The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire by Peter Clarke, Penguin 2007.
The author of this outstanding study, Peter Clarke, reckons he was conceived around the time of Pearl Harbour in 1941, making him now 69. His earliest memory with links to the British Empire is the London VE-day parade in 1945 when forces of the member countries of the Empire marched together along with American, French and Soviet bands. The country list is impressive including (original names used here) the Dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand followed by South Africa, Southern Rhodesia and Newfoundland, then India and Burma, from Africa, Nigeria, Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, Nyasaland, Northern Rhodesia, Zanzibar and British Somaliland, Aden, Bermuda, Ceylon, Cyprus, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Malaya, eight islands of the West Indies, Fiji, Tonga, the British Solomon Islands, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Mauritius, North Borneo, Labuan, Sarawak, Palestine, St Helena, the Seychelles, Basutoland, Bechuanaland, Swaziland and Malta.
Today, the territorial remnants of the British Empire are a collection of islands, rocks and a base in Cyprus. The fourteen territories are “Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Antarctic Territory, the British Indian Ocean Territory, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the Pitcairn Islands, South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, and the Sovereign Base Areas on Cyprus. Claims in Antarctica, including that of Britain, are not recognised by all nations. Collectively these territories encompass an approximate land area of 667,018 square miles and a population of approximately 260,000 people (Wikipedia).” Today contrasts with the familiar statement referring to 1922 that “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” which at its peak included 458 million people, 25% of the world’s population, and 13 million square miles, nearly one quarter of the world’s land area in contrast with 1.3% today.
Aside from these fourteen territories there exists an intergovernmental organisation, The Commonwealth, formerly The British Commonwealth, made up of 54 independent member states, all but two of which, Madagascar and Rwanda, were formerly part of the British Empire. The Commonwealth Games is the organization’s most visible activity. The 54 subscribe to a framework of common values and goals including democracy, human rights, good governance, the rule of law, individual liberty, egalitarianism, free trade, multilateralism and world peace. The members have a combined population of 2.1 billion people, about a third of the world’s population, of which 1.2 billion live in India and 94% live in Asia and Africa combined. After India, the next-largest Commonwealth countries by population are Pakistan (176 million), Bangladesh (156 million), Nigeria (154 million), the United Kingdom (61 million) and South Africa (49 million). Nauru is the smallest member, with about 10,000 people. These countries view themselves as sovereign states which for a variety of reasons have chosen to join the Commonwealth club.
Today, the land area of the Commonwealth is 21% of the total world land area. The three largest nations by area are Canada at (3,900,000 sq mi), Australia (2,970,000 sq mi), and India (1,270,000 sq mi). The combined GDP of Commonwealth members (measured in purchasing power parity) is $10.6 trillion, 66% of which is accounted for by India, UK, Canada and Australia (Wikipedia).
Based on land area and population the British Empire has shrunk since the 1920s and especially since the end of WW2 when first India and Pakistan received their independence, followed by Burma and Palestine, and many others after 1947. Peter Clarke has chosen to focus on the 1000 day period from September 1944 to September 1947. This covers momentous events. D-Day had occurred in June 1944 and the allies were advancing in Western Europe; a peace treaty was signed in Europe in 1945; the war in the Pacific ended with the dropping of the atomic bombs in 1945 followed by the surrender of the Japan.
During this time Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met several times, including in Potsdam and Yalta, to negotiate their spheres of influence and occupation especially in Europe, as well as to decide on membership and voting in the proposed United Nations organization. For example, the bargaining lead the US receiving one UN vote, the USSR three including Belarus and the Ukraine, and the UK six with Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa. The USSR would have liked the Empire to be considered as one voting entity and used this to negotiate votes given to two states of the USSR.
The UK’s global influence continued to decline not only as member countries of the Empire gained independence, but due to the debts which the UK had incurred during the war. At first it had fought alone against Germany but was financed in large part by Lend-Lease arrangements and loans from the US, both before and after the US entered the war subsequent to the Pearl Harbour attack in December 1941. At this time Germany somewhat surprisingly declared war on the US. In fact, even in the early wartime period the UK was not alone as the countries of the Empire participated in the fighting with Germany, for example, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and other member countries. While the Empire was of considerable importance to the UK at this time, it became less so when Germany attacked the USSR and the US joined the allies. The war then had three allied armies with the military contribution of the USSR and the US becoming greater than that of the UK. The later fighting in the Pacific was undertaken almost solely by the US against Japan.
Two things took place during last 1000 days. The Empire was dissolving due both to pressures by countries for political independence, and to the Empire’s contribution to the war effort which declined relative to that of the US and USSR. In addition, UK influence was weakened by having to mortgage its future recovery due to loans especially those made by the US, Canada and India. By the end of the 1000 days, major personalities had also changed. In 1945, Roosevelt died and Churchill was defeated in the general election of 1945. A Labour government came to power in the UK with Clement Attlee as prime minister and Ernest Bevin as foreign secretary. Labour policy was more supportive in granting independence and dissolving the formal imperial connections, although all sides wanted to retain preferential tariff arrangements. Opposed to these was the US which while favouring political independence wanted to end the preferential tariffs.
Peter Clarke notes that research for the book allowed him to learn more about the history that framed his life. I had the same experience when reading his carefully organised and documented study. I was born in the UK six years earlier and was eleven at the end of the 1000 days. I recall the war reasonably clearly, attended the VE-Day celebrations in London and the later VJ-Day celebrations. The classrooms where I went to school had maps of the world generously coloured in red to denote countries of the Empire, even after some had received independence. I have a map on my wall showing the geographical extent of the Empire from 1603 to 1905. With time, the area shaded red increases. As a child, my reading included Rudyard Kipling, John Buchan and the empire stories by G.A.Henty, all of whom wrote favourably about England’s imperial connections.
Taught in English schools, my impression was that the UK had won the war, with the assistance of its allies. Little attention was given to the fact that Soviet contribution to winning the war was much greater in absolute and relative terms measured by military and civilian deaths. If noted, it was accompanied by the fact that Britain stood alone at the start of the war when the Soviet Union was allied with Germany and before the US entered the fray. The UK was deemed to have fought in the early years on behalf of the US and other countries and thus it was argued could reasonably expect to forego repaying its debts to the US, Canada and India. The lenders had different views.
The estimates of country losses – total military and civilian deaths and as a percentage of country population in 1939 – show the absolute and relative contributions of the three allies and their main opponents:
UK 450,900 and 0.9%
US 418,500 and 0.3%
USSR 23,400,000 and 13.9%
Japan 3,120,000 and 4.4%
Germany 8,680,000 and 10.0%
For Canada, the respective figures were 45,400 and 0.4%. The USSR made by far the largest absolute and relative contribution among the allied forces. These figures are reported in Wikipedia showing how the estimates are calculated (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties).
There are a number of questions about the British Empire which historians examine: what factors lead to the creation and expansion of the Empire; what caused it to decline; what was its impact in social, political and economic terms? Clarke’s book places a magnifying glass over 1000 days of the second question, namely its decline. In the process he provides background to political and economic events of today. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Israel and neighbouring countries of the former Palestine, Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Singapore, Hong Kong, South Africa and countries in west and east Africa are all in today’s news for different reasons, some empire related. For example, Hong Kong, which was turned over to China in 1997, has today a special economic and political relationship with China which allows it to have a flourishing economy and more political freedom than found on the mainland. Office space in Hong Kong per square metre is $1750, the highest in the world, in contrast to New York at $750 and Toronto at $500 (Economist Sept. 3, 2011, 93).
While parts of the former empire get media attention today because of political and economic problems, there are other parts such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa which have developed flourishing societies, albeit with particular issues which need to be addressed. Seldom is there discussion of the USA as being part of the former British Empire, but at least the 13 colonies which revolted against control from England and signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 were originally governed from London. Today, US political and judicial institutions are modeled on those prevailing in the UK.
It is not easy to make an assessment of the net benefits (benefits less costs) of the British Empire as there is no agreed upon metric. But what can be done is to list the total imagined benefits and costs and for each to make his or her judgment. The Last 1000 days adds immensely in my view to an understanding of a short but crucial period in the decline of the Empire. It focuses on key personalities, especially Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin and their senior advisers such as Lord Keynes in Churchill’s case, and on the financial transactions which were put in place to finance the war especially loans, lend-lease and the Marshall Plan.
I learned a great deal from reading this book and realized how my own life had empire connections – born and educated in England, military service in Kenya, emigrated to Canada where I attended university, married in Gibraltar, sabbatical leaves in Australia and Washington, visits to Singapore, Malta, Egypt, New Zealand, the West Indies, India, Malaysia and South Africa. Two relatives were respectively a Governor General and a Viceroy of India. Their statues have been unceremoniously dumped in an Indian scrap yard, which doubtless reflects one view of the Empire. My own is somewhat more generous.