Friday, June 20, 2008

The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire

The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire
By Peter Clarke
(Bloomsbury, 559 pages, $35)

The sun did set on the British Empire, after all, roughly 60 years ago, when Britain gave up the Indian Raj and of its Mandate over Palestine. Most histories of this seismic shift in world affairs focus on personalities – no surprise, given the outsize figures of the time: Churchill, Gandhi, Mountbatten, Truman, Weizmann, Ben-Gurion. But even the great are driven forward, in part, by forces larger than themselves.
[Losing Hope, Glory and Assets]

The supreme virtue of Peter Clarke's detailed account of Britain's last imperial days is his effort to describe those forces and register their effect. It is a complicated story – involving economic imperatives, political obstacles and social demands – but Mr. Clarke makes it all clear and captivating. He is maddeningly tendentious: He shows an obvious partiality to Britain, an outright hostility to Zionism, and a not-so-subtle distaste for the U.S. and its postwar rise. But it is not necessary to share Mr. Clarke's prejudices to value "The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire."

Mr. Clarke makes much of Winston Churchill's famous November 1942 vow that he had "not become the King's first minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire." Defeat at the polls in 1945 saved him from the personal ignominy of such a task, but Mr. Clarke argues that the prime minister's decisions, however arguably justified they were, sealed the empire's fate. Mr. Clarke's grand theme is that "Britain's postwar problems were rooted in precisely those wartime commitments that had brought victory. If Churchill was the architect of victory, he was also surely to this extent also the author of Britain's postwar distress."

Mr. Clarke is very hard on Churchill, citing many unflattering comments about him and failing to appreciate his optimism and gallantry in the face of difficult circumstances and the pragmatism that was as essential a part of him as his Tory romanticism. After pithily observing that, by 1947, "the British Empire was now in the hands of the liquidators," Mr. Clarke grotesquely adds: "Churchill's thousand-year Reich had barely outlasted Hitler's."

Still, it is not wrong for Mr. Clarke to assign the blame for imperial collapse to wartime commitments. And money had a great deal to do with it. The war, Mr. Clarke notes, "left India a creditor on a vast scale, with Britain owing it huge sums in the form of the sterling balances." This fact meant that London actually owed New Delhi some £1.3 billion pounds (or $5.2 billion in 1945 dollars). The empire had conferred many benefits on Britain, but by the 1940s its administration and defense were a net drain on London.

And Britain owed a lot to the U.S. as well. Britain's postwar economic weakness became inevitable as soon as it accepted Lend-Lease, the program that allowed Britain to receive from America, during the war, billions of dollars of materiel and supplies. Hailed by Churchill as the "most unsordid act in history" – a phrase calculated to nourish alliances – Lend-Lease in fact exacted from the British draconian sacrifices. Britain transferred across the Atlantic all its dollars and capital assets outside the sterling area; and it sent every scrap of its overseas investments to the U.S. to pay for materiel and other aid, along with cash to the tune of a billion pounds. In 1940, when Britain balked at surrendering nearly everything, Roosevelt summarily dispatched an American warship to Cape Town, South Africa, to collect Britain's remaining gold reserves there.

Europe's gross national product plunged 25% during World War II, Mr. Clarke reminds us, while America's increased 50%. This dramatic shift in relative prosperity provided a solid economic underpinning for the postwar Pax Americana, built on open skies and open seas and the free trade to which empires, with their tariffs and other mercantile policies, are inimical.

By 1946 Britain had no choice but to send its pre-eminent (and dying) economist, John Maynard Keynes, to negotiate a loan from the U.S. to keep Britain afloat. But, as we learn from Mr. Clarke, even this generous act carried seeds of further economic trouble for Britain. A condition of the $5 billion loan was that Britain make sterling fully convertible into dollars. When the premature convertibility came about on July 15, 1947, it was untenable, given the immediate run on the pound, and was abandoned on Aug. 20.

This monetary crisis took place against a background of violence in both the Indian subcontinent, where huge numbers were dying in sectarian killings, and in Palestine, where Jewish terrorists hanged two British sergeants and booby-trapped their bodies to kill those cutting them down. Convertibility ceased five days after partition created the independent states of India and Pakistan, and within weeks Britain handed the fate of Palestine over to the United Nations.

Little wonder. Burdened by its great-power status, which involved the expensive occupation of a large section of northwest Germany with the responsibility to feed Germany's starving population, Britain could not even adequately feed its own people (who faced more draconian rationing in the late 1940s than during the war). Still less could it afford the cost of large troop deployments and the other costs of governing India and Palestine.

The manner in which Britain gave up its responsibilities in these two regions has been the subject of much debate and criticism. It will continue to be. What Mr. Clarke has demonstrated beyond question is that its retreat had long been inevitable, determined by decisions taken earlier in the decade. And who can doubt that Churchill, with his abiding commitment to Anglo-American unity, would have embraced a full Pax Americana no matter what its cost to him and to Britain?

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