Empire in Asia

A New Global History

British Imperial Policy and Decolonization, 1938-1964: Vol. 1

Book Cover

Book Title

British Imperial Policy and Decolonization, 1938-1964: Vol. 1, 1938-1951. Hong Kong: The Macmillan Press Ptd., 1987


Porter, A.N. and Stockwell, A.J.


This collection of historical documents from British archives is supplemented by a brief introductory narration of British imperial policy with regard to decolonization. Porter and Stockwell focus on the colonial policies of the 20th century, in particular those of both World War periods, and of the immediate aftermath of World War II. A few themes are frequently discussed as they examine British colonial decisions in chronological order. These include the tensions between the interests of metropolis and periphery; the balance between economic exploitation of colonies and the humanitarian “liberal Commonwealth” to educate colonized peoples and raise their standards of living; and the pressures exerted upon Britain by other superpowers, primarily the supposedly anti-imperialist United States. As much as Porter and Stockwell focus on decisions made in London, they also emphasize the international context within which the metropolis worked. They also consider the role of colonial and local administrations in shaping metropolitan policies toward their overseas subjects.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Porter and Stockwell’s focus is British imperial policy; this necessitates and justifies a degree of generalization. Therefore, they do not go into the details of policies for each colony, although they frequently make casual references to individual colonies to validate an argument. India and the West Indies are favorite examples, while developments in the Suez within a wider international context and native administration in Africa are given chapters of their own. Overall, however, Porter and Stockwell’s approach is generic and prioritizes the examination of London’s wants and needs over those of specific colonies. Topics covered include patterns of historical explanations of decolonization, colonial economic development and welfare, and colonial postwar reconstruction.

This volume focuses on the period between 1938 and 1951, but reaches back as far as the early 1930s for historical context—for instance, Porter and Stockwell mention the effects of the Great Depression on colonial policy.

Documents in the collection include extracts from meeting minutes and memorandums; correspondences between diplomats, politicians and civil servants; the Atlantic Charter; and speeches made by British leaders regarding imperialism.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Of the collection, Porter and Stockwell warn that while individual documents may appear the product of rational judgment and strong planning, a closer examination of them reveals the human factor in their creation. They are often confused, inconsistent, and telling of the personal biases or preferences of the author. This is not necessarily a drawback; instead, Porter and Stockwell point out that these details paint a realistic picture of then circumstances and the thought processes of the agents in question.

They also argue for a pluralistic approach to historical explanations for the rapid process of decolonization. Many factors worked together to make independence for colonies possible in the aftermath of World War II: Britain’s inevitable acceptance of the fact of her imperial overstretch, the growing clout of indigenous colonial actors, and the actions and attitudes of superpowers such as the United States. It is also clear from their narration of the 1930s through to the early 1950s that imperial policies morphed constantly in response to the situation. For example, by the 1930s it was evident to both metropolis and colony that the long-accepted “harmony” between the economic (metropolitan interests) and humanitarian principles (colonial benefits) that formed the foundation for imperialism was a myth.

World War II occupies the bulk of discussion, and signifies a pivotal point in British imperial policy. Colonial resources were actively mobilized for metropolitan purposes. More importantly, by 1943 London had to grapple with the vast economic repercussions of the peace they envisioned, and postwar colonial policies focused almost exclusively on economic development. The rise of the United States as a global hegemony also had significant effects on Britain: the Atlantic Charter, which implied precipitate independence, was signed without consultation with the Colonial Office. Porter and Stockwell point out that even though postwar Britain endorsed a policy of non-intervention and indirect empire as a result of her strained circumstances, it neither accepted that it was in a state of irreversible imperial decline, nor entertained a timetable for the political advancement of colonized peoples.

Annotated by Jennifer Yip