275 Followers
48 Following
Hoss

Monkeypanic

Last Thousand Days of the British Empire: The Demise of a Superpower, 1944-47

Last Thousand Days of the British Empire: The Demise of a Superpower, 1944-47 - P. F. Clarke Ugh, this is hard. The unwinding of a massive global empire is a complex story, with multiple processes going on simultaneously, so this is a difficult story to tell in a linear fashion. Peter Clarke does a good job trying to keep his narration simple enough for general consumption in a 500 page paperback, but naturally all this simplicity comes at a cost in lost detail. This book makes the following sacrifices:1) GEOGRAPHIC: Although the sun never set on the British Empire, more than 80% (my estimate) of this text is centered on British wranglings in Europe, either during or just after World War II. The events followed are interesting, but alone give a very incomplete account of the decline of the Empire. Clarke glosses over Gandhi and the Indian independence movement in the last 100 pages or so, and also throws in slightly less accounting of how/why the British withdrew from Palestine. Virtually nothing is said about Malaysia, Singapore, British interests in China, or Australia and New Zealand. 2) THE SCOPE OF ANALYSIS: Peter Clarke focuses heavily on military and political events, and spends much less discussion of economic and social factors behind the end of the empire. 3) THE CAST OF CHARACTERS: Given #2 above, the book by necessity focuses very heavily on the leaders of government, so don't expect any man-on-the ground details about the social movements, attitudes, civil unrest (e.g. between Muslims and Hindus in India) or other experiences of the general public during these last thousand days. Winston Churchill is the undisputed center of this book, and I must admit I was surprised at the magnitude of his roll in the decline of the Empire. (context: the various Roman emperors, while important, do not figure nearly so prominently in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire).Accepting the above limitations, I did enjoy the first 2/3 of the book, and I did enhance my understanding of why Britain no longer holds her empire around the world. I mention the first 2/3 of the book; it deals with military and political events involving England up to and through World War II. The last 1/3 of the book shifts focus to the withdrawal from India and Palestine... a subject of more interest to me, simply because it is less familiar territory. Unfortunately, this portion is written in a very dry style, summarizing in great detail all the various meetings and conferences held between Cripps, Nehru, Gandhi, and various figures in the Muslim League.The real value of this book to me was expounding a few key points:1) THE CONSEQUENCES OF THE LEND/LEASE PROGRAM: I think I am in the company of many Americans in that I was dimly aware of Lend/Lease, but had no idea it was so damaging to the British economy. From 1940, when Britain declared war on Germany, to June 22, 1941, when the USSR was attacked by Hitler's forces, Britain stood alone in Europe against Adolph Hitler, yet wartime production in England was nowhere near sufficient to turn out the necessary wares to fight him. Roosevelt wanted to assist, but did not have domestic political support to enter a war, so the Lend/Lease program was devised, whereby Britain could essentially rent American military hardware on credit. Churchill harbored a secret hope that the bill for this would be excused after the war. Maybe this was Roosevelt's intent too, but he died in early 1945, and his succesor Truman held Britain to the bill. Payments ate up funds Britain might otherwise have been spent holding its far-flung territories. 2) BALANCE OF TRADE (pp28, 265-266): British ability to pay war expenses was of course dependent on revenues. A number of circumstances during the war years conspired to cripple revenue: war disrupted the flow of goods and materials between Britain, the colonies, and the rest of the world; and domestic production was hampered by a severe manpower loss as able-bodied men left agriculture and industry for the battlefield. Also, which is interesting for its current-day correlates: whereas the U.S. economy grew in the 1940's under a moderate, managed form of selective protectionism, Britain stood fast on a policy of completely "free and open" markets, and as a result suffered devistatingly unfavorable trade imbalances. Advocates of "free trade" (particularly the WTO and World Bank) always hold the threat of trade decline and inefficiencies to argue against tariffs, yet these policies frequently damage domestic producers with a "double whammy" of diminished revenues and increased social welfare expenses. That's rarely mentioned in public discussion. In 2010, America is repeating Britain's mistakes of the 1940's, sacrificing its financial future for a pie-in-the sky idea of "free trade" (Ref: America for Sale Fighting the New World Order Surviving a Global Depression and Preserving USA Sovereignty)3) COST/BENEFIT:By the end of World War II, the benefits of holding India and Palastine no longer justified the expense of their policing, governing and administration. With growing anti-British sentiment in India (1945 population: 400million) probably no amount of money would have been sufficient for Britain (1945 population: 80million) to securely hold it in the Empire. A few other minor points, which the publisher could improve in future editions:1) More, and better quality, maps are needed. Clarke goes into considerable detail covering various battles and troop movements through the middle part of this book, yet the maps do not include a lot of the lesser-known places he tells us about. 2) Some sort of glossary or index of characters would be appreciated. Minor functionaries, assistants, and other lesser-known people have a habit of being mentioned once in this book, and then not again for like 200 pages. Since they don't make much of an impression the first time around, I found myself having to go back to dig up where I heard that name before, frequently to find out something like "oh, yes, that assistant to the undersecretary was mentioned earlier as a member of the general's staff during the war"... a lot of work for little reward.3) For the benefit of non-British readers, it would be nice to have a very brief glossary to explain the significance of some of the titles within the British government (e.g.- I gather the Viceroy of India is the King's representative in India, and I think is directly answerable to the King... or do I have that right?) This information is naturally available elsewhere (Wikipedia comes to mind), and it may be asking a lot to include this sort of reference, but would have been nice to have at hand.