Imperial Endgame: Britain’s Dirty Wars and the End of Empire

Imperial Endgame: Britain’s Dirty Wars and the End of Empire
Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon
Palgrave Macmillan  457pp  £16.99

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It’s all coming out now: the violence and atrocities that accompanied Britain’s decolonisation after the Second World War. Not everywhere, but in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden in particular, which are the colonies (and one mandated territory) Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon has chosen to write about here.

It’s a very good, detailed account from a high politics and strategy viewpoint, sticking closely to official, and some private, documentary sources. It reads rather relentlessly, narrative, with little general context and organised in long chapters barely broken up, even when there is a change of subject. It also only effectively covers the years 1945-56, apart from a few loose ends tied up (or left to dangle, in the case of Aden) in a brief ‘Epilogue’. Most historians would count Suez as only the beginning of the ‘Endgame’. Even for that brief period much is omitted. Christopher Bayly’s ‘forgotten armies’ in Burma and elsewhere appear still to be forgotten; and for someone who criticises John Darwin for devoting only four pages to Malaya in his short book on decolonisation, it seems a bit odd to give only three to India in this much longer one. The reason is probably that Grob-Fitzgibbon is chiefly interested in counter-insurgency, which isn’t what the problems in India were mainly about. The bibliography of secondary works is rather thin. (It doesn’t include Bayly.) At least one of the books listed he seems not to have read, because he cites it as espousing a view it expressly rejects. (It is one of mine and an example, I think, of judging a work by its title alone.) But for those who want a well-researched, reliable and intrinsically fascinating account of Britain’s late colonial wars in those five places, this is the book for them.

The general line is that British decolonisation policy was far more rational and deliberate than has previously been thought, the ‘conventional wisdom’ being that it merely consisted of ‘ad hoc and unco-ordinated reaction[s] to immediate events on the ground’. ‘I reveal’, Grob-Fitzgibbon claims, portentously, ‘that the policy developed by the government was in fact one carefully calculated to allow colonisation to occur on British terms’ and in particular to ‘guide as much of the formal empire into the British Commonwealth and, as such, into the British and American sphere of influence during the Cold War.’  This is OK but hardly new: some of the works he omits from his bibliography have been arguing that for some time. In fact this view seems to be undermined by much of his own evidence, which paints a picture of enormous confusion and reactive ad hoc-ery, generally admitted by the leading actors, with little ‘careful calculation’ involved. The proof of the pudding is meant to be the adhesion of most of Britain’s ex-colonies to the Commonwealth after independence, with only one (Aden) joining the Soviet side, which should however probably be credited to enlightened ad hoc-ery (giving in just in time) rather than to any carefully laid plan.

One of the most valuable aspects of this book is its retailing of the atrocious methods Britain often resorted to in order to attempt to keep ‘order’ in the face of all these postwar challenges to its colonial rule. Grob-Fitzgibbon’s take on this is somewhat unusual. Britain’s aim (the ‘carefully-calculated policy’) was to give the benefits of Western democracy to her colonies. Only when her subjects ‘were unwilling to accept this Western democratic mantle’ did she ‘deploy [her] security forces to ruthlessly quell all ... opposition’. The ‘clear conclusion to be drawn’ from this is that ‘liberal imperialism can only be sustained by illiberal dirty wars.’ Is he trying to tell us something today?

Bernard Porter is the author of Critics of Empire: British Radicals and the Imperial Challenge (I.B. Tauris, 2007).

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