Decolonization and Federalism: Post-World War II Experiments in the British Empire
National History Center of the American Historical Association 9
Twentieth-century decolonisation involved the near-universal acceptance of nation-statehood as the alternative to imperialism. Nationalism vanquished its transnational competitors, notably imperialism and Marxism. Alternatives to imperial rule that avoided sovereign states on national lines, such as federations in the later 1940s and 1950s, have received less attention from historians. Historians framing the post-war decolonisation period have almost always done so in terms of the nation-state, either stressing its triumph, or its failure. Whether nationalist or postcolonial in perspective, few historians have focused on possible alternatives to the nation-state. This panel therefore addresses aspects of “disagreement, debate and discussion” surrounding the importance of nation-state versus regional, trans-national and world historical perspectives. It does so through the examination of ideas and historical actors operating in the “federal” interstice between the end of empire and post-imperial nation-state.
Federations involved alternative ways of thinking about sovereignty, territoriality and political economy. Re-examining the widespread interest of British policy-makers in creating federations offers new perspectives on the strength of imperial ideology and the determination to continue a missionary imperialism after World War II. Federal thinking and practice was prominent at this time in other European empires too, notably the French and Dutch ones. The federal idea was also an aspect of the emerging European community. This is suggestive of a wider ‘federal moment’ that points to the importance of linking international, trans-national, imperial and world historical approaches.
Like the nation-state, the federations were imported from the First World to the decolonizing parts of the globe. The federation model diffused power among levels of government and geographical regions to create an internal balancing of interests, marrying metropolitan realpolitik and nationalist romance; it offered stability to the American hegemon, continued influence and administrative practicality to the metropoles, and an expression of solidarity for proponents of class-based and pan-racial ideologies alike. Yet despite this widespread support and comforting promise, most federations did not last even a decade in their original forms, and in many cases did not last in any form at all.
This panel looks at federal experiments in three different but integrated ways. The first paper looks at the dynamics of nationalism, pan-Africanism and local politics in east Africa, using archival sources from the region to better understand the actions and intentions of African leaders at this particularly creative moment, c. 1961-1967, when concrete alternative to the nation-state were being explored. The second paper focuses on the role of federation in Nigeria during the debates over political association leading to the Nigerian Civil War, and the way that the civil war itself was a battle over the contested idea of federation. The third paper takes a comparative approach to the West Indies federation and the Federation of Malaya, looking at questions of political economy and identity formation as explanatory factors in the success and failure of federations. In each paper the specific federal case studies are situated within a broader moment of decolonization in which federal thinking played a significant part, as yet under-acknowledged in the historiography.