Britain’s Declining Empire: The Road to Decolonisation, 1918–1968 by Ronald Hyam - review by Piers Brendon

Piers Brendon

The Sun Does Set

Britain’s Declining Empire: The Road to Decolonisation, 1918–1968


Cambridge University Press 464pp £17.99

This magisterial volume, a sequel to Britain’s Imperial Century, 1815–1914 (1976), is the distillation of a lifetime’s learning and teaching about the British Empire. The earlier work, Ronald Hyam explains, was a kind of ‘user’s handbook’. The present study, based on mountains of documentary evidence, concentrates more specifically on the politics of decolonisation. Such a rigorous scholarly enterprise would have every excuse to be dry. But as became instantly apparent to his Cambridge pupils (of whom, to declare an interest, I was one), Hyam is entertaining, incisive and sardonic to the point of ribaldry.

Witness his verdict on characters who played important parts during the last days of the Empire. Arthur Creech Jones, Labour’s Colonial Secretary, was an ‘uncharismatic blatherer’. Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, Governor of Burma, was the aloof embodiment of ‘a certain type of ineffably awful Old Harrovian’. The Foreign Secretary Herbert Morrison

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