3 February 1960: Macmillan’s ‘wind of change’ speech

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.

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.