Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Who signed the death warrant for the British Empire?

By W. David McIntyre


The rapid dissolution of the European colonial empires in the middle decades of the 20th century were key formative events in the background to the contemporary global scene. As the British Empire was the greatest of the imperial structures to go, it is worth considering who signed the death warrant. I suggest there are five candidates.

The first is the Earl of Balfour, Prime Minister 1902-1905, who later penned the exquisite ‘status formula’ of 1926 to describe the relations of Britain and its self-governing white settler colonies, then known as Dominions. They were ‘equal in status’ though ‘freely co-operating’ under a single Crown. The implications were that they were as independent as they wanted to be and this was marked in the preamble to the Statute of Westminster five years later. Some visionaries at this time suggested that places like India or Nigeria might be Dominions, too, suggesting that here was an agreed exist route from empire.

India, indeed, took the route in 1947 when Clement Attlee, the second candidate, announced that the Raj would end. The jewel in the imperial crown was removed when the Raj was partitioned into the Dominions of India and Pakistan. They were followed into independence a year later by Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Burma (Myanmar). With the ending of the Raj it was evident that empire’s days were numbered.

Harold Macmillan
Harold Macmillan, our third candidate, extended independence more widely to Africa. His celebrated ‘Wind of Change’ speech to the South African Parliament in 1960 marked a firm foot on the decolonization accelerator pedal. Macmillan’s conservative governments, 1957-1963, granted independence to fourteen colonies (eleven in Africa).

It looked as if the process would be completed by the fourth candidate, Harold Wilson, whose ‘Withdrawal from East of Suez’ and abolition of the Colonial Office ran in parallel to Britain’s preparations to enter the European Communities. Although the conservative government of Edward Heath, 1970-1974, delayed the withdrawal for a few years, Heath announced to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Singapore in 1971 that the empire was ‘past history’. And, as part of his application of the baleful disciplines of business management to government, he ordered a ‘Programme Analysis and Review’ of all the remaining dependent territories. This process, conducted over 1973-74, concluded that the dependencies were liabilities rather than assets and that a policy of ‘accelerated decolonization; should be adopted in many small island countries in the Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Caribbean previously deemed too small and incapable of being sovereign states.

Although the Heath government never managed to approve this policy before it was ejected from office after the miner’s strike in 1974, the second Wilson government went ahead. It was Jim Callaghan, as Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs who signed the death warrant on 13 June 1975 in the form of a despatch to administrators suggesting that the dependencies had been ‘acquired for historical reasons that were no longer valid’. To avoid the charge of colonialism being made by the anti-imperialist majority in the United Nations, Britain adopted ‘accelerated decolonization’ in the Pacific Islands. During the late 1970s and the 1980s most of the remaining dependent territories moved rapidly to independence. An empire acquired over half-a-millennium was dissolved in less than half-a-century.

W. David McIntyre was educated at Peterhouse, Cambridge, the University of Washington, Seattle, and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. After teaching for the Universities of Maryland, British Columbia, and Nottingham, he became Professor of History at the University of Canterbury New Zealand between 1966 and 1997. As Honorary Special Correspondent of The New Zealand International Review he reported on Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings from 1987 to 2011. His latest book is Winding up the British Empire in the Pacific Islands.

Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only British history articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Image credit: Harold Macmillan. By Vivienne (Florence Mellish Entwistle) [Open Government Licence], via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Brett Keane

    I have always felt uneasy with the renewed “crypto-marxist” attempts to rewrite Commonwealth history, in recent decades. It did not gel with my understanding, and the fact that I was born just some months before my homeland, NZ, casually and eventually signed the Statute of Westminster. 1947.

    Then, more recently, I read several old books in my village library. In them were eyewitness reports of the setting up of a pathway to Irish freedom in about 1912, and Indian about 1921. So, all the various ‘troubles’ were caused by internal power-seekers, I suspect. It is interesting to see the ‘friendships’ the stirrers made. Because I have seen the farsighted liberal attitudes stated by movers and shakers of the time who set it up. For example, Churchill and Lloyd George. It was also advocated by Adam Smith, of great influence. That attitude seems to me to have fostered the unity which saved the world from tyranny, and should be seen in Glasgow soon. Possibly something worth studying?
    Brett Keane, NZ

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *