The Second Sphere: Britain's Focus on Commonwealth and Empire as a Stumbling Bloc in the Pursuit of a European Community

Dec 1, 1994

by Howard Fienberg for Dr. Turner

At worst, Americans were country cousins; Frenchmen were always bloody foreigners... we are unlikely to shake off our famous malaise until we feel ourselves to be Europeans. That implies something more than "joining the Common Market."(footnote 1)

In analyzing the exotic dance performed by the United Kingdom in the 1950's, one finds a trend in its relations with the Commonwealth and the European Community. The dance was geared to dodging the commitments of the EC, while trying to avoid full exclusion, usually, if not in the name of the Anglo-American partnership, than in that of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth became a rather convenient excuse not to partake of a broader European idea, nor the more fundamental and tangible European Community. In this exploration, one must focus on Britain's imperial decline, the changing status of the Commonwealth, and how and why Britain used the Commonwealth as an excuse to not join the EC.

First of all, one must examine the intricacies of Britain's imperial decline. As the only undefeated European power, Great Britain was able to maintain a higher degree of control over its empire, due to it's maintenance of overall order. Even the loss of India, Pakistan, Burma from the Empire in the late forties, and the negation of Palestine's status as a protectorate, did not damage the general view that Britain was still a Great Power, with a global interest.

Winston Churchill characterized British international interest in terms of three interconnected circles: Empire and Commonwealth, Europe, and the US. The US generally came first, Europe always last. Most Britons, throughout the 1950's, were living the illusion of global power, when in fact Britain was slipping slowly but surely from this status. The UK was suffering from imperial overstretch on a grandiose scale. It's economy was in a state of general decline, and showed the strains of continued maintenance of world power.

In 1947, Britain had reneged on its aid promises to Turkey and Greece, being incapable of providing support any longer; the burden was thus shifted to the US to aid and protect these two nations. This drove the development of the Americans' Truman Doctrine. As such, it showed the decrease in Britain's international capacity. This point was proven yet again when the Marshall Plan was instigated by the US to bail Europe out of its post-war miseries. Britain received a whopping 25% of the aid, signifying not necessarily their greater clout with the US, but their higher need to maintain forces across the world.

Since the British made no long term plans based upon a realistic assessment of their capacities, "its armed forces were compelled to fight a whole series of ad hoc `brushfire' wars and to be dispatched for various confrontations overseas."(footnote 2) When they found themselves incapable of dealing with these `brushfire' conflicts, they pulled out altogether, as happened in India and Palestine. A great drain on British power was also posed by the insurgency in Malaya. Application of British military power was able to beat back the communist-inspired revolutionaries, primarily made up of Chinese, who were a strong ethnic minority there. But it was a long and hard war, and though the other imperial powers (including the US) would try to duplicate British strategies and tactics in anti-guerrilla warfare, Britain was being heavily taxed by the effort to maintain order in Malaya. A general increase in commitment was required due to fears of a domino effect amongst the Far East colonies: one by one, they might fall in a row to communist or anti-imperialist forces.

One measure of declining British power can be discovered by checking the status of the Royal Navy. The navy was Britain's main instrument of power and control as a Great Power and was essential in retention of empire. Between 1948 and 1958, the number of aircraft carriers, battleships and destroyers fell from 137 to 77, and the number of frigates fell from 167 to 84. Although Britain's number of submarines remained relatively constant in this period, the application of power was generally through the other two categories, and these saw a nearly 50% drop in strength.(footnote 3)

In the early fifties, the Empire and Commonwealth accounted for 49% of Britain's imports and 54% of her exports. Britain was in a situation where its "commercial links with its far flung possessions" were growing in importance, at the same time as its effectual power to maintain them was in recession. However, few contemporaries noticed; most believed that the commitments to empire would simply require the maintenance or increase of the current expense.(foonote 4)

Although the world recognized two global powers in the post-war period, the UK insisted that it was one as well. Its wishes to be treated as such were dashed most specifically in 1956, as a result of the Suez crisis. Britain and France seized control of the canal from Egypt, in direct violation of international law. World opinion was resoundingly hostile, and the US intervened. Making a show of force in the region, and then instigating a run on the pound, the Americans made the British back down and retreat. Thus was Britain's position as a lapdog to America, the real world power, sealed in the public eye.

Secondly, one must investigate the changing status of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth was originally a cohesive grouping of British Dominions, given a degree of independence, save the most important parts of sovereignty, such as foreign affairs, and still owing their allegiance to the crown. Made up mostly of emigrated Britons, there was a socio-cultural link which, above most other ties, kept the Dominions tied to Britain and to each other, but it eroded gradually over time.

The first strains, came from North America, where the emerging Canadians were seeking both more support from Britain, at the same time as they demanded more autonomy. British intervention in the sale of territories to the US was most unwelcome and served to further Canadian annoyance. The first world war saw Canada divided as to its role. It was assumed that Canada would fight, but many disagreed. Although Canada entered the conflict and aided Britain, the decision mid-war to induce conscription was taken badly, and the dominion was split severely, as the mostly dissenting Quebecois, the French Canadians, frustrated Canadian efforts.

Britain made even greater concessions at the Ottawa Conference in 1932, but this was not enough. South Africa was rather divided over participation in the second world war; much of the (white) populace favored Germany and the Nazis, and some simply didn't care for any side. South Africa did enter the fray, but not without hesitation, and this hesitation further weakened the bonds.

Returning to North America, one finds that the US swung in during the war to eclipse Britain's position. Signing a defense treaty with Canada, and taking on the role of protector of Australia and New Zealand, which would be formalized after the war in the ANZUS treaty, the US alleviated Britain's commitments abroad. At the same time, however, this further distanced the Dominions from the home islands. By the end of the war, the Dominions had matured into essentially independent states, with but a few trappings of British colonial control, on to which most wanted to hold.

The affection for the Commonwealth as a socio-cultural unit was widespread in the UK. It

gave a continued extra-European flavor to the national consciousness even when the bases of its political power had gone.... it helped obfuscate the realities... by encouraging successive administrations to assume that... cultural influence could... substitute for military power...(footnote 5)

Despite the seemingly pleasant outcome of the 1950 Colombo conference, this was all changing as the 1950's progressed. Although Burma and Palestine had declined membership, India, Ceylon, and Pakistan had all agreed to remain in the Commonwealth after achieving independence. This significantly modified the composition of the group by adding a large and growing non-white populace. There was also a much more anti-imperialist sentiment amongst the new arrivals, particularly India, whose ambitious leader, Nehru, would join Nkrumah, the leader of Ghana, in founding the non-aligned movement (NAM) in the next decade.

Following the Suez crisis, Britain's prestige and influence within the Commonwealth deteriorated rapidly, with most of the members denouncing the UK for its actions in one way or another. Its position was to be further hurt by the debate over South Africa's expulsion from the Commonwealth in the early 1960's.

Thus did the British people begin to slowly yield to the concept that the Commonwealth no longer belonged to them. Having seen it transformed from a "white man's club into a multi-racial group," a good many Tories turned away with disdain. These Conservatives were to eventually turn to Europe in the next decade as the white man's club they wished to be a part of and to lead.(footnote 6)

Yet one still finds that it required

... a quite rare leap of imagination.. in the early 1950's to cut loose from a non-European tradition at a time when Britain's world status and economic structure were not detectably in terminal decline and before... [the erosion of] the notion of the Commonwealth as a foundation of British influence.(footnote 7)

Finally, one must explore how and why Great Britain used the Commonwealth as a convenient excuse not to enter into the EC.

Trade links were a very large factor. Britain had for some time upheld what was called an overseas sterling area, which encompassed the empire and the Commonwealth. It had been put in place following the breakup of the international financial system in 1931, when the world had broken up into mercantilist trading blocs. What it entailed was a commonly held gold reserve and a common monetary unit, which was the British pound sterling. Britain had a fair bit of power in this arrangement, since it was in a position to control the supply of money, and thus trade, to a good portion of the world. The arrangement in general was beneficial to all parties: Britain received cheap food and raw materials; and the Empire and Commonwealth got inexpensive industrial goods. But this also made it more difficult to trade outside of the area, because they had to change currencies, and had much less control. The matter came down to basic convenience that Britain would use this as an excuse.

The external trade of the UK in the 1950's reflected this situation well. "Britain had more trade... with the Commonwealth... than with the whole of Western Europe right through until 1962."(footnote 8) Economists began to realize this as a cause of many of Britain's economic problems in the late fifties, since it was in a time when "the fastest growth in world trade was between industrialized states."(footnote 9) As the agreements forming in Europe came about, the pro-Empire forces in both the Labor and Conservative parties stressed the threat posed to these links.

When given the chance to join the EC, Britain balked. Britain preferred its self-tailored arrangement of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA). This broke down tariffs between various European countries; it did not include a common external tariff, as did the EC, nor was there any supranational body to run it. To boot, agriculture was exempted from the free trade. These three points were precisely what the EC agreement lacked in British eyes.

A big factor in Britain's continuing avoidance of Europe was the British economic ministries. The Board of Trade and the Treasury in particular, but also the other ministries of the economy, felt a greater need to maintain the exclusive ties to the Commonwealth. So, since they were the ones who primarily controlled British policy with Europe, their opinions generally prevailed. Though Bevin, as foreign minister to Atlee, was "actually quite favorably disposed towards a customs union,"(footnote 10) he would always be undermined by the economic ministers. Following the Labor defeat in 1951 came Churchill and Eden, both staunchly opposed to any cession of sovereignty to a supranational European body.

One argument in favor of the EC was related to concessions made to France in its formation. French colonies were given associate status, which was what Britain wanted for itself. One would expect Britain to have been at least as important as France's colonies, if not more so, and were it to join in full, one would expect that Britain should have been able to get similar status for its colonies. But these cases were not to be. The French colonies encompassed a far smaller populace and area than the Commonwealth, making them more easily accepted by the Six. As well, France had a much greater political and economic clout in Europe; that was what allowed it to wring such concessions. That was an advantage the British lacked; their seemingly global clout meant little to the Six.

In conclusion, the Commonwealth, like the alliance with the US, became a deterrent for Britain "seeing any need to be part of a `narrow' European grouping."(footnote 11) Britain's continued cling to the Commonwealth, as strange as it seems in hindsight, was seen as continuing a sound and focussed policy. Britain still held to the concept of the `white man's burden,' and felt pangs of guilt at the mere thought of breaking with its needy imperial and Commonwealth subjects. Britain simply could not see that the benefits of joining the EC far outweighed the loss of Britain's empire, and the dashing of the Commonwealth trade links. However, this was also used as an excuse to hide the even greater reasoning behind Britain's hesitancy, which was the cession of sovereignty. This was the true issue at hand, and Britain was able to staunchly avoid it by citation of its other interests. "The continental commitment meant, as it had since Elizabeth I's day, a strategic obligation, not a form of political or economic union."(footnote 12)


1Great Britain or Little England, 31.
2The Realities Behind Diplomacy, 331.
3Losing an Empire, Finding a Role,251
4 The Realities Behind Diplomacy, 335
5The Realities Behind Diplomacy, 336
6The Realities Behind Diplomacy, 335
7Britain and European Cooperation Since 1945, 44
8Britain and European Integration Since 1945, 46
9An Awkward Partner: Britain and The European Community, 28-9.
10An Awkward Partner, 17
11An Awkward Partner, 16.
12The Realities Behind Diplomacy, 371


George, Stephen. An Awkward Partner: Britain in the European Community. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
George, Stephen. Britain and European Integration Since 1945. Oxford: Basil Blackwood Ltd., 1991.
Greenwood, Sean. Britain and European Cooperation Since 1945. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992.
Kennedy, Paul. The Realities Behind Diplomacy. Glasgow: Fontana Press, 1981.
Mander, John. Great Britain or Little England? Middlesex: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1963.
Sanders, David. Losing an Empire, Finding a Role: British Foreign Policy Since 1945. London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1990.

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