Crises of Empire: Colonial Economies, Labour, and Post-War Protest, 1945-1966.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: History


During the late 1940s a strike wave swept through the British Empire. Almost no territory was left unaffected, as strikes disrupted key industries in the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, and South East Asia.

However, in spite of the Empire-wide nature of the strikes there have been very few comparative studies of this post-war industrial unrest. Where the strike action has been discussed the protests have been subsumed by a broader narrative of imperial decline, rising anti-colonial nationalism, and Cold War rivalry. Not only does this obscure the social and economic causes of the strikes but by simply characterising the unrest as a response to metropolitan infirmity or anti-colonial nationalism, the specific patterns of labour affiliation and trade union mobilisation are overlooked. Therefore, using Malaya, British Guiana, and the Gold Coast as case studies, the aim of this project is two-fold. Firstly, to investigate the causes of the strikes, examining the relationship between post-war economic conditions, social organisation, and trade union mobilisation. Secondly, to analyse the ‘imperial response’ to the industrial unrest. Here the project will document how the colonial authorities sought to contain the labour disputes through the introduction of metropolitan-style industrial relations machinery and improved social welfare infrastructure.




Planned Impact

1. The project will be of significance to policy makers and civil society organisations, including the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the Department for International Development (DIFD). Other organisations include the International Labour Organisation and the Trade Union Network of Amnesty International. Owen Tudor, head of the TUC's International Relations Department, has expressed his enthusiasm and support for the project. The TUC work closely with trade unions and civil society organisations in developing countries in order to improve labour rights, reduce poverty, and increase the capacity of labour organisations. This project will provide the TUC with the historical antecedents and context that inform current debates on labour rights and the capacity of trade unions in development countries. By providing the TUC with the contextual knowledge this project can contribute to evidence-based policy making.

2. The study will be of relevance to trade union organisations in Malaysia, Ghana, and Guyana. Key stakeholders have already been identified, including the Trade Union Congresses of Malaysia, Ghana, and Guiana. The project will raise awareness of labour history among these unions and will help to inform current debates regarding labour rights and trade union responsibilities. The project will also be of relevance to the Commonwealth Trade Union Group (CTUG). The TUC has stated that it will assist the PI to develop links with CTUG's members in order to disseminate the research results.

3. The study's focus on colonial development initiatives will be of relevance to think tanks and policy makers involved in international development, human rights, and humanitarian assistance. Potential research users have already been identified, including: Oxford Analytica, Chatham House, and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). Allister McGregor, head of the Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction Team at IDS, has emphasised to the PI the importance of the project, particularly as trade unions are an understudied area in international development. Allister McGregor has expressed his willingness to participate in workshop planned for October 2015 (see Pathways to Impact).

4. The project will be of interest to History and Policy's Trade Union Forum. The Trade Union Forum includes trade union practitioners, professional historians, and other interested groups, such as policy makers. It is expected that the PI will deliver a seminar to the Trade Union Forum. As a result of the seminar the PI will also publish a 'Policy Paper' on History and Policy's website. These two activities will enable the PI to disseminate the project's results to research users.

5. Members of the public will be exposed to the research from this project in a number of ways. The exhibition, which is planned for January to June 2016, will serve as a public engagement event. The exhibition will be hosted at the University of Exeter (January to March) and then at the TUC in London (April to June). The exhibition, which will include examples of the research data collected during the course of the project, will help to raise awareness of the study. To further disseminate the findings of the research, the Exeter branch of the Historical Association will be invited to a specially convened lecture, which will be delivered by the PI in January 2016. The Colonial Studies Network, which will be launched in January 2014, will also help to increase public understanding and awareness of the issues related to colonialism. The website will include articles by leading public intellectuals and policy makers.
Description Research from this project is still emerging as I enter the final year of the award. Key findings thus far:

- importance of 'ordinary' colonial subjects in shaping the process of decolonisation. This is a challenge to not only Whitehall-centric approach to decolonisation but also focus on anti-colonial elites.
- Legacy of civil unrest and its violent suppression for post-colonial territories. This is an issue that I'm now developing for Leverhulme Network award (Co-Investigator with Prof. Martin Thomas).
Exploitation Route I am developing my research for the Leverhulme Network Grant, focusing on social movements, civil unrest, and the repression of popular protests.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy

Description University of Exeter HASS Development Award
Amount £5,200 (GBP)
Organisation University of Exeter 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK)
Start 09/2014 
End 09/2014
Description TUC 
Organisation Trades Union Congress (TUC)
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK) 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution I have organised two workshops with the TUC's International Department. These workshops have brought together academics and trade union reps. for the purposes of discussing the achievements and challenges trade unions have dealt with across time and space. My role has been to link up the TUC with the relevant academic speakers.
Collaborator Contribution TUC has provided the environment and the contacts with practitioners to make these events possible.
Impact Workshop, 2014 Workshop, 2017 Publication (Special Issue, Labor History, 2016).
Start Year 2014
Description Op-Ed Piece on Singapore 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Op-Ed piece on the 'old Singaporean left', published in the South China Morning Post.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description TUC Conference in January 2016 on Trade Unions and Globalization 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact In January 2017 academics and trade union activists came together to discuss the issues connected to globalization and trade unions. Excellent discussion, will result in follow up workshops and training events.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Trade Unions in the Global South Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This conference will lead to a special issue in the journal Labor History. It is also expected that it will lead to bid for further ESRC funding on the subject of labour rights, working with partners such as the TUC.

Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description Workshop, Singapore 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact Workshop in Singapore on migrant labour, both from a historical and a contemporary perspective. Engaged with civil society groups, rights campaigners, and members of the public. Q&A discussion, plus will result in online publication about migrant labour in Singapore.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016