by Jeffrey Pickering
Reviewed by : Anna Dangoor
This book was an unusual read for me. Having not studied history for a few years now, such an in depth analysis of a single historical event on which I had no previous knowledge was not my standard bedtime reading. Light it was not, but I was astounded at how enjoyable I found reading the study.
Pickering's self-professed aims in this book are to investigate the causes of Britain's decision in 1968 to withdraw from almost all her military outposts east of Suez. He explains that the issue of retrenchment in general, has been dealt with too superficially in the past, and he seeks to dig deeper, and piece together a fuller picture of the factors that precipitated Britain's withdrawal from the 'East of Suez' bases. Ultimately Pickering aims to create a framework in which other instances of retrenchment can be studied.
The work is clearly set out with a lengthy introduction outlining how this 'longitudinal' study is to be carried out. Pickering takes care to explain all the unfamiliar terms he uses, ensuring that one does not need any background on the subject to get the most out of the book.
The study focuses on three crises in the post-war years up until the decision to retrench. Within this focus, Pickering examines both Britain's increasingly fragile, economic state, and the political movements going on at these times.
The first crisis period is between the years 1945-1951, in which the new world order taking shape after the war, has left the global situation highly unpredictable. In this period the government of Clement Attlee is examined, and his political relationship with his Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, which biographer Alan Bullock claims was one of the most successful partnerships in British history, is explored.
The second crisis to be investigated is the well known Suez crisis of 1956, and here the political wizardry of Harold Macmillan, who managed against all odds to restore faith in the British government after the shame of Suez, is revealed.
Finally Wilson's government is depicted, concerning the economic crises of the 1960's, explaining the way in which he continually juggled his cabinet in order that his position of power should never be challenged.
Throughout these periods Britain's old notions of being a world power, a symbol of which, to many, were the 'East of Suez' bases, restricted any major policy movement towards retrenchment. This was the case, even though, from Attlee's time, it was clear that in upholding these overseas roles Britain was overstretched both economically and militarily. This imperial hangover, and other factors explored in the book, ensured that it was not until 1968, when what Pickering calls 'a triacle of factors' came together, that the need for retrenchment was finally accepted.
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