Decolonization of the British Empire after the Second World War


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Prior to the World War II, the British Empire had established a number of colonies outside Europe such which were disengaged from Britain following the war though there were other factors which lead to the decolonization of the British Empire. In order to pursue the aims of the essay the decline of the British economy will be discussed, then the upsurge of anti imperialist movements will be examined and the emergence of Soviet Union and USA as superpowers will be analyzed as well. Decolonization was not a mechanical consequence of the Second World War, but a long term ongoing process such that other factors should be also considered.


The origin of the British Empire

The British Empire was founded at the time when England and Scotland were separate entities. At the time when King Henry VII of England was ruling, a voyage was sent to discover the route to Asia via North Atlantic which was unsuccessful and no colony was established. Similarly, that was the last attempt by the English to establish colonies on the American soil. This was later on reviewed during the reign of Elizabeth I when Spanish Catholics and the Protestants in England had failed in their friendly relations.

Such that war was inevitable as England engaged in subsequent raiding attacks on African towns and Portuguese ships in the west coast pf Africa. The war was extended to the American ports where the Spanish-owned ports were raided by the Britons and the looted treasure from the newly acquired land moved to England. The English writers were also pushed forward the concept of establishing a “British Empire” just like the other colonizers (Smith, 1998).

Events during the first British empire

The British Empire was subject to a number of rivalry and hostility problems which were directed to it by other empires at that time. In the period between 1587 and 1584, the British Empire was able to acquire two colonies in America namely the harbor of Newfoundland and the coast of Roanoke. However, the full control of the colonies was not successful as in the first instant there were no settlers in Newfoundland to colonize and in the later colony the supplies were limited hence complete colonization failed (Macdonald, 1994).

The subsequent failure of the British Empire led to negotiations to reduced hostility with Spain and at the same time England shifted its raids from previous preying on other countrys colonies into establishing its own overseas colonies (Marshall, 1996).The 17th century was a success for the British Empire with English settlement in the smaller islands of North America as well as development of private companies which were delegated to administer the overseas colonies and its trade. However, another loss was in the making with the loss of 13 colonies following the American War of Independence in the later years of the 18th century.

Subsequent colonization aspects in Africa and other parts of the world also failed primarily due to poorly laid out strategies such that the British Empire was seeking colonies without a prior research on the resultant value of the effort. Similarly, the East India Company in Asia also failed terribly in its implementation of proper policies in India such that in the 19th century there was a serious famine in India due to crop failure and very many lives were lost hence reducing the powers of the British Empire over the colony (Tilby, 2009).

By the time the British Empire was entering into the 20th century, there were fears that it would not be able to defend the entirety of the empire while sustaining the policy of splendid isolation. This was largely attributed to the fact that Germany was rapidly transforming into a military and industrial power hence a most probable opponent in nay future wars. This was the point at which the British Empire became allies with old enemies such as France, Japan and Russia so as to fight against the Germany army (Porter, 1998).

Decline of the British economy

The economy of the British Empire started to dwindle before the Second World War such that previously the empire had engaged in numerous unplanned wars and explorations which failed to yield much returns.  However, the downfall was felt from the beginning of the Great European War in 1914 due to the increased international armament manufacturers and the megalomaniac Kaiser which were fleecing the empire. The prices of the weapons were so high that by the end of 1917 the British Empire had begun to borrow money trough political compromises in order to fund the war (Tilby, 2009).

The level of bankruptcy was so high that the Russians used the opportunity to establish the Russian revolution funded by New York to finish off the British Empire. This was followed by the United States of America making its appearance in the European War and since then the USA has held an unrivaled dominance in the world affairs. The poor state of financial affairs reduced the capacity of the British Empire to gain strong foothold on the colonies hence decolonization was inevitable as a result of the bankrupt situation (Turpin and Tomkins, 2007).

Upsurge of anti imperialist movements

Anti-colonial movements were slowly increasing since the very first time the British Empire obtained its first colony. The situation was made even more complex following the Cold War which led to the United States and the Soviet Union engaging in heated rivalry. As both nations had been opposing the European colonialism the American anti-communism was more prevalent over the anti-imperialism in the European country. Meanwhile Britain adopted a policy which stated that it would peacefully disengage from its colonies once non-communist governments were formed and stabilized (Smith, 1998).

The anti-imperialist movements had been threatening the activities of world colonists which had been growing increasingly among the European colonial empires. Later on the movements were joined together such that the colonies and their ideas were converged to reduce the rate of decolonization in the British Empire. The other aspect of anti-imperialist movements is that they were very much opposed to the globalization trend which was seen as an economic dominance and thus it is an indirect colonization of the less developed countries (Fieldhouse, 1999).

Whilst there are various versions of the dynamics of the Second World War there is consensus over the logic of imperialism. After the 1929 crisis, the most profound the capitalist system has yet experienced, Germany, Japan, Italy and to a lesser extent Britain and USA looked towards dismissing laissez faire principles and creating their own protected trade areas (Latimer, 2007).

Emergence of the US and Soviet Union superpowers

The Soviet Union was very much against the effects of the colonial powers such as the west in terms of the political leadership influence and the financial support. Therefore, to counteract the activities of the colonizers such as the British Empire, the Soviet Union organized scores of revolutions so as to shake the colonizers out of their colonies. As the Cold War progressed, the Soviet Union made changes on the imperialist view at the height of capitalism where stratification of society according to class was evident.

The attempt of the Soviet Union to help inhabitants in the British Empire colonies made the oppressed people warm up to the Soviet Union and at the same time popularity of the union increased. Similarly, many conflicts during the cold war were generated by such superpowers that extended support to the warring nations or empires hence increasing their fame in the global scale (Hollowell, 1992).The United States at one point sought the assistance of the British Navy to protect its soil from being colonized by other countries.

During this time the United States shifted its interests into trade by opening new markets in other areas while economically and politically the country was doing equally well. Following the civil war the United States, embarked on strategies to recover previously colonized land such that it regained most of the original land (Rothermund, 2006).The United States also backed up Egypt to fight the British and at some point the then president of the United States President Eisenhower threatened to sell United States reserves of the British pound a move that would result in precipitation of the British currency. This was being carried out as a way of forcing the British Empire to give up the Suez Canal. The intervention of the United Nations and the United States led to the most humiliating surrender of the British Empire of the Suez Canal.

This was the only time when Britain was exposed to the public expression of the limited and reduced world stage such that subsequent activities should have to be supported by the United States as it had managed to topple Britain in the global standing. The aftermath of the British encounter in the Suez Canal wounded the pride of Britain to an extent that it withdrew from Suez Canal and from the public activities thus giving way to the emergence of the United States as a superpower (Louis, 2006).

The Second World War and decolonization of the British Empire

There is much debate amongst historians on the impact of the Second World War on the British Empire. For example, there is a claim that prior to World War II, the fall of British Empire was unexpected. Other historians maintain that far from being in decline, British Empire was revitalized during the war and in the post-war reconstruction. According to recent research, without the effects of the Second World War, decolonization would have taken much longer (Wong, 1982).

Historians also disagree on the emphasis that should be placed on the different agencies such as the argument that Britain left the colonies only after being defeated by anti- imperialist and anti-colonialist national movements whereas others claim that the anti imperialist resistance played no role. There are other scholars who ascertain that decolonization was a product of imperial policy in order to avoid confrontation with the “genuine national desire” (Levine, 2007).In this essay it has been argued that decolonization was not a mechanical and inevitable result of the Second World War. The conflict, by limiting material capabilities and jeopardizing the prestige of Britain, had a negative impact on the empire.

Nevertheless, the successful orchestration of colonial war efforts indicated that Britain still had a global role to play (Rothermund, 2006).All the same, the 1939-45 activated other mechanisms that transformed the context of the British Empire and undermined its long-term survival. The emergence of US and Soviet Union as super powers and their pressures on the British Empire; the rise of revolutionary anti-imperialism nationalism in the 1940s and 1950s and the declining economic importance of the so called “ third world should be considered to explain the phenomenon of decolonization (Turpin, 2007).

Similarly, even if the Second World War had not taken place in history, the decolonization of the British Empire would have taken place as it had already begun way before the World War II. The events preceding the war played a greater role such that the war was only a platform through which every piece of the jigsaw fell into place. Consequently, following the various issues which befell the British Empire in its quest for colonies, the eventuality of decolonization was inevitable (Proudman, 2008).


The British Empire decolonization was not as a result of the Second World War but rather as a result of many continuous processes such as bankruptcy and upsurge of anti-imperialist movements which derailed the colonization processes of the British Empire.  Therefore, regardless of the timing of the Second World War, the British Empire would have been subjected to decolonization later but the war helped to speed up the process.


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Louis, Wm. Roger (2006). Ends of British Imperialism: The Scramble for Empire, Suez and Decolonization. I. B. Tauris

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Porter, Andrew (1998). The Nineteenth Century, The Oxford History of the British Empire Volume III. Oxford University Press

Proudman, Mark F.. “Words for Scholars: The Semantics of ‘Imperialism'”. Journal of the Historical Society, September 2008, Vol. 8 Issue 3, p395-433

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Turpin, Colin and Tomkins, Adam (2007). British government and the constitution (6th ed.). Cambridge University Press

Wong, Kwok Chu. (1982).”The Jones Bills 1912-16: A Reappraisal of Filipino Views on Independence,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 13(2): 252-269

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