India had Gandhi, Britain has Farage
IF THE current crop of Whitehall mandarins think they have their hands full negotiating an exit from the European Union, they should spare a thought for their predecessors. Britain’s withdrawal from its empire in the 1940s-60s required its civil service to negotiate exits from dozens of different territories, often in months. The arch-imperialist Winston Churchill called it a “scuttle”.
Yet the winding up of empire for the most part achieved what many considered impossible: breaking up and staying friends. Many peoples labouring under the yoke of British imperialism hated the colonialists, yet few of the former colonies refused to join the Commonwealth as newly independent countries. What might Britain’s Brexit negotiators learn from that relatively painless transition?
In this section
The multi-billion-euro exit charge that could sink Brexit talks
What the break-up of the British Empire can tell us about Brexit
The British government plans to sell off part of the student loan book
Britain’s housing market is broken—but not in the ways that the government thinks
An American trade deal raises the prospect of more private involvement in British health care
Britain’s war on seagulls
A plan to clean up Britain’s toxic air
Britain’s delusions about the green belt cause untold misery
The aims in most imperial exit negotiations were threefold, as summarised by one official: to ensure an orderly withdrawal, to maintain political stability and to “safeguard our own trading and investment interests”. The second point was important as the backdrop to the end of empire was, as it is now, a revanchist Russia (then the Soviet Union), threatening eastern Europe and thus Britain’s strategic interest of maintaining the balance of power on the continent.
America, Britain’s main partner in NATO, was just as alarmed by Britain giving up its worldwide military and political role as the Obama administration was by Brexit. Dean Rusk, the secretary of state at the time, harangued his hapless British counterpart about the dangers of withdrawing into a “little England” obsessed with economising and the National Health Service. Rusk said that he “could not believe that free aspirin and false teeth were more important than Britain’s role in the world.” He might have said something similar about the Leave campaign’s promise to divert EU dues to the NHS.
Partly to satisfy its obligations to the Atlantic alliance, therefore, Britain went to considerable lengths to cultivate post-imperial friendships, especially when withdrawal threatened economic stability in a former colony. Take Singapore, which was highly dependent on the income from Britain’s huge naval bases. The bases employed a sixth of the island’s workforce and accounted for a fifth of its GDP. Acknowledging that Britain’s sudden withdrawal in the late 1960s could imperil the very survival of the new republic, Britain thus agreed to give £50m (about £850m, or $1.1bn, in today’s money) in aid to Singapore over five years.
Arthur de la Mare, the departing high commissioner, fulminated that this was “a bribe to keep the Singaporeans sweet”. But it worked. Singapore remains a staunch ally, as does Malaysia, which got £25m in similar circumstances. Malta, the chair of the EU presidency as Brexit gets under way, got £51m over ten years.
The origins of Britain’s huge aid budget can be traced to the same era. In 1946-70 about £350m was spent developing colonial economies. Sarah Stockwell of King’s College London says that the resulting goodwill helped British firms and institutions to win business. The Royal Mint, for example, won contracts to produce the currencies of countries like Ghana. (Its first image of Malawi’s tyrannical president, Hastings Banda, was a bit too insightful. Giving an “impression of harshness”, the drawing was revised.)
“If you scratch an American,” lectured Rusk, “you find an isolationist.” That, too, has a certain echo in today’s White House. As for Brexit, the lesson of empire is that a generous payment here and there can go a long way.
This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline “The art of leaving”