In defence of Britain’s decolonisation record
It’s an article of faith among some good folk on the left, Guardian readers every one, that the British empire was a rat’s-nest of racism, oppression and exploitation, and that its eventual dissolution was achieved only by a series of armed liberation struggles against the British imperial power. Here are two texts that seek to question that innocent but unhistorical view of our colonial past:
The truth about the end of empire
Madeleine Bunting over-simplifies and distorts Britain’s predominantly successful, peaceful and honourable decolonisation record (The endgames of our empire never quite played out – just look at Bahrain, 18 April[a]). In most of the few territories where independence was marred by violence, it arose from conflict between rivals fighting each other to inherit power from the departing British (as in Aden and many other places), only rarely from an “independence struggle” against the colonial power.
Resistance to independence with one man, one vote came mainly from white settler groups (Kenya, Southern Rhodesia) or from local minorities which feared domination by the majority when the UK withdrew its protection (Nigeria etc). Mau Mau was not primarily a movement seeking Kenyan independence but a tribal movement in conflict with other tribes and with the settlers over land.
The Gulf states were never British colonies as such and were not administered by the Colonial Office, and it’s misleading to cite them as typical. In the majority of colonies the move to independence was conducted in collaboration with local elected leaders and with their agreement on the pace and modalities of the change. Where there was brutality by the colonial government against local people, as clearly happened in Kenya, it was inexcusable, but by no means typical or widespread. Whatever we may think of our mixed history of empire, there’s reason to be proud of the way we dismantled it.
Ms Bunting sees something sinister about the efforts by all UK governments to maintain their influence and good relations, and to promote UK interests, with former British colonies after their independence (what else should they have done?), but to see this as a continuation of colonial domination is ridiculous. It’s what governments do in their relations with other countries and it’s called international relations by diplomacy.
Colonial Office 1957-64, HM Diplomatic Service 1965-94; London
 Unpublished letter to the Guardian from Ian Buist, an eminent retired public servant with extensive knowledge and experience of East Africa (including especially Kenya) and of Britain’s decolonisation record generally, from his service both in Africa and in Whitehall, commenting on an article about the UK colonial record by Seumas Milne in the Guardian of 7 April 2011 (“Ignoring its imperial history licenses the west to repeat it”):
Seumas Milne’s colourful “anti-imperial” rant was free with its facts as well as its adjectives.
The claims that “hundreds of thousands” of Kikuyu were “interned in concentration camps” and “tens of thousands killed” were carefully analysed by the historian David Elstein and dismissed (his article was recently republished on “OpenDemocracy”).
How can the Israel-Palestine 50-year conflict be the “direct result” of British policy? In issuing the Balfour Declaration, accepting the League/UN Mandate, or surrendering it?
Where is the “reflex imperial resort to partition” found in Ceylon/Sri Lanka or Kurdistan? On Somalia, we helped our own Protectorate, as it wished, to achieve its independence in union with the former Italian colony. And so on and on.
It is a pity when reputable journalists try to shape the facts to fit a thesis, even if many of us also sometimes feel this temptation.
[J.L.F. Buist C.B.]
Ian Buist also commented on my own Guardian letter (above) that “You could also have made the point that all these divisions stemmed from local history and conflict — eg Sri Lanka — and that our efforts were always directed to preventing their irruption if we could — cf Donoughmore Constitution for Ceylon etc.” A good point.
I hope those who contribute comments here strongly disagreeing with these attempts to put the record a little bit straighter will spare us a catalogue of examples of brutality, exploitation, racism and other inexcusable abuses in the colonial territories and protectorates for which Britain was once responsible, either in the heyday of empire or during the period of decolonisation following the second world war. No-one is denying that such abuses did occur. Some are well documented. Many aroused powerful protests and objections at the time, both in the territories concerned and in Britain. Some were not viewed as wrong or immoral according to the ethical beliefs of the time: it’s fatally easy to apply our own settled views of what is and is not acceptable retrospectively and with hindsight to another age (slavery and discrimination against women and black people were once seen as fundamental to an orderly society, even by people who were personally decent and humane).
This post is not an attempt to justify the indefensible or to assert that terrible wrongs were never done in British colonial times. It does however aim to point out that in the overwhelming majority of cases, the process of bringing British dependent territories to independence was peaceful, orderly and consensual, negotiated in great detail with the elected leaders of the territories concerned and almost entirely with their agreement; and that where there was violence during the decolonisation process, it was extremely rarely, if ever, generated by British resistance to local demands for independence. From the election of the Attlee Labour government in 1945 to the virtual completion of decolonisation in the 1960s, no British government sought to prolong colonial status in any territory whose people wanted it; indeed, governments in London increasingly regarded our status as a colonial power as a yoke round our necks and an impediment to the exercise of Britain’s influence in international affairs. In a number of cases London was in much more of a hurry to bring a territory to independence than the leaders and people of the territory concerned, some of them apprehensive about what would happen to them after a generally benign British colonial administration handed over power. Some of those apprehensions, alas, turned out to be all too well founded.
The end of empire was an infinitely complex process, combining generous doses of self-interest and hypocrisy with much good-will and genuine idealism on both sides. Nothing is to be gained, and the past is denied its due, by pretending that it was all bad.