Challenges to British Imperial Hegemony in the Mediterranean 1919-1940

Author: Iliya Marovich-Old

Marovich-Old, Iliya, 2017 Challenges to British Imperial Hegemony in the Mediterranean 1919-1940, Flinders University, School of History and International Relations

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This thesis is about challenge and control, a constitutive dynamic which helped shape Britain’s inter-war Mediterranean Empire. The challenge came in the form of a significant external threat from Italy and the constant high level of internal dissent within the colonies. This study questions how British governments were able to deal with these challenges and suggests that this affected their ability make effective policy decisions in response.

In the Mediterranean the external pressure and international threat to empire was best represented by Fascist Italy, with imperial ambitions of their own and belief that Britain could fetter their growth and their ambitions. Italian activity in the Mediterranean circumscribed British activity in the region, and exacerbated colonial tensions. In response to Italian aggression Britain consistently pursued a flawed policy of appeasement. In this period the Empire was subject to significant challenge but was not in decline. The British state faced economic constraints and a changing international environment which was less favourable to the maintenance of its Empire but it retained the ability to respond to these threats. This study focuses on the colonies of Malta and Cyprus as examples of colonial dissent and finds that Britain exerted high levels of control, which they attempted to conceal through illusory constitutions and a constant resort to a state of exception. This thesis suggests that the inter-war Mediterranean Empire was under greater pressure than is generally acknowledged and that this explains the tight control it was under and the way it was governed.

Although British governments were able to easily combat local unrest in Malta and Cyprus through the temporary use of basic military force, they preferred to use changing constitutional and legal arrangements to keep both of these colonies under their control in the long-term. The self-representation they granted was illusory and the British were able to utilise a ‘state of exception’ at will to maintain their control. The legal fiction of these colonial constitutions had a fading legitimacy as the entire ideological basis of imperialism faced challenge in the inter-war period. The policy was however implemented differently in Malta and Cyprus. While there was rancour and anger in Malta, its strategic importance, and the constant input of funds helped limit the level of dissent and consequently the level of repression. In Cyprus a more robust and martial approach, an authoritarian turn made by the local administration resulted in a divided and stunted polity. The British government maintained imperial hegemony in the Mediterranean through the use of military power and authoritarian rule.

The British response to inter-war threats in the Mediterranean provide a salient example of the way in which empires, subject to internal and external pressures respond with violence, and flawed policy solutions.  

Keywords: Britain, Imperialism, Malta, Cyprus, Mediterranean, Italy, Fascism, Appeasement

Subject: History thesis, International Relations thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2017
School: School of History and International Relations
Supervisor: Andrekos Varnava