Up until 1945 Great Britain ruled over one-fourth of the world. 1945 was a critical year. The Allied Forces had just won World War II, defeating the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. The United States and the Soviet Union emerged from the heat of battle as world superpowers, while Britain struggled with debt from back to back World Wars and widespread structural damage from the German Luftwaffe. The Great War or World War I, had marked the end of The Age of Imperialism (1815-1914) and by the mid-twentieth century, Great Britain would become the welfare state.
Britain could no longer afford its empire. One of the major costs of maintaining empire was paying the salaries of civil servants. Among other problems, crime rose as living conditions in commonwealth countries faltered, and the resources of the world’s once great Navy were ravished by war so no one could police the colonies effectively during wartime. Pressure from the superpowers is the second reason why Britain decolonized. Decolonization was a condition of the Lend-Lease Act of 1941, in which the United States loaned Britain money, weapons, and food over a period of years.
The United States, the first independent former commonwealth of Britain (1776/1783), had sensibilities towards countries that wanted to be free of British rule. According to historians Alan Sked and Chris Cook, the motives of the Roosevelt-led U.S. Government were not completely altruistic. In their book, Post-War Britain, they quipped, “the United States had the luxury of keeping its material interests in line with its ideology”. Whereas Stalin’s Soviet Union motivation for pressuring Britain to decolonize came from its hatred of the economic implications of imperialism; the irony therein lies in the fact that communism and socialist dictatorships are the most detrimental forms of imperialism to any state. Alas, I digress.
A wave of vibrant independence movements met with decolonization. The most successful occurred in India under the guidance of Jawaharlal Nehru (who would go on to be the first Indian Prime Minister), Muhammad Ali Jinnah (campaigned for the Islamic state of Pakistan to be created out of India), and Mohandas Gandhi (a Hindu political and ideological leader). Britain made a pact with India during World War II that if the Royal Indian Army fought the Japanese, India would be granted independence.
The process of decolonization occurred over a 15 to 20 year period. The countries that were released from British governance after 1945 include Jordan (1946), India (1947), Burma and Sri Lanka (1948), Egypt (1954), Sudan (1956), Ghana and Malaysia (1957), Iraq (1958), Nigeria, Somalia, Kenya, Cameroon and Cyprus (1960), Sierra Leone and Kuwait (1961), Trinidad and Tobago and Uganda (1962), Belize (1964), Papua and New Guinea (1975) and many more. All handovers included a ceremony in which the Union Jack was lowered and the flag of the new sovereign state was raised in tune to its new national anthem.
Two interesting cases occurred on islands, Hong Kong and Falkland. The people of Hong Kong refused Britain’s offer to liberate the island for fear of invasion from China. Hong Kong remained under British rule until 1997 when China signed a treaty stating that Hong Kong would be governed differently from mainland China; the island was allowed to keep its laws and so fourth until the year 2047 at least. In 1982, Argentina’s brutal military regime invaded the Falkland Islands, a British territory off the coast of Argentina, in an attempt to “liberate it” but the citizens of the Falklands wanted to British, and thanks to the success of a military campaign against the regime (under the behest of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher), they still are.
Personal experience – facts learned while taking British History Since 1935 at Oxford University under the tutelage of Dr. Martin Holmes in the Summer of 2004.
Alan Sked and Chris Cook, Post-War Britian: A Political History
“The British Empire Portal” Wikipedia.org.