The Labour Government
On 26 July 1945, just over eleven weeks after the celebrations of Allied victory in Europe, the British general election results were announced: Clement Attlee’s Labour Party had won by a landslide. The transition of power took place while Churchill was at the Potsdam Conference to negotiate the post-war world order with Stalin and the new US president, Harry S. Truman. The election results caused much concern both in the Soviet Union—Molotov called Prime Minister Attlee and his new secretary of state for foreign affairs, Ernest Bevin, ‘old fashioned imperialists’— and the US, which distrusted Labour’s socialism.48
Despite campaign assertions that only a socialist government could maintain friendly relations with the Soviets, the new Labour government initially saw ‘strong continuity’ with its predecessor (i.e. Churchill’s wartime coalition) in foreign policy, especially regarding the Soviet Union. And despite calls from Attlee and Hugh Dalton, the new chancellor of the exchequer, to consolidate the empire, the same was ultimately true for imperial policy, although at first there was disagreement on how best to utilize the empire against Soviet expansionism. For the ‘master- pragmatist’ Attlee and the cost-cutting Dalton, the key was to concentrate on linking together Western Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, North America, and Australasia. Shedding the mere ‘outposts’ in the Mediterranean and Middle East, Attlee reasoned, would not only cut costs to the economy and prestige but also create a buffer zone, placing a ‘wide glacis of desert and Arabs between ourselves and the Russians’.49
Attlee and Dalton, however, faced a powerful coalition in Bevin, the chiefs of staff, and the civil servants in the Foreign and Colonial Offices, all of whom linked Britain’s power (including its privileged relationship with the US) to Britain’s global imperial presence. Moreover, it was argued, a retreat from the Middle East would leave the oil-rich region for the Soviets—as ‘the bear could not resist pushing its paw into soft places’— as well as ‘signal to Russia, America, and the Commonwealth Britain’s “abdication as a world power”’.50 As Sir Oliver Harvey, a deputy undersecretary of state in the Foreign Office, put it in March 1946, Britain’s
Mediterranean position is vital to our position as a great power because it is the area through which we bring influence to bear on the soft underbelly of France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey and southern Europe. Without our physical presence these states would fall, like Eastern Europe, under the totalitarian yoke. The Mediterranean would become a second Black Sea and Russian influence would spread into Africa. These are far weightier reasons than the route to India argument for making sacrifices to hold the Mediterranean.51
After eighteen months of debate, Attlee acquiesced (see Chap. 6). Thus despite fears of imperial overreach, Labour’s first year in power saw little change from the colonialism of its recent predecessors.52 This all changed in the context of 1946, when international anti-colonialism coalesced with the overt breakdown of Allied cooperation, which will be the subject of Part II.
Before then, however, Hong Kong and Cyprus had two very different experiences during and immediately after the Second World War. British policy-makers could only watch from afar, as the CCP grew deep socioeconomic roots in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong. Once the British returned, far more immediate concerns demanded their attention, as the war and occupation had upended the economy, population, and infrastructure— not to mention rising tensions across the border which threatened to engulf the colony. In Cyprus, on the other hand, Britain’s uninterrupted rule meant that the Cypriot government was able to respond immediately to political developments, specifically AKEL’s sociopolitical rise. Despite two dissimilar narratives between 1939 and 1946, local communists in both colonies created impressive organizations, which, with rising Cold War tensions after 1946, became the targets of Britain’s concerted efforts to resist communist imperialism in and at the expense of its empire and great power status.