The British Empire in 1945

1945 was a defining year for the British Empire. As the Second World War drew to a close, Britain recovered all her lost territories and felt very satisfied with the Empire's contribution to the Allies' victory.

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By Dr Larry Butler, University of East Anglia

As in the First World War, the countries of the Empire had rallied behind Britain, providing manpower, raw materials and money. Their troops had fought across the world, gaining new experiences and fresh perspectives. Just as in Britain, expectations of a better future had been raised and Britain had made promises during the war designed to guarantee the Empire's loyalty. Britain also felt the need to prove to international (especially American) critics, that she was more than capable to manage a global Empire.

The Dominions

The 'Dominions', such as Canada and Australia, had effectively been independent since the early 1930s. Free to make their own decisions, they were still bound closely to Britain by their economic, military and diplomatic needs, and by ties of kinship.

The challenge for Britain after 1945 was to preserve these ties, reinforcing Britain's prestige as the world's third greatest power and leader of the British Commonwealth. Given its inability to defend Australia and New Zealand during the war, there were questions about how much Britain had to offer the Dominions in return.

Indian nationalism

In India, the part of the Empire Britain valued most, the war triggered dramatic and irreversible changes. Indian nationalism, active since the 1920s, grew in strength. Although Britain promised to discuss political change after the war, a serious rebellion erupted in 1942 which soured relations between the British and the Indian nationalist leaders.

Britain also faced growing tensions between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority in India and was accused of encouraging Muslim aspirations for a separate homeland, as a means of dividing the Indian opposition.

The wartime regime of tight economic controls also helped to strengthen Indian hostility towards British rule. For example, Britain was blamed for the Bengal famine of 1943, which claimed millions of lives. By 1945, the question was not whether, but when Britain would give India independence. With mounting Indian resistance, and uncontrollable violence between the Hindu and Muslim communities, Britain eventually withdrew in 1947.

A similar situation emerged in Palestine, where Britain struggled to reconcile conflicting Arab and Jewish ambitions. As in India, it failed, and withdrew in 1948. In both these cases, Britain opted to shed those parts of the Empire which were simply too difficult to retain.

For the remaining sixty or more territories forming Britain's colonial empire, 1945 also seemed to represent a watershed. During the war, Britain had promised eventual self-government for the colonies, and new constitutions were introduced in many territories soon after the war. Meanwhile, Britain committed itself to raising colonial living standards by pledging development aid.

Growing impatience

But it was also clear soon after 1945 that Britain, with a war-shattered economy, needed the colonies' valuable raw materials and other resources to help rebuild itself. Although greatly weakened by the war, Britain now had a greater incentive than ever before to keep its colonies, if it could, as shown by its military campaigns to defeat insurgents in Malaya and Kenya.

In Africa, British plans soon encountered unrest among civilians and returning soldiers, frustrated with shortages, inflation and poor job prospects. Impatience with British rule gave rise to strikes and political protests from which independence movements developed. As colonialism became a major issue in the Cold War, with east and west competing for influence in the developing world, these movements gained political concessions from Britain, leading to full independence, in most cases less than twenty years after the war's end.

Like India and Pakistan before them, most ex-colonies chose to join the Commonwealth, and so maintain links with Britain. Nevertheless, the sweeping and rapid changes which affected the post-war Empire could hardly have been anticipated in 1945.