What were the various approaches to decolonization?

The explanations of decolonization have been classified as follows:

The nationalist approach International context approach Domestic constraints approach. The Nationalist Approach in the nationalist view indigenous resistance and anti imperialist struggle led to independence.

According to D.A. Low, the primary factor behind the end of empire was anti-imperialist movements the metropolitan response only influenced the nature of this confrontation, not the outcome.

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According to the nationalist approach the resistance movements of the colonial peoples determined the pace of decolonization. Colonial rule became unviable once the groups which sustained it withdrew support, often under nationalist pressure or influence.

The British imperialists presented the unraveling of empire as an orderly and rational process but the messy reality was much less consistent and unavoidable, as John Darwin has pointed out. In short, far from a planned withdrawal from empire, there was the irreversible erosion of position as imperial powers struggled to retain power by one means or another, conciliation or repression.

For example, in India, from the 1930s onwards, there was a swing of the pendulum from repression to conciliation. This had demoralizing consequences for the officials who had to implement both poles of policy.

The same set of colonial officials who put the nationalist leaders in jail during the civil disobedience movement in 1930-34 had to serve under them during the period of formation of provincial ministries of 1937-39. The same dilemma racked officialdom in 1942 and 1946 – officials were demoralized as they feared that the leaders they had given harsh punishment to in the War years, and particularly to contain the 1942 revolt, would soon be their political masters in the provinces in 1946.


Whatever some of the metropolitan-centre accounts may suggest, the growth and development of a vigorous nationalism was almost invariably the principal propellant of sustained progress towards the ending of colonial rule.

International context approach

According to the approach highlighting the international context of decolonization, empires could not survive in the new world order after the Second World War.

As John Darwin put it, in the Cold War era “colonial empires appeared as quaint survivors of a prewar age, to be quickly dismantled lest they be knocked to pieces in the turbulent wake of the superpowers.” The changed international climate was reflected in the Atlantic Charter issued by the Allies during the War which called for the independence of colonial peoples.


The United Nations General Assembly went a step further in 1960 in its Declaration on the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples. It sharply condemned colonial rule as a denial of fundamental human rights in contravention of the UN Charter.

The myth of European invincibility was shattered by the Japanese takeover of South East Asia during World War II, especially the British desertion of Singapore in 1942. Yet decolonization was not the inevitable result of World War II – though its pace quickened.

This international approach attributes the end of empires to the opposition of the US and USSR to ‘old style imperialism’. The US and USSR had nothing to gain from the older imperial powers, such as Britain and France, retaining their colonies.

They had everything to gain from the end of empire as this enabled these two emerging superpowers to establish their influence over the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa.

For example, US neo colonialism replaced France in Indo-China, Japan in Korea and Britain in Pakistan, one of the two successor states of British India. The USSR treated Eastern Europe, Cuba and Mozambique, among others, as little more than ‘colonies’.

Western Cold Warriors were quick to dub this as ‘socialist imperialism’, much to the chagrin of self respecting socialists, for whom the very word imperialism was anathema.

Domestic constraints approach

The metropolitan or domestic constraints approach focuses on how the colony became too big a burden on the mother country. From being the proverbial goose which laid golden eggs a time came when it was not worth expending money and men on it. British colonialism, it is argued by Holland, ‘became dysfunctional to the operational necessities of the metro pole.’

In this explanation the end of empire is seen as a political choice made under pressure of domestic constraints and calculations of national interest. The mother country’s will to rule slackened once empire became too much of a nuisance, financially, militarily and in international relations.

Historians John Gallagher and other scholars in the imperialist tradition argued that British imperial interests in India were declining, that India no longer fulfilled its role in the maintenance of imperial interests in the fields of either defense or commerce or finance and that, in fact, over the years it had become a liability for the British. Gallagher and Anil Seal argued that during the Second World War Britain footed the bill for India’s defense requirements.

Aditya Mukherjee has conclusively contradicted this view and demonstrated that British imperial control intensified considerably during the war and the economic exploitation of India increased manifold -“the colony, far from ceasing to pay, was subjected to a greater and most blatant appropriation of surplus through currency manipulations, forced loans, large military expenditures and numerous other unilateral transfers.”

B.R. Tomlinson is critical of this theory which sees decolonization only as a technique by which formal empire became informal in the interests of maximizing advantages to Britain.

He concedes that there was an Indian angle to the end of empire, apart from changes in the metropolitan and world economies, but the Indian factor in his view was not nationalist pressure, but discontent with the ever-increasing financial burdens imposed by the colonial government on its subjects.

The end of the Second World War found Britain in a severe economic crisis and a war weary British populace wished to get rid of empire as quickly and painlessly as possible. This theme of getting rid of empire is suggested by the very title of R.J. Moore’s book on Attlee and India – Escape from Empire.

Another factor was the post war expansion of the welfare state. Decolonization gathered pace once social reform became a priority and empire began to be perceived as a drain on resources.

Politicians who were in favors of withdrawing from empire became the flavor of the day. It was no accident that the British public elected the Labor Party to office in 1945 despite Churchill, a Conservative Party prime minister, having just won the war for them.

The new understanding was that the Labor Party was suitable for national reconstruction, which was the need of the hour. Another domestic constraint was that suppressing colonial revolts, be it in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus or Aden, was no longer viable.

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