Liquidation of Empire: The Decline of the British Empire. By Roy Douglas. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. 190 pages.
Winston Churchill made one of his most famous pronouncements in November 1942 when he declared to the House of Commons: "I have not become the King's First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire" (quoted in Douglas, 1). Indeed, Churchill managed to avoid personal responsibility for the loss of any significant imperial possessions by losing the 1945 election to Clement Atlee. India, the "jewel in the crown," gained its independence in 1947, and although Churchill returned as Prime Minister in 1951, he resigned his post for health reasons in 1955, thus avoiding the Suez Canal debacle and the independence of most of Britain's African possessions in the 1960s.
The story of empires--their growth and decline--appears to be a particularly popular topic today, perhaps inspired by America's recent imperial adventures. Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (1987) caught the attention of the public with its insightful comparisons of the United States and Great Britain. Subsequently a number of authors, recognizing the seemingly inescapable hold that the subject of empire holds for academics and the general public alike, have offered their own interpretations of the acquisition and dissolution of the British Empire. Americans, perhaps made more aware of the apparent uniqueness of the Anglo-American connection during the Reagan/Thatcher years and presently with the Blair/Bush ties, often look to earlier British imperial examples to help them make sense of today's more assertive American role in international relations. Although the acquisition of imperial possessions and their subsequent rule is often a more appealing story than an analysis of the reasons for the loss of those territories, several authors, including Roy Douglas, have increasingly turned their attention to the dissolution of the British Empire.
Douglas, Emeritus Reader at the University of Surrey, is the author of a number of books on political history, including The Advent of War, 1939-40 (1978) and From War to Cold War, 1942-48 (1981). His most recent work, Liquidation of Empire, traces the loss of British imperial possessions from World War I through to the transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997. In his introductory chapter Douglas describes the British Empire at its height, covering approximately one quarter of the earth's surface and ruling one quarter of the world's population. As late as World War II most Britons expressed grave concerns about the possible international repercussions of a "liquidation" of the empire, yet little remained of the Empire by the time of Churchill's death in 1965. Telling the tale primarily from the official British perspective, Douglas provides a straightforward narrative of the process of disengagement. After an abbreviated discussion of events in India in the aftermath of World War I, Douglas sets the stage for the dissolution of the Empire when he observes that Britain...
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