Ethical Colonialism: the Social, Economic and Political Development of the British Empire, 1947-64

Tutor: David Clayton

Module type: MA Option

Module code: HIS00112M

Credits: 20

Did empires perpetuate inequalities, between and within nations? Were colonial peoples exploited by their metropolitan masters? These questions are central to many debates (current and historical) in international political economy. Despite the efforts of intellectuals from Lenin to Ferguson, they have not been answered satisfactorily. Those of a less polemical bent, would, of course, refine and reframe the questions. They would ask: which empires, and when? They might also differentiate between early and ‘late’, ‘progressive’, colonialism. So, let us provide some context for our macro-case, the British Empire during a period of rapid decolonisation.

British colonial ‘development’ policy, the subject of enquiry here, had twin aims: to accelerate the rate of economic growth and to deliver (in today’s parlance) ‘social justice’. Colonial Office shifted away from a laissez-faire ‘growth-orientated’ approach towards an ‘equity-orientated’ doctrine, one that encouraged policy interventions across a wide range of areas, social, economic and political. What might be uneasily labelled ‘ethical’ late colonialism aimed to make colonial people healthy, knowledgeable, and, ultimately, participants in democratic independent nation-states; in theory, colonialism was no longer about extracting money, raw materials, and men from indigenous societies. But was the British Empire Remade in this way? Did new visions of empire match colonial realities?

The seminars begin with general topics and then study themes, and are designed to set up essay questions answered using self-compiled extended reading lists.

Seminar topics may include:

    • Sources and state secrecy
    • ‘Development’, and ‘Decolonisation’
    • An empire bond by trade? 
    • Altruistic aid?
    • Intra-empire migration
    • Commonalties: time and communication?
    • Convergence: custom and law?
    • Dealing with Disasters


Preliminary Reading

    • Darwin, John. The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830-1970. Cambridge, 2009.
    • Saito, Shohei. “Operation Legacy’: Britain’s Destruction and Concealment of Colonial Records World, Britain’s Destruction and Concealment of Colonial Records Worldwide’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History’, April 2017, 697-719 (And/or Cobain, Ian. The History Thieves: Secrets, Lies, and the Shaping of a Modern Nation. London, 2016: chapter 4: ‘Sinning Quietly: Operation Legacy and the Theft of Colonial History’, pp. 101-136.)
    • Brown, Judith and Roger Louis The Oxford History of the British Empire: the twentieth century. Oxford, 2001 [the best comprehensive set of survey essays].