The Second World War

The Second World War was ‘a global struggle, and particularly [...] an imperial one’, in which Britain ‘fought alongside imperial allies for imperial reasons’. Indeed, the battlefields of the Second World War were dictated by Britain’s imperial position, ‘whether on the sea routes of the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, in the skies above Iraq and Malta, the deserts of North Africa, the mountains of Abyssinia and north-east India, or the jungles of Borneo, Burma and Malaya’.28 The British Empire had a significant impact on how, where, and why the Second World War was fought, and the reverse was also true; the Second World War had a significant impact on how, where, and why the British Empire was administered.

In fact, the Second World War, while initially limiting civil funding, soon provided MacDonald with enough political evidence to push his colonial development and welfare reforms through the Cabinet and the Treasury. MacDonald argued that greater funding of colonial social services was necessary not only on its own merit but also, more importantly to the Treasury, to foster colonial loyalty (in other words, to avoid costly colonial disturbances), to counter propaganda from enemy countries, and to defend the administration of the empire from any future criticism in the post-war period.29 This would become important after 1945, when the perceived communist challenge to British colonialism focused largely on the latter’s repressive nature. British policy-makers considered development and welfare to be essential weapons in the imperial Cold War.

Nevertheless, the Second World War continued to reveal the fragility of the British imperial system, particularly regarding ‘the fundamental bulwark of local political cooperation and popular acquiescence on which the Empire had come to rest’. The war brought colonial populations ‘into closer contact than ever before with the intrusive power of a modern imperial state’. The Second World War also destroyed the myths of white prestige and British invincibility, especially through Britain’s imperial losses in Southeast Asia.30 By 1942, there were defections of Indian, Burmese, Gurkha, and Tamil troops, and the Arabs of Britain’s informal empire in the Middle East ‘enjoyed seeing their “haughty governess” fighting for survival’.31

Colonial development and welfare was thus only part of the solution. To encourage the colonial war effort and to counter Soviet and American anticolonialism, the Colonial office and colonial governments across the empire implemented a number of more liberal policies.32 In Cyprus, Governor Sir William Denis Battershill decriminalized political parties and allowed municipal elections, thereby opening the door for AKEL.33 For Japanese- occupied Hong Kong, however, the consequences were far greater.

While there had been considerable pressure from the KMT, the US, and even within the British government for the return of Hong Kong to China, Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s defiance—that ‘Hongkong [sic] will be eliminated from the British Empire only over my dead body!’—was supported by the likes of Anthony Eden (the secretary of state for foreign affairs) and Oliver Stanley (the secretary of state for the colonies). By mid- 1942, the Colonial and Foreign Offices were united ‘to blunt American plans to internationalize and eventually “liquidate” the British empire [sic] after the war’. This included Hong Kong, despite the potential damage to Britain’s relations with China and the US.34 The Colonial Office’s Hong Kong Planning Unit, which was established in 1943 to consider Hong Kong’s future status and the practical challenges of re-establishing civil government, by 1945 began ‘to explore officially the possibility of liberalizing the constitution of Hong Kong’.35

By July 1943, post-war planning began in earnest, and Stanley announced a new direction for British colonial policy, which ‘pledged to guide Colonial people along the road to self-government within the framework of the British Empire’.36 This road was not intended to be a straight and fast highway to independence, nor was every colony to be sent down it. Despite initial constitutional moves in Hong Kong and Cyprus after the war, as we will see, both soon reverted to colonies of occupation.

While the Colonial Office concerned itself with post-war plans, Churchill, Eden, and the chiefs of staff were becoming increasingly suspicious of Soviet activities. The chiefs wrote several reports on post-war long-term security risks posed by the Soviet Union, especially if, for whatever reason, it became allied with Germany.37 Several events spurred British suspicions of a revived Soviet imperialism. Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet minister of foreign affairs, rejected Eden’s proposal at the Third Moscow Conference in October 1943 to reinstate traditional European spheres of influence, which was interpreted by the British Foreign Office and others as the Soviet intention to claim complete influence in Eastern Europe. It was also feared that Soviet support for the newly formed Italian government under Pietro Badoglio would eventually lead to a communist takeover.38

In April 1944, the Soviet Union started to criticize British strategies in Greece and to support overtly the National Liberation Front, the ostensible military arm of the anti-monarchist Communist Party of Greece (KKE). Britain made enormous investments to secure Greece (including about 30,000 war causalities) and to reinstall the monarchical government- in-exile. Britain also supported the KKE’s National Liberation Front, as the only organized resistance to Nazi occupation; however, once the war turned in the Allies’ favour and once Moscow gave its support to the Greek communists, the British pulled theirs, in order to neutralize Soviet antiimperial criticism as well as the KKE’s potential parliamentary success.39

Combined with the Red Army’s invasion of Romania on 2 April, Soviet foreign policy demonstrated, as Eden put it, that ‘Russia has vast aims and that these may include the domination of Eastern Europe and even the Mediterranean and the “communizing” of much that remains’.40 This assessment underpinned Churchill’s ‘percentages agreement’ with Stalin at the Fourth Moscow Conference in October, by which the former effectively secured British interests in Greece (and thereby British supremacy in the Mediterranean) while sacrificing very little in Eastern European territories in which Soviet influence was already entrenched.41

In the midst of this military and diplomatic manoeuvring, Bevin and the Foreign Office believed that Cyprus was an obstacle to a strong and friendly Greece and, in early September 1945, proposed that the island might be handed over, perhaps in exchange for the retention of military bases. Weeks later, however, Bevin acquiesced to the arguments of the chiefs of staff and the Colonial Office, especially that an agreement with the current Greek government did not guarantee ‘that some future Greek Government with communistic leanings might extend the offer of facilities to the Russians’.42 Moreover, if there was to be a war with Russia, according to the chiefs of staff, the Middle East provided ‘the only air bases from which effective offensive action can be undertaken against the important Russian industrial and oil-producing areas’.43 The Middle East was ‘a region of life-and-death consequence for Britain and the British Empire’, given its position in British imperial communication, trade, oil supply, and reputation. Cyprus, being the only territory in the region over which Britain retained full sovereignty, was therefore considered to be absolutely invaluable (if only in potentialities).44

In July, Orme Sargent, the deputy under-secretary of state in the Foreign Office, wrote his famous memorandum, ‘Stocktaking on VE Day’, in which he urged the British government to assume leadership of Western Europe which, in collaboration with the empire and Commonwealth, would strengthen Britain’s economy, military, and, thereby, great power status.45 Sargent outlined that Britain should enlist ‘France and the lesser Western European powers, and, of course, also the Dominions, as collaborators with us in this tripartite system. Only so shall we be able, in the long run, to compel our two big partners [i.e. the US and USSR] to treat us as an equal.’ Otherwise, Sargent warned, Britain ‘and the lesser colonial Powers will be ignored by both Russia and the United States [...] and the smaller Powers will gravitate to the United States’.46

Thus by the time of the Potsdam Conference in July-August 1945, British policy had emerged in its ‘embryonic’ stage. Soviet assertions (including for naval bases in the Straits and trusteeship over Tripolitania) as well as Soviet claims to territory in Turkey (which Moscow attempted to negotiate bilaterally with Ankara) were viewed in London as direct challenges to Britain’s empire (both formal and informal) in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Britain’s foreign policy response, as scholars have identified, was simple: to protect Britain’s imperial and great power position ‘by a policy of no concessions to Russian wishes, whether they affected Britain’s vital interests or not, and if necessary encourage US support for the defence of those interests where they were threatened by the Soviet Union’.47

Britain’s colonial policy response, however, was less straightforward. As we will see, colonial policy-makers were determined to resist communist imperialism in the British Empire and similarly refused concessions to colonial communist parties. However, with the rise of nationalist movements as well as international anti-colonialism, the British did have to concede some ground regarding the nature of colonial rule and the prospects of self-government. British concessions were meant to pacify colonial discontent and international criticism as well as to support moderates with whom the British could work, to the exclusion of communists.

 
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