Stephen Howe – Anticolonialism in British Politics

Stephen Howe - Anticolonialism in British Politics

Stephen Howe’s 1993 book studies the anticolonial movement in Britain following World War I and highlights the successes and failures of the movement.

In Stephen Howe’s 1993 book Anticolonialism in British Politics, Howe illustrates the range and ambiguity of the “leftist” and “progressive” critiques of empire prior to 1939, and their radicalization thereafter, when the world seemed to be going their way. It always drew inspiration from strong moral feelings, rather than systematic analysis.

The Left’s Arguments Against Colonialism

Howe is particularly clear on one broad theme, the modulation of the language of British anticolonialism from a loose creed that tended to revolve around the ultimate effect imperialism would have on Britain to one which was founded upon the absolute right of colonial subjects to self-determination. The right to self-determination argument became more effective over time.

He also argues that the left was more effective and influential on colonial issues than any other issue. The British left had more influence on nationalist leaders, who often adhered to democratic principles.

Four Elements of Anticolonialism

The twentieth-century anticolonialism analyzed here has four main elements:

  1.  An acceptance that national independence and political, economic and cultural self-determination are the right of all peoples
  2.  a commitment to international cooperation in pursuit of these ends, based on a belief that struggles for national independence are interdependent
  3.  An assertion of the basic equality of European and non-European peoples and cultures
  4. A sustained opposition to the colonialism of one’s own nation, as a “precondition for progress towards a freer, more democratic society” both in the former colony and at home.

Sometimes anticolonialists suggested that colonialism and capitalism were fundamentally connected, and that the demise of colonial empires would facilitate the building everywhere of socialist societies.

Destroying Faith in the Imperial Mission

Howe argues that British anticolonialists’ cumulative achievement was playing a major role in destroying such real faith as there had ever been in an imperial mission and in undermining any official arguments conducive to the further avoidance of political change. The fall of the British Empire was, at least, brought forward both in time and in a wider selection of territories due to their efforts.

The Left’s Inability to Build an Organized Anticolonial Front

Howe’s book shows that the Left was unable to build an organized anticolonial front. Howe describes the formulation of the Movement for Colonial Freedom in 1954. Members of the MCF were dismayed that the Greeks, with whom they sympathized more than the Muslim Turks, could not be persuaded to adopt Gandhi’s passive techniques and were bitterly hostile to the left. By the mid-1960s anticolonialists were taking comfort in the doctrine of neocolonialism. Independence was regarded as a fraud.


  1. Howe, Stephen. Anticolonialism in British Politics: The Left and the End of Empire, 1918-1964. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.