Did the Empire begin to fail with the loss of America? What about the Irish Easter Rising of 1916? Wasn’t that a strong signal that the end was nigh?… To this list so many, many other historical events that foretold the fall might be added, but this book ‘The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire’ by Peter Clarke concentrates on that last coda that saw out Britain’s great civilising force for good in the world (as the British saw it). Within that circumscription the author tries to select a few key nails that finally fixed the lid in place.
Peter Clarke chooses as the ‘last 1000 days’ the period from September 1944 until August 1947. That fateful September was the month that Churchill met Roosevelt in Quebec and admitted that Britain had no money to run its Empire. Other matters were discussed of course: the war was going well, military matters had to be decided and this was the conference where the partitioning of Germany, and other future political strategies, were agreed. But money matters took up a sizeable part of the proceedings. America had already forked out a lot of cash towards winning the war and the common grumble in the US was that the country was ‘being taxed of thousands of lives and billions of dollars to save the British Empire’. So it was that Churchill’s frank admission that Britain was financially broken that occupied most of the discussions. The outcome between the ‘co-equal’ allies was that the US Treasury was in effect given control over the British balance of payments by agreeing to extend the Lend-Lease arrangements, already in operation, into the post-war period. This then was the future: Britain and her Empire was in hock to the Americans, had been for some time and definitely was now, in the light of the agreements undertaken at that Quebec conference.
Moving onwards towards the very last of the ‘thousand days’, by December 1946 the writing was on the wall as regards the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the Empire, India. There ensued conferences and committees and hearings and parliamentary debates but the outcome was never in doubt and the date for British Departure from India finally was set for June 1948. In fact, power was handed over on 15 August 1947 and Peter Clarke sees this as the day the sun finally set on the British Empire. In his words:”The King had to get used to signing himself George R. and not George R. I., like his father. He did so a few days later in a letter to his mother, Queen Mary, who noted on the back of the envelope: ‘The first time Bertie wrote me a letter with the I for Emperor of India left out, very sad.’ ”
Very sad indeed, And If the British had any shred of Churchillian self-delusion left as to being a ‘world power’ it was dispelled when they were lumped in with the rest of ‘Europe’ by the Americans in the subsequent negotiations for aid from the Marshall Plan. There was to be no more trading as ‘The British Empire’, and no reference whatsoever was made to the ‘Special Relationship’ which Churchill believed had been built up between the Allies over the years prior to, and over the course of, the war. As far as President Truman was concerned his General, Marshall, was to deal with Britain as just another of those European countries which, now that America had won the war for them (again), had to be helped out of the financial hole they had dug for themselves.
A great read, even though the author strays a bit here and there and gives us rather more details of the various theatres of war than we really need to have. He is really, really good on conveying the personalities of the huge number and range of the politicians and apparatchiks involved in this great ‘winding down’ of Empire or, as some would say, reluctant withdrawal from other people’s countries.