British decolonisation was an unrecognised success

On the admirable New York University Aidwatch blog, Professor Bill Easterly has set us an interesting teaser.  He asks us to guess the source of a document about British aid.  In quoting his blog post below, I’m including a spoiler, so if you want to try to work out the answer for yourself, don’t read any further here: go over to Aidwatch and read the question before you click on the link there to get the answer.

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So for those who don’t mind me giving the game away, here is Prof. Easterley’s post, including the answer to his riddle, followed by a copy of the comment I have submitted to it and some further thoughts about Britain’s decolonisation effort:


Guess the source of this British aid document on Country Ownership

by William Easterly

“However able their government…many countries cannot finance out of their own resources the research and survey work, the schemes of major capital enterprise… which are necessary for their development.

“Assistance from United Kingdom funds should be related to what countries can do for themselves…There is a need for machinery to provide complete coordination between the efforts of these separate departmental staffs so as to ensure that development proceeds on a balanced and comprehensive plan…With the requisite financial assistance once assured…Governments {would} prepare development programmes for a period of years ahead.

“The whole effort will be one of collaboration…There must be ready recognition that conditions vary greatly from country to country, and that country governments, who best know the needs of their own countries, should enjoy a wide latitude in the initiation and execution of policies.”

The answer is after the jump.

Here’s a hint: I have omitted words as shown by ellipses but not changed any except one – I used the word “country” where the original document used the word “Colony”.

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This document is The Statement of Policy on Colonial Development and Welfare, presented by the Secretary of State for the Colonies to Parliament by Command of His Majesty, February 1940.

I have submitted the following comment:

“I was a junior official in the Colonial Office in London (not to be confused with the Colonial Service whose officers worked in the field for the colonial governments) for several years not long after the war when the Colonial Development & Welfare Acts were still a startling innovation. Introduced at a low point of WW2 when Britain’s economy was in desperate straits, and defeat at the hands of Hitler seemed a real possibility, CD&W was a striking testimony to the UK’s commitment to the paramountcy of the interests of the colonial peoples for whom we had assumed responsibility. Some terrible things were done in the name of colonialism but some far-sighted and altruistic things were done too, put into effect in distant lands by a body of remarkably dedicated and committed men and women working in often arduous conditions on behalf of the colonial peoples whom they served, and whose paths to independence they actively helped them along. The current fashionable stereotype of colonialism as unrelieved racism and exploitation gives a very lopsided and partial picture. But with the passing of my generation, I’m afraid it will acquire the status of historical fact, if it hasn’t already. CD&W should be a heartening eye-opener to those who have never heard of it.”

From the late 1950s, when I joined the Colonial Office, until well into the 1960s when I transferred for unexpected reasons to the newly formed Diplomatic Service, British colonialism was transformed into a rigorous policy of voluntary decolonisation as one British colony after another was brought to independence, at a rate which many people at home (and some in the territories themselves) thought recklessly fast, and which our many critics in the United Nations and some of our territories thought much too slow. In most of the territories the movement towards independence developed its own momentum. Delays were sometimes forced on us by conflict in a territory between different political groups competing to gain control of the newly independent country when the British left; sometimes that conflict was violent, and in those cases our efforts to bring about reconciliation and unity were often dismissed in New York and elsewhere as a facade for the traditional British tactic of ‘divide and rule’, which betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of what we were about. Our decolonisation process was both idealistically driven and also the product of national self-interest: diplomatically, politically, financially and economically our remaining colonies were a burden that inhibited us in many ways from doing other things that needed doing. The label of “colonial power” forced us into the same uncomfortable category of less enlightened colonial powers such as South Africa, Portugal, Belgium, Spain and others; even France resisted the decolonisation imperative for much longer than we did.

Many mistakes were made along the way. Some crimes were committed and in pretty rare cases blood was spilled, although very rarely indeed in a violent conflict involving a “struggle for independence” against British resistance to it. The record was certainly marred by the slaughter that accompanied the partition of India, but even now it’s far from clear that any alternative solution to that problem would have been less costly in blood and treasure.  In some cases more time to prepare for independence would theoretically have been desirable, but mostly the timetable had a life of its own and trying to stretch it out would have created more problems than it solved. We tried to leave each territory with an independence constitution tailored to its own circumstances and negotiated painstakingly with the local political and traditional leaders in such a way as to offer the new independent country the best possible chance of a peaceful and increasingly prosperous future. In many cases they included provisions for the protection of human rights, early forerunners of our own Human Rights Act. Sometimes the system on independence was a federal one, carefully designed to help widely disparate groups to live peacefully together without any one dominating another: there are lessons to be learned from some of these for us now that our United Kingdom has acquired a quasi-federal status as a result of devolution. As it turned out, few of these laboriously negotiated independence constitutions survived for more than a few years, but they often served a limited purpose as a template for local civil society to aim at in the future.

Whatever historians might make of Britain’s overall colonial record, it’s virtually incontrovertible that our post-war record of decolonisation was accomplished more peacefully, with more friendly collaboration between the decoloniser and the decolonised, more quickly, and with far less violence, than anyone had any right to expect, and certainly than many other former colonial powers were able to achieve.  Overall, and despite the lapses and the shortcomings, the decolonisation effort was an extraordinary success, and I’m proud to have played a minor role in it.  My only regret is that this verdict is likely to strike many younger readers of this as perverse, counter-intuitive, smug, and harshly indifferent to the sufferings and sacrifices of the many vicitms of the oppressed colonial peoples’ heroic struggle for their freedom.  If that’s what people want or need to believe, so be it.  The record, though, says otherwise.


4 Responses

  1. John Miles says:

    “My only regret is that this verdict is likely to strike many younger readers of this as perverse, counter-intuitive, smug, and harshly indifferent to the sufferings and sacrifices of the many vicitms of the oppressed colonial peoples’ heroic struggle for their freedom.”

    Why do you think it’s likely to do this?

  2. Jeremy says:

    Having had the privilege  and pleasure to have also played a minor role in the decolonisation process, as one of the last four District Officers recuited in the UK for service in Africa ( in my case Swaziland ), I endorse almost all of Brian’s analysis including his conclusion that overall it was  generally an unrecognised success. In some cases delay might have led to that particular territotory being better prepared to face the huge developmental and social challenges of independence. Inevitably expectations were raised which could not adequately be met.  But in almost all cases the momentum for change was such that the process could not have been slowed and today this can be seen to have been largely irrelevant.  Whereas in 1964 Zambia at independence had a mere handful of graduates and few people with technical skills, in contrast by 1980, or at least when they returned home, Zimbabwe had a  large cadre of skilled and  experienced people ready to run the country. Yet  this can now be seen not to have been a determininant of progress.   .
    Two issues intrigue me. First, the contrasting approaches adopted by the former colonial powers towards their former wards. The Belgians  left abruptly with minimum provision for the future, perhaps envisaging  the chaos which was soon to engulf the Congo. The French attemped, initially with considerable success, to protect their interests and investments by keeping their hands on the levers of power by exerting influence behind local front men. The British generally preferred to leave the ring completely but to provide some help and advice, but usuallyonly when asked. Although the Commonwealth today is a faint shadow of what it was for the first decade of the post-coloial period, it dhould not be underrated as an instrument for disseminating british and western values and professional skills . Whilst France’s relatively greater influence for atime protected it from much of the anti-colonial flak which we had to endure in the sixties to eighties, today I believe we are as much if not more respected by most of our former colonial subjects than the French.
    The other issue is whether we could have better equipped the new nations to govern themselves successfully. Without now blaming the early settlers, missionaries and those who governed, Europeans had little understanding of the  social structures of the societies of those they ruled. So inevitably these were disrupted and often irreparably destroyed – despite Whitehall’s relatively enlightened and inexpensive policy of indirect rule. In the lead up to independence a Wesminster style democacy, or a modified version of it, was imposed. Should it have been? With hindsight  probably not, but most of the early leaders, familiar with the British system, would have regarded  any derogation from Parliamentary democracy as being fobbed off with second best. All too often the outcome was one man one vote – once – but the Colonial Office can not relly be blamed for this. Corruption was during the colonial era largely covered up rather than suppressed but, again, any remedy would have been hard to discern. Yet I remain uneasy; I believe we could have opted for a syxtem which offereed an amalgam of western democracy based on traditional structures. the skill of the Catholic Church in both Africa a nd South America in ‘bolting ‘ Christianity on to indigenous religions perhaps provides a  model of what could have been?Others may regard these reflections as wishful thinking!

  3. Tim Weakley says:

    Brian, forgive me if I’ve made similar comments to the following, at another place and time. I wondered to what extent the pace of decolonisation was influenced by military considerations. One gets the impression that before the second World War, the official feeling was that the Empire would bumble along for another century or so and there was no especial hurry as regards giving the colonial peoples control of their destiny (except for India, which is another story). By 1946, on the other hand, Britain was practicallyly broke, and we had nearly lost a big war by having to maintain forces, and then to fight, in widely-separated parts of the globe. Moreover, the people of the colonies were well aware that Europeans were not supermen, and that colonial powers could have military setbacks (Britain) or outright defeat (France) inflicted on them by another European power (Germany) and furthermore by a non-European power (Japan). By 1951, when I was a reluctant conscript, Britain was committed to maintaining an army in Germany and a sizeable force in Korea, and the Malayan insurgency and the Mau Mau rebellion were taking place; the powers that be must have been praying that the Gold Coast and Southern Rhodesia, as they then were, and Sierra Leone and Nigeria didn’t chose to flare up at the same time. I know this was all before you joined the FCO, but I wondered whether you had later become aware that there had been any thinking alone the lines ‘We’d better give them independence as soon as can be decently arranged, before we have to call in the army for duties-in-aid-of-the-civil-power’?

    Brian writes: Tim, I observed a key period of decolonisation (from 1957 to 1968) for seven years from the Colonial Office in London (not to be confused with the Colonial Service out in the field) and another four dealing with decolonisation issues at the UN in New York. I had also previously done most of my national military service in another colony (Hong Kong). I was especially closely involved, from a junior position, in the intricate negotiations leading to Nigerian independence. The need to pre-empt and head off the risk of serious conflict or violence in any of our colonial territories was certainly an element in our policy-making but in almost no case — even in Kenya — was this a fear of violence directed at Britain as the colonial power: it was almost always a threat of conflict between rival political groups in the territories fighting each other to succeed Britain as the dominant political force when we withdrew on independence. Everyone knew that Britain’s avowed policy, ever since the election of the Attlee government in 1945, was to encourage the progress to full independence of every colonial territory that (a) wanted it, and (b) was big enough to stand on its own in the world. More than a dozen of our territories didn’t want independence and knew they were too small and vulnerable for it. Some didn’t want it because their territory was claimed by large irredentist neighbours, and they relied on Britain to continue to protect them from them. Some didn’t want independence, or didn’t want it any time soon, because of internal communal tensions and conflicts which they feared would break out into bloodshed if the British referee left the field before they had worked out, with our active help, some kind of modus vivendi among themselves. Most of the rest wanted it, or at any rate their vocal political class did, but surprisingly often they didn’t want it too soon and were in reality nervous about what it would bring. (Southern Rhodesia, which was internally fully self-governing and quasi-independent under a white minority government, came under the Commonwealth Relations Office, not the Colonial Office, and was sui generis: the violence there was directed at the ruling white population, not at Britain, which had the worst of all worlds, nominal responsibility without power.)

    I am absolutely clear that in the minds of at least the younger generation of policy-makers in the Colonial Office, of almost all Labour ministers of the time, and certainly some influential Tory ministers (notably the great Iain Macleod), the driving force behind our decolonisation policy was that we had just fought a bloody war for the right to govern ourselves and not to be governed against our will by foreigners, even if the foreigners reckoned that they could govern us better than we could govern ourselves: that this central principle of self-determination had been enshrined in the Churchill-Roosevelt Atlantic Charter of August 1941 (even before the US was forced to enter the war): and that the notion of a divine right to rule over “lesser breeds without the law” byond the seas whether they wanted it or not was an out-dated, indefensible and obnoxious concept. We decolonised with enthusiasm because we believed in what was then called ‘colonial freedom’, not because we were too weak to resist the colonial people’s demands for it, nor because we could no longer afford to run a global empire (a theory, incidentally, that isn’t easily reconciled with the accompanying theory that we tried to hang onto our empire so that we could go on exploiting it). In a very few cases Conservative governments tried, with varying success, to get the agreement of the local leaders to our maintaining military bases in their countries after their independence: Aden and Cyprus, for example. But this was never represented, even tacitly, as a condition for the grant of independence. Where there was strong disagreement between London and local colonial leaders it was almost always over the pace of progress to independence, or the political and constitutional framework to be established on independence, and not about whether independence should come at all. The final stages of each territory’s progress to independence almost invariably involved a period of full internal self-government with free elections to the local parliaments and governments, the UK retaining responsibility only for external affairs and defence until the moment of independence. The great independence conferences, often at Lancaster House, were genuine diplomatic negotiations between the British government on the one hand, and powerful local leaders who everyone knew would soon be the recognised Presidents and prime ministers of an independent Commonwealth country on the other. In many cases even the date of independence was not an issue: the UK’s overriding concern was often to try to ensure that ethnic or other minorities in the country concerned would have their rights protected under the independence constitution after British protection was withdrawn. We didn’t always succeed in that honourable aim, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

    In the vast majority of cases, the “struggle for independence” was a convenient myth. At one international conference in Ethiopia which I attended as the Colonial Office representative in the UK delegation, the head of the delegation of a recently independent African country, formerly a British colony, asked me privately for my comments on the draft of the keynote speech he planned to deliver at the opening session. I had to advise him strongly to delete all the tributes in the speech to Britain’s enlightened administration during the colonial period and the help they had had from Britain during the transition to independence: if he spoke like that, I warned him, he would be dismissed as an Uncle Tom. I wrote out a few lines for him to substitute about the way the independence struggle had toughened and united his people. He was reluctant, but accepted the advice and included my draft in his text. His resulting speech went down a storm. He was very grateful and subsequently bought me a drink in the bar, much to the annoyance of the American delegation which regarded such a spectacle of fraternising between the newly liberated hero and the former colonial slave-driver as being against nature.

  4. Malcolm McBain says:

    Congratulations, Brian, on the line you take.  Having spent 5 years in India in the 1950s, not long after Independence, I have been surprised by comments about the sub-continent of recent diplomats to my diplomatic oral history programme. A lot of younger (more senior) colleagues seem to me to be apologetic in tone about our record.  When I was there, I found it gratifying to observe the slight puzzlement on the part of Americans in particular at the curious way the former “colonial oppressors” were able to get on well with such people as former members of the ICS, then in commanding positions in the Indian administration, as well as with politicians (in private). Almost all foreigners seemed to think we must be suffering greatly from the fact that we could no longer exploit the Indian masses.  Now, our own people show signs of believing that we exploited the Indians excessively. Their ignorance about the realities is regrettable.  

    Brian writes: Malcolm, thanks. I agree that it’s sad that such a perverse and one-sided PC version of Britain’s colonial (and imperial) record has now become the received wisdom, probably irreversibly. Of course there were some terribly bad blots on that record, but much that was good as well.

    As early as the 1960s when our decolonisation programme was in full swing there were many Americans who simply couldn’t understand how we could be on such good, friendly and relaxed terms with the people of our former colonies — some of whom were extremely wary of the Americans!

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