Britain’s Declining Empire: The Road to Decolonisation, 1918-1968

Bernard Porter writes:

Gosh, how civilised it was. ‘At last, without convulsion, without tremor and without agony, the great ship goes down.’ The ‘great ship’ was the British Empire; the words are those of the imperial historian Jack Gallagher. Noel Annan believed that the ‘peaceful divestment of the empire’ was ‘the most successful political achievement of Our Age’. The main actors on the British side all came out of it pretty chuffed, too. They must have been encouraged in this feeling by the crowds that cheered Lord Mountbatten on India’s Independence night, 14-15 August 1947, and unharnessed the horses from his vice-regal coach to drag it around New Delhi themselves, to the amazement of one journalist: it was as if ‘this nation had become more pro-British than it had ever been since the British came.’ That was immensely gratifying; especially as making their ex-subjects more pro-British was one of the primary aims of the decolonisation strategy, from the moment the empire’s days were seen to be numbered, which was quite early on.

(LRB 2 August 2007)