3 February 1960: Macmillan’s “wind of change” speech

Harold Macmillan gave his famous “wind of change” speech on his visit to Africa on this day in 1960, marking a change in Britain's colonial policy.

The British Empire had its origins in the late 16th century, and slowly expanded to become the biggest the world had ever seen, with 400 million people under its wing.

But after WWII, things quickly began to change. Ravaged by war, Britain no longer had the sort of economic clout it used to have. The USA was flexing its muscles, looking for new markets to exploit. Nationalist movements were growing in many of Britain's colonies. And the rise of communism threatened the “free” world.

Other European powers were having a torrid time with their colonies. France, in particular, was battling to hang on to its empire, and was waging a bloody war in Algeria. Britain's empire was slowly dissolving. Ghana (then the Gold Coast) had become independent in 1957. Nigeria would become independent later in 1960. Britain could either hold on to its past glories by force, as France was failing to do, or accept the inevitability of its demise.

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Against this background, Conservative prime minister, Harold Macmillan, visited South Africa in 1960. Macmillan told the South African parliament: “The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it.”

It pointed the new direction of British colonial policy. Within 20 years, virtually the whole of Britain's empire had been dismantled. There was a brief resurgence in imperial tub-thumping with the Falklands War in 1982, but the final nail in the coffin of Empire came in 1997, when Hong Kong was handed over to China.

Ben Judge

Ben studied modern languages at London University's Queen Mary College. After dabbling unhappily in local government finance for a while, he went to work for The Scotsman newspaper in Edinburgh. The launch of the paper's website, scotsman.com, in the early years of the dotcom craze, saw Ben move online to manage the Business and Motors channels before becoming deputy editor with responsibility for all aspects of online production for The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News websites, along with the papers' Edinburgh Festivals website.

Ben joined MoneyWeek as website editor in 2008, just as the Great Financial Crisis was brewing. He has written extensively for the website and magazine, with a particular emphasis on alternative finance and fintech, including blockchain and bitcoin. 

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