The Afterlife of the British EmpireHistorians/History
tags: Africa, Robin Lindley, British Empire, decolonialism, postcolonialism, Jordanna Bailkin
Robin Lindley is a Seattle writer and features editor of for the History News Network (www.hnn.us). He articles—often interviews with scholars, authors and artists— have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Writer’s Chronicle, The Inlander, Real Change and other publications. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Imperial student at the London School of Economics in 1946. Credit: Imperial War Museum.
Most historical scholarship on the decline and fall of the British Empire deals with the diplomatic and political aspects of this transformation and ignores how imperial collapse affected everyday life in Britain after the Second World War. And historians have subscribed to the idea that “postwar” and “postimperial” themes are unrelated.
In her new book The Afterlife of Empire (University of California Press), historian Jordanna Bailkin offers an original assessment of postwar Britain that interweaves “postwar” and “postcolonial” concerns while focusing on how the end of empire changed social relations and individual routines in the emerging welfare state.
In her groundbreaking study, Dr. Bailkin investigates how the British welfare state in the 1950s and 1960s grappled with thorny issues such as migration, education, mental health, marriage and parenthood, race relations and crime in the context of decolonization. The welfare policies were often contradictory and were decidedly influenced by Cold War politics as the empire expired and former colonies gained independence.
Dr. Bailkin humanizes the story by exploring themes that range from the repatriation of West Indian migrants for mental illness and legal confusion over the treatment of polygamous marriages to the controversy over the care of African babies by white foster families, the treatment of students from former colonies, and the deportation of immigrants -- particularly the Irish.
The Afterlife of Empire is based on Dr. Bailkin’s extensive research with a wide range or resources from oral histories, court cases, press reports, social science writings, and photographs to files from the National Archives that were recently declassified at her request.
Dr. Bailkin’s work has been praised for its unprecedented -- and humane -- view of the postwar British welfare state. Dr. Stephen J. Brooke of York University wrote: “The Afterlife of Empire is a brilliant contribution to the history of twentieth-century Britain. It does what no other book has done: narrating the end of empire and the rise of the postwar welfare state together, while placing the stories of ordinary people -- children, adolescents, parents, husbands, and wives -- at the heart of this account.”
Dr. Bailkin is the Giovanni and Amne Costigan Professor of History and Women’s Studies at the University of Washington. She is also the author of The Culture of Property: The Crisis of Liberalism in Modern Britain, and many academic articles on migration, dislocation and postwar Britain, including an award-winning article on the postcolonial family.
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Robin Lindley: You consider yourself a specialist on the history of collapse and decay. What is that, and how did that happen for you?
Dr. Jordanna Bailkin: My father was an urban planner, and when I was a kid he enjoyed taking me to different sites in New York City, where I grew up.
His favorite sites were where things were falling apart. He was never interested in where things were already built or developed but rather where things had fallen into disuse or decay or had been actively destroyed through demolition. Then he could imagine how it might be rebuilt.
When I started studying postwar history that theme resonated with me, with the idea of people seeing destruction and imagining from it what might be rebuilt. That became a scholarly interest as well as a personal one.
Was that the focus of your dissertation and your work since then?
No. The postwar is a new interest for me. I’m a recovering Victorianist. My first book [The Culture of Property] was on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
In some ways, I thought of the postwar years as being very American. Even looking at Europe, you’re looking at the decades in which American influence was paramount. So the most British part of British history seemed to me to be the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The turn to the postwar decades is more recent, but I think I will stay there for the time being.
What sparked your interest in postwar, postcolonial Britain?
In some ways it follows some themes of my earlier work, which was very much on circulation. In my first book, I was thinking about the circulation of objects and how objects relate to one another. That book was about the history of cultural property and how art objects were perceived in a Victorian culture that valued property as an essential part of political of political rights and citizenship. Art objects are another kind of property that might be transacted more by women or workers or Celtic nationalists or people who had been excluded traditionally from other forms of property ownership.
I think there are similarities with that first book and The Afterlife of Empire because I’m still very interested in circulation, but in the second book it’s more about the circulation of people and ideas than about objects. The postwar era is known for the mobility of people in this destructive and mobile age. I was interested in thinking about these people and what ideas were put into circulation.
From the historiographical perspective, in terms of the existing literature, any textbook of twentieth-century Britain will have chapters on the welfare state and on the end of empire, but those are separate chapters, so they are understood as having very little to do with each other. In some senses, they are opposite emotional registers as well. The welfare state is building on earlier regimes from the nineteenth and early twentieth century at the same time that this empire is lost. I wanted to think about bringing those two chapters of British history into conversation with each other -- to think about how the end of empire and the welfare state shaped each other and in what way were they mutually constituted and not segregated chapters of British history.
And aren’t postwar Britain and postcolonial Britain two different issues? You aim to interweave the two in your book.
Yes. You cannot understand each fully if you keep them separate. Partly that’s because the individual players -- the individual migrants from the former colonies were bringing their own expectations of welfare. But it’s also because the people who are engaged in creating certain structures of welfare -- in domains such as mental health and child care, for example -- were thinking about welfare as something that was happening on a global scale, so they’re not thinking about welfare as a British metropolitan story, but as something that will affect the world and the people who are coming into Britain from former colonies as well. A way to think of it is in terms of the diverse and competing systems of childrearing, for example, or what it means to be healthy or pathological.
You mention that welfare was, in a sense, the impetus for the British Empire.
In a sense, but certainly there are many diverse rationales. But in terms of how the British explained their empire to themselves, their welfare schemes were absolutely vital justifications. Many great scholars have written about that aspect of imperial welfare, but their story is usually cut off with the Second World War. I wanted to think about what happens when you take the relationship into later decades. What does the relationship between empire and welfare look like when we talk about imperial collapse rather than imperial ascension?
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, wasn’t Britain a devastated land of scarcity and necessary reconstruction -- and yet it’s the time when the welfare state is born? Was Britain getting massive aid from the U.S.?
Yes, they did. Definitely, the welfare state is connected to American aid and there’s a much more complex economic story about weighing the costs of empire versus the cost of the welfare state. Some historians have written about the re-diverting of resources from empire building into the welfare state itself.
But I think the war is important for generating the idea that the state owes something to all of its citizens and partly because it was a civilian war in many ways.
Not just veterans but all citizens were providing services, but in exchange the state came in as well in terms of its participation, so there’s a mutual pact of service between citizens and state at that moment.
In this British welfare state, there was a rise of technocracy and reliance on experts. Does that compare to the American Progressive Era when government looked increasing to experts in policy development?
One aspect that interested me in writing this book was a whole cast of experts that rose up, but there were equally powerful critiques of those experts. If you look at some like Alec Dickson and the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO -- young British citizens who volunteered abroad), he was very powerful in many ways and was close to centers of state power, but he saw himself as an anti-expert as he saw the whole enterprise of creating the VSO. He would say, in this postwar moment of needing to bring welfare to all of these places, you need not technocratic experts but you need resonance of feeling between the person undertaking service and the person receiving it.
He was very close to some of the founders or architects of the welfare state like Richard Titmuss who talk about everyone in the welfare state being both a giver and a recipient of aid. In some ways, Dickson wanted to do that, but he’s not doing it from the perspective of a technocrat, but from a very explicit anti-technocratic perspective, and stressing the affective or emotional connection between giver and receivers, and that the giver should be transformed by the experience of aid as well as the person receiving it.
It’s a very interesting and particular notion of what it means to create welfare. You don’t need technocratic or bureaucratic knowledge and people will get certain things wrong, but as an anti-expert, you’ll be able to develop welfare policies that will resonate much more with the global demands of the particular, by which he meant impending independence in places like Nigeria. He’s not only thinking about the postwar context in Britain but also about, as a country becomes independent, what type of welfare will work there that will transform people’s characters, not just their material conditions. He tended to underrate the material transformations of welfare and to emphasize more about the psychological development of people who were undertaking it and partaking in it.
How did the Cold War influence the issues you detail?
Certainly the psychiatrists and psychologists who were working with refugees from Hungary and Poland in the fifties thought very much about the Cold War context, so their ideas about what they considered normal and abnormal behavior and their ideas about how to measure good adjustments to life in Britain -- whether there is a healthy degree of political adjustment. They don’t want people to become politically inert but they don’t want to see them radicalized.
Another [fear] is in discussion of overseas freedom of the former colonies and their fear of how West African students in particular might turn to communism and other extremist political views. The notion that Britain should provide a high standard of welfare for those students while they are in Britain is very much aimed at forestalling students from becoming disaffected while they’re in Britain and before they return to Nigeria or Ghana.
It may be surprise some readers to learn of the pathologizing of migrants and other groups that happened in many contexts. Was there something peculiarly British about this view of outsiders or nonconformists?
One could see resonances between that thinking and nineteenth century ethnographic thinking that was very dedicated to classification and taxonomy of different groups and pathologizing different groups.
But something different was going on in the postwar moment, which has to do with the type of welfare provided those different groups. That’s why this story has ongoing consequences because of the way that British childcare workers understood Nigerian and Ghanaian families as using private fostering and they insisted at the same time that West Indians used “dayminding” or private daycare. These assumptions have some basis in fact, but were not universally true. But they had long-term consequences for the kind of childcare in the state that was provided in the 1950s and 1960s, and the kind of resources that were made available to groups, and the way that groups were stereotyped by social services and social workers stemmed from assumptions about who cared for their children in a particular. That had far-reaching consequences for educational standards and social and economic consequences for families.
There seems a sense of something pathological about any migrant -- whether from Africa to Britain or from Britain to New Zealand or Australia.
Dr. Jordanna Bailkin: There was a lot of concern in Britain by people working on migration and they were coming from a lot of different disciplines. One thing interesting about migration is that it produces experts from a lot of social science fields: demographers, sociologists, social workers or psychologists who work on migration. Some disciplines are more optimistic than others, but within psychology and psychiatry, there is tremendous pessimism and anxiety about the passage of migration itself. The studies of white Briton migration to Australia doesn’t necessarily look any better and they’re not necessarily adjusting to that new culture any better [than migrants to Britain].
Experts also had a lot of concerns about mobility.
Isn’t there a resonance in U.S. history with the view of some that migrants to the New World were mainly maladjusted people?
Yes, and I think a lot of British sociologists and psychologists were grappling with what is it about migration that makes it pathological. And they offered this longstanding twentieth century question about migration on [whether] individuals who migrate have a predisposition to pathology -- or is it something about what greets them that makes them pathological? For Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, they chose a wide variety of answers to this question, but none of them are particularly rosy.
You note elements of sexism, racism and xenophobia in your study. How did race relations in Britain after the war compare with what was happening in the United States?
The British were very proud that they did not have what they call “legal color bars.” They compared themselves to the United States and said there was racism in Britain, but it’s not legal, and it’s not enshrined in housing and employment laws. That’s a point of pride in many ways.
They were also concerned about the growing civil rights movement in the United States [that was] making certain policy makers in the United States more supportive of decolonization because of postwar anxieties and concerns. So, where they once had American supporters showing up for the empire, they were losing that American support in many ways.
America is an important point of reference for the story I’m telling, and sometimes it becomes more explicit in the book than others. A lot of the social scientists I write about were very much in dialog with American social scientists and wanted to spend time in American institutions. Kenneth Little studied at traditionally African American institutions in order to think about how race relations in the United States looked different than race relations in Britain. So they very much had that comparative model in mind.
A significant part of your book deals with “renegotiation” of the family in the welfare state. There’s seems to be a lot of ambivalence or contradiction in the policies you describe from polygamy to foster care.
Those family issues drew me into the work in the first place. A body of work that was very influential for me was the very rich scholarship on gender and colonialism during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century with people like Antoinette Burton, Philippa Levine and Ann Laura Stoler.
But when you look at the scholarship on decolonization, there’s been less focus on family and emotional life, sexuality and human relationships, and there’s been a disproportionate focus on diplomacy, military and political issues. So I was curious to see if there’s a story of the inner life of decolonization to be told and how could we begin to access that story.
As I mention in the introduction, one reason that story hasn’t been told before has to do with archival access. The archives on the military and diplomatic histories of decolonization were made accessible most quickly.
This all started because I was doing some research on tattooing for a previous article. I came across an article in The London Times about two West African children who had their faces scarified or marked in some way. What struck me was that the article said they were on Christmas break with their mother and were away from their white foster family when this happened. They came to see their biological mother, their faces were marked, and their foster family was upset. This was from 1972 or 1974.
That intrigued me. What were they doing with that foster family? As a mother, I asked was it an individual phenomenon or was something broader going on there?
Then I noticed stories in the news today about child trafficking in Britain of mostly of African children. It was discussed very much in terms of Britain not having anything to do with the story, but there were foreign people coming through Britain and staging these terrible events with children in Britain -- with Britain only accidentally related to the story. I had a lot of questions about that, and asked what is the bigger history here about Britain and African children.
As I looked for stories of fostering of African children in Britain with white families, that’s when I uncovered this widespread phenomenon with tens of thousands of children over the years being privately fostered. There are organizations in Britain now dedicated to psychological help for those children or at times reuniting those children with their families. Some families were separated and never reconnected.
So I was interested in those stories about individual families and using them to talk about decolonization and its effect on private life -- the end of empire not just as a phenomenon of high politics and imperial relationships breaking down, but also personal relationships being reshaped by imperial collapse. How did that work not just in the colonies, but also in Britain itself? For the white foster parents who took in these children, how were their lives reshaped by decolonization that they may not have thought about in very explicit terms?
That part of the story was very important to see the reshaping of marriages and parent-child relationships and friendship, all in the context of decolonization.
To go back to why I think these stories have been so inaccessible and invisible, when I went looking for these stories, if I searched for Nigeria in the [British] National Archives, I would get the obvious colonial office documents about changing political relationships between Britain and Nigeria and changes in diplomatic relationships.
But I also noticed all of these child welfare files in sections that people working on decolonization don’t tend to look at. But they were mostly still classified when I started writing, so I petitioned to get a lot of documents declassified. Some were and some weren’t. It was an uneven process and I looked at only a fraction of what might eventually be available.
The welfare files reveal a different side of decolonization, a much more personal side than we’ve been able to access before. The story of decolonization and welfare is intertwined and the welfare files is where you can get to those stories of individual transformation. Something very abstract such as the change in diplomatic relationship with Ghana or Nigeria had tremendous fallout in a realm we haven’t looked at before in terms of an African child with African parents and British foster parents who are taking in that child. All of those people’s lives are dramatically changed by decolonization, whether they’re talking about it that way or not.
The family stories seem to be the core of your book. What did you conclude about the family that other scholars have ignored?
The way that people in Britain thought about the end of imperial power meant that they had tremendous allegiances to people from the former colonies that haven’t been fully understood in their complexity. They certainly didn’t want to bring their relationships with individual Africans or Asian or people from the Caribbean to an end, but they did want to reshape those relationships in important ways. Part of the question for them became, now that political and economic ties between Britain and the rest of the world seemed to break apart or become more tenuous, was what are new social and emotional investments we can generate on the part of the part of African families or individuals that will continue to make them tied to Britain in ways that are advantageous for British interests.
The results were unpredictable, and that’s one of the themes of the book -- the unforeseen, unpredictable consequences of policies that were crafted by one department that compete directly with another department. We see that in private fostering where people who work in child welfare think that private fostering is very destructive for children and they’re worried that children were being abused or neglected by their foster families but also about the long-term consequences of being separated from their biological parents.
So welfare workers who were relating to the Colonial Office and the Home Office asked aren’t you going to do anything about these African children in all our local county councils who are being abused or neglected? They’re making an argument about decolonization too in that they’re saying these children will go home to Ghana and Nigeria, and what kind of leader or citizen will they turn out to be? But the Colonial Office and the Home Office feel they cannot intervene and they see it as an African problem. They say the reason these children are in foster care is so that their parents in Britain can obtain higher education degrees, and for a newly developing independent country, that is a program we need to support.
So it becomes a battle between the interests of African parents versus the interests of African children, and you see different departments of state have different ideas about which is the most important to support. It’s not as simple as the Colonial Office and Home Office don’t care about Africans by the 1950s. It’s much more complicated. Different departments of state have competing ideas of what makes a good future citizen in these newly independent countries. And there is not consensus on the way they try to imagine future relationships between Britain and an independent Africa or Asia, so you get fragmentary and fractured policies that have combustible effects for different people.
You conclude your book with deportation and it may surprise some readers that the Irish are more the targets of deportation than people from the former colonies in Africa and Asia. You talk about deportation in terms of the origins of the modern security state.
Yes. That was an unpredictable moment in my research process because, when I thought of deportation as the endpoint of my story, my assumption was -- from what I saw from race relations in my other chapters -- that West Indians would have been the target of deportation policies. To go back to experts, and what experts get wrong during this period, is that criminologists were talking very much about West Indian crime, especially after the Notting Hill and Nottingham riots in 1958. What West Indian crime did to the body politic was a well-funded and popular area of research.
It surprised me that West Indian deportation wasn’t a priority of the Home Secretary. So discussions of deportation happened on several levels. Public opinion and the press were focused on West Indian crime, but the Home Secretary had a different set of priorities during these years. His concerns are more about continuing Irish terrorist activity and Irish crimes, and that’s why what happens in a piecemeal fashion from 1958 to 1962 and after is that the Irish are much more the focal point of deportation policy. West Indians provide a cover in some ways for that clandestine activity by the state to deport the Irish in larger numbers.
If you look at the press reports on deportation, the Irish don’t figure largely at all, but the Home Office discussions of deportation are very much about what conditions might be deployed to focus on the Irish.
So there was a real split between the public discussion of deportation and a much more confidential one.
You’ve done a great deal of original research in uncovering this story. Can you say more about your interviews or oral history and other research?
I’m not trained in oral history, and the interviews I did were not systematic. The characterization of the people I interviewed was that they were the experts who worked in this field of race relations and were thinking about both welfare and decolonization at the same time. I don’t use many of their quotes directly in the book, but understanding what they were doing was very helpful for me in thinking about the larger arguments in the book, and what they thought they were experts in, and what they thought expertise could solve, and what they thought its limitations might be.
The interviews were very helpful. Sometimes historians turn to oral history to fill in gaps in the documentary record, and that was different than the way I thought about it. I found such archival richness and excessiveness of the phenomena I was looking at that I thought of oral history as producing new gaps.
I was interested in what people’s silences about the fifties and sixties could tell me. What were the blind spots in their vision at that period? One of the examples in the book was one interview with a race relations expert who had done anthropological research in Sierra Leone and then became a race relations specialist working with migrants in Britain. Could you think about these two [undertakings] in similar terms? He worked with people from Sierra Leone who became stowaways and migrants to Britain, and [I asked ] how was your anthropological fieldwork related to that later sociological work you did, and he said there were no similarities and they had nothing to do with one another.
I was a bit frustrated, but I think it was also very illuminating about a division he set up between the study of people anthropologically when they were in Sierra Leone and the study of them sociologically when they became migrants in Britain and the target of race relation’s policies. That’s important to understand because it’s a long lasting division, and in some ways the book is trying to overcome some of the divisions and segregations that take place historically and historiographically.
The photo on the cover of your book is very striking. It depicts a white woman holding a cute black baby. The caption reads, “foster mother and child” and it’s dated 1962.
I love that photograph, and that’s one of the surprises that came through my research. That photograph is from the social work file at the University of Warwick and it was from a minor, photocopied pamphlet titled “Foster Homes are Good for Babies.” I fell in love with the photograph. Getting permission to use it was complicated because there had to be an effort to trace the families and individuals involved.
In some ways, the photograph itself became an emblem of this process of what was I allowed to see -- what information was confidential, private or classified when it [referred to] individuals, not just the state.
But the photograph does seem to capture many of the themes of the book.
With the photographic research, you see the West African perspective on this whole story. One thing surprising in looking at journals like the West African Review was the prominent role of students who were specifically going to Britain in the fifties and sixties. They were put on the cover of this journal in high fashion poses, and that tells you something about how valued those particular individuals were who were going to Britain for higher education and explains something about the value the British placed on them as well.
What can students and historians learn from your writing of this book that tells a story in themes rather than a strict chronological narrative.
I hope to encourage people to think about the reconfiguration of power. Here imperial power is redeployed in areas where we don’t expect to look for it.
For students and future historians, one message of the book is to question where we normally look for the evidence and the answers to the questions we are asking, so if we are asking questions about decolonization, it’s important to look not only at the archives of the Colonial Office and the Home Office, but also in the archives of the police, the educators, the child welfare workers. And you get a very different set of answers by looking in those archives.
One thing I thought a lot about with this book is where do conversations about newly independent nations emerge? Who is talking about the new Nigerian or the new Ghanaian? It’s not only policymakers who deal with diplomatic relations but it can be an ordinary social worker, as one social worker in the book who spoke out about how the Home Counties were full of Nigerian babies in white foster families and she felt it was a disaster. But that’s a different place to look.
If you’re trying to answer the question was decolonization important to Britons in Britain, you’re going to get a different answer if you look at the archives of the personal, the individual, and the familial than if you look at it exclusively from a high politics perspectives.
For my next project, tentatively titled Unsettled: Refugee Camps in Britain, 1956-1982, I am planning to look at the creation of reception and resettlement camps for Poles and Hungarians in the 1950s, Ugandan Asians in the 1970s, and Vietnamese refugees in the 1980s. Taken together, I believe that these camps illuminate the instability of welfarism, its creaky imperial inheritances, and its unpredictable relationship to global transformations. I track these shifts through the Cold War, the last gasp of formal imperialism, and a new internationalism both embraced and constrained by Thatcherism. So, I hope to extend my discussion of the global construction of welfare with new archives and stories.
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