It’s not just the British, the same could be said of the countries from other formal European empires which ended in the 20C: Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman, French, Dutch, Belgian, American, Russian (in no particular order).
Even beyond a comparative framework, this is not a surprise. As I have noted previously, democracy is hard; and even those places which claim the strongest traditions and practices have faced some serious challenges of late. Most such places took many generations to construct a society and an economy that enabled democratic political institutions to emerge.
The British, it seems, understood this. As late as the 1940s the general sense was that it would take even the most developed African and Caribbean countries a couple of generations to be “ready” for independence. (Understanding and evaluating why imperial masters had not done much about this situation is a separate point.) A variety of factors intervened, including local demands (some violent), pressures from the two superpowers (both the US and the USSR were at least to some degree opposed to other countries’ empires), and British moral and economic exhaustion. Things moved much faster than projected and by the 1970s, the unraveling of the Empire became mundane.
A lot of the pressure for independence came from local communities and leaders who were reacting to British condescension/paternalism/oppression. Whether their societies were “ready” to be independent from a British perspective and by the standards of the West generally, wasn’t really the issue. Indeed, any claims to “objectivity” on the part of imperial bureaucrats had to be dismissed, at least for domestic political reasons and (usually) personal ambitions of the new leadership. Moreover, the sorry state of European culture in the aftermath of the slaughter of WWI, Nazi brutality, and the treatment of colonial peoples generally undermined the moral foundations for any claim that white Euros had a better sense of what it took to be a proper modern state and society.
On top of that was some appreciation that, regardless of their value as models in the abstract, the European states and their international system were a product of their particular geography and history which was not at all an obvious basis for comparison with the African and Asian cultures which had seen little engagement with modernity until the 19C. This manifest in efforts to articulate a “third way” (between the Western liberal democracy and Soviet state-centered systems). But whether confined to theoretical explorations or expressed in the practice of government and state organization, nothing seemed to take hold with any solidity in terms of a political culture that could support sustained economic development. There are lots of reasons for this dead-end, but I’m not here to point fingers.
Indeed, I suspect that the historical contingency of western liberal democracy/capitalism and its outcome made the emergence of a democratic culture (however “liberal” or “socialist”) in these former colonies pretty much of a non-starter generally. Regardless of the viability or value of this particular model; nonetheless, it does seem that few if any of these new “countries” was coherent enough to establish a stable and beneficial political culture (which I take to be the baseline for any viable state).
The historical focus of my research project is on how the Euro imperialists thought—at the time and from their own perspective—they could go about promoting democratic norms and forms as these colonies barreled towards and into independence on the world stage. In particular, I’m trying to understand how the Brits got Ghana, Malaysia, Sudan, and other places ready to be international actors—with foreign policies, ambassadors, and a sense of the world.
There seems to be a lot of historical analysis of the “constitutional” issue at the end of empire; i.e. how was power transferred and what domestic political structures could be built to “receive” independence and govern the new country. I suspect that there are a bunch of studies of how the Kenyans took over their railroads, or the Nigerians built an army, or Jamaicans managed trade. I’m looking in another corner, but not just at the perspective of bureaucracy, administration, and protocol. I’m also interested in whether and how the British—whether through their Colonial Office, the emerging Commonwealth Office, or the Foreign Office—sought to help these folks see the world.
After all, Gambians had been involved in running ports, and folks in Botswana had been dealing with agricultural issues for a while (even if under imperial supervision). But, the conduct of foreign policy had been always reserved to the British and—unlike a host of “ordinary” domestic issues—this had been handled from London on an Empire/Commonwealth-wide basis. There was scant room for (or interest in) even the most sophisticated colonials to participate in the UN or be part of an embassy staff.
And yet, sometimes with a little engagement with international organizations or the emerging “non-aligned” movement of countries dancing between the US and USSR, sometimes with seemingly little warning, a host of countries were expected to deal with the broad and dynamic scope of the world.
The condescension from London notwithstanding, it was a tall order. Likely made only marginally easier by tidbits of training once it became clear that independence was actually going to happen.
So, I’m going to dig into this set of questions and circumstances and see if I can do what Ranke said was the historian’s job: find out what actually happened.