Lunchtime Seminar: Tuesday 23rd April 2013


Imperial or McMahon Hangover? Prestige, independence and Britain’s world role.

Stuart Butler
University of Manchester


Tuesday 23rd April 2013

1 p.m. – 2 p.m.
Simon Building Room 2.57


Governments are criticised for failing to adapt quickly enough to Britain’s changed position in a shifting geo-political landscape after the Second World War. Continued independence in areas such as defence policy and a reluctance to engage with supranationalism in Europe are cited as evidence of this ‘imperial hangover’ in British decision-making.

However, historians seem to have examined why cooperation was not pursued, rather than why independence was pursued. The concept of an imperial hangover implies that decisions were reactive, conservative and based solely on misguided beliefs in Britain’s capabilities and world role. This paper will examine why independence was pursued focusing on scientific and technological collaboration from 1960-66.

With the signing of the Atomic Energy Act in 1946, co-operation with the United States on atomic energy was abruptly cut off, and Britain was left to pursue the ‘tube alloys’ (atomic weapons) project independently. From this point onwards, a fear of being cut off by collaborative partners without warning coloured British decision-making.

This paper asserts that contrary to received historiographical opinion, governments were cautious about retaining independent projects as a necessary contingency based on previous experience rather than as part of a blind, arrogant over-calculation of Britain’s capabilities.


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