In India, it is generally accepted that Indian Independence from the British was the culmination of the 190 year long freedom struggle; from the armed conflicts of the mid-1800s to the more peaceful protests of the early 20th century; with Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders of the Indian National Congress being the heroes of the struggle.

I recently found this article which I'm skeptical of. Here, the author posits that it was, infact, the second world war and the UN's anti-colonization mood that caused the British to leave India. I can agree with the decolonization bit but I don't buy the financial angle. Wouldn't keeping India under the crown have been more beneficial (financially) for the British?

Update: Previously, the question read -

What is the generally accepted reason as to why the British left India?

But I changed it because I'm more interested in knowing that, was the British Empire financially capable of maintaining its colonies (not only India) after the second world war? Wouldn't the profits from the colonies out weight the costs? Wasn't it the whole point of colonization?

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    I don't think so. Britain was close to bankruptcy by the end of the war. And Britain had always relied on support of Indian Armed Forces to maintain their control, they never had a huge population residing in India or huge contingents of British native armies. Indian Naval Mutiny showed them Indian Armies were no longer reliable. There was also huge pressure from natives and US. Better to leave with dignity, then to be kicked out in few years with a lot of expenses.
    – NSNoob
    Commented Jun 6, 2016 at 5:24
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    If Britain decided to stay and later had a sequel of Indian War of Independence, with not even Indian troops to help them out, what do you think would have happened? Transport troops from Far-East and Australia, NZ? From Egypt? Fight a war in hostile conditions, thousands of miles away from home, when you are inches away from bankruptcy? Indian Armed Forces had gained experience in WW2 and they would have proved a tough opponent specially on home ground.
    – NSNoob
    Commented Jun 6, 2016 at 5:27
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    There seems to be something of a consensus that most modern empires were not profitable in and of themselves. This post (by a historian who studies the economics of imperialism) -- noelmaurer.typepad.com/aab/2008/10/imperialism-can.html -- notes that "The British spent far more in defense than they earned from imperial investments; in fact, by the 1880s, the profitability of imperial investments had fallen below domestic and non-imperial ones." Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 20:35
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    as others pointed out, Indian Navel force mutiny, public support of Indian National Army (who faught along with Japanese) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_National_Army and empty treasury was main reason behind. There was another factor - both World Wars were fought to protect "Democracy" and against "Dictatorship". UK couldn't justify holding on to the colonies after this.. Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 15:57
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    prior to the world wars, colonization benefited the mother country through Mercantilism; after the world wars the economic system changed and the basis for the economic benefit of a colony was different.
    – MCW
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 11:35

6 Answers 6


No, one of the most difficult decisions Churchill had to make during the war was to stop economic preferential treatment of the colonies to get American Land Lease support. That preferential treatment was the cork on which the British empire floated. Without it, the empire could not be maintained. That's what happened - not very professionally - after the war. The Indian division was a real mess.

Could Britain have kept her empire? I doubt that very much. It would have taken longer, but eventually colonial empires were no longer acceptable. Some colonial empires lasted a bit longer, but those (the Portuguese, for example) weren't very enlightened rulers. The Dutch and the French tried to keep their empires with force of arms, without success.

Being a Dutchman, I can go into a bit more detail: After the liberation of Indonesia (they already had declared their independence) the British somewhat helped to regain the colony for us. As soon as possible, most of the Dutch army was send over to support the KNIL (Dutch East Indian army). Militarily the Indonesians were defeated. But US economic pressure (if you keep Indonesia, you don't get Marshall Aid) forced the government into recognition.

Now, even if the Dutch government would have chosen to keep the Dutch East Indies, eventually they would have to leave. The more you educate local people, the more you effectively train your opposition. Either you rule by iron rod (not a good idea) or realize that colonialism isn't profitable anymore.

The same goes for England/India as well. It was a matter of economics. For England, colonies worked economically as long as colonial products got preferential treatment. Without it, the empire was loosing money. For us Dutch almost the same, but more direct. The proceeds from the Dutch East Indies were less than Marshall Aid. In both cases the colonial power had to eat humble pie and close it down.


No. After WW2, British empire was not financially capable of ruling its colonies such as India.

As per the below article in BBC,

The catastrophic British defeats in Europe and Asia between 1940 and 1942 destroyed its financial and economic independence, the real foundation of the imperial system.

Even during WW2 the British had mobilised India's resources for their imperial war effort. But when WW2 ended, it was obvious that Britain lacked the means to defeat a renewed mass campaign by the Indian Congress and its leaders.


The watershed event after which European Colonialism was doomed was WW1, not WW2.

Maintaining colonies requires that the subject people recognize that the combined costs of fighting the overwhelming power of the Metropole and the (loss of the) benefits of being a part of the empire (sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, not to mention common defense) are higher than the benefits of independence.

WW1 demonstrated that Europeans are not a "superior master race" but a bunch of lunatics who slaughtered each other by millions for years for no good reason, and even called upon the colonial subjects for manpower.

After that the colonial system was doomed, and that was even recognized officially by the League of Nations mandate system. WW2 was a coup de grâce.


No. World War II drained Britain of what little financial strength it had, after World War I, the 1920s, and 1930s.

Britain began World II with enough gold reserves to pay for about $10 billion in military equipment from the U.S. These reserves were gone by 1941, and Britain received over $30 billion of Lend Lease aid from the U.S. to fight World War II. At the end of the war, Britain received a $5 billion loan for "reconstruction." But much of that was spend on "Empire maintenance," and in any event, was not paid back in full until the early 21st century.

By 1945, Britain was down to her "last" $5 billion of (borrowed) money. That was a drop in the bucket compared to war expenditures for World War II, and what would have been needed to hold onto India.

To take one example of British capabilities, Britain contributed one "British Empire" division to the Korean War, of which only 1 brigade was from the UK. The rest came from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and yes, India. These last troops would not have been available to Britain for use in India.


To be fair.. Adolf Hitler is more responsible for Indian independence than Mahatma Gandhi in one point of view. Britain was bankrupt and had no resources to rule India as the 2,500,000 Indian Soldiers who returned to India had been promised that India would be independent if they fought for Britain.

Britain couldn't afford to have another fight with India. Not only India, many countries gained independence from the British after World War II. Wikipedia Article gives statistics about Indian Involvement in WWII


Ajit Doval on Indian Independence

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    This answer would benefit from sources
    – MCW
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 11:51
  • 2
    You make claims about history, I.e. "2500000 soldiers returned to India..." But you do not have a source to provide evidence. An answer should have a decent reference.
    – rougon
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 11:56
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    You've provided a number of opinions, but no evidence, no research, no citations to back up your claims. How can we judge between your assertions and other conflicting assertions?
    – MCW
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 11:58
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    Please edit the sources into the answer; comments get deleted.
    – MCW
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 12:28
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    I disagree. Mr. Ajit is a bureaucrat and Economist, not a Historian. He has every right to have his opinion, it doesn't mean that his opinion is historically valid. Not to mention his political views may have biased his opinion. I am more interested in knowing if any indian Historian has established that case.
    – NSNoob
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 12:50

The British were not financially capable of controlling India after WW2. Britain faced a lot of attacks which crippled its economy, like bombings in London and other economic strongholds during Germany's blitzkrieg. India was also being pummelled by the Japanese in the north eastern part of India with the help of INA commander, Subhash Chandra Bose.

After WW2, the British wanted help from their colonies. They established the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur so they could train Indian students to become engineers to help rebuild England. They wanted cheap labour, which was widely available in India, to help rebuild England's economy.

After international pressure from countries like the US and other powerful countries, and also pressure from the UN on the UK to grant freedom to all British colonies, as well as independence movements led by Gandhi, Jai Prakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia and many other eminent leaders. There was a violent British response which showed the Indians the true face of the English and made the people more devoted towards getting freedom and also the change in government in the UK also helped India to get its freedom.

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    Minor correction: "Blitzkrieg" refers to the mobile land war doctrine, not the air attacks on Britain's mainland. The British refer to the London bombings as "The Blitz"; the Germans didn't use the term "Blitzkrieg" at all (either land or ground), at least not at that stage of the war.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 8:58

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