Great Britain’s acquisition of an extensive empire was the inevitable result of her emergence as a major commercial and industrial power. The Empire was extended and consolidated on the basis of a firm economic hegemony, established early in the nineteenth century, shortly after the last of her rivals had been neutralized after a decades-long military campaign. However, the history of the British Empire in the twentieth century is the history of an imperial system exposed twice in twenty-five years to all the strains and hazards of wars that extended over three continents and left in their wake violent discontinuities not only in the international system but also the internal structure of almost every state that emerged out of the Empire. It was only when the allocation of resources to the colonies surpassed Great Britain’s military, economic and diplomatic arsenal that the empire she had built up over the better part of two centuries collapsed without much resistance.

World War I is seen by many historians as a decisive turning point in Great Britain’s imperial experience, separating an era of rampant success from a period of swift decline and dissolution. After 1914, the ability of the British to control their far-flung empire diminished significantly. With the emergence of full-fledged representative democracy in Great Britain in 1918, it seemed at first that the British people were not as much concerned with allocating resources to defend various British imperial possessions in other parts of the world as with domestic issues that had taken on a new urgency in the wake of World War I. However, British rule was simultaneously and repeatedly challenged in the Middle East, India, and Ireland by nascent nationalist movements that were more successful than their colonial predecessors. Great Britain, despite significant reduction in her economic and military resources, had not lost her “great power complex” and managed to retain her hold on her empire until she had no choice but to allow its dismemberment. The British Empire did not come to an end because the British suddenly lost interest in keeping it, or because there was a sudden recognition of the Enlightenment principles of democratization and the need for progressive policies that would lead to eventual self-government for the colonies. In fact, Great Britain accomplished most by way of diplomacy rather than by use of military force to maintain a preeminent position and influence within her imperial world order that would guarantee her the special international status she had been accustomed to in the past.

This post examines British imperial policy toward Egypt, Iraq, and India from the end of World War I in 1918 until India’s declaration of independence in 1947. In the interests of length, I do not examine anything beyond the rudimentary diplomatic documents available regarding several of the more important conferences, Acts, and Bills, but leave open for further exploration the analysis of the social and cultural ramifications of the topic. In addition, a striking omission has been made regarding the Middle East: the intricacies of the British experience in Palestine and Transjordan have not been included. While the former represents a fundamentally different type of problem, i.e., a struggle to prevent the establishment of Israel in the region of Palestine rather than a struggle against the British mandate administration, the latter case, though it also involves a struggle for independence, is much less remarkable in comparison to the turbulent times seen in Egypt and Iraq in the immediate aftermath of World War I.

Great Britain and the Mandate

The Middle East has been historically important for two reasons. First, the Middle East is located at the intersection of Asia, Africa, and Europe—geography has made it an important corridor between continents. Second, the conquest by Muslims from Central Arabia in the seventh century and their subsequent creation of an Islamic empire marked them as a significant military threat and an “other” in Western discourse. It is the first reason that concerns us. The Arabian Corridor comprises the land masses of Egypt, the Fertile Crescent, Arabia, and the water bodies of the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf. Through this narrow region trade flowed for centuries before the advent of European imperialism. The establishment of the British East India Company1 in 1600 gave the Middle East a new importance that was to make it the site of imperial struggles between the European powers for the next three hundred and fifty years.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, British statesmen had three interests in the Middle East: maintaining the European balance of power and the security of India, and facilitating unrestricted transit through vital sea-lanes.2 The invasion of Egypt in 1882 and the establishment of Egypt as a protectorate when the Ottoman Empire joined World War I on the side of Germany demonstrated Great Britain’s resolve to keep the region free from other foreign influence. As a result, Great Britain emerged from World War I with new imperial gains and contradictory commitments, creating an interesting imperial balancing act between the interests of Great Britain and the Empire on one hand, and British promises of freedom made to Arab nationalists on the other. In a characteristic imperial gesture, Great Britain continued to promise independence and sovereignty to the Arabs, yet continued as well to maintain a superior military force in the region under various pretexts to defend British interests. To a point, the promises appeased the Arabs, especially when they were accompanied by token actions. This was Great Britain’s “empire by appeasement.”

Among the most famous documents demonstrating Great Britain’s duplicity is the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, in which Great Britain and France carved up the Middle East into patches of red and blue. This was done without consulting the Arab leaders, and at the same time as the British were courting Arab nationalists to revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Despite the Arab rulers’ close cooperation with the British during World War I, the representatives of the Arab nationalist movements were not able to make their cases for nation-states of their own at the Paris Peace Conference. Later, the San Remo Conference of 1920 handed Great Britain the mandates of Iraq and Palestine and France, the mandates of Syria and Lebanon. The mandate system rendered the mandatory accountable to the League of Nations for territorial administration and for hastening the mandated territory’s preparation for self-government. The system was ill-received by the Arabs in the Middle East, where the nationalists described it as a return of the old imperialism in a new garb. The mandated territories soon turned into a preferential trade zone for the mandatory powers, and the British Empire returned to the region in full force, in some areas having displaced the former Ottoman Empire.

Opposition to British rule in the region was severe, containing some of the strongest nationalist movements Great Britain faced in the immediate aftermath of World War I. In Egypt, which was not part of the British Mandate, nationalist movements had been present since 1882. Lord Cromer’s governance of Egypt (1883-1907) was more absolute than that of any Mamluk or khedive and his policies caused serious dissent in local Egyptian politics. Cromer prioritized financial solvency for Egypt above other commitments—he serviced the foreign debt, balanced the budget, and focused on developing agriculture and building railroads. However, he neglected the development of local industry and education, and brought in British officials to staff the bureaucracy instead of using educated local elites. This policy prevented local Egyptian civil servants from obtaining meaningful employment and, as in India, created much resentment. During World War I, the British milked Egypt for its manpower and resources. Great Britain’s purchase of cotton and requisitioning of fodder at below-market prices, the forcible recruitment of approximately 500,000 peasants into the Labour and Camel Transport Corps in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, and her use of Egypt as a base and a garrison for British, Australian, and other troops became the main causes of the 1919 Revolution.3 When the war ended and Egyptian nationalists demanded independence, Great Britain refused, and deported prominent members of the leading nationalist party, Al Wafd al Misri, to Malta.

The deportation of the Egyptian leaders triggered widespread student demonstrations and escalated into nationwide strikes by students, government officials, professionals, women, and transport workers. Within a week, all of Egypt was paralyzed by general strikes and rioting. Railroad and telegraph lines were cut, taxi drivers refused to work, lawyers failed to appear for court cases, and demonstrators marched through the streets shouting nationalist slogans and demanding independence. In the ensuing violence, many Egyptians and Europeans were killed or injured when the British attempted to crush the demonstrations by force.

In Iraq under the British Mandate the story was similar to that in Egypt. Upon capturing Baghdad from the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the British had promised to return to Iraq some control of its own affairs. Specifically, the British stressed that this step would pave the way to self-government and end the foreign occupation of Iraq, which had gone on since the latter days of the Abbasid caliphate. The proclamation was similar to the encouragement the British had given to Arab nationalists in Arabia who had sided with the Allies in World War I in expectation of the end of Ottoman rule. The civil government of post-war Iraq was headed by High Commissioner, Sir Percy Cox, and his deputy, Colonel Arnold Talbot Wilson. They governed Iraq with the kind of paternalism that had characterized British rule in India. Impatient to establish an efficient administration, Wilson used experienced Indians to staff subordinate positions within his Iraqi administration—as in Egypt, the exclusion of the local population from administrative posts added to Iraqi discontent. Local outbreaks against British rule had occurred even before the news reached Iraq that the country had been granted only mandate status and not full independence. When news of the mandate reached Iraq in late May 1920, various secret nationalist societies rose up in rebellion against the British. The British were able to suppress the revolt only because of its poor organization and with the help of Royal Air Force bombers and troops from Iran and India. However, despite the eventual suppression of the revolt in Iraq, the process turned out to have been very costly to the British in terms of both manpower and money.

The Iraqi and Egyptian revolts, coming on the heel of one another, caused the British to reevaluate their imperial approach. In response to the Egyptian crisis, the British dispatched Lord Milner to Egypt to “inquire into the causes of Egyptian disorders and to recommend a constitutional disposition of Egypt under the Protectorate.”4 The Milner Report noted that Great Britain’s choices were to either abandon its position in Egypt altogether, or to maintain it by sheer force alone. As the Egyptians did not consider themselves to be a part of the British Empire, it would not be possible to offer them dominion status. Lord Cromer clearly elucidates the British dilemma in Egypt in his book, Modern Egypt: “With the Egyptians, she could only have such artificial bonds of union as those created by British sympathy and beneficent government. Great Britain could never command in Egypt the loyalty felt by a self-governing people for beneficent indigenous rulers. Neither by display of sympathy nor by good government can we forge bonds which will be other than brittle.”5 The best resolution seemed to be to grant Egypt independence and then enter into a treaty with the independent government to retain the apparatus of imperial power on Egyptian territory.

On February 28, 1922, Great Britain unilaterally declared Egyptian independence. However, four matters remained “absolutely reserved to the discretion” of the British government until agreements concerning them could be negotiated: the security of communications of the British Empire in Egypt; the defense of Egypt against all foreign aggressors or interference, direct or indirect; the protection of foreign interests in Egypt and the protection of minorities; and the issue of the Sudan.6 The result of this compromise between strategic and economically pragmatic considerations was a policy of indirect or limited empire, an imperialism-without-burdens that created an imposing an imperial order without undue sacrifice by the British administration.7

Negotiations with the British for a treaty to resolve matters that had been left outstanding since 1922 resumed in 1936. The resulting Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 provided for an Anglo-Egyptian military and defense alliance that allowed Great Britain to maintain a garrison of 10,000 men in the Suez Canal Zone. In addition, Great Britain was left in virtual control of the Sudan, contradicting the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium Agreement of 1899 that provided for joint administration of the Sudan by Egypt and Great Britain. In spite of the agreement, however, real power remained in British hands. Egyptian army units had been withdrawn from the Sudan in the aftermath of the assassination of Sir Lee Stack , the British Governor-General of the Sudan and Commander of the Egyptian Army. Nevertheless, Egyptian nationalists, particularly the Wafd, continued to demand full Egyptian control of the Sudan.

The treaty did provide for the end of the capitulations and the phasing out of mixed courts. The British High Commissioner was redesignated Ambassador to Egypt, and when the British Inspector General of the Egyptian Army retired, an Egyptian officer was appointed to replace him. In spite of these advances, however, the treaty did not give Egypt full independence.

The revolution in Iraq emphasized the explosive nature of Arab nationalism. Great Britain was under tremendous pressure to create a plan that would provide for maximum control over Iraq at the least cost to the British taxpayer. As a result, London replaced the military regime with a provisional Arab government, assisted by British advisers and answerable to the supreme authority of the High Commissioner for Iraq. The new administration provided a channel of communication between the British administration and the restive population and gave Iraqi leaders an opportunity to prepare for eventual self-government. The provisional government was aided by the large number of trained Iraqi administrators who returned home when the French ejected Faisal from Syria.

At the Cairo Conference of 1921, the British set the parameters for Iraqi political life that were to continue until the 1958 revolution. They chose Faisal as Iraq’s first king and established an indigenous Iraqi army. The British saw in Faisal a leader who possessed sufficient nationalist and Islamic credentials to have broad appeal, but who also was vulnerable enough to remain dependent on their support. Faisal traced his descent from the family of the Prophet Muhammad, and his ancestors had held political authority in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina since the tenth century. The British believed that these credentials would satisfy traditional Arab standards of political legitimacy. Moreover, the British believed Faisal would be accepted by the growing Iraqi nationalist movement because of his role in the 1916 revolt against the Turks, his achievements as a leader of the Arab emancipation movement, and his general leadership qualities. To present Faisal as an indigenously chosen leader, a one-question plebiscite was carefully arranged to result in his favor.8

As a counterforce to the nationalistic inclinations of the monarchy and as a means of ensuring the new king’s dependence, the British also cultivated the tribal sheikhs, whose power had been waning since the end of the nineteenth century. While the new king sought to create a national consciousness and to strengthen the institutions of the emerging state, the tribal sheikhs supported a fragmented community and sought to weaken the coercive power of the state. A major goal of British policy was to keep the monarchy stronger than any one tribe but weaker than a coalition of tribes so that British power would be the decisive factor in arbitrating disputes between the two. Ultimately, the British-created Iraqi monarchy suffered from a chronic legitimacy crisis. Despite his Islamic and pan-Arab credentials, Faisal was not an Iraqi, and no matter how effectively he ruled, the Iraqis viewed the monarchy as a British creation.

Another major decision taken at the Cairo Conference concerned the new Anglo-Iraqi Treaty. The twenty-year treaty, which was ratified in October 1922, stated that the Iraqi monarch would heed British advice on all matters affecting British interests and on fiscal policy as long as Iraq was in debt to Great Britain, and that British officials would be appointed to specified posts in eighteen departments to act as advisers and inspectors.9 In effect, the treaty ensured that Iraq would remain politically and economically dependent on Great Britain.

Great Britain extracted concessions from both Egypt and Iraq, with terms unfavorable to the colonies most notably regarding oil, during her years of control over the territories.10 Despite being technically answerable to the League of Nations for the mandates, Great Britain ran her mandates like she ran her Empire. Constitutional reform and other seeming “transfers of power” coexisted alongside further economic exploitation and repression. Power was never meant to be transferred, but only dispersed from the metropole to the mandate so as to appear indigenous in nature.

It was only after the Suez Crisis of 1956 that the British left Egypt permanently. By then, the imperial drive of the British government had faded and intense pressure from the United States and the threat of military intervention from the Soviet Union had made imperial adventures costly in terms of international status and the new Cold War. Notwithstanding the emergence of an independent Iraq in 1932, the British imposition upon Iraq to join the Allies during World War II and the use of Iraq as a strategic base of operations shows that, despite various Acts and treaties, freedom was still a rather subjective term in the British lexicon.11 Clearly, the British Empire did not release any colony unless it was absolutely incapable of holding on to it, and in its arsenal lay not only bayonets, but diplomatic overtures as well.

Stringing along the Raj

India has always enjoyed a privileged position within the British Empire. By far the most populous region of the Empire (approximately four-fifths of the whole), the British monarch, “King” to the rest of the British colonies, was the “Emperor” of India.12 A sentiment attributed to Rudyard Kipling: “The responsibility for governing India has been placed by the inscrutable design of providence upon the shoulders of the British race,” was a sentiment that was shared by the vast majority of people in Great Britain—as a result, Great Britain was reluctant to surrender her control over India. As Winston Churchill stated to the House of Commons in February 1931, “The loss of India would be final and fatal to us. It could not fail to be part of a process that would reduce us to the scale of a minor power.”13 In Freedom at Midnight, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre describe the way in which Lord Mountbatten tried hard not to be assigned the post of Viceroy to India in order not to be the one to grant India her independence.14 Given this overwhelming reluctance to release India and the steadfast beliefs of most British citizens that theirs was a race born to govern and subdue, it is difficult to imagine what factors could have caused the British to give up India after World War I. Despite a severely weakened economy that was being increasingly challenged by American industrial muscle and a battered military, the British sought to preserve their empire by any means possible. As was shown in the Middle Eastern case above, the British in India used all methods of coercion, from armed force to appeasement, to retain their control over the Jewel in the Crown.

The primary goal of British strategy was to retain real power on the subcontinent while surrendering, if necessary, any number of dispensable outworks and fortifications. Conservatives in the government opposed all concessions, including superficial acts such as the Statute of Westminster (1931), which accepted the fact of self-government by dominions. There was uproar in Parliament at the withdrawal of troops from Cairo to the Canal Zone in 1929 for it would strike “an immediate blow to our prestige throughout the East.”15 Great Britain’s India policy—constitutional change at a glacial speed and with divisive intent to further delay independence—was also anathema to conservatives and framed by Conservative Members of Parliament, such as Churchill as a surrender of the dominant British position.

Stanley Baldwin, another Parliamentary Conservative, told the Conservative Party Conference in 1929 that Great Britain’s “progress depends on our capacity to visualise the Empire, the dominions and the colonies alike, as one eternal and indestructible unit for production, for consumption, for distribution.”16 On December 4, 1934, Baldwin assured the Conservative Party Central Union that Great Britain had no plans to renounce power in India. “It is my considered judgment,” Baldwin told his audience, “that you have a good chance of keeping that whole subcontinent of India in the Empire forever.”17 In expressing these views, Baldwin was clearly not alone in Parliament. Samuel Hoare, a prominent Conservative of the time, pushed the Cabinet toward accepting “a semblance of responsible government and yet retain in our hands the realities and verities of British control.”18 Lord Irwin, Viceroy of India from 1926 to 1931, who had caused much consternation in the Conservative Party by openly considering India for dominion status, also supported Hoare’s “semblance of responsible government” proposal. What was really required, he explained to Leopold Amery19, “is some façade which will leave the essential mechanism of power still in our hands while catering for that ‘Indian psychology’…composed in equal parts of vanity, inferiority complex, and fear of real responsibility.”20

The process of “developing” India toward eventual self-government was begun soon after the end of World War I. Although the Government of India Act of 1909—also known as the Morley-Minto Reforms21—gave Indians limited roles in the central and provincial legislatures, known as legislative councils, it was in no way meant to evolve into independent self-government.22India’s important contributions to the victory of the British Empire in World War I stimulated further demands for independence by the Indians. Aware of the rising tide of nationalist sentiments in India, the British government responded with a policy of concessions and repressions. In fact, the much-anticipated political autonomy never materialized and instead of full adult suffrage, only partial constitutional reforms were instituted along with some extremely repressive measures like the Rowlatt Act of 1919, also known as the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crime Act.23 The Act allowed the British occupational authorities to hold Indians without due process for an undefined period and caused a wave of anger in sections of the populace throughout the country. As a result of the riots and other disturbances across the country, the British government formally announced a policy of “increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration and the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire.” Constitutional reforms were embodied in the Government of India Act of 1919—also known as the Montague-Chelmsford Reforms,24 which represented the maximum concessions to Indian nationalist sentiments that the British were prepared to make at that time. The franchise was extended and increased authority was given to central and provincial legislative councils, but the Viceroy remained responsible only to London.

These changes at the provincial level were significant, as the provincial legislative councils contained a considerable majority of elected members. Diarchy was introduced to India, which allowed a joint rule by London and the British Government of India and the nation-building departments of government—agriculture, education, public works, and others—were placed under ministers who were individually responsible to the legislature. However, the departments that made up the “steel frame” of British rule—finance, revenue, and home affairs—were retained by executive councilors who were Englishmen and were responsible to the Governor. However, these reforms also had the effect of dispersing opposition from the center and allowed for a larger number of Indians in the provinces to have a political stake in the Raj, making the growth of opposition very difficult. Despite the fact that a small number of white officials remained to hold the imperial façade in place, steps were taken to repress unconstitutional opposition and to censor subversive influences, such as American democratic republicanism.25

Because of the above, rather contradictory measures, the political picture in India was not at all clear when the mandated decennial review of the Government of India Act of 1919 was undertaken in 1929. Under Section 84 of the Act, a statutory commission was to be appointed at the end of ten years to determine the next stage in the realization of self-rule for India. Prospects for further constitutional reforms spurred greater agitation and a frenzy of demands from different groups. The British government appointed a Commission under Sir John Simon in November 1927, who recommended further constitutional change, but it was not until 1935 that a new Government of India Act was passed. The Commission, which had no Indian members, was sent to investigate India’s Constitutional problems and make recommendations to the government on the future Constitution of India. Not surprisingly, all political parties in India boycotted the Simon Commission and after its dismal failure, the British government asked the Indian politicians to frame a constitution independently. Frederick Smith, the Earl of Birkenhead and Secretary of State for Indian Affairs, asked the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League to draw up a draft of the forthcoming Act, knowing fully that the two major parties of British India had serious disagreements between them. The resultant Nehru Report was not accepted by the Muslim League, causing the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League to part ways in their struggle for independence.26 In this light, it is questionable whether the intent of the British government was to divide and rule as they had always done, or if they were truly committed to the realization of self-government in India.

In the wake of severe protests across India, Lord Irwin promised dominion status to India.27 Great Britain would work with Indian leaders with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India under the aegis of the British Crown.28 With the return of the Labour Party (who had always been sympathetic to Indian goals) to power in 1931, a meaningful opportunity arose for Indian leaders to convince the British on the need for additional reforms that would give Indians more say in the administration of their own country. A series of meetings were held in London between 1930 and 1933 known as the Roundtable Conferences to this end. However, the Conferences ended in failure due to difficulties in calming the fears of the minority communities in India such as the Muslims and Anglo-Indians.

After the failure of the Third Roundtable Conference, the British government formed a Joint Select Committee, presided over by Lord Linlithgow, to formulate the new Government of India Act. The Committee was comprised of sixteen members each from the House of Commons and House of Lords, twenty representatives from British India and seven from the princely states. After a year and a half of deliberations, the Committee finally issued a draft Bill in February 1935, which was ratified and signed by the King in April 1935 as the Government of India Act of 1935.

The principal focus of the Act was provincial autonomy. All subjects were placed under ministers who were individually and collectively responsible to the former legislative councils, which were renamed “legislative assemblies.” Almost all provincial Assembly Members were elected, with the exception of a few special and otherwise under-represented groups. After the elections held later that year, provincial Chief Ministers and Cabinets took office, although the Governors still retained limited “emergency powers.” These special powers made a mockery of responsible government and true provincial autonomy. In essence, the Act provided for the establishment of diarchy at the federal level despite its failure at the provincial level, as well as providing for a local parliamentary system that included the princes. Unfortunately, the princes refused to join a system that might force them to accept decisions made by elected politicians, derailing the process of the establishment of a democratic system with limited powers in India. As the provisions of the Act establishing the Federal Government were not to go into operation until a specified number of state rulers had signed the Instruments of Accession, the Central Government continued to function in accordance with the 1919 Act and only the part of the 1935 Act dealing with the provincial governments went into operation.

Provincial elections as stipulated by the Government of India Act of 1935 were held in 1937. As expected, the Indian National Congress won an overwhelming majority of seats in the legislative assemblies, and for a brief moment, there was the appearance of true self-government despite the fact that the leaders of the Indian structures of government were invariably British officials. The falseness of the system was clearly demonstrated with the outbreak of World War II when the British government in London declared war on Germany on India’s behalf without consulting the elected Indian representatives. However, the Indians were not averse to fighting with the British against Germany, but demanded full freedom after the war in recognition of their efforts. When the British refused, the members of the Congress Party resigned from their posts. In August 1940, with the tide of the war very much against Great Britain, Lord Linlithgow, now Viceroy of India, made the Indian National Congress the offer of dominion status at the end of the war and the immediate setting up of a provisional National Government. This was refused, and in 1942, the British assigned Sir Stafford Cripps to find common cause with the Indians. The Cripps Proposals came up with almost the same results as the August 1940 offer, which was still not acceptable to the Indian National Congress since it only reinforced the Indian belief that the British would never part with power willingly.29 In fact, Great Britain still wished to retain a federal India within the Commonwealth, maintain Indian reliance on British military leadership, ensure Indian military support and facilities for British operations in Southeast Asia, and retain India’s continued membership in the sterling bloc. A flurry of further attempts were made to keep India within the Empire, but with the end of the Second World War, Great Britain was broken. Great Britain did not have the divisions to govern India by force, and even if she had the will to do so, it would have involved defying international opinion and contradicting the mass of British promises accumulated since World War I. Domestic opposition to giving up India was silenced when Clement Attlee asked for a practical alternative, and the Indian Independence Act was signed in July 1947.30 On August 15, 1947, India became independent.

Not surprisingly, the British Empire’s economic interests paralleled its political interests. Economically, Great Britain, though battered, was not as devastated by World War I as is customarily thought.31 The resources at Great Britain’s disposal were certainly less plentiful after 1918, but she still remained a long way ahead of her European rivals while the United States, her only real competitor in economic and military affairs, was only beginning to emerge as a world power.

The needs of war hit the national economy badly, but despite the financial crises of the interwar period, Great Britain managed to regain prewar levels of output in the early to mid 1920s—in fact, the British economy grew consistently at an average rate of more than two percent per annum until the late 1930s, a rate in excess of that achieved between 1870 and 1913.32 Despite a slackening of the exports market, domestic consumption rose rapidly to compensate.33 To avoid the pitfalls of fluctuating exchange rates, especially after Great Britain de-linked her currency from the gold standard, the British forced India early in the 1920s into the sterling bloc in hopes of weaning Indian industrialists away from their support of Indian nationalism by offering them a stake in the Raj. The limited constitutional reforms examined above were introduced with the aim of controlling and redirecting local opposition. In fact, India’s political advancement was restrained by the fear that a transfer of power would enable an independent Indian government to renege on its financial obligations. In the embattled commercial world of the 1930s, India remained a sizeable market for British goods, and it was not one to be given up lightly. However, when Great Britain decided to rearm in the late 1930s, vast quantities of material supplies had to be imported from India, which expenses were settled by paper credits held as sterling balances by London; by 1945, India’s balances amounted to approximately £1,300 million.34 When in 1947, India had become one of Great Britain’s largest creditors instead of a debtor, Great Britain finally began to see the wisdom of supporting the Indian nationalist movement. In this sense, it can be argued that another impediment to Indian independence was India’s indebtedness to Great Britain, since fear of debt repudiation caused the Government of India Acts to be hedged with restrictions. When World War II removed the financial and monetary imperatives that had underpinned the imperial mission, great Britain was to follow suit and leave India.


On November 10, 1942, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons, “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.”35 Five years earlier George Orwell, very much a man of the ‘Left’, had reflected, “And at the bottom of his heart, no Englishman…does want [the Empire] to disintegrate.”36

Great Britain, despite the ravaging effects of World War I upon her economy and military might, still retained the burden of her empire in 1918. In the immediate aftermath of World War I, the British directors of imperial policy grappled with a variety of problems that tested some of their most fundamental assumptions and expectations about Great Britain’s imperial power. In Egypt, in Iraq, in India, and in countless other locales, they faced challenges to British authority that were longer lasting and more widely supported than any other previous expression of dissidence. In addition, in Egypt and Iraq as well as in India, the ability of the British administration to maintain order and to obtain the collaboration of the local population in the continuation of British supremacy was called into question by the success of local political leaders in rallying mass support against cooperation with the institutions of British power. Civil disobedience in India, disorder and non-cooperation in Egypt, and open insurrection in Iraq came as warnings that the permanence of British hegemony could not be taken for granted. “Imperialism as it was known in the nineteenth century is no longer possible,” remarked Leonard Woolf in 1928.37 If Great Britain was to retain any influence over her colonies, or maintain some shred of authority over their affairs, a fresh basis for the exercise of hegemony would have to be found. “The old type of imperial rule was dying in India and decomposing in Egypt.”38

British reaction to the growth of post-war nationalist movements within her possessions all assumed the necessity of preserving the Empire. But they also reflected a general recognition that old objects must be served by new methods. The shift from nineteenth-century reliance on cannons and bayonets to conquer and suppress turned to a mild and deceptive appeasement of local interests to calm the nationalist sentiment. After 1918, Great Britain could ill-afford the cost of an expensive military campaign (as in Iraq) to suppress dissatisfied colonial rebels. It served British interests to allow the natives to have a semblance of power if it would keep them quiet and allow Great Britain to run the Empire smoothly and efficiently.

In India, as in the Middle East, the British pursued this policy of empire by appeasement, allowing the local government to take responsibility for the most trivial and mundane of tasks while the real power of governance remained in British hands. It was only when it became impossible for the British to financially and militarily support the burden of empire that they gave it up. In addition, years of accumulated promises had finally turned on them in the form of powerful nationalist movements that could no longer be denied. Weakened by two catastrophic wars within thirty years that had seen the end of four old empires, and with the emergence of a new global order, Great Britain had no choice but to watch as her cherished empire dissolved rapidly. A second-rate power by 1948, Great Britain was in no shape to do anything other than to support the fundamental foreign policy goals of a newer empire, the United States. However, with the British as with all empires, the desire to command and control remained strong until the end.

[1] Formally known as The Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies

[2] A large part of the world had to be conquered for the security of India!

[3] Darwin, John. Britain, Egypt, and the Middle East: Imperial Policy in the Aftermath of War, 1918-1922. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981. Page 73.

[4] Fitzsimons, Matthew A. Empire by Treaty. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1964. Page 24.

[5] Marlowe, John. A History of Modern Egypt and Anglo-Egyptian Relations, 1800 – 1953. New York: Praeger, 1954. Page 253.

[6] Fitzsimons, Matthew A. Empire by Treaty. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1964. Page 29.

[7] Hourani, Albert. “The Anglo-Egyptian Agreement: Some Causes and Implications,” The Middle East Journal, IX, 1955. Pages 242 – 247.

[8] Darwin, John. Britain, Egypt, and the Middle East: Imperial Policy in the Aftermath of War, 1918-1922. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981. Page 220.

[9] Glubb, John. Britain and the Arabs: A Study of Fifty Years, 1908 to 1958. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1959. Page 129.

[10] Beginning in 1923, British and Iraqi negotiators held acrimonious discussions over the new oil concession. The major obstacle was Iraq’s insistence on a 20 percent equity participation in the company. This figure had been included in the original Turkish Petroleum Company concession to the Turks and had been agreed upon at San Remo for the Iraqis. In the end, despite strong nationalist sentiments against the concession agreement, the Iraqi negotiators acquiesced to it. The League of Nations was soon to vote on the disposition of Mosul, and the Iraqis feared that, without British support, Iraq would lose the area to Turkey. In 1925 the League of Nations decided that Mosul Province would be considered a part of Iraq, but it also suggested that the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty be extended from four to twenty-five years as a protection for the Kurdish minority.

[11] Iraqi refusal to provide reinforcements resulted in the British landing of troops in Basra through the Persian Gulf in 1941. The Iraqi Army was defeated, and Britain occupied Iraq as it had many years ago.

[12] After the third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885, Burma was annexed to British India, which then comprised of present day India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. This conglomeration of states considered British India until 1937 when Britain separated Burma from the rest of British India.

[13] Collins, Larry, Dominique Lapierre. Freedom at Midnight. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975.

[14] Collins, Larry, Dominique Lapierre. Freedom at Midnight. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975. Pages 1 – 10.

[15] Callaghan, John. Great Power Complex: British Imperialism, International Crises, and National Decline, 1914-51. London; Chicago, Illinois: Pluto Press, 1997. Page 59.

[16] Chisholm, Anne, Michael Davie. Lord Beaverbrook: A Life. 1st American edition. New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1993. Page 288.

[17] Dutt, RP. India Today. London, 1940. Page 439.

[18] Ponting, Clive. Churchill. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994. Page 341.

[19] Leopold S. Amery was a British Conservative statesman whose career in Parliament (1911-45) spanned the major events in the British Empire for a half-century. He was a considerable scholar and was regarded as the chief imperial theorist of the time period. From 1916-1918 he served as under-secretary to Prime Minister Lloyd George’s war cabinet, and helped draft the Balfour Declaration.

[20] Amery, Leo. The Empire at Bay: The Leo Amery Diaries 1929-1955. Ed. J.Barnes, D.Nicolson. London: Hutchinson, 1988. Page 48.

[21] John Morley was the secretary of state for India, and Gilbert Elliot, fourth earl of Minto, was the Viceroy

[22] Indians had previously been appointed to legislative councils, but after the reforms some were elected to them. At the centre, the majority of council members continued to be government-appointed officials, and the Viceroy was in no way responsible to the legislature. At the provincial level, the elected members, together with unofficial appointees, outnumbered the appointed officials, but responsibility of the governor to the legislature was not contemplated. Morley made it clear in introducing the legislation to the British Parliament that parliamentary self-government was not the goal of the British government.

[23] Based on the recommendations of Justice Rowlatt, chairman of the committee appointed for curbing seditious movements in India, the Rowlatt Act gave unbridled powers to the government to arrest and imprison suspects without trial and crushed other civil liberties. It was opposed by every Indian member of the Central Legislative Council. The Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre of 1919 in Amritsar is a prime example of simmering tensions caused by the Act. Sir Michael O’Duiyer, a British General, ordered his troops to open fire on a crowd of men, women, and children who were unaware of the imposition of martial law and hence the banning of all public meetings. This resulted in the deaths of 379 people and 1,200 were wounded.

[24] Edwin Samuel Montague was Great Britain’s Secretary of State for India, and the Marquis of Chelmsford was the Viceroy

[25] The autobiography of Guiseppe Mazzini was banned in India shortly after it had been translated into an Indian language and published in 1907.

[26] The Indian National Congress and the Muslim League had cooperated with each other since the Delhi Muslim Proposals of 1927. The submission of the Nehru Report for consideration by the British government broke this alliance. The Nehru Report was summarily dismissed by the British, and the goal of the Indian leaders became full independence, not just a dominion status.

[27] The Civil Disobedience Movement called by Mohandas Gandhi at the failure of the Simon Commission, though not violent, paralysed British rule in India. Millions of workers would refuse to go to work and would instead peacefully march in the streets.

[28] According to Lord Balfour’s definition of a dominion, dominions were “autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate to one another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.” This definition provides for autonomy, but not for independence. Furthermore, the British Parliament retained the right to legislate on behalf of the dominions and for the King to veto a Bill passed by a Dominion Legislature. – Douglas, Roy. Liquidation of Empire: The Decline of the British Empire Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2002. Page 14.

[29] Fischer, Louis. Empire. New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pierce. 1943. Page 55.

[30] Callaghan, John. Great Power Complex: British Imperialism, International Crises, and National Decline, 1914-51. London; Chicago, Illinois: Pluto Press, 1997. Page 103.

[31] Cain, P.J., A.G. Hopkins. British Imperialism: Innovation and Expansion, 1688-1914. London; New York: Longman, 1993.

[32] Matthews, RCO, CH Feinstein, JC Odling-Smee. British Economic Growth, 1856 – 1973. Oxford, 1982. Page 22, Table 2.1.

[33] Thomas, WA. The Finance of British Industry. London, 1978. Page 27, Table 2.1

[34] Cain, P.J., A.G. Hopkins. British Imperialism: Crisis and Deconstruction, 1914-1990. London; New York: Longman, 1993. Page 196.

[35] Garton Ash, Timothy.The Magic Lantern. New York: Vintage Books,1990.Page 133.

[36] Orwell, George. The Road to Wigan Pier. [1st American ed.] New York: Harcourt, Brace 1958. Page 148.

[37] Woolf, Leonard. Imperialism and Civilisation. London, L. and Virginia Woolf, 1928. Page 13.

[38] Darwin, John. Britain, Egypt, and the Middle East: Imperial Policy in the Aftermath of War, 1918-1922. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981. Page 267.

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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