During the Second World War it had seemed that Britain might emerge with a much-reduced empire. Although a major British war aim was the preservation of its empire, both its primary allies, the USA and USSR were in principle opposed to colonialism. It even appeared, immediately after the war, that Britain was preparing to abandon the empire. It gave independence to both India Pakistan and Burma in 1947, even evacuating Palestine in May of that year. These were not really seen as losses for Britain as they were costly and not excessively rewarding.
However the post war labour government was clearly committed to developing the role of other significant colonies that would hopefully keep Britain’s status as a great power. This could potentially be achieved through the commonwealth, which Britain hoped to use as a union of states that would each offer some protection to Britain and each other, whilst providing strategic advantages on a global level. However the commonwealth remained fragile as Australia and New Zealand joined the USA in the ANZUS, and Ireland and Burma still refused to join.
Although it failed to create a stable backup in the form of the commonwealth, Britain succeeded in economically developing parts of its Empire that brought in much needed revenue. Britain’s colonial dependencies such as Malaya were exploited by the use of the sterling area, imperial products earning over $170 million annually. Any developments were designed to enhance the earning potential of the colonies and in effect strengthen Britain’s economic position. Britain also held a source of wealth through its control of the old production in Iran, the Middle East’s largest oil producer.
But the profits from these were only enjoyed for 6 short years after the war as in 1951 the refineries were nationalised and the British forced out. However in 1953 British and American intelligence agencies overthrew the Iranian leadership and restored British interests. Although Britain now had to share its profits with the USA, this incident shows Britain’s determination to maintain the economic profits it gained from foreign connections. Britain also let go of its mandate of Palestine. It was far too expensive to maintain the mandate due to the internal conflict and it to add to this it was not even a British colony.
America, Britain’s closest ally supported a Zionist state as the Jews held great political influence in the USA, and while Britain’s strategic priorities lay in the defence of Western Europe withdrawal from Palestine was the only option. Britain granted India independence in 1947, making it the first non-white controlled colony to be granted complete independence after the Second World War. This was not an unwise action, as there were many factors occurring before and after World war two which all pointed towards a policy of decolonisation in India.
Before 1939, Britain had already promised to transfer a certain amount of power to India at some point, was simply baiting the country with its freedom. It was already becoming increasingly free from British control, and was becoming more of a financial burden than an asset. India had declined as a major importer of British goods, meaning its value as a beneficial export market was decreased. The war damaged Anglo-Indian relations further, as it forced India along with the rest of the empire into mobilising its resources, which India was not happy about doing.
This created anti war feelings that generated Indian nationalism as opposed to the passive patriotism Britain had hoped for, and these feelings were even stronger by the time the war ended. The coming to power of the labour party in 1945 obviously meant there would be steps towards decolonisation as it was a left wing ideological commitment. Neither, at this time was public opinion particularly concerned with holding on to India. By 1945, India was no longer helpful strategically or economically to Britain.
It was not worth the trouble the nationalist struggle was causing, problems with which the British government was ill equipped to deal with as it was more advanced here than ever seen before. In January 1947, Britain formally decided to develop its own nuclear weapons. In this, it undoubtedly raised its own influence, as a nuclear threat is a powerful one. Although it did raise Britain’s status, this move also had the combined effect of responding to the perceived soviet threat, which, with Britain within easy striking range, was high.
By 1952, both Britain and the Soviet Union had successfully tested their weapons, presenting themselves as superpowers. Britain’s ability to develop its own nuclear capability was essential, as the threat of mass destruction from both east and west in the cold war created a power balance so great that a strange stability was created in international relations. Nuclear weapons had become the ultimate deterrent, and with the possession of these established Britain firmly in nuclear terms at least, as a ‘great power’.
Despite the many problems of this period, there are many positive aspects that I would argue, leave Britain in a position of relative power. Although saddled with huge war debts to the USA, its economy was still one of the healthiest in Europe, manufacturing as much in 1951 as France and West Germany combined. Britain had succeeded in economically developing parts of its Empire that brought in much needed revenue, such as oil in the Middle East. For much of its empire it had allowed independence, freeing itself of tiresome commitments whilst guaranteeing a more friendly relationship with these former colonies.
It had a strong relationship with the USA that had been cemented by NATO, securing America as an extremely beneficial ally. Britain also had begun to develop nuclear weapons, placing it in position as a nuclear superpower alongside the USA and USSR. Despite all this, Britain did still have many problems concerning its economy, empire and status which was still fragile, and was therefore not so much a superpower, rather a small step ahead of other European powers defeated in the war.