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Home arrow Political science arrow Britain’s Cold War in Cyprus and Hong Kong: A Conflict of Empires

Conservative Governments and Empire (1951-1957)

The 1950 general election reduced the Labour Party’s overall majority in Parliament to just six seats and Attlee called for another election eighteen months later, hoping to regain ground.31 However, continued austerity measures (especially regarding the National Health Service), the costs of the Korean War, and the increasing number of domestic strikes with a corresponding increase in government repression (i.e. the Labour government’s use of troops, strike-breakers, and jail time for strikers) had taken their electoral toll.32 Meanwhile, Churchill overcame ‘Labour’s accusations that he was a “warmonger”’ by playing up his experience in international diplomacy. The result was a narrow victory for the Conservatives, and Churchill returned for one last jaunt as prime minister.33

Churchill’s first problem was the economy. His government inherited a considerable balance of payments crisis, caused mostly by the rearmament programme of 1950. R. A. Butler, the new chancellor of the exchequer, informed his Cabinet colleagues that Britain’s deficit was increasing by some ?700 million each year.34 Churchill thus instructed the Treasury to pressure all government departments to cut expenditure. These cuts in part led to the implementation of the so-called ‘New Look’, which was a shift from conventional to nuclear weaponry in order to reduce military spending. Britain tested its first atomic bomb on 3 October 1952 (to be outdone by the US’s test of the first hydrogen bomb less than one month later and a Soviet hydrogen bomb in August 1953).35 Moreover, Churchill specifically asked Oliver Lyttelton, the new secretary of state for the colonies, to consider ‘any emergency measure which the Colonies might take to relieve the current economic difficulties of the United Kingdom’.36

Churchill’s government also continued its predecessor’s prioritization of the Anglo-American relationship. Just as the Labour Cabinet agreed to shift its defence priorities from the Middle East to Europe in 1950, Anthony Eden, in his third stint as secretary of state for foreign affairs, was forced in 1954 to pursue the rearmament of West Germany within NATO, after John Foster Dulles, the US secretary of state, threatened to decrease the US’s military commitments to Europe. Despite the softening of Soviet policy after the death of Stalin in March 1953—most broadly the move from Zhdanov’s two-camps doctrine towards the ‘peaceful coexistence’ rhetoric of Georgii Malenkov and Nikita Khrushchev—Churchill’s desire to make peace with the Soviets had to give way to the view of US President Eisenhower that ‘there had been no change since Lenin’ in the Soviet Union’s expansionist aims.37

The colonial policy of the Attlee government (to prepare certain colonies for independence within the Commonwealth, in part, to lessen the economic burden on the metropole) was also taken up by the Conservatives with only minor changes. These changes, which included the substitution of the phrase ‘full self-government’ for ‘independence’, reflected the broader Conservative attempt to slow the pace of decolonization in certain cases.38

In fact, the Churchill administration saw ‘relatively little constitutional progression towards colonial independence’. His government, as well as that of his successor, ‘have been variously characterised as delivering years of “ambiguity” and even “revival” in British imperial policy’.39

For example, it was Churchill’s minister of housing and local government, Harold Macmillan, who pushed for increasing trade within the sterling area to reinvigorate what he called ‘the third British Empire’. On 14 November 1951, Lyttelton announced in the House of Commons his government’s intention to maintain the imperial strategy of Churchill’s wartime coalition and Attlee’s post-war government.40 He said:

First, we all aim at helping the Colonial Territories to attain self-government within the British Commonwealth. To that end we are seeking as rapidly

as possible to build up in each territory the institutions which its circumstances require. Second, we are all determined to pursue the economic and social development of the Colonial Territories so that it keeps pace with their political development.41

This vague statement also maintained the previous governments’ view that the road to self-government was long. Indeed, ‘by linking economic and social development with the pace of political change, Lyttelton was in fact saying Britain would not grant independence to a colonial territory which did not possess means of its own to sustain it’.42 Moreover, Churchill and Eden, like their predecessors and successors, believed that ‘the stability of sterling, the special [Anglo-American] relationship and Britain’s international standing [i.e. prestige] were interlinked’. Therefore, ‘any kind of retreat equalled a loss of prestige and thus power. And loss of power meant not only political, but also economic decline.’43

With the economy and military over-stretched, the Conservative government, like its predecessor, was forced to trim as much as possible but also as delicately as possible, so as to avoid costly colonial conflicts and/ or the perception that Britain was unable to maintain its global position. As a Foreign Office memorandum outlined, ‘It is evident that in so far as we reduce commitments [...] our claim to the leadership of the Commonwealth, to a position of influence in Europe, and to a special relationship with the United States will be, pro tanto, diminished’. Thus Churchill’s government sought ‘a very gradual and inconspicuous’ reduction, both imperial and domestic.44

On 5 April 1955, five days into the National Organization of Cypriot Fighters (EOKA) revolt in Cyprus and less than two months before the next general election scheduled for the end of May, Churchill reluctantly retired as prime minister, owing largely to poor health. With Eden at the helm, the Conservative Party increased its majority in Parliament by 42 seats. Larres has speculated that it was Eden’s success in negotiating with the Soviets

(regarding Austrian sovereignty and efforts to ease international tensions through summit diplomacy) and the rise in domestic living standards which attracted more of the British electorate away from the schismatic Labour Party and its programme for nationalization.45

Eden’s measured diplomacy with the Russians notwithstanding, Soviet meddling in Egypt prompted concerns in the Cabinet; Harold Macmillan, the new secretary of state for foreign affairs, claimed that ‘in the Middle East the Russians had clearly embarked on a deliberate policy of opening up another front in the cold war’. Eden replied that:

the main objective of our policy should be to protect our vital oil interests in the Middle East. From this point of view the strengthening of the Northern Tier defence arrangements was more important than the attitude of Egypt. Turkey was the pivot to the Northern Tier defence. This factor should be kept in mind in all considerations of the Cyprus question.46

Thus the ongoing colonial emergencies in Malaya, Kenya, British Guiana, and Cyprus, as well as the Suez Crisis in 1956 ‘all suggested that the British appeared to have dug in their heels and to be tenaciously clinging to empire’. Or, as David Goldsworthy put it, the Conservative government’s general policy aim was ‘the containment of colonial political change’.47 Either way, the maintenance of empire continued to be critical in resisting Soviet imperialism.

This imperial strategy for rebuilding and maintaining British geopolitical power was a consistent framework since at least the early 1940s, defined by imperial tensions with the Soviets which stretched back to the late 1910s. The Suez Crisis in 1956, however, made plain Britain’s declining imperial power as well as its junior position in the Anglo-American relationship. By the early 1960s, British strategy was shifted away from empire towards Europe, marked by Prime Minister Macmillan’s (unsuccessful) application to join the European Economic Union in 1961.48

As Britain’s imperial power became increasingly challenged and undermined by internal and external threats, policy-makers across the empire, especially in Cyprus and Hong Kong, reverted from the positivity of colonial reform to the repression of formal empire. Labour’s new approach to colonialism in late 1946 was financially hamstrung and ideologically repudiated. As such, for Cyprus and Hong Kong, despite the rise in nationalist- led violence after 1949, British policy-makers’ unwavering efforts against communism became a question of too much or too little repression.

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