- Published on Amazon.com
Darwin is one of my favorite historians of the British Empire, and this book, one of his first, is an under-appreciated classic in the field.
John Darwin’s book is a study of imperial policy in the Middle East during the four years following the end of the First World War, a period that illuminates the spirit of imperial policy over the next several decades. The region had held fundamental strategic importance to Britain since the early nineteenth century as part of the buffer zone that protected India. Darwin is keen to correct the once-dominant view that the First World War was a great watershed in imperial history, the prelude to an era in which the rise of colonial nationalism and the decline of economic and military strength forced a gradual retreat from Britain’s former dominance. According to this interpretation, the weaknesses caused by the war showed themselves in the nationalist movements that Britain faced in Ireland, India, and the Middle East in the four years after 1918. Resistance to British rule seemed evidence of a coming era of revolution, or at least of radical change, in the relations between colonial powers and indigenous peoples in Africa and Asia. These new symptoms of imperial weakness were often attributed to the debilitating effects of the Great War on Europe, to the diffusion of the political ideas associated with Woodrow Wilson, and to the influence of revolutionary Bolshevism.
Yet, as Darwin shows, there was little evidence that the British deduced from these developments that the structure of their imperial system had become unsafe. The British Empire had, after all, survived the war with its political structure largely intact, while the same war had served as a graveyard to four rival empires. It had weathered internal and external strains that proved too much for its competitors. Above all, at the end of the war, the British Empire displayed a striking capacity for further expansion in Africa and the Middle East. “In their response to the challenge of Egyptian nationalism and in their estimate of Britain’s strategic necessities in the Middle East, it is possible to see at work some of the most influential assumptions that guided British policymakers in imperial questions up until the cataclysm of the Second World War."
Darwin’s discussion focuses on the official mind – the ideas, thoughts, and motivations of those in London who were charged with the administration of foreign and imperial affairs. He argues that, after 1918, as in the two previous generations, Britain’s foreign policy was essentially defensive in character, geared not toward expansion but rather to the conservation of her trade and diplomacy that remained centered on India. The reason for this continuity lay in the economy of effort that was expected of British administrations. Policymakers could ill afford to ignore the dangers of allowing the burden of empire to press too heavily on the resources of the metropolis. After 1918 the domestic constraints on British policy were joined by a new aversion to war and by a growing awareness of the fragility of Britain’s economic position in the world. Conversely, however, ministers were equally hesitant to loosen the bonds of political control where they already existed, especially in regions of the world where British paramountcy had long been regarded as fundamental to the defense of empire.
British leaders brought these concerns to their formulation of policy in the Middle East in the four years after 1918. Disorder and a nationalist uprising in Egypt, and resistance to British rule in Turkey, Persia, and Iraq, forced the British to negotiate a new set of relationships to maintain and strengthen their rule. The general British policy was one of making political settlements with nationalist and resistance movements for the purpose of creating regional stability, which would exclude foreign challengers and allow Britain to uphold its strategic interests. Here lies an adaptation of the Robinson and Gallagher thesis of imperial "collaboration" with indigenous elites who could strengthen the British position in return for support from the imperial power. The British policy in Egypt serves to illustrate how such policies were achieved in the crisis after the war. In Egypt after March 1919, the nationalist uprising had threatened to withdraw local support for alien rule. The British policy that eventually emerged was one of limited concession to Egyptian nationalist demands, designed to enlist Egyptian cooperation at the minimum risk to imperial interests. As Darwin explains, “what they sanctioned was not a revolution in Anglo-Egyptian relations but an adjustment; not a general withdrawal of imperial influence but rather its rationalization: the shrugging off of commitments that had become over-extended during the war and which, as Milner had argued, were undermining the real purpose of the British presence.” The British thus discarded those superfluous elements of their presence that would only raise the political burden of guarding their strategic interest in Egypt. In the long run, therefore, the crisis in Anglo-Egyptian relations had less ominous consequences than many ministers had feared. The Allenby Declaration that emerged from the crisis, and which gave greater control to Egyptians, effectively created a political stalemate between the palace and the Wafd that allowed the British both to control political fortunes as well as to exclude foreign competitors. The essential strategic objectives of British policy were upheld; the costs of achieving them fell to levels far more acceptable to British voters after 1918.
Darwin’s study is concerned above all to establish an essential continuity of British policy between the periods before and after the First World War. Britain’s imperial strategies continued as before. The motives remained fundamentally the same. How then should historians interpret the seemingly contradictory policies pursued in the period between 1918 and 1922? For Darwin the answer lies (somewhat ironically) in the war itself. It forced Britain to interfere more widely and intensively than ever before in the society and economy of the whole region. “This great expansion in the imperial presence provoked, after the war, local responses which varied greatly in their character and tempo.” Simultaneously, the change of domestic British politics compelled ministers to reduce the scope of their strategic and military ambitions, and to therefore rely more greatly on local support. In sum, as Darwin explains: "The problem that tormented the policy-makers was not, in their view at least, whether the imperial system could survive, nor even how best to prepare for its gradual enfeeblement. It was the more immediate problem of how to contain the side-effects of the war on the internal and international security of the imperial system. All their solutions, whether in Egypt or the Middle East, assumed the necessity of preserving the Empire." Or, to put the matter another way, it was an attempt by policymakers to ease the costs and burdens of empire after a phase of extraordinary effort, and to give Britain more room for maneuver in its dealings with both colonial politicians and their own domestic opinion.