Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The British Empire In Colour: The Wind Of Change

In this gripping instalment of ‘The British Empire in Colour’, we relive the often bloody drama of Britain’s post-war decolonisation. At its height, the British Empire covered one quarter of the globe. India was the ‘jewel’ in Britain’s imperial crown; a few thousand officials ruled an area of 350 million people.

In 1931, Parliament had assented to the independence, within the British Commonwealth, of the ‘White Dominions’, which included Australia, Canada and New Zealand. By the end of World War Two, the floodgates of decolonisation had clearly opened. In India, the National Congress’s ‘Quit India’ campaign gathered pace, while a broad Muslim movement called for partition. Two states, India and Pakistan, were granted independence on 15 August 1947.

Despite pressure from a powerful American ally with extreme misgivings regarding the empire, Attlee’s post-war Labour government vainly attempted to stem the tide of colonial independence. Socialistic on domestic issues, the government’s foreign policy was masterminded by Ernest Bevin, a ‘working class imperialist’ intent upon avoiding a domestic outcry over the loss of empire.

In the face of this anachronistic reasoning, armed movements increasingly fought for liberation. In Burma, British rule was violently rejected; the country became independent in 1948. In Malaya, a long and bloody counter-insurgency war defeated the colony’s communist faction; moderate nationalist elements were brought to independent power in 1957.
The disastrous Suez crisis of 1956 ended the British military presence in Egypt. It displayed the vainglorious nature of Britain’s imperial dream, and would be the political undoing of Anthony Eden, the Conservative Prime Minister. In the rest of Africa, violence repeatedly forced Britain’s hand, most notably in Kenya. The bloody Mau Mau uprising, which resulted in independence for the country in 1964, was mirrored by a fierce independence struggle in Sudan.

By the end of the 1960s, Britain's empire had shrunk to a tiny fraction of its 1945 size; Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) was the only large colony still in British hands. This documentary tells a colourful and disturbing story of violence, humiliation and dying imperial dreams.


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