Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire, by Caroline Elkins, Vintage, 896 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0099540250
Age of Emergency: Living with Violence at the End of the British Empire, by Erik Linstrum, Oxford University Press, 328 pp, £26.99, ISBN: 978-0197572030
Untied Kingdom: A Global History of the End of Britain, by Stuart Ward, Cambridge University Press, 550 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-1107145993 £30
In March 1951, Life magazine, in which the photographs were more important than the text, carried a story with a headline sure to alarm its readers in Washington:
MALAYA – Rich but Uneasy
Its rubber economy is booming. So are its Red bandits’ guns
The large illustration above the headline was a black and white image of fifteen white men in shirts gathered around a table scattered with open notebooks and papers in a room that might be a sports hall or a school. It appears to the gathering of a board, or a committee meeting. At the centre of the frame are two bald men in short-sleeved shirts, their right arms vertical, a cigarette between poised between their fingers. They’re listening attentively to a man at the corner of the picture who is speaking while resting his hand on a wooden screen between the photographer and the table. The eye is drawn down to three benches in front of the screen, low to the floor where an array of weapons is resting: Sten guns, rifles, a pistol in a holster, a bandolier. The caption tells the reader that these are rubber planters in the central state of Pahang, meeting to discuss how to defend themselves from communist guerrillas. ‘Foreground: the guns they carried to the meeting.’
These men were the epitome of Englishmen in the tropics, in their short-sleeved shirts and starched khaki or blue shorts. They tended gardens around their bungalows, ate cucumber sandwiches and Scottish oatcakes, took delivery of The Times and kept mildewed novels by Graham Greene on their bookshelves. At the weekend they might journey to Kuala Lumpur for mid-morning brandy and ginger ales, beers at the Royal Selangor Club at lunchtime, a round of golf, then whiskey and soda – stengahs ‑ in the evening before a night of dancing at a club or, on St George’s, St Patrick’s and St Andrew’s days, a special dinner that reminded them of home.
The Malayan peninsula, the text accompanying the photos in Life explained, now resembled Chicago in the days of Al Capone. Both risk and reward were high. ‘Many residents went about in armoured passenger cars, paid large sums for “protection,” carried and regularly used tommy guns and occasionally died by sudden bullets or tossed “pineapples.” And, as was Chicago during the 20s stock market boom, the 521,000 square mile peninsula is surcharged with the wild excitement of enormous and unexpectedly gained wealth.’ The source of these riches was the thousands of rubber plantations and tin mines now working at full throttle to supply the Korean war. Both the US and the Soviet Union were stockpiling supplies ‑ and the price had risen fivefold in the previous two years. Rubber had developed rapidly as a lucrative cash crop in Malaya since the introduction of a Brazilian variety at the beginning of the twentieth century, the expanding plantation subject to a series of booms and busts. Life observed the manic energy of a boom. ‘Native workers ride to work in taxis, buy radios two at a time. Rubber speculators bank hundreds of thousands of dollars in a month.’ The windfall of dollars was also propping up the British empire and funding the welfare state that the Labour Party had created in Britain after its victory in 1945.
This was now under threat from what Life called ‘ragged fanatical Communists’, who ambushed travellers, attacked planters and policemen, slashed rubber trees and viciously punished villagers suspected of informing. The Malayan communists – mostly ethnic Chinese – had fought with the British against the Japanese occupation. But when imperial rule was restored after the war it favoured ethnic Malays and their leaders, the sultans; ethnic Chinese and Indians, half the population, who were largely the labourers on the rubber plantations and in the tin mines, were virtually excluded from citizenship. After several years of increasing labour unrest, the communists turned their guerrilla army on the British and when three white planters were killed in 1948 the authorities proclaimed a state of emergency. Three years on, some 25,000 troops and over 100,000 locally recruited police were desperately attempting to find the guerrillas in the thick jungle. Life’s proprietor, Henry Luce, who now regarded the United States as ‘the most powerful and vital nation in the world’ and, with the eclipse of British power, ‘the heir and chief guardian of Western civilisation’, was very interested in Malaya because it now represented not just a colonial war but a new Asian front in the Cold War against communism. Mao’s victory in China, Ho Chi Minh’s war against the French in Indochina and the Korean War had made Asia the centre of American geopolitical anxiety, an anxiety that would be given popular expression in the domino theory. By the time the article likening Malaya to 1920s Chicago came out, Luce’s editors had commissioned another piece on the Malayan conflict from Britain’s most famous novelist, Graham Greene.
For Greene the assignment paid well, he yearned for travel to escape from his tortured personal life, and he would be looked after by his brother Hugh, who had been seconded to the colonial administration from the BBC (where he would later serve as director general in the 1960s) to run the propaganda campaign against the guerrillas. Hugh provided some introductions and Greene, an intelligence agent during the war, met the local British spies. But he preferred not to be trapped in official engagements. Since his travels in West Africa in the 1930s he had been drawn to the rough and ready British commercial set, the merchants and shipping agents who did not conceal their racial prejudice and were there to make money, in contrast to the colonial administrators who were supposedly there to improve the life of their subjects but whom he found heartless and uncaring. ‘If we must condemn, one should condemn not the outposts but the headquarters of Empire,’ Greene wrote then. Now, convinced that the planters had received a bad press, he arranged to spend time with a couple who lived in siege conditions behind barbed wire and spotlights, waiting for an attack or an ambush, ‘the slow approach of inevitable violence’. In the morning the planter swallowed a brandy and ginger ale for breakfast and set out for a trip to the local town carrying a Sten gun and an automatic pistol with two hand grenades dangling from his belt. Greene was impressed by his courage and found him possessed of ‘a kind of buccaneering kindliness’, as he informed readers of Life. A three-day trek through the jungle with a patrol of Gurkhas pushed Greene to the limit of his endurance: drenched by rainstorms, stumbling through the bush in virtual darkness, attacked by leeches and, at the end, no result, no capture of a guerrilla. It was a crystallising experience. ‘The war is like a mist,’ he concluded, ‘it pervades everything; it saps the spirits; it won’t clear.’ But onerous as it might be, it was not, he was sure, a war of domination. The guerrillas were not fighting for national liberation but for communism; the British conscience could be clear.
Greene’s clarity on this score in the jungle fog would appeal to his American readers now embarked on the Cold War, consoling them that Britain had fully accepted its new role as a junior partner in the crusade against communism. Not long before, US politicians had been openly disdainful about a future for the British empire. After the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942, Sumner Welles, the US undersecretary of state, seemed less than put out about what turned out to be a fatal blow to British prestige in Asia. ‘Our victory must bring in its train the liberation of all peoples. Discrimination between peoples because of their race, creed or color must be abolished. The age of imperialism is dead.’ This was also President Roosevelt’s interpretation of the commitment to self-determination in the Atlantic Charter he had agreed with Churchill in 1941. Although Britain construed the clause as only applying to the countries under German occupation, Roosevelt appeared to see it as an anchor for a new order of sovereign states no longer dominated by imperialists but free to embrace American capital and American goods (although he accepted that this liberation might take decades). However, even before Roosevelt’s death in 1945 the looming Cold War made the fate of Britain’s Asian subjects dispensable or at least a lower priority in the battle with Soviet communism: western Europe and its victorious colonial powers, Britain and France, now needed American protection. In addition the colonial apparatus which the Americans had once deemed oppressive now offered a useful bulwark against communist insurgency. ‘The United Kingdom, the Dominions, Colonies and Dependencies, form a world-wide network for strategically located territories of great military value, which have served as defensive outposts and as bridgeheads for operations,’ in the judgment of a State Department memo in 1948. ‘Subject to our general policy of favouring eventual self-determination of people, it is our objective that the integrity of this area be maintained.’ George Kennan, the author of the policy of containing communism, agreed that anti-imperialism was no longer in the American interest, since ‘there were many things the Commonwealth could do which we could not do and which we wished them to continue doing’. Still, colonial wars that appeared to be campaigns of exploitation and plunder were no longer fashionable, as Greene’s qualms about maintaining a good conscience in Malaya showed. In The Quiet American, the novel he wrote a few years later indicting the Americans for their naive meddling in Indo-China, bad colonialism is represented by the planter class. After accompanying a French pilot on a dive-bombing mission over a village held by the Viet Minh guerrillas, the English journalist Thomas Fowler listens to Captain Trouin defend his decision to obliterate a sampan they happened to come across as they flew over Red River on their return journey. His orders were to shoot anything on sight in that area. ‘I’m not fighting a colonial war,’ the captain protested. ‘Do you think I’d do these things for the planters of Terre Rouge? I’d rather be court-martialed. We are fighting all of your wars, but you leave us the guilt.’
Relieved that the Americans no longer aimed at the destruction of their empire, the British adjusted their propaganda to align themselves with the zeitgeist. Instead of officially describing the Malayan guerillas as ‘bandits’ – ostensibly so that the planters could claim insurance for damaged property ‑ they were now designated as ‘Communist terrorists’ or ‘CTs’. It was much better to jump on the bandwagon of fighting the international menace of communism and be cheered on by the American public than appear to be conducting a squalid colonial war of the kind made famous in the nineteenth century. It also meant that the Americans would finance the cost of defending the empire. And despite a sense that they now had to defer to the Americans there was still a breezy self-confidence in London about the prospects for maintaining imperial grip and controlling the speed of change. Among senior officials estimates for the lifespan of empire ranged from sixty years to centuries; even the Americans at the height of their infatuation with anti-imperialism acknowledged that it would take time to guide backward peoples to the maturity necessary for self-rule. The British attitude to independence for its colonies is captured in a joke circulating in the Soviet Union in the 1950s: A peasant heard a lecturer say that communism was visible just over the horizon and asked what was a horizon. The lecturer explained that it was the line where the earth and sky seemed to meet, having the unique characteristic that the more you moved toward it the more it moved away. ‘Thank you, Comrade Lecturer,’ the peasant replied. ‘Now everything is quite clear.’
Success in the Second World War against the odds gave credence to these expectations that the vista of a dissolving imperium was still far away. The doughty island nation that had repelled Nazi invaders presided over a united Commonwealth based on liberty and the rule of law. Just as in the First World War, when Britain claimed to uphold civilisation against Prussian barbarity, the modern version of empire never looked so good as when it was contrasted with the war of conquest and subjugation which Hitler’s Germany had just unleashed. Churchill had relied heavily on the empire for his victory but it was the island nation that wove the myth of the ‘finest hour’.The unique ties forged with the United States meant that Britain could stand apart from or even its Western European neighbours. After their landslide win at the election in 1945, Labour embraced a progressive version of imperialism based on development instead of expansion. Colonial administrators would now extend labour rights and launch health and welfare programmes. Partnership would replace domination. The new foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, proclaimed that Britons had ‘ceased to be an imperialist race’ at the same time as he insisted that Labour must nurture its ‘great Empire’ now rebranded as the Commonwealth. The Labour-supporting Daily Herald warned in 1950 that ‘Communist banditry’ threatened ‘Britain’s progressive mission in the Malayan peninsula’. The epitome of this new departure was the independence of partitioned India in 1947. The new nations of India and Pakistan would take their place in the Commonwealth as dominion states not republics, analogous to the white dominions of Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The British empire could change in response to contemporary demands while remaining essentially the same. Rather than being ejected by nationalists, Britain had voluntarily transferred power entirely in accordance with the long-term plan to tutor its subjects in the art of self-governance. In this telling of the imperial story, Indian independence was all that Britain ever wanted and the moment of freedom was a remarkable achievement of sustained and enlightened colonial policy. What looked to the rest of the world like decolonisation was in fact a carefully wrought adjustment of the shape of the empire, an injection of new vitality.
Labour saw overseas possessions as a means to restore Britain’s battered prestige and give it some leverage with the overweening Americans. But as much as it would help to preserve great power status the empire was also essential to fuel economic recovery and help pay for the welfare state that Labour was building. Salvation lay in continuing the integrated imperial economy that had been imposed during the war, the ‘sterling area’, which would bolster the value of the pound and protect British markets from American intrusion. All the produce associated with the tropical colonies – rubber, tin, oil ‑ were now required to revive the British economy and to generate a dollar income. ‘Commodity exports became an obsession in London,’ Caroline Elkins writes. Malaya-as-Chicago was now London’s dollar hoard. Agricultural advisers, social scientists, economists and administrators fanned out across the globe to boost production of raw materials that could be exchanged for dollars. George Orwell had already identified the irony of the Labour Party reinvigorating colonialism. ‘In an imperialist country left wing politics are always partly humbug,’ he had written on the eve of the Second World War, pointing out that domestic prosperity depended on exploiting the colonies. Reasserting imperial control under the guise of development further exposed the paradox of a liberal democracy ruling faraway lands by force, which even Enoch Powell acknowledged was the ‘most difficult and embarrassing claim for a parliament to make’. Global war had also emboldened and equipped the empire’s enemies to inaugurate a new age of anti-colonialism.
Despite their attachment to the notion of a benevolent empire, both Graham Greene and his brother understood this: they both identified the fundamental fault line driving the small wars of the late twentieth century. Writing in 1952, Hugh Greene confessed that his recent experience in Malaya had made him appreciate ‘the detestation of the red-haired devils’ which was a driving force of the guerrillas. ‘I do not think there a is any Asian who would deny that hatred of the whites has provided a motive force for the bandits and that it has contributed to the apathy of those who are not actively on their side.’ Later, in a famous scene in The Quiet American, Graham Greene had the English journalist Fowler admonish the young American spy Alden Pyle while they wait to be attacked by guerrillas in a lonely French watchtower, for his assertion that the Vietnamese don’t want communism. “‘They want enough rice,” I said. “They don’t want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want.’” Regardless of the creeping salience of this fact, the British nation was, as Elkins writes, ‘more Kipling than Orwell’. Indeed in 1953 the Conservative colonial secretary confided that he found some of his colleagues to be‘still to the right of Rudyard Kipling’ with an insufficient grasp that, even if just in appearance, ‘dominion over pine and palm had given way to new axioms of government by consent’.
Like much-trumpeted independence, government by consent was a hazy aspiration. In one sense the British colonial wars that developed in the 1950s bore a strong resemblance to the small wars of the Edwardian and Victorian eras, the ‘savage wars of peace’ as Kipling called them. Reported by swashbuckling correspondents as tales of adventure often weeks after the battlefield action, these campaigns to bring subjects into line and impose law and order in the imperial fringes were usually vicarious dramas too remote to bother the conscience of a Victorian liberal of the kind who, George Dangerfield pointed out, ‘liked his wars to be fought at a distance and, if possible, in the name of God’. The lack of visibility of the empire and its workings was still remarkable in the second half of the twentieth century. A BBC documentary about West Indian immigrants in 1955 opened by noting an unfamiliar colonial problem that the country was not used to confronting. ‘Instead of being thousands of miles away and worrying other people, it’s right here, on the spot worrying us.’ The Trinidadian writer George Padmore had already discovered when living in London in the 1930s that it was ‘only when there is some riot in Jamaica . . . that the average Brit is made remotely conscious of his responsibility to hundreds of millions of coloured people over whom Britain . . . claims to be exercising benevolent trusteeship’.
Official euphemism helped to increase the sense of distance. The unifying characteristic of the late imperial trouble spots in Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus was that they were labelled ‘Emergencies’, a term more euphemistic than the much-derided Irish description of the period of the Second World War. The Emergency allowed the authorities to deploy any level of violence they thought fit while maintaining the fig leaf of civilian government and avoiding the politically inflammatory move of declaring military rule. In Malaya it sanctioned collective punishments, internment and torture; almost 10,000 were held in detention camps when Greene’s article appeared in Life in 1951. And under the Briggs Plan over a half a million rural Chinese people squatting on the edge of the jungle or plantation land were forcibly resettled in ‘new villages’. Lieutenant Colonel Harold Briggs compared the resettlement operation to a public health emergency: ‘It becomes daily more obvious that the problem of clearing the Federation of terrorists is the same as clearing a malaria-ridden country of mosquitoes. The breeding places must first be cleaned up if a permanent cure is to be affected.’ The policy was repeated in Kenya in 1952 when landless Kikuyu militants launched the Mau Mau rebellion. Emergency powers created a police state and sanctioned the rounding up and resettlement of over a million Kenyans in detention camps. Collective punishments, camps and torture were also the tools used to fight the Greek nationalist guerilla movement EOKA in Cyprus. Throughout, the Kiplings among the colonial administration could continue to maintain that they were upholding the rule of law when in reality the law had been transformed into an elastic permit for any form of coercion deemed useful.
For decades the violence unleashed in the 1950s was concealed by the successful narrative that the British had overcome insurgencies by winning ‘hearts and minds’. During the Iraq war I listened to an editor at the BBC suggesting a story on how the time-honoured British approach to winning over the locals contrasted with the harshness of the Americans. By this time the myth that British counterinsurgency was uniquely sensitive had been challenged by historians. And in the mid-2000s investigations of the Kenyan emergency by Caroline Elkins and David Anderson had opened the way for successful court cases against the British government by over 5,000 Kenyans who had been tortured or abused. During these cases it was revealed that thousands of official files from the period of colonial rule had been destroyed or concealed in a secret facility in Northampton. But even earlier the ‘hearts and minds’ tale was a story that those with direct experience of the emergencies had difficulty sustaining. In the early 1970s the Labour politician George Brown, a minister during the war in Malaya, cautioned opponents of the Vietnam war that there were ‘an awful lot of spectres in our cupboard too’. Over lunch, he chided the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan: ‘We burned and tortured and maimed in Malaya . . . Where war is concerned, in for a penny, in for a pound!’
The suppressed history of these conflicts and the arguments by some historians that ordinary British people were little affected or uninterested in the colonial conflicts of the 1950s might suggest that they were as foreign as their nineteenth century equivalents. But there were far more sources of information about what was happening. All the new administrators and educators, the ethnographers engaged in social engineering and the cameramen in the mobile film units brought home stories. Most important of all were the conscripts sent to Malaya and Kenya, writing letters home about what they saw from day to day. Intimate knowledge of the small wars of the twentieth century spread in what Erik Linstrum calls ‘circles of knowing’. His exploration of how these circuits worked and overlapped is original and subtle. A police officer sent letters from Kenya to his former colleagues in London describing how local police shot at unarmed men and suspects were pummelled until they made some kind of confession. ‘Compared with coppering in London, this really shakes you. I am sure all this Gestapo stuff never got anyone anywhere.’ A soldier described for his father in Scotland how detainees were made to run the gauntlet of rifle butts, a spectacle that disgusted him, ‘quite unnecessary violence to people who may or may not be found guilty’. This struggle was characterised by hesitations, doubts and second guessing. Were these things even true? Would it be disloyal to reveal them? What would happen if you tried to expose them? Would anyone listen? Ambivalence extended to those who believed their enemies were in the wrong. The writer Neal Ascherson, a nineteen-year old conscript in Malaya, concluded that the communist guerillas had started an unwinnable war and pursued it using brutal methods. But he also learned that ‘the British Empire rested on colossal unfairness’, corrupting the decent people who entered its service. ‘It became obvious to me that even if the Communist insurgents were not the “right side”, I was on the wrong side.’
The press might have been expected to hold the government accountable for its conduct of imperial wars, but reporters and editors equally faced pressure to be ‘team players’. The colonial authorities needed publicity to shore up public support and create the narrative that the British were winning by fostering allegiance rather than coercion. Journalists were invited to visit the relocation camps on facility trips in which the brutality needed to force people to resettle was glossed over. Louis Heren, Singapore correspondent of The Times and often a sardonic observer of imperial pretension, wrote in January 1951 that the resettlement of 90,000 Chinese would have lasting benefit for Malaya. ‘Up and down the face of Malaya flourishing new villages can now be seen. Those that your Correspondent has visited contained well-constructed timber houses . . . which afforded the inhabitants a standard of living comparing favourably with any in Asia.’ Resettlement was turning this rootless population into responsible citizens. ‘Encouraging as these early results are, the future is even brighter, in the view of the more imaginative members of the administration.’ Graham Greene barely mentioned the resettlement camps in his dispatch to Life, though he appears to have visited three of them; denying a support network and a ready food supply to the guerrillas by burning the squatters’ huts and bringing them into new villages surrounded with barbed wire, he wrote, ‘offers hope’. Secrecy and censorship, overt or tacit, were alternatives to newspeak. Cases of abuse were dealt with quietly, out of the public eye; leaks were subject to official denial or undermined behind the scenes. The circles of knowing were matched by circles of disavowal. Even when journalists were convinced of the ugly reality of colonial rule they often hesitated to publicise acts of brutality by the security forces because the burden of proof was very high and the word of non-white victims easily discredited. These layers of obfuscation only went so far towards obscuring what was happening. Without ever being the centre of public discussion – bar the intense debates over the Suez crisis in 1956 which Linstrum argues were a sublimation of the concerns over other wars – the colonial wars in Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus persisted as a fact of everyday life that created discomfort and moral unease, ‘shame within limits’, but also generated support for violence and racial self-assertion, reflected in a flood of novels celebrating counterinsurgency.
In the face of popular resentment, left-wing politicians and anti-colonial activists did try to highlight abuses. The Daily Worker published photographs of a Royal Marine holding the decapitated heads of two guerillas. But politicians like the Labour MPs Fenner Brockway, Barbara Castle and Tom Driberg or organisations like the Movement for Colonial Freedom were often portrayed as partisans not truth-tellers, compromised by their advocacy. Between visits to Vietnam, Graham Greene went to report on Kenya for The Sunday Times in September 1953. He found bien pensant London opinion in favour of independence ‘complacent’ and ‘ignorant’ when faced with the violence on the ground. Liberal colonial administrators were doing their best to improve agriculture, extend education and bring racial prejudice to an end; the power of the conservative settler was ebbing away. As in his time with the besieged planter in Malaya he found the experience of staying with an isolated white farmer terrified of a night visit from men carrying pangas instructive. But a few months later in a letter to The Times about a report of the court martial of a British soldier for shooting two forestry workers during an operation (he was told by a platoon commander that ‘he could shoot anyone they liked as long as they were black’) Greene confessed he was hardly surprised by the news as some British units had become ‘trigger-happy’ and the public should be aware that ‘the Bren gun can produce as horrible results as the panga’. After the publication of this letter he was approached by several people asking him to highlight stories of other atrocities but he refused because he did not want to look ‘like a propagandist’.
A repeated motif of critics was that brutal excesses and lawless practices in the tropics would return to corrupt the metropole. After Churchill and the Conservatives defeated Labour in the election of 1951 the Daily Mirror – which had supported the campaign against ‘jungle Reds’ in Malaya – became increasingly critical of the war in Kenya. The Mirror commissioned James Cameron, famous for exposing atrocities by South Korean troops during the Korean War, to send a series of dispatches from Kenya. Comparing the Mau Mau to Sinn Féin, Cameron documented murder, collective punishments and the destruction of villages. Britain needed to protect ‘our good name . . . our reputation’ as much as the white settlers. In an editorial in support of Cameron’s expose, the Mirror argued that although Mau Mau was ‘a vicious organisation’ the greater issue was ‘the ruin of Colonial goodwill and the strange sad corruption of British rule’. This echoed the positions of liberal British journalists covering the actions of the Black and Tans in Ireland more than thirty years before. Then, they also condemned the British campaign as ‘Prussian’ in its ruthlessness. Now dissenters from Britain’s colonial wars accused British forces of copying the Nazis. A woman wrote to Barbara Castle that British conduct in Cyprus ‘puts us on level with Hitler and his concentration camps’. Letters to The Manchester Guardian complained that the conduct of the war in Malaya was a homage to the practices of Britain’s ‘late enemies’.
Amidst a sea of apparent indifference to what was being done on distant shores in their name, these critiques may have, as Stuart Ward argues, struck home just enough to ‘nurture a certain critical distance’ among the British public so that they could watch the empire slip away without the violent emotional reaction to decolonisation seen in France. That Roy Jenkins was able to describe the devaluation of sterling in 1967 as ‘Britain’s Dien Bien Phu’ underlined the contrast. Still, the speed of the surrender was remarkable. ‘Only a war of extermination is likely to clean up the Malayan peninsula,’ the Coventry Evening Telegraph was advocating in 1951. By 1960 Harold Macmillan was not only talking about the ‘winds of change’ but how Britain had let go of its empire ‘in the flood of greatness, undefeated in war’. It was not decline, he insisted, but growth.
Stranded Kiplings, stung by wounded pride and yearning to restore the burden of the civilising mission, did not agree. Churchill led a 1950s culture war to stoke popular nostalgia for Pax Britanica. Extolling the virtues of empire at an election rally in 1950 he pretended to catch himself. ‘We mustn’t use the word “empire”, it’s naughty,’ he said, drawing laughter from his audience. ‘Soon they’ll tell us we mustn’t use the word British.’ He objected to the dropping of the word ‘British’ to describe the Commonwealth, protesting that tyrannical modern sensibility demanded the institution erase any trace of its imperial origins. ‘It must contain nothing that embodies pride of race or country; it must contain nothing that could be deemed controversial, nothing that could offend the weakest of the weaker brethren in our slowly-formed association throughout the globe. . . the word “Empire” is to be suppressed . . . and now, on the morrow of our greatest victory and service to mankind, we come to the elimination of the world “British” which was so lately held in the highest honour in may lands.’ The recycling of that sense of grievance found a hearing. In 1959 the historian Raphael Samuel discovered a fixation with ‘keeping Britain great’ when he interviewed voters in Stevenage, the first postwar new town outside London. ‘These little countries, they seem to just throw us out when they feel like it whereas one time they wouldn’t have dared do that,’ a machine operator told him. ‘I don’t think we should let other people trample on us the way they do.’
Churchill’s elision of race and country took on added significance once immigration from the Commonwealth grew in the 1950s. There was an increased sense that to be English was to be white, the bedrock assumption of the colonial order. White settlers battling to retain their ascendancy in Rhodesia found allies among colonial officials and Conservative politicians who fought against the modern tide. Ian Smith even suggested nine months after Churchill’s death in 1965 that Britain’s wartime hero would have emigrated to Rhodesia since ‘all those admirable qualities and characteristics of the British that we believed in, loved and preached to our children, no longer exist in Britain’. Unionists in Northern Ireland would soon share the same alienation from the rapidly changing mother country. Ian Smith’s disgust that Britain had taken up the new international norms of universal rights propagated by the United Nations found an echo in Bernadette Devlin’s quip that Ian Paisley and his followers believed that ‘England has forgotten it’s British”. Ward makes a compelling case that the dissolving of the imperial backdrop in the 1950s and early 1960s left unionists – attached as they were to an imperial and not a metropolitan Britishness – dangerously exposed and delegitimised and heightened their suspicions that politicians in London would disengage from Northern Ireland just as they had abandoned other British enclaves around the world. They would not have been reassured by an article by the Conservative MP David Walder in The Spectator in 1969 in which he confessed ‘a sneaking sympathy with the average British incomprehension of things Irish’ borne of fatigue of dealing with insurrections that may have begun in Dublin but had spread all over the realm. ‘Since 1921 the British have experienced a surfeit of contests with the forces of nationalism in various forms, in India, Africa and Palestine, in Malaya, Cyprus and Arabia. Rightly or wrongly they are tired and bored. The sacred cause of “law and order” outside this island has no appeal.’
Maurice Walsh is the author of Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World 1918-1923. He is working on a book about Graham Greene and the twentieth century.