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From Empire to Commwealth

British troops on the Suez canal in 1956 The loss of empire came as a profound shock to Britain.

For the past half century, successive politicians have attempted to re-define the UK's role in the modern world.

Suez, 1956: the end of imperial self-confidence

On the eve of the First World War, the British empire stretched from Canada to India, from Africa to Australia. Through its colonies and dominions, Britain exercised authority over one fifth of the world's entire population.

And British school-children proudly noted how much of the map of the world was coloured red - to denote the British empire. Today, Britain has just 14 overseas territories, including the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar and the Cayman islands.
Britain hands back Hong Kong to China
1997: Britain hands back Hong Kong to China

Most of the countries which once made up the British empire are now members of the Commwealth, a loose association of states which retains the Queen as its head, but over which Britain has no direct control.

While largely peaceful, the loss of empire was a profound shock to Britain. Old certainties about Britain's role in the world were replaced by new questions - many have yet to be answered.

British politicians at first hoped to contain the loss of empire, by giving Dominion status to long established colonies such as Australia and Canada.

Anguilla, Bermuda, British Antarctic Territory, British Indian Ocean Territory, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, Pitcairn Islands, St Helena, South Georgia and the Sound Sandwich Islands, the Sovereign base areas of Akrotiri and Dhekalia on Cyprus and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

They reluctantly conceded independence to India in 1947, and by the early 1960s, it became clear that Britain's position in Africa was no longer defensible.

Following the famous "wind of change speech" by the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, Britain gradually handed back its nineteenth century acquisitions.

All the while, Britain agonised over its place in the new world order: should it remain at the heart of the burgeoning Commwealth; should it look towards the United States (traditionally suspicious of imperalism) or direct its attention closer to home, to Europe?

Audio Clip AUDIO
BBC Sound Archives, 1960
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan on the "wind of change" blowing through Africa.

"The end of empire was not just a change for Britain but signalled a transformed world," says the Open University's William Brown: "Numerous new independent states in place of subject colonies; co-operation and integration in Europe in place of warring imperial powers; the rise of new international organisations like the UN in place of the failed League of Nations; World War replaced by Cold War, Cold War by US global leadership."

Renewed uncertainties since the end of the Cold War have revived debates about Britain's place in the world.

How far should Britain go in supporting American foreign policy now that the enemy of Communism, supported by the Soviet bloc, has disintegrated?

Politicians and strategists have been searching for a new coherence to Foreign Policy, since the end of the Cold War, as we shall see.

20th Century
1914  King George VHigh water mark of the British empire. It has 88 million subjects - one fifth of the entire population of the world.
1914-18  First World War.
1920  League of Nations established. Each member pledges to seek peaceful resolutions to disputes and assist fellow members against aggression. American Congress fails to ratify membership.
1920  League of Nations confirms British mandate over Palestine.
1931  Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand get together as a "Commwealth" of nations.
1939  Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand given independence within the Commwealth
1939-45  Second World War.
1945  United Nations set up.
1947  India and Pakistan gain independence from Britain.
1948  Burma and Ceylon gain independence from Britain.
Quote Mark The wind of change is blowing through this continent and, whether we like it or not, this growth of consciousness is a political fact. Quote Mark

Harold Macmillan, speech in South Africa
1960-68  Independence for: Nigeria, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, Botswana, Zambia, Gambia, Lesotho, Swaziland.
1961  South Africa leaves the Commwealth after objections from other members about its racial policies.
1965  The white regime in Rhodesia issues a unilateral declaration of independence to avoid black majority rule.
1973  Britain joins the "Common Market", later to become the European Union.
1980  Britain brokers deal under which Rhodesia becomes Zimabwe.
1981  British Nationality Act - revokes the right of many citizens of remaining "dependent territories" to live in Britain.
1982  Falklands War - Britain launches military action to oust Argentina from one of its few remaining overseas territories.
1994  Nelson MandelaSouth Africa elects Nelson Mandela as its first black president and is accepted back into the Commonweath.
1997  Britain hands Hong Kong back to China as its hundred-year lease on the island runs out.
1999  Government White Paper proposes reinstating the right to live in Britain for citizens of British overseas territories, as they're now called. The government estimates this could affect around 200,000 people
21st Century
2001/2  Legislation to implement this promise is currently going through parliament.

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