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The end of the British Empire in global context

In this article, Professor James Mark discusses the end of European Empires, and how they have been understood in different ways across the globe.

In the Western world, we usually refer to the end of Empire in the 1940s and 1950s as ‘decolonisation’. This is not a neutral term – as some have argued, it was invented by Western Europeans to distance themselves from the negative associations of colonialism, and to suggest that they had, magnanimously, handed over the reins of power when the time was right.

In Britain, in the early 1960s, there was still considerable debate about whether her future geopolitical role should be focussed on the Commonwealth or Europe. Some argue that this debate, forged in the era of postwar decolonisation, is still unresolved in some areas of British politics – seen most recently in debates over Britain’s future as a member of the European Union.

The formal process of ‘decolonisation’ did take place with extraordinary speed, particularly in Africa. Yet it might be misleading to assume that this was paralleled by a lack of interest in the Empire as it became part of history- see, for example, the great popularity of films such as Zulu (1964). Nevertheless, general elections did not hinge on imperial issues. Politicians seeking to project an image of modernity rarely wanted to engage explicitly with the imperial past. A few politicians on the right, most notably Enoch Powell, did mourn the loss of ‘white order’ both abroad and at home. Yet even Powell’s complicated and eccentric views on Empire cannot be seen simply as straightforward imperial nostalgia.

Elsewhere in the world, the ends of Empire were still a raging political issue. In China, the Soviet bloc, and amongst progressive movements across the ‘global South’, the very term decolonisation was rejected. Rather, the process was portrayed as the ‘anti-imperialist struggle’ – a term that gave agency to the liberated, and suggested the necessity of an ongoing battle against ‘neo-colonialism’ (that is, Western attempts to control Third World economies even after the formal end of imperial rule.)

From the late 1950s we see many attempts to ‘decolonise’ global trade too – to remake trading conditions with the interests of the decolonised and decolonising states of the so-called ‘global South’ in mind.

This process would eventually lead to the push for a ‘New International Economic Order’ in the 1970s. Some argue that the neo-liberal globalisation that now dominates our world was a defensive reaction from the West to this anti-imperialist economic challenge from the ‘global South’.

As we can see, there is no agreed way to understand, or even name, the end of European Empire, and these debates, both amongst scholars and in popular culture, continue today globally. Indeed, recently the positive sides of the British Empire are being recovered in works by Chinese scholars seeking to make sense of their own country’s global rise.

How has the end of European Empire been understood in your part of the World? Let us know!