End of the British Empire

Jon Danzig |

By 1960 it was clear that Britain’s Empire was finished.

No wonder that the following year, in 1961, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan applied for the UK to join the European Community.

After all, without its Empire, with the ‘special relationship’ with the USA soured by the Suez scandal, and with our Commonwealth severely diminished, Britain was perhaps more alone and isolated in the world than at any time in over three hundred years.

Mr Macmillan explained at the time that being a member of the European Community would be for the sake of peace and prosperity.

It was more than a trading group. Membership, said the PM, would involve sharing some sovereignty with other member states, just as we did in NATO.

Former Prime Minister and war leader, Winston Churchill, supported Macmillan’s application. He wrote to his constituency Chairman at the time:

‘I think that the Government are right to apply to in the European Economic Community..’

It’s relevant that in February 1960, Mr Macmillan flew to South Africa to give a landmark address at their Parliament in Cape Town in what was later to be called his ‘Wind of Change’ speech.

Listen carefully to that speech; you can hear him build the arguments for nation states to collaborate with each other on a level playing field, just as in the European Community.

Mr Macmillan’s speech is widely regarded as marking the end of the British empire.

Reported the BBC:

‘Harold Macmillan’s “wind of change” speech became a historical landmark.

‘It was the first sign that the British government accepted that the days of Empire were over, and it dramatically speeded up the process of African independence.’

It was also a hugely brave speech because Mr Macmillan spoke out against the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The British government’s aim, he said, was to “create a society which respects the rights of individuals – a society in which individual merit, and individual merit alone, is the criterion for a man’s advancement, whether political or economic.”

He proudly referred to the of speech of his Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, at the United Nations:

“We – the British – reject the idea of any inherent superiority of one race over another.”

Nationalist Party politicians listened to him in silence, and a number refused to applaud when he had finished.

Dr Verwoerd, the South African Prime Minister, and the architect of the apartheid system, thanked Mr Macmillan for his speech, but said he could not agree.

Hard as it is to believe now, without Conservatives such as Macmillan and Churchill, Britain might never have joined the European Community in the first place.

They don’t make Conservatives like that anymore.

  • Watch a 10-minute edited extract of Harold Macmillan’s speech:

The ‘Wind of Change’ speech by British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, at the Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, on 3 February 1960 marked a big change in British politics.

Not only was his speech widely regarded as the British government’s acceptance that the British Empire was finished.

Mr Macmillan’s powerful words also demonstrated that his government was against racism – a strong stand at that time, especially being expressed in apartheid South Africa, where white people brutally asserted their superiority over other races.

And his speech also marked the start of Britain seeking a new place in the world, and more pertinently, as members of our continent’s European Community (although we weren’t to be accepted as a member until over ten years later).

Listen to Mr Macmillan’s speech with this knowledge of world history in mind.

  • Harold Macmillan’s original speech was 40 minutes long. Hear the full speech or read it.


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