Decolonisation, Globalisation, and International Responsibility

This book is about the impact of decolonisation on British society in the 1960s. It moves away from the traditional focus on cultural, media, and governmental archives to analyse public agency and civic forms of engagement with the declining empire. Through a close examination of middle-class associational life it broadens our understanding of who had a stake in decolonisation while also revealing the optimism and enthusiasm with which members of the British public developed visions for a post-imperial global role. By studying a wide range of associational organisations this book shows that globalisation and decolonisation opened up new opportunities for international engagement for middle-aged members of middle-class society. In the 1960s for many participants in associational life it became a civic duty to engage, understand, and intervene to help the shrinking world in which they lived. This book uncovers how associations and organisations acted on this sense of duty, developing projects that promoted friendship and hospitality as the foundations of world peace, visions for secular and religious forms of humanitarianism that encouraged relationships of both sympathy and solidarity with those in the global South, and plans to increase international understanding through educative activities. This book will be useful to scholars of modern British history, particularly those with interests in empire, internationalism, and civil society. The book is also designed to be accessible to undergraduates studying these areas.

Abstract only
Anna Bocking-Welch

The Introduction sets out the two overarching themes of the book: the significance of associational life in determining public experiences of decolonisation, and the centrality of the idea of active citizenship to discourses of international engagement. It establishes the distinctive characteristics of the organisations discussed throughout the book – the Royal Commonwealth Society, the Women’s Institute, the Rotary Club, the Freedom from Hunger Campaign, and Christian Aid. The Introduction explains that the experiences of these organisations do not simply broaden our sense of who was affected by the end of empire, they also require us to rethink how we characterise the domestic impact of decolonisation and the enduring legacies of imperialism. Most significantly, for these groups the principles of international goodwill offered a sense of stabilising continuity that made them resistant to pessimistic readings of the 1960s implosion of Empire.

in British civic society at the end of empire
Anna Bocking-Welch

Chapter 1 is about the promotion of the Commonwealth as a model for international cooperation. Using the activities of the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS), it assesses the afterlife of empire as it was lived by those who had been the most involved. Negotiating the transition from Empire to Commonwealth was a complex process and this chapter is about the difficulty of adaptation. This is not a story of triumphant success – the membership of the RCS was an ageing cohort, often more interested in sociability than public engagement. But neither is it a story of outright failure. Many found scope for optimism by reflecting on the possibilities of the new modern Commonwealth. This chapter shows that the Commonwealth was not merely an ‘imperial hangover’ – the preservation of tradition to soothe those who had been invested in the imperial project – but that it also provided the foundation for new forms of cooperative partnership that informed many of the international engagement activities discussed in the later chapters.

in British civic society at the end of empire
Anna Bocking-Welch

Chapter 2 extends existing histories of imperial travel and exploration to reveal how ideas about reciprocity, knowledge, and the right to represent foreign peoples changed in the context of decolonisation. It uses the international activities of the Women’s Institute and Rotary Club to show how imperial decline shaped both the practical and discursive dimensions of educative activities such as film screenings, lectures, and International Days. Global events determined not only which parts of the world were worth investing time in, but also which aspects of foreign life were worth knowing about. This chapter shows that instigators of international engagements were typically mobile members of society who had some form of ‘first hand’ experience of the Empire/Commonwealth. While some speakers put themselves forward as amateur ambassadors, bringing their own experiences back to their local communities, others claimed authority by speaking from positions of professional expertise. This chapter uses these events as a window on to the wider debates about expertise and amateurism that characterised many discussions of diplomacy, international relations, development, and imperial administration in this period.

in British civic society at the end of empire
Anna Bocking-Welch

Chapter 3 addresses the emotional history of international engagement, focusing on projects designed to develop familiarity and intimacy across international boundaries. It uses the international activities of the Women’s Institute and the Rotary Club to explore these issues. The projects discussed fall into two categories: providing hospitality to foreign visitors (particularly overseas students) and building friendships with people living overseas. It illustrates how imperial legacies determined not only the geographies of these connections but also the hierarchical structures through which they were conceived. Put simply, the possibility of equal or reciprocal friendship was determined to a considerable degree by the colour of one’s skin. The hospitality work of the Rotary Club and Women’s Institute also illustrates how affective relationships were shaped by local and state priorities. Through their interaction with the British Council, Rotary and the Women’s Institute became agents in state projects of soft diplomacy that sought to improve relations with the Commonwealth.

in British civic society at the end of empire
Anna Bocking-Welch

Chapter 4 assesses humanitarian engagements with the decolonising empire, using the Freedom from Hunger Campaign (FFHC) to show how humanitarianism became a way to talk about Britain’s ‘lost vocation’. The typical narrative of post-war development is one of professionalisation. Rather than excluding the public from the ‘triumph of expertise’, the FFHC’s educational imperative sought to include them within it, providing the British public with an unprecedented opportunity to participate in international development. The FFHC was a global movement, but it also informed and was informed by specific national experiences. Britain’s own participation was shaped by the legacies of imperial and humanitarian intervention as well as the contemporary context of decolonisation. The chapter shows how the Campaign supported multiple, contradictory visions for Britain’s post-imperial global role.

in British civic society at the end of empire
Anna Bocking-Welch

Chapter 5 uses the work of Christian Aid to address the neglect of religious institutions in histories of the domestic impact of decolonisation. It shows how the complex interplay between domestic and international contexts determined the everyday experiences of religious humanitarian action. Christian Aid was shaped by post-war European reconstruction, by changing attitudes towards overseas missionary work, by the increasingly multiracial makeup of the World Council of Churches, by debates about the meaning of Christianity in modern Britain, and by long-standing rhythms of religious associational life. Its work reveals how religious organisations adapted in the face of decolonisation and capitalised on humanitarianism as a way of encouraging greater participation in religious activities. Christian Aid played certain dimensions of their imperial connections to their advantage, while simultaneously distancing themselves from those dimensions that were losing public support.

in British civic society at the end of empire
Abstract only
Anna Bocking-Welch

For most of the people discussed in this book decolonisation did not represent a crisis. This conclusion explains that for participants in middle-class associational life, the literal shrinking of Britain’s empire was not inherently more important than the figurative shrinking of a world brought together by the forces of globalisation. The geopolitical interconnectedness that followed the Second World War, in conjunction with the expansion of international mobility in the 1950s and 1960s, produced a sense of global closeness that was at least as important as decolonisation in determining associational forms of international engagement. These two processes were interrelated and interacting; each contributed to a dynamic of anxiety and optimism that shaped ideas about civic responsibility in this period. Participants in associational life called upon experiences from the recent imperial past to mitigate anxieties about the globalising present while simultaneously using the increased opportunities for international communication and collaboration represented by the globalising present to mitigate anxieties about the loss of empire. At the heart of this dynamic was the idea of a benevolent global role.

in British civic society at the end of empire