention. He was saved from the furore at home when President Kennedy reversed the decision.67 But he might have reflected on how different things had been only seven years earlier when Eden had coolly resisted intense American pressure to fight a war in Vietnam.

But it was ‘summit diplomacy’ that burst the bubble of Macmillan's pretensions. In another echo of Churchill, Macmillan attached enormous importance to a face-to-face meeting between the Soviet and Western leaders. He had rushed to Moscow in February 1959 in an effort to relieve the high tension over Berlin which Khrushchev had threatened to cut off from the West. He waged a furious campaign against American scepticism: ‘We must have a summit’, he told his Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd.68 He was enraged when Eisenhower and Khrushchev decided that they would hold separate talks: the ‘UK had better give up the struggle and accept…the position of a second-rate power’, was his bitter reaction.69 The ‘summit’, in fact, was a crucial part of Macmillan's grand scheme. Regular meetings of the American, Soviet, British and French leaders would choke off the trend towards bi-polar diplomacy, and entrench British (and French) influence at a global ‘top table’. But the summit when it finally came in May 1960 was a diplomatic disaster. It was wrecked at the outset by the dramatic shooting down of an American spy-plane, the famous U-2, over Soviet airspace. Amid the furious row that erupted between Khrushchev and Eisenhower, Macmillan's entreaties for the talks to go on fell on deaf ears. The summit collapsed. It was the moment, recorded Macmillan's private secretary, when he ‘suddenly realised that Britain counted for nothing’.70

It may have been also the moment when the weakness of Britain's position in Europe began to seem serious. The British were infuriated by De Gaulle's refusal to discuss the merger of the impending European Economic Community – ‘the Six’ – with a larger and looser ‘Free Trade Area’ of which Britain would be part. In January 1959, the EEC was duly inaugurated. Most British opinion, including within Macmillan's own party and among his Cabinet colleagues, regarded exclusion as a price worth paying to keep the trade with the Commonwealth, and continue the heavy reliance on Commonwealth foodstuffs. But, when Macmillan ruminated on the consequences of May 1960, it was obvious to him that continued exclusion would damage Britain's prospects of economic revival. Still more pressing was the fear that Britain would be squeezed between a European bloc of which France was the leader, and an American superpower veering erratically between special treatment for Britain and disregard of its interests. In July 1961, Macmillan wrung from his colleagues approval for the attempt to enter the EEC – provided Commonwealth interests were not sacrificed in the effort.71 The British embarked upon the arduous struggle for terms that would safeguard key Commonwealth interests. After a year of exhausting diplomacy, De Gaulle intervened. At an Elysée press conference, Britain's entry was vetoed. Macmillan was shattered. ‘All our policies at home and abroad are in ruins’, was his private lament.72

To its supporters in Britain a European future had been the solution to British decline. The European market would be the tonic required by a flagging economy. European capital, managed from London, would restore the City's pre-eminence in global finance. Britain's place at the centre of European politics would ensure that the continent faced outwards not in, and took its full share in the West's global commitments. This was the key argument in Macmillan's so-called ‘Grand Design’ and in the case he put to the Cabinet for a British application.73 London's key role in this European effort would make it the pivot of the Atlantic alliance and invest the ‘special relationship’ with a whole new importance. With the ‘home base’ thus strengthened, the British could use their Commonwealth links to greater advantage in the struggle to influence the ‘uncommitted world’. The crushing defeat that Macmillan's plan suffered is usually attributed to Britain's ‘missing the bus’ of European unity in 1955–8. But this is much too anglocentric a view. It was really the consequence of a diplomatic revolution in Europe. The arrival in power of General De Gaulle in May 1958 transformed the balance of Anglo-French power. This was not because France had become stronger than Britain, though its economic growth was much faster. It was still deeply embroiled in the Algerian struggle that threatened De Gaulle's survival, political and physical. But De Gaulle was determined to restore France's greatness on a European platform, a project that was bound to be at Britain's expense. His rapprochement with West Germany was the vital foundation. De Gaulle achieved this in part by exploiting British mistakes: Macmillan's apparent reluctance to stand firm on Berlin in 1958–9; his courting of Khrushchev and zeal for summit diplomacy; the empty threats directed at Bonn when ‘Plan G’ was resisted (that the British would withdraw their forces in Germany); and his contemptuous dismissal of the ‘half-crazy Adenauer’. From Bonn's point of view, Macmillan became an unreliable ally: De Gaulle was the stalwart against the Soviet peril. It was this grand realignment that enabled De Gaulle to resist British pressure for a free trade agreement, to dismiss their request for EEC membership and to face down the dismay of his other EEC partners.74 The ‘inner balance’ of Europe had turned against Britain.

It may not be fanciful to see in this episode a futile last bid to revive a British world-system. Its failure demolished what remained of the post-war assumption that Britain could remain indefinitely as the ‘third world power’, head and shoulders above any other contender. By the time that Macmillan resigned as prime minister in October 1963, such vaunting ambition seemed simply absurd. The weakness of sterling had not gone away. By 1962, even a Conservative chancellor was longing to jettison the pound's ‘reserve currency’ status. Britain's ‘knife-edge’ economy, as Macmillan had called it, now seemed in need of a structural change. With the scrapping of ‘Blue Streak’ in 1960, the British abandoned the effort to make their own nuclear weapons in a partnership with Australia. Britain would depend on the United States after 1965, remarked the Australian deputy prime minister, ‘Black Jack’ McEwen, to the Naval emissary sent to bring the bad news. ‘We must now face a future’, he told his Cabinet colleagues, ‘when the United Kingdom, because of its small size, must drop out of the race and rely on another power.’75 The British now depended on America's willingness to indulge their claim to be an ‘independent’ nuclear power, first with ‘Skybolt’, and, when that was aborted in 1962, with the ‘Polaris’ system. But there could be little pretence that they enjoyed ‘interdependence’. ‘As much the weaker partner, dependent on overseas trade and with worldwide responsibilities, we find American support for our overseas policies virtually indispensable’, remarked R. A. Butler, now Foreign Secretary, in September 1964, in the last weeks of a Conservative government that had ruled since 1951. ‘They find our support for theirs useful and sometimes valuable.’76

The status barrier, 1964–1968

After his crushing defeat at the hands of De Gaulle, Macmillan's prestige was in tatters. His retirement through ill-health in October 1963 was a happy release. In the general election that followed a year later, the Conservative government under Macmillan's successor, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the former Foreign Secretary, was ejected from power, though by the slimmest of margins. A new Labour government, with Harold Wilson as Prime Minister, came into office. Since much of Wilson's rhetoric, as the party's new leader in succession to Hugh Gaitskell, had dwelt on the need to modernise Britain and poured scorn on the illusion that British governments possessed an independent nuclear deterrent, it might have been expected that an aggressive new realism would infuse British policy. The rapid handover of power in the colonial territories that remained enjoyed all-party support. But there was no such consensus on whether Britain should give up its claim to world power, or whether ‘modernisation’ required the abandonment of ‘obsolete’ military burdens in the world east of Suez. In fact, it soon became clear that the new Labour Cabinet would not sound the retreat. The ‘world role’ would continue. What one Labour minister sardonically termed ‘breaking through the status barrier…as difficult to break through as the sound barrier: it splits your ears and is terribly painful when it happens’,77 seemed too risky and painful. What happened instead was a morale-sapping struggle to square the costs of that status with the brutal demands of economic recovery. Under this pressure, what was still left of the ‘imperial’ world-view began to wither away. Even so, it required an intense economic and political crisis to smash it completely.

Indeed, from the moment it took office, the Labour government found itself in a vice of economic misfortune. The fundamental problem it faced was all too familiar: the relative slowness of the British economy to adapt to the competitive demands of world trade. Without the old cushion of a large invisible income, success now depended upon the export performance of the engineering, electrical and chemical industries. In turn they had to match the productivity gains (or lower labour costs) of their foreign competitors. But to complicate matters, the economic climate in Britain was shaped by two immensely powerful constraints. The first was the commitment of both major parties to maintain ‘full employment’ – broadly defined as under 500,000 out of work (around 300,000 was considered to represent those between jobs) – by avoiding restraints upon purchasing power that drove it any higher. The effect was to keep wages relatively high (or prevent them from falling) and strengthen organised labour. The second great constraint was to maintain the fixed value of sterling (at $2.80). If the balance of payments moved into deficit, foreign holders of sterling began to sell off, and sterling's price fell, and the London authorities were forced to take action. To attract holders back, they would raise the ‘Bank rate’ in London (making credit at home more expensive) and borrow abroad to shore up their reserves, thus incurring new debts. What made this more urgent was the need to reassure those overseas countries (including Kuwait and the colony of Hong Kong) whose foreign currency reserves were held in sterling and banked in London that their deposits were safe. The danger was that the (political) imperative to delay any slowdown in the domestic economy (and thus raise unemployment) would conflict with the (economic) imperative to keep sterling strong by early action on the Bank rate. Once sterling's convertibility was restored in 1958, this delicate balancing act became more and more critical.

It was precisely the effects of such a ‘political’ delay that Labour inherited in 1964. The result was a huge payments deficit and emergency action to bring it under control. But the problem persisted. There were large deficits, and the associated sterling crises in 1965, 1966, 1967 and 1968. The search for a way out of this economic labyrinth dominated government policy. No Labour leader could afford to ignore the reputation for economic mismanagement that had been fastened upon the post-war Labour government and its ill-fated precursor in 1929–31: a disaster for sterling would wreck him as well. Equally, no Labour government could afford to let unemployment creep up, or abandon the claim that it would stimulate ‘growth’, the new holy grail of economic endeavour. Between these two jaws of political fate, Harold Wilson and his colleagues squirmed and wriggled. One solution to their difficulties might have been to devalue the pound (or even let it ‘float’) and give up its role as a ‘reserve currency’ with its own ‘sterling area’. But this was ruled out – until the last possible moment. Devaluation bore the taint of misconduct and failure. It might lead overseas holders of sterling to bail out completely. It might damage the prospects of the City's revival as a great centre of finance. If the sterling area fell apart, the effects on British trade might also be serious, since some of it benefited from doing business in sterling, and this was hardly the time to risk a downturn in exports. Nor did the experts agree on how beneficial devaluing sterling would be, or what new rate should be set.78 On the other hand, Labour ministers were deeply reluctant to rein back their plans for more public investment. Between 1963–4 and 1966–7, their expenditure rose by one-sixth in real terms (over 16 per cent), and by nearly 13 per cent in 1966–7, so that in the course of four years there was a 6 per cent rise in the proportion of GDP taken by public expenditure.79 A high tide of employment helped sweep them to victory in the 1966 general election; and, amid the warnings and woes of 1967, they eased the constraints on domestic consumption.80 It was a volatile mixture.

Labour's leaders still yearned – amid these huge economic anxieties – to be seen as a power in the world, and to maintain Britain's ‘traditional’ place on the ‘management committee’ of global affairs, at the so-called ‘top table’. There were several reasons for this. Disavowing Britain's claim to be a world power (even the failure to avow it with conviction) was not easily done. Despite the damage of Suez and De Gaulle's brutal ‘Non’, many bastions of empire still spangled the map to produce the illusion of power. The press and public opinion could not be expected to discount them completely. The idea of the Commonwealth as a vehicle of post-imperial world influence had been fiercely promoted: it was hard to repudiate. It had helped to anaesthetise British public opinion against the pain of decline; the patient might howl if it were taken away. The wafer-thin mandate that the Labour party had gained in October 1964 was thought to reflect the electorate's doubt that it could bend Churchill's bow and keep Britain ‘great’. To confirm this suspicion might be electorally fatal. Nor was the new Prime Minister, once established in office, reluctant to strut the world stage, and reap the prestige that a high-profile performance could bring. There were also practical reasons to keep up the appearance of world power. With so much unfinished colonial business from Hong Kong to the Falklands, where predatory neighbours harboured expansive ambitions, great-power prestige was a valuable asset, and perhaps even vital to a dignified exit. Renouncing the claim to world power might soften De Gaulle's opposition to Britain's entering the European Common Market – though taking his words at face value had rarely brought anyone luck – but would weaken the case for getting favourable terms. Above all, as most British leaders understood very well, much of their leverage in a superpower world derived from their claim to have close relations with Washington. But American favour depended in large part on the British ability to add influence and muscle to the global containment of communism by their long-standing connection with Australia and South Africa, and by their military presence in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.81 It was by this curious route that a strange paradox had arisen. The subsidiary spheres of the old British system, the vulnerable outposts of their Indian sub-empire in the Persian Gulf and Malaya, had now become the chief theatres where British military power was deployed as ‘vital’ British interests. To gloss over this, and to give their ragbag of commitments a patina of logic, British leaders fell back on an elegant phrase. The aim of their policy, they began to insist, was to maintain Britain's ‘world role’. Like all the best arguments, it was perfectly circular. Upholding the ‘world role’ was why Britain had to be there (anywhere). Unless it was there (anywhere), it could not play a ‘world role’.

But even a ‘world role’ had a material cost. It was measured in defence spending and development aid, and more indirectly by the export of capital. Although British foreign investments were desperately modest compared with their total in 1913, and income from abroad at 1.4 per cent of GDP was less than one-sixth of the earlier figure,82 they had begun to recover. Rebuilding Britain's overseas property empire, and enlarging its invisible income, were seen in the City as the only road back to its old global role and the rewards it had earned. Even before 1964, the export of capital had been closely controlled (to limit its impact on the balance of payments) and most had been steered towards sterling area economies – especially Australia. The shock of two crises in 1964 and 1965 brought a radical rethink. One way of squaring the circle of domestic employment and currency weakness was to redirect British savings into investment at home. Labour's ‘National Plan’ in September 1965 signalled this change of priorities.83 It was followed nine months later by a ‘voluntary programme’ to restrain British investment in the main sterling recipients, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Irish Republic. In 1965, remarked a later Treasury memorandum, the aim was to bring about ‘a permanent shift of emphasis away from investment abroad in favour of investment at home’.84 Scrapping the time-honoured doctrine that the export of capital was a key function of the British economy and one of the pillars of British prosperity showed how far official thinking had moved in barely six years since the Radcliffe Report of 1959 towards something close to a siege mentality. But the second decision in 1965 had even more dramatic (if unintended) consequences.

This was the insistence that defence spending should be fixed at a ceiling of £2,000 million a year, to reduce its very high share (7 per cent) of GDP and to save on foreign exchange. The logic of this, senior ministers agreed in June 1965, was that the cost of Britain's world role east of Suez must be sharply reduced. A small military presence should be kept in the Middle East and in Northern Australia, while retaining island bases in the Indian Ocean would allow the projection of force if the need should arise. But, once the ‘confrontation’ with Indonesia (which had opposed the creation of the Malaysian Federation) was over, the British should leave Southeast Asia, including Singapore.85 It was an attractive solution. It would avoid a risky commitment on the mainland of Asia in a region where ‘neutralisation’ seemed the most to be hoped for. But it could still be asserted that Britain was playing its part in global affairs. Under fierce American (and Australian) pressure, this plan was shelved, and the promise was made (in the defence white paper of 1966) to remain in Malaysia and Singapore for the foreseeable future.86 It did not last long. A huge sterling crisis in June 1966 forced another sharp turn. Now it was said that the number of troops in Southeast Asia would be reduced (‘confrontation’ had ended). The British would stay but no further commitments on the same scale could be made.87 To one critical minister, the discussion of policy was ‘a futile attempt to remain Great Britain, one of the three world powers, while slicing away at defence’.88 In any event, this new formulation was quickly abandoned. A backbench revolt changed ministers’ minds. With a pay freeze at home and rising unemployment, the cost of defence became an irresistible target. In April 1967, the Cabinet agreed to withdraw in two stages from Singapore and Malaysia, reducing the British presence by half by 1970–1, and leaving completely by 1975–6. Britain would retain the means to return if need be, but from a base in Australia, if the Australians agreed.89 This time there was little reaction from Washington. A more urgent concern was withdrawing from Aden which the British had made part of a ‘South Arabian Federation’. By mid-1967, the federal government's authority had collapsed. Faced with a street war against rival nationalist groups to keep control of a base which they had already decided to leave, the British threw in the towel and abandoned the colony in November 1967.

Three years of argument had brought an uneasy compromise. A term had been set to Britain's military presence in Singapore and Malaysia, still nearly a decade away, with a partial withdrawal by 1971. Meanwhile, the British would keep up their guard in the Persian Gulf, where a string of Gulf statelets from Kuwait to Oman still needed protection. The ‘world role’ lived on, but its lifetime was short. For, in November 1967, the weakness of sterling, aggravated by the effects of the Arab-Israeli war, reached a new crisis. With a huge payments deficit, and large debts already, propping up sterling by further borrowing abroad was no longer possible. Faced with disaster, the tenacious resistance of Harold Wilson and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, James Callaghan, to devaluing sterling was broken at last. But the relaunch of sterling at a new lower parity ($2.40) required a package of measures to restore foreign confidence in Britain's finances – and avert a further sharp fall. With social expenditure taking the brunt of the cuts in government spending, a furious argument broke out in the Cabinet over the timing of British withdrawal from its commitments east of Suez. The outcome was a triumph for the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Roy Jenkins, on whose success in retrenchment the survival of sterling (and of the government) now seemed to hang. Against fierce opposition, he imposed a new timetable. The British would withdraw completely by 1971. Not only that, they would also abandon their Persian Gulf role, solemnly reaffirmed to the anxious Gulf rulers less than two months before. This dramatic farewell to Britain's world role, and its imperial tradition in Asia, was announced in Parliament on 16 January 1968.

It seems likely, in retrospect, that, while Harold Wilson and his senior ministers had acknowledged in mid-1965 the need to scale down the forces stationed east of Suez, and withdraw altogether from the mainland of Asia, they intended to do so at a relatively leisurely pace. By offering to contribute (modestly) to regional defence in Southeast Asia, they would appease their American ally, and could continue to claim that Britain's world role was safe in their hands. But everything went wrong. Facing a huge new war in Vietnam, the Americans dismissed this scheme with contempt. When London reversed course, its promise to stand firm collided with a new crisis in the fortunes of sterling and the backbench demand that defence share the pain of expenditure cuts. Yet the brutal finality of the January statement was not simply the product of the need to cut costs: bringing forward the date promised marginal gains; leaving the Gulf, virtually none at all.90 Much more important was Roy Jenkins’ determination to force through a change in Britain's external direction away from the relics of empire and towards a future in Europe. It was also essential to buy off those (on the Left) most fiercely opposed to the austerity programme for sterling's recovery that he meant to impose. But, if the result was the unexpectedly sudden denial that Britain could hold its old place in the world, the public reaction was surprisingly muted. Pricking the bubble of Conservative outrage in the Commons debate, Wilson quoted the views of the Opposition defence spokesman uttered twelve months before. ‘The “world role” East of Suez’, Enoch Powell had remarked in the Spectator magazine, ‘was a piece of humbug.’91 In fact, Conservative (and conservative) opinion had already begun to edge its way back from the idea of the Commonwealth as a key British interest and a pivot of policy.

The main reason for this was what became known as the ‘Rhodesian problem’. As we have seen, dissolving the Central African Federation in 1963 had left a difficult legacy. Two of its territories (Zambia and Malawi) were given independence in 1964 as black majority states. But, in Southern Rhodesia (which adopted the shorter name ‘Rhodesia’), a white minority still ruled under the 1961 constitution that London had approved. The constitution was ‘colour-blind’: unlike in South African, blacks could vote but only if they met stringent qualifications in education and property. Hence the prospect of a black majority among voters, let alone in the parliament, lay in the indefinite (but far-distant) future. Nevertheless, the colony's white leaders insisted that, since they had been almost completely self-governing since the 1920s, their claim to independence was as strong as (they meant much stronger than) that of the African colonies where self-rule had arrived in a rush with minimal warning. They were also convinced that at the break-up of the federation they had been promised independence by R. A. Butler, then the Secretary of State for Central Africa, in a verbal undertaking ‘in a spirit of trust’. (No documentary evidence has turned up, but the utter conviction of Winston Field, then Rhodesian premier, and Ian Smith, his deputy, that the promise had been made was an awkward political fact.92) London's main difficulty lay in the international political climate of 1964–5. With the rapid conversion of almost all of Black Africa into sovereign states, and the near universal hostility towards apartheid South Africa, British complicity in creating a second independent ‘settler’ regime was almost unthinkable. Yet the British had no hope of persuading the whites in Rhodesia that an early take-over by African nationalist leaders would not quickly lead to the murderous chaos that they saw in the Congo. This was the dilemma that Labour inherited from the Conservative government, which had carefully prevaricated. What made it worse was that, short of withholding ‘legitimate’ independence, Harold Wilson and his colleagues had very few means of applying pressure on the whites who controlled internal security and had their own (small) army.

In the year of arduous negotiation that preceded ‘UDI’ – the Rhodesians’ ‘unilateral declaration of independence’ on 11 November 1965 – both sides tried to wear each other down. The key issue was how far the 1961 constitution should be revised to make it acceptable to the Rhodesian African nationalists. The British idea was that a new royal commission (like the Monckton Commission) should decide what was acceptable and make recommendations. But, to Ian Smith and his Cabinet (Smith was now prime minister), to hand over their constitutional right to self-government (though not independence) to a British-appointed commission would be to sign their political death-warrant. The commission might dissolve their constitutional authority as Monckton had dissolved that of the federal government. In the confusion that followed, anything might happen.93 But, if Smith could not budge London from its demand for a commission, Wilson for his part made a crucial admission – that Britain would not use military force to impose a solution. It may have been made to convince the African leaders to accept terms they disliked. It may have reflected a common assumption that the British armed forces would have refused to fire on white ‘kith and kin’. Or it may have been the realistic appraisal that taking over Rhodesia by force would have been to incur a large open-ended commitment, military and political.94 Since this was precisely the moment when reducing its post-imperial hostages to fortune had become London's main external priority, to make such a dangerous exception would have been very odd.

The result, nevertheless, was a diplomatic fiasco. When UDI was declared, London replied with a broadside of bombast. It soon became clear that its threats and sanctions had very little effect, largely because the economic coercion of Rhodesia required the unlikely cooperation of its white neighbour, South Africa. What UDI did reveal was the embarrassing impotence of the Labour government in London, whose ‘world-role’ fell short of dealing with ‘rebels’ in its constitutional backyard. Worse still, it exposed it to a torrent of criticism – turning into abuse – from Britain's Commonwealth ‘partners’. At the Commonwealth prime ministers conferences – once the arena where British world-leadership was reassuringly paraded – Harold Wilson and his colleagues now found themselves in the dock, charged with betrayal of Commonwealth ideals, harangued on the need to show courage and take action. After two ill-fated attempts at a compromise settlement in 1966 and 1968 (the ‘Tiger’ and ‘Fearless’ talks at sea off Gibraltar), Wilson abandoned hope of a deal.95 But the effect was not simply to embarrass his government and expose its shortcomings. The spectacle of Commonwealth countries, whose political record fell far short of ideal, pressing for military action and denouncing British ‘complicity’ in a racist regime, transformed British public attitudes to the Commonwealth idea, and nowhere more than in the Conservative party, where grass-roots sympathy for the Rhodesian whites was especially strong.96 Reinforced by the declining importance of Commonwealth trade and investment, and the association of the Commonwealth with black immigration into Britain (1968 was the year of Enoch Powell's speech on the ‘rivers of blood’), it helped to erase with extraordinary speed the long-standing connection between patriotic feeling in Britain and loyalty to the Commonwealth as the offspring of empire.

The dramatic announcement on withdrawal from east of Suez thus coincided with a wider shift in the thinking of both political ‘insiders’ and public opinion at large. But, without the ‘world role’, the cherished illusion of close Anglo-American partnership and the claim to Commonwealth leadership, almost nothing was left of the Churchillian statecraft to which all post-war governments had tried to adhere, let alone of the late-Victorian Weltpolitik on which it was based. The policy-makers cast around in confusion. Official committees debated which British interests deserved recognition. An inane map was devised in the Foreign Office purporting to show on an imaginary scale which countries were important to Britain. Predictably, the United States and Europe were huge. Revealingly, the Falkland Islands, scene of Britain's last and most dangerous colonial war (in 1982), were omitted completely.97 Salisbury (who knew a thing or two about cartographic delusions) would have put it in the waste-paper basket. In this maelstrom of uncertainties, official opinion fell back on two axioms. The first was that economic recovery was the root of all policy; the second that the only future for Britain lay in joining the European Community, at whatever the cost. The Labour government had made a second abortive application in 1967, dismissed with a shrug from De Gaulle. It fell to their Conservative successors, once De Gaulle had left power (and also the world), to win this ultimate prize. In the Heath government's white paper proclaiming Britain's new course, few tears were shed over all that was left of the old British connections. The Commonwealth, it said, did not ‘offer us, or indeed wish to offer us alternative and comparable opportunities to membership of the European Community. The member countries of the Commonwealth are widely scattered in different regions of the world and differ widely in their political ideas and economic development. With the attainment of independence their political relations with the United Kingdom have greatly changed and are still changing.’98 As a comprehensive repudiation of the old British ‘system’, that would be hard to improve on. With the white paper's publication in 1971, the imperial idea finally ceased to be a political force. It sailed away to the Coast of Nostalgia.

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