Did World War Two cause the end of the British Empire?

At its height, the British Empire covered a quarter of the world and held britannia-1smldominion over 458 million people. Colonial expansion had been taking place since the sixteenth century, driven by Britain’s ability to exploit cheap labour and raw materials and to assert a political dominance over the world as what would be considered today as a ‘superpower.’ When war came both in 1914 and 1939, Britain was able to mobilise troops from across the globe, as well as drawing considerable monetary support from colonial economies. While the metropole strived to protect and preserve the Empire, it would seem as though it could have been the case that the “cost of defending the empire, was the empire itself.” Some dominions had already left the Empire by this point and many grievances had been present before the outbreak of war. The outcome of war was to exacerbate these grievances and create a nationalist feeling amongst the colonised that had on the whole not been present before. The secondary resultf war was to promote the United States in terms of its standing in world order and dominance, resulting in the liberal ideas of self-determination and equal trade being forced into the negotiations of post-war power and territory.

The Coming of War

John Gallagher offered the most compelling and convincing argument when he wrote that the world system was in a very precarious state at the outbreak of war, and that this had been largely down to the effects of the First World War. As Martin Shipway correctly pointed out, the Second World War did not provoke change out of nowhere; many of the colonial grievances and other causes had been present before the war, and some even before the First World War. Martin Thomas also argued that the issues of economic weakness and increased political awareness in colonial states were not new to the post-war era, yet the increasing hypocrisy of expanding and maintaining the European empires while criticising and going to war over the creation of another was a considerable factor in the end to British colonialism.

It was due to the fears that circulated of the coming of a war that would be different from3307201109570060 what had been seen in 1919 –  a war that would bring about a ‘final reckoning of ideologies’ between dictatorship and democracy, as well as bringing to the surface far greater concerns of empire – that this period saw the emergence of what Roy Douglas stressed as a need for Britain to avoid war at all costs if it wanted to maintain its empire. The colonial territories had taken part in two wars in the last 30 years that they had had no real vested interest in and they were fighting the metropole’s war, consequently leading to the growth of a nationalist feeling. War had “defined emergent nationalities; it encouraged the liberality of reform… …it left individuals and societies… exhausted and introspective compared to the exuberant outbursts that had once characterised the imperial generation of 1914.” As Macmillan recognised in his ‘Wind of Change’ speech, “the growth of national consciousness [was] a political fact…” By going to war against Germany, Britain made itself very vulnerable, allowing the colonial grievances to be developed further.

India and Gandhi: the tip of the iceberg

ghandi claireIt is important to look to India to see where a large precedent for decolonisation lay. Before war, India had largely been left to pave its own way, with very few white Britons actually in India. All of this changed when war came: where they had once been a substantial debtor to Britain, they were now a large creditor of the war treasury. The British had maintained Indian cooperation through the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms to the constitution at the end of the First World War, and were now bribing the Indians with a promise of ‘dominion status’ once the war was over. It is plausible that India gaining independence was the real turning point in the decline of the Empire; the British government threw everything they could at Congress to convince them to stay, but Gandhi had been leading non-cooperation movements since 1920 and after 1924 the ‘Quit India’ movement was well under way. Once the Empire had lost the ‘jewel in its crown’ by granting independence in 1947, British officials may have lost interest in maintaining the other – less profitable – dominions.

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One key effect of the war was to cause the colonised to recognise the dependency that Britain had on its dominions, when it had always been implied that they were ruled from outside as part of a ‘civilising mission’ and as a matter of necessity. Nickel for munitions
was mined in Canada, and food shortages were eased by meat and dairy from New Zealand and Australia. Alongside this, there was of course the massive number of imperial troops that amounted to half of the entire British force. It soon became evident that without the input of their empire, Britain may not have emerged as the victors of the war. Once the war was over, the colonial soldiers were expected to simply return home and return to subordination, and the issue was that now that the people of the dominions had been outside and encountered and fought alongside their supposed ‘betters’ they knew the reality.

 Decolonisation as a global issue

With the establishment of the League of Nations in April 1919 came the internationalisation of the colonial issue. In a wider political context Britain was now unable to function unilaterally. As Darwin pointed out: “a tide had set irrevocably against European empires in general and Britain’s in particular.” It has been suggested that Britain may have been able to rebuild its Empire, but its continued dependence on the US – this time requiring assistance against the Soviets – made them unable to counter their wishes and opinions, particularly Wilsonian ‘self-determination.’ This was coupled with a large shift in the way the international system was ordered and where different countries stood and their prosperity. It was a naïve hope that US commercial hegemony would be short-lived.  A decision during the war to fall in with American policy in terms of Japan (who had not long ago been part of a treaty with Britain, and were on the whole neutral to the British cause) had disastrous effects, particularly after Pearl Harbour when the Japanese were able to occupy Malaya, Burma and Hong Kong while coming very close to India and Australia. Douglas pointed out that Britain was acting beyond its means – it needed to choose between being an imperial power or a power within Europe, as being both was no longer a possibility. All of this was occurring while the development of nuclear technologies was taking place, changing the nature of warfare and meaning that there was little likelihood of campaigns of an imperial type taking place again – a colonial source of troops was no longer necessary.

The Colonies vs. Communism

The appeal to the colonial powers of maintaining an empire shifted from material and economic gain to making a stand in the face of encroaching Communism. The cSoviet_takeoveroining of the phrase tiers monde (Third World) by Alfred Sauvy suggested that there would be end to the bipolar world of the Cold War, where Britain had hoped to become the ‘third power’ in
world politics after signing the Atlantic Treaty. The terms of the Atlantic Charter went far to bring about the end of the Empire. Churchill agreed that no nation would be subject to the use of force; that they would be able to choose the government they lived under and that trade would be carried out on equal terms. This of course does not sound likes the terms on which an economically advantageous empire can function, and once the British had agreed to such things they were then obliged to disband their Empire – it would have been hypocritical not to have done so. The growth of new international and intergovernmental organisations such as NATO and the United Nations meant that Britain needed to choose between being an imperial power or a power within Europe, being both was no longer a possibility. The territories that had once contributed substantially to British power were now an international player on their own. Empire was now an outdated idea under immense scrutiny and pressure to disband.

Was the end of Empire inevitable?

Douglas argued that “with hindsight it is obvious that empire was an ephemeral phenomenon,” though it does not seem as though contemporaries had any notion of the fall of empire in 1939. Empire had actually been expanding after World War One; gains were made from Sykes-Picot agreement, breaking up the Ottoman Empire and, in February 1945, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt convened at the Yalta Conference where they agreed on division of post-war Europe. This would suggest that they did not expect the Empire to be doing anything other than growing after the war. In his ‘Bonds of the Free’ speech in June 1943, Winston Churchill appears to have believed that the moment for the empire to collapse has passed, and that the war had in fact brought what were somewhat disparate dominions together. He praised the shared effort from all dominions, and emphasised that their destiny was shared. Queen Victoria’s birthday was still being celebrated as ‘Empire Day’ in May 1942, so it seemed as though even once colonies had begun to demand independence and were on the path to gaining it, the British still hoped they would remain united under British loyalty as per the Balfour declaration of 1926. The British came up with the idea of the colonies becoming part of the British Commonwealth, as New Zealand, Canada and Australia did. This seems as though a promise of more autonomy was made with no real belief that countries would choose to leave British subordination entirely. The term ‘commonwealth’ functioned as more of a ‘rebranding’ of the Empire, than reflecting any comprehensive changes.


It would seem as though the Second World War may have functioned more exhibition_blas a catalyst for the political turmoil that resulted in the eventual end of the empire. War acted to show the dominions their own strengths and opportunities, and though they had been united under fighting for one cause, they were now very much nationally aware. This national awareness was now supported by an international interest in colonial affairs. The US had, beyond doubt, an immense influence over the course of empire. The language of liberalism and self-determination was generated from the US, subsequently embedding it in the Atlantic Treaty and any further attempts at international diplomacy. What was also crucial in the breakdown in empire was the wider context of contemporary global affairs.Intergovernmental organisations were rising to the fore, the way in which warfare operated was significantly altered by the development of nuclear technologies and crucially, and other empires were doing the same during the same period. Britain would have returned to its sixteenth century state of isolation had it remained the only empire that was permitted to remain – in fact it would not have been likely that other former imperial powers would have allowed it to. The coincidence of all these events taking place during a time of war, and shortly after, meant that the British Empire was soon to expire.

By Claire Sweetland


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