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Response to Review no. 319

First of all I would like to thank John Kent for his extensive review of my book. I feel particularly honoured by this review, since the writings of Kent were – among the works of Robert Holland, John Darwin and Ronald Robinson – an important inspiration that led me to writing my book in the first place. Nonetheless, there are several points that need further discussion. Due to lack of space I will concentrate on two major issues. The first one is the terminology used. According to Kent, my book aims to bring new elements into play in ‘analysing the loss of Britain’s empire’. In his next sentence, he talks of the ‘abandonment of empire’.

As a matter of fact, neither the presumed ‘loss’ nor the alleged ‘abandonment’ of Britain’s empire is treated in my book. Its aim rather is to understand the ‘profound transformation of the imperial framework’ that took place after 1945 (p. 1). The emphasis throughout the book clearly is on ‘transformation’, not on ‘loss’ or ‘abandonment’. It is crucial to point this out. Innocent as they may seem, the words used by Kent already imply a certain kind of explanation for what happened after 1945. Therefore they should not be used, before the argument for doing so have been presented in full.

Discussing use of the terms of ‘loss’ and ‘abandonment’ by Kent is not logomachy, but crucial for any analysis of imperial history after 1945. Only by applying a precise terminology is it possible to solve the (alleged) riddles presented in many books on the end of empire. If one says that Britain ‘lost’ her empire, it is implied that the withdrawal from Asia, Africa and the Middle East took place against the will of policy-makers in London. Stating that the empire was ‘abandoned’, on the other hand, necessarily leads to the conclusion that the British acted against some kind of moral imperative: theoretically they should have stayed on, but for some selfish reason they refused to do so.

One of the central arguments of my book is that the Empire-Commonwealth was neither lost nor abandoned. In the two decades after World War II, its formal part was transformed into a very loose association of states which had little in common but for the fact that at one point of their history, all of them had been governed from London. The informal part of Britain’s world role underwent several redefinitions and restructurings. Nevertheless it survived until the end of the period considered in my book (and even beyond that date), albeit in a strongly reduced form.

The second major issue on which I disagree with John Kent is his claim that four of the five main points of interests to British policy-makers identified in the book did not really matter. According to Kent, preoccupations with the containment of communism, the securing of the special relationship with the US, the protection of British assets overseas and the stability of pound sterling were at best only secondary to the desire to maintain Britain’s prestige. As stands out from all discussions in London – particularly those at Cabinet level – all five factors were considered as interconnected and interdependent with each other. The pursuit of prestige was never a goal in itself. Policy-makers were rather convinced that prestige was essential for the preservation of the other four factors constituting the basis of Britain’s role and self-understanding as a world power.

Contrary to what is said by Kent in his review, the first consideration of policy-makers always was the relative advantages and disadvantages of their policies. Alternatives were conceived of, but in the case of overseas commitments, the disadvantages of a withdrawal were generally considered to be more important than those of staying on – despite enormous financial difficulties. This was the central point in all discussions on Britain’s role overseas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. If policy-makers said that the costs of losing prestige were greater than the economies to be made by reducing overseas commitments, they did not consider prestige as a value in itself; it was rather considered the means that allowed Britain to play a much greater role in a bipolar world than her strongly reduced economic and military resources would normally have allowed her to.

By helping to maintain a strong pound sterling, prestige allegedly even contributed to Britain’s economic survival. It is nowadays still difficult to say whether this was muddled economics or justified strategic thinking. But as far as the author of the book under discussion is concerned, what should interest us most is not whether – economically speaking – policy-makers at the time were right or wrong. The aim rather has to be to understand why they acted the way they did. This can only be done by analysing the co-ordinates of their mental maps (or by ‘scrutinising the official mind’).

There are several other points that would merit more intensive discussion. However, entering into such arguments is beyond the scope of this reply. But the author would be glad to continue the discussion with John Kent in another context.