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How the sun set on the British empire

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As Britain’s rulers try to defend their colonial past, Sarah Bates looks at how resistance, imperialist rivalries and decline ended the biggest empire in the world
Issue 2710
The Pan African Congress in Manchester, 1945, organised for the end of empire
The Pan African Congress in Manchester, 1945, organised for the end of empire (Pic: Greater Manchester Lives )

The British Empire ruled over a quarter of the world at its height at the beginning of the 20th century. Yet within 50 years, little was left of what had been the biggest empire in history. 

From as early as the 16th century, Britain’s rulers conquered Ireland, North America, large swathes of the Caribbean and Africa and tracts of Africa and the Middle East. 

They boasted the empire was so vast that “the sun never set” on the land Britain had invaded to profiteer and loot from. 

As the British Chartist  Ernest Jones replied, it was also where “the blood never dried”.

The Second World War was a catalyst for the disintegration of the empire. 

Britain came out of the war in 1945 a bankrupt, declining power. 

The US was taking its place in the world as the chief policeman and plunderer. And it was the onset of the Cold War, a period of imperialist rivalry between the US and Russia. 

But a series of uprisings against British rule were critical to its disintegration. Our rulers were determined to hang to their colonies for as long as possible—with immense repression.

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Millions of people in Africa and Asia, who had been cast as racially-inferior in imperialist ideology, took matters into their own hands. They smashed apart the bloody rule of an empire that had appeared untouchable. 

Tensions in the British empire were starting to boil over from the start of the 20th century. 

In Ireland a guerrilla war led by nationalists forced the British to quit 26 out of 32 counties in 1920. They hung on to Northern Ireland and set up a sectarian, violent, one party statelet. 


The British defeat was a huge embarrassment for the establishment. 

How could it quell rebellions across the empire if it couldn’t contain dissent frothing in its oldest, closest colony?

The loss of India in 1947 was another huge blow to the British empire. 

The Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli had described it as the “jewel in the crown”.  In various guises from the 18th century, the British state and capitalists had plundered and subjugated the Indian subcontinent. 

Yet the Quit India movement, mutinies by soldiers and sailors and militant action by workers forced out Britain. Strikes, mass demonstrations and direct action made its rule untenable. 

But the British didn’t go down without a fight. As they left their prized piece of land they carved it up into two countries.

Britain’s policy of divide and rule between Hindus and Muslims produced partition into India and Pakistan. 

It forced 17 million people to migrate, saw terrible communal violence, and left one million dead.

Indian independence was just the start. The following year neighbouring Burma, now Myanmar, won freedom after decades of a national liberation struggle. 

The next wave of decolonisation came in Africa, which had suffered centuries of plunder. 

Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and the king of the Belgians had begun exploiting Africa from the 17th century and stole millions of people in the transatlantic slave trade. 

But the vast majority of Africa was colonised during the 1890s. 

By the late 19th century rival powers had caught up with British capitalism. As competition for international markets increased, Britain needed to grab more land.

Britain wasn’t about to give up its African colonies without a fight. 

In 1945 Labour’s deputy prime minister, Herbert Morrison, said that granting independence to African countries would be “like giving a child of ten a latchkey, a bank account and a shotgun”.

In the 1950s people in Kenya, which had been colonised in 1880, protested for freedom. Met by brutal repression, Kenyans formed the Mau Mau group and rose up between 1952 and 1960. 

British forces pushed Kenyans into prison camps and tortured people, including crushing testicles and breasts with pliers. They destroyed the evidence and refused even a half-hearted apology until 2013. But resistance was spreading through Britain and Europe’s empires.

Ghana in West Africa became the first Sub-Saharan country to win independence in 1957.  The loss of one of Britain’s oldest African colonies was a bitter blow to imperialism—and an inspiration to people across the world. 

Mass agitation, strikes, ­boycotts and riots forced the British to concede the territory.

The struggle was led by Kwame Nkrumah, who became president of free Ghana and was later deposed in a Western-back coup in 1966. 

In 1947 Nkrumah became leader of the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC). 

This was a thoroughly moderate organisation without a mass base, focusing on petitions and appeals to the British authorities. 

They wanted a measure of self-rule, but not any fundamental social changes. 

Nkrumah was worried to “associate myself with a movement backed almost entirely by reactionaries, middle class lawyers and merchants”.

Nkrumah was worried to “associate myself with a movement backed almost entirely by reactionaries, middle class lawyers and merchants”.

But very quickly Ghanian nationalism was transformed into a radical, mass movement that had support of workers, peasants and the poor. 

A spontaneous boycott of British goods and riots exploded in 1948, independently of the UGCC. 

Two years later the country was in the grip of its first general strike, led by Nkrumah’s new Convention People’s Party and the TUC union federation. 

After independence, Ghana became a centre for anti-colonial struggle. 

CLR James, the black Marxist revolutionary, declared, “Today—I don’t say yesterday, I don’t say tomorrow, but I say today—the centre of the world revolutionary struggle is here in Accra, Ghana.

“I state, as one who has studied the history of the revolutionary movement, that at the present time those policies that I have enunciated for you, those policies that you know spring from here are fundamental policies for the emancipation of all classes and all oppressed people in the world.”

Future president of Guinea, Sekou Toure, and Congolese president Patrice Lumumba gained support for their struggles in Ghana. 

And many people in the imperialist countries, such as Civil Rights activists in the South of the US, took great inspiration from it. 

The disintegration of British rule wasn’t just because of the heroic actions of workers, peasants and intellectuals.

It also flowed from the changing dynamic of imperialist competition between US and Russia. 


The revolutionary Leon Trotsky had predicted this shift in the global pecking order in 1926. 

“The US is strengthening her world positions, England’s are growing weaker,” he wrote. “Britain will not escape the common lot of capitalist countries. America will place her on rations.”

While Britain’s rulers tried to slow the decline, it was made inevitable after the Suez invasion in 1956. Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser and a group of middle class officers had come to power in Egypt in 1956. He wanted to develop the country, held by back by the British and old landowning interests.

Nasser looked to support from Russia and its state capitalist model to grow Egyptian ­capitalism. He nationalised the Suez canal, a key shipping route, from the British and French. 

Tory prime minister Anthony Eden was incensed by the threat of Nasser. 

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He said, “I want him murdered,” and demanded to “land British troops somewhere to show we were alive and kicking”.

When the British, French and Israelis invaded, the outcome was quite the opposite.  

They were forced out and the US didn’t intervene on Britain and France’s side. The Suez crisis perfectly crystallised the multiple pressures bearing down on the British Empire at that time—uprisings, US power grabs, and its own weakened military presence.

And the crisis set the scene for the Cold War era of proxy manoeuvres throughout the Middle East.

It was left to prime minister Harold Macmillan to begrudgingly accept the end of much of the empire in 1960. 

“The wind of change is blowing through this continent and whether we like or not the growth of national consciousness is a political fact,” he was forced to admit.

Our rulers would like us to remember the supposed greatness of the empire. But we remember the ordinary people who made the sun set on that terrible chapter of history. 

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