Home Political science Britain’s Cold War in Cyprus and Hong Kong: A Conflict of Empires
The Cold War: Imperialisms and Ideologies
This comparative study of British policies in Hong Kong and Cyprus and the identification of several important battlegrounds (e.g. geopolitics, education, trade unionism, and population control) challenge the traditional definitions of the Cold War. Johanna Rainio-Niemi has recently asserted that ‘the view that the Cold War was an embracive contestation between two “empires”, notably alike in their motives, both taking efforts to prove “the universal applicability of their ideologies”, is mainstream [as of 2014] in Cold War research’.35 However, that the definition of the Cold War is still limited to a Soviet-American conflict is nonsensical. As this book has shown, British colonial policy-makers were also engaged in the imperial contest, both territorially and psychologically, against the Soviet Union ‘by all means short of war’.36 Moreover, British efforts (just like the efforts of the Soviet Union, the US, and others) ‘to prove “the universal applicability of their ideologies”’ were less an end than the means by which policy-makers sought to revive, adapt, and defend their empire and contest those of their rivals.
Britain’s imperial ideology was not a coherent and consistent doctrine but more an adaptable justification for the existence of the British Empire. From the sixteenth century, Protestantism, commercialism, mercantilism, free trade, and liberalism all served at some point or another to underpin Britain’s imperial ideology, while great power rivalry remained a constant.37 For the British, ideology served state interests; however, British perceptions of communist ideology as the slippery and pervasive dynamo for Soviet neo-colonialism meant that Soviet imperialism was a new and more dangerous type of imperial rival.
Before the advent of the Soviet empire, imperial conflicts (such as the ‘Great Game’ between tsarist Russia and Britain) were competitions for dominance in an established framework of economic and great power interests. Once communism—as an ideology which self-avowedly sought not only to destroy ‘imperialist’ and ‘capitalist’ powers but also to overthrow the existing order—became the nominal driving force behind one of the largest empires on earth, the imperial conflict between the Soviet union and Britain (and soon others) marked a distinctive period of history called the Cold War. While the Soviet Union in practice was largely motivated by traditional great power interests, the British perception of a rival imperialism bent on the destruction of the British Empire through ‘all means short of war’, combined especially with the devastation of the Second World War, prompted British policy-makers to defend their imperialism through its reform and attack their rivals in a war of perception.
The task of reforming colonial rule (including the implementation of the 1943 decision to guide colonies to self-government) in the face of perceived Soviet aggression fell first to the post-war Labour government. This was the same Labour government whose 1945 election manifesto had promised to ‘apply a socialist analysis to the world situation’. Labour was a latitudinarian party, and many of its members, which included liberals, social democrats, socialists, and ex-communists, hoped that the new Labour government would build friendly relations with the Soviet Union and the CPGB.38 The Labour Party, however, had a ‘schizophrenic approach to the Soviet Union’, based on ‘the recognition that while the Soviets professed to be socialist and mouthed anti-capitalist, progressive rhetoric),] what they practised mostly contravened both this and Labour’s own democratic socialist values’.39
However, what ultimately pitted the Labour government against the Soviet Union was not ideology in itself but imperial rivalry between great powers. To this end, ideology was manipulated as political cover for the
Labour government to implement the policies it considered to be necessary to combat Soviet imperialism. The ideological anti-communism of such moderate Labour Party leaders as Bevin and Creech Jones aside, and while the perception of a Soviet threat was genuine, as Weiler has observed:
the pursuit of British hegemony in the Middle East or counterrevolution in Malaya or continued support of French and Dutch colonialism—actions that would have been denounced by Labour if carried out by a Conservative government—could now be made more acceptable by presenting them as the defense of freedom against totalitarianism or of Western civilization against encroaching foreign barbarism.40
While often framed as an ideological struggle, the motivation for British foreign and colonial policies was great power interests.
This is not to say that ideology was irrelevant. This comparison of Hong Kong and Cyprus has highlighted rampant, sometimes illogical anticommunism in the British official mind. Indeed, ‘paranoia clearly led London to see real or potential Soviet communists behind every nationalist outbreak’.41 Beginning in February 1948, riots in Accra, the capital of the Gold Coast, were widely and inaccurately considered by many in London to be a communist conspiracy. And while Creech Jones was not convinced, his under-secretary of state for the colonies, Rees-Williams, stated in the House of Commons that ‘[t]here was almost certainly Communist incitement’.42 Even before the communist agitation which had been bubbling away in Malaya turned violent in June 1948, the Colonial Office was reorganized to improve its ability to monitor communist subversion in and regarding the colonies.43
Britain did not succumb to some sort of misinformed Cold War hysteria, which exaggerated the threat and exacerbated tensions. Instead, as Phillip Deery has argued, British official anti-communism was ‘rational’ and ‘clear-headed’, based on two perceived developments: the increasingly belligerent and expansionist foreign policy of the Soviet Union and the ‘aggressive, doctrinaire, and unremittingly hostile’ policies of the CPGB, supposedly on instructions from the Cominform.44 This comparison of Hong Kong and Cyprus demonstrates a third perceived factor: the development of effective colonial communist parties, supposedly directed by Moscow and/or Beijing as a part of the neo-colonial, anti-colonial campaign of international communism. These three factors, taken together, support the definition of the Cold War as a conflict of rival imperialisms, in which communism was considered to be a threat because it provided an efficient ideological framework for attracting the discontents of the colonial world and manipulating them to the benefit of Soviet imperial power at the expense of that of the British.
Moreover, colonial communist movements, real or imagined, defied British colonial strategy. In forming its approach to West Africa, but certainly applicable across the empire, the Colonial Office distinguished between the mostly educated nationalists, the professional moderates, and the non-political rural population. According to a secret memorandum by the Colonial Office’s International Relations Department, successful colonial policy ‘must satisfy the second class [i.e. the moderates] while safeguarding the interests of the third [i.e. the rural population], and going far enough to meet the aspirations of the first [i.e. the nationalists] to secure some co-operation at any rate from all but the more extreme nationalists’.45
The difficulty of fitting the communists and their revolutionary ideology into this equation meant colonial officials endeavoured to simply remove them. The ten-year economic and social development plan in Cyprus and the creation of schools in Hong Kong were positive policies aimed not to satisfy, safeguard, or appease communists, but to undermine their popular appeal and remove them from colonial politics. When this failed, British policy-makers turned to suppression.
What is clear from this study is that the threat of communism, while perhaps presented publicly in ideological terms and certainly fought through ideological and cultural warfare, was almost always within the British imperial system described by policy-makers as a threat of material, territorial, and/or psychological expansionism. As John Peck, the head of the Foreign Office’s Information Research Department (1951-1953), explained in 1951:
[i]t is not so much Communism that we seek to counter, since Communism and Communists by themselves are not expected to achieve very much; it is the aggressive aims of the Soviet Government using the Communist Parties and Communist-controlled organisations for the purpose[,] and exploiting ‘Communism’ (whatever that may mean) for its own political ends.46
More specifically, British anti-communist policies were motivated by the paramount objective of defending the British imperial project from direct or indirect Soviet aggression and re-establishing Britain’s world power status independent of the US and USSR.47
However, the rise of two conflicting superpowers, both of which were keen ‘to disassociate themselves from European colonialism’, meant that colonial people of the British Empire could look to the enemy of their enemy (i.e. to the Soviet Union) for support.48 By the 1950s, Britain had finally succumbed to the debilitating cost of rebuilding its global role and to the permanence of Soviet-American hegemonic power—that which the early Cold War had allowed Britain to ignore before and immediately after the Second World War.49
The politics of force utilized for Britain’s nineteenth- and early twentieth-century colonialism were then rationalized as ‘virtuous’ and ‘profitable’ endeavours, as Churchill infamously put it, ‘[t]o give peace to warring tribes [...] to draw the richness from the soil, to plant the earliest seeds of commerce and learning, to increase in whole peoples their capacities for pleasure and diminish their chances of pain’.50 Attlee, as former Labour prime minister in 1953, reflected, ‘an attempt to maintain the old colonialism would I am sure have immensely aided communism’.51
After the Second World War, British decolonization, not as a scuttle but as a deliberate, calculated but ultimately doomed programme aimed at re-establishing British global power in the context of international anti-colonialism, demanded a softer touch. On the one hand, it was widely believed that ‘in the long run you can only beat ideas by better ideas, and not by political tactics and police methods’.52 On the other hand, financial and geopolitical restraints dictated British policy formation and, thereby, the direction of decolonization and the Cold War. Britain’s Cold War policies, therefore, fell broadly but unevenly into two categories: constructive and repressive. The governments of Hong Kong and Cyprus relied much more on the latter.
Indeed, as James Vaughan has argued, ‘this distinction between “negative” anti-Communist and “positive” pro-British propaganda tended to break down in practice’. This was acknowledged by contemporaries; the Ministry of Defence wrote in 1952 that:
The activity variously called ‘presentation of the democratic case’, ‘battle of ideas’, ‘cold war’, ‘ideological warfare’, ‘propaganda’ and ‘psychological warfare’ (and sometimes ‘information and cultural activities’ [...]) is capable of being discussed in a negative or a positive aspect. [...] The two aspects cannot however be completely divorced.53
Nevertheless, the policies introduced during these early years of the Cold War and decolonization were increasingly cultural (although mostly negative).
The arms and space races, the hot proxy wars, and Soviet-American high politics which classify the traditional definition of the Cold War comprised only part of what is better understood as a much broader great power conflict of rival imperialisms. Recently, much has been made of the role of culture; indeed, ‘“[c]ulture” is now part of historians’ Cold War’.54 And while culture has long been a part of historians’ British Empire, culture was considered by British policy-makers, from Cyprus to Hong Kong, to be the answer to the perceived threat of communist imperialism.
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