Born on the Brink: The Birth of James Bond and the Decline of the British Empire

Words by Benjamin Welton

circa 1946:  The Victory Day Parade in London, which was marred by the rain.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

circa 1946: The Victory Day Parade in London, which was marred by the rain. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Ever since Casino Royale first saw publication in 1953, commentators have noted that James Bond began his rise just as the sun was setting on the British Empire. Indeed, worldwide interest in British culture, especially the more garish, almost pulpy elements, found greater appreciation at the same time as Great Britain began its quick descent into second-tier power status. In West Germany, a new film style – the Krimi – began to exploit the fog-shrouded environs of rural Britain for the cause of making slightly tongue-in-cheek, but thoroughly stylish mystery films that were directly inspired by Edgar Wallace, a once revered crime writer of the 1920s and 1930s who was undoubtably an early influence on Ian Fleming.

In Japan, the typically working class street cultures of Great Britain, like the nefarious Teddy Boys (the direct inspiration behind the Droogs in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange), found receptive audiences in the restless postwar malaise of cities like Tokyo and Osaka. Even in America, which by the dawn of the Cold War had surpassed the United Kingdom as the leading power in the Western world and beyond, the charm of London, with its mods, rockers, and stick-thin fashion models addicted to such exotic substances as LSD and other psychoactive drugs, was felt among the youth and played a large part in the hippie movement on the West Coast.

Aside from the streets, British entertainment was in demand, too. In the movie houses, the horror films produced by Hammer Studios brought in large audiences with promises of blood and heaving bosoms in color. Less than a decade later, four Liverpudlian lads with weird haircuts stole the world’s heart and forever altered the course of modern pop music. At the same moment, James Bond, who was then played by the rakishly handsome Scotsman Sean Connery, was the dominant force in cinema, with a legion of imitators trying to steal a little bit of his success with their own sexy spy thrillers.

In the world of art and artifice, the 1950s and 1960s were a golden age for Great Britain. By all appearances, the country had survived the deprivations of the Blitz and the war and had come out on top. But, as the old adage goes, appearances can be deceiving. In reality, Great Britain’s “golden age” was really a sort of compensation. Rather than an expression of potency and importance, the British ‘50s and ‘60s were cover for a dour new reality – a reality that kept impinging upon make believe time and time again.

A couple walking in London during the “Great Smog” of 1952 [Source: Daily Mail]

A couple walking in London during the “Great Smog” of 1952 [Source: Daily Mail]

The reason why Bond and his creator did so well in this environment was because the British government, especially its security apparatuses, took the greatest beating during the early Cold War, and as such many latched onto Bond, the supremely confident and patriotic special agent, as  a totem of lost prestige and authority. As Nicholas Cull writes in his book Selling War: The British Propaganda Campaign Against American ‘Neutrality’ in World War II, Bond debuted as a type of “imperial wish fulfillment” for a country increasingly severed from the very thing that once defined it – its globe-spanning empire.

In order to appreciate the widespread emotional attachment to Bond, it’s important to first understand just how politically disastrous the ‘50s and ‘60s were for Great Britain. Just like in 1918, Great Britain emerged as a victorious nation in 1945. But unlike the previous conflict, which added territory to the already sprawling British Empire, the post-World War II world saw the advent of decolonization and the rise of fierce nationalism in Asia and Africa. Due to the debts that it incurred during the war, postwar Britain was in no financial shape to continue its empire, and even if it were, the prevailing international trend towards autonomy and the exhausted state of the British armed forces would’ve made policing one-fifth of the world’s population impossible.

For many, the messy process of British decolonization begins and ends with India, the former “jewel” of the empire. Led by the London-trained lawyer Mahatma Gandhi, the long-simmering push for Indian independence finally found willing participants in the Labour government of Clement Attlee. While Gandhi’s movement preached nonviolent civil disobedience, dissolving and finally partitioning the British Indian Empire proved to be a very bloody affair, with the largest mass migration in recent history giving way to two antagonistic, now nuclear-armed powers in India and Pakistan. Between 1946 and 1947 alone, the division of the Punjab region resulted in a retributive genocide that statically compares to the much longer conflict over Kashmir and the systematic tit-for-tat holocaust known as the Bangladesh Liberation War.

British soldiers inspecting papers during the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya

British soldiers inspecting papers during the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya [Source: The Times]

While Indian independence did not result in a massive loss of British life, several military “emergencies” not only stretched the British army, air force, and navy thin, but even when they resulted in British victories (which most of them did), they wound up as either public relations defeats or acts done in order to prolong the inevitable. In what is now Malaysia, anti-Communist forces, most of whom came from the British-led Commonwealth of Nations, fought a protracted guerrilla war against the Chinese-backed Malayan National Liberation Army. Using the counter-insurgency techniques that had worked effectively in the Second Boer War (which included concentration camps and forced population relocations), the British army and her allies drastically weakened the Malayan Communist threat by 1960. This of course did not stop a full British withdrawal from the peninsula soon thereafter.

Victory followed by retreat was re-enacted again during the Aden Emergency (1963-1967) and in Kenya during the Mau Mau Uprising (1952-1960). In Kenya, the British strategy of divide and rule, as well as the extensive use of detention camps, drew the ire of the international press and helped to make British military involvement in Kenya widely unpopular.

Still, despite several emergencies and costly engagements in Korea and Palestine, the low point for Great Britain came in 1956 when a combined British-French-Israeli force invaded Egypt in order to capture the Suez Canal and remove the pan-Arabist and socialist Egyptian president Gamal Nasser. The initial assault proved to be a military victory, but international pressure, especially from the United States and the Soviet Union, forced an Anglo-French withdrawal in December 1956. According to Guardian writer Derek Brown, the 1956 invasion of Egypt is often popularly, if not correctly portrayed as “Britain’s last fling of the imperial dice.” Even though the British Empire had been in decline since the end of World War I, the global castigation over the Suez put the proverbial stake in the heart of British imperialism.

Unfortunately, the worse was still yet to come. While Midland cities like Birmingham and Coventry struggled to remain economically relevant against the backdrop of bombed-out rubbish and debris, and while London’s tried to hold back a seemingly inevitable race conflict between the native-born working and middle class and new immigrants from the West Indies and South Asia, the country as a whole was rocked by the revelation that MI6, the intelligence service responsible for British covert actions abroad, was riddled with Soviet spies. The first shock came in 1951, when two well-born Englishman, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, escaped to Moscow in order to evade charges of espionage. In the chaos that followed, the British intelligence community not only came under intense scrutiny from the increasingly suspicious Americans, but the press and even members of Parliament (most notably Marcus Lipton, a Labour MP) began to loudly wonder whether or not more moles had infiltrated the entire security structure.

Kim Philby after defecting to the USS

Kim Philby after defecting to the USSR [Source: The New Statesman]

In 1963, the biggest revelation of them all came when Kim Philby, one of MI6’s most popular officers and the former director of British intelligence in Washington, D.C., was named as a longtime Soviet spy who had been sending top secret British and American information to Moscow since at least the mid 1930s. Philby’s deceit not only cost an untold number of lives and had sabotaged numerous MI6 and CIA-led anti-Communist operations in places such as Albania, Georgia, and even Germany, but its damage to British prestige proved almost fatal.

This then was the world of Fleming’s Bond.

Philby’s betrayal, which was as much of a class betrayal as it was a national one, was so devastating because it struck out against the secular religion of the Cold War – espionage. In his book A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, journalist and historian Ben Macintyre underscores the fervor of espionage’s adherents and practitioners by quoting George Kennedy Young, a deputy director in MI6, who envisioned the work of the secret agent as a “patriotic religion, a British bulwark against barbarism.”

…we spies, although we have our professional mystique, do perhaps live closer to the realities and hard facts of international relations than other practitioners of government. We are relatively free of the problems of status, of precedence, departmental attitudes and evasions of personal responsibility, which create the official cast of mind. We do not have to develop, like Parliamentarians conditioned by a lifetime, the ability to produce the ready phrase, the smart reply and the flashing smile.

In other words, Young saw spies as a new type of warrior unencumbered by restricting social decorum or the strictures of politics. And like Young’s ideal spy, the new, leaner Great Britain attempted to redefine itself as a power no longer tied to the “white man’s burden” of colonialism and no weaker for it. Sometimes this proved convincing, while at other moments it all seemed so clearly flimsy.

This new anxious and less self-assured Great Britain needed a robust, and somewhat infallible hero. Enter James Bond, a character who combined thoroughgoing Britishness with more than a pinch of the American ideal of rugged individualism. In an interview with Playboy in 1964, Fleming admitted that he envisioned Bond as less of a Bulldog Drummond type (a tough former British military officer and a wealthy “gentleman adventurer” created by H.C. McNeile, alias Sapper) and more akin to the “pattern of Raymond Chandler’s or Dashiell Hammett’s heroes.” Bond’s transatlantic flavor is furthered enhanced by his relationship with Felix Leiter, the CIA operative who later becomes a private investigator with the Pinkerton Detective Agency. In Fleming’s novels, the relationship between Leiter and Bond, which by extension represented the Anglo-American alliance, or the “Special Relationship,” was depicted as being more amicable than the real McCoy, and even though at times Leiter and the CIA are shown to be unsophisticated and amateurish bunglers, they are always unquestionably on the right side of morality and are fearless in the service of human freedom.

TanakaStill, in the self-contained world of the Bond novels, there’s no question who’s the superior partner in the Special Relationship. Because of the realities of British decline, Fleming, an ardent patriot, probably felt the need to make MI6, MI5, and the other special services into the world’s foremost leaders in espionage, anti-Communism, and counter-terrorism. Fueled in large part by simple pride (in the same 1964 interview with Playboy, Fleming unequivocally stated: “I am British, and proud of being British, and I’m not going to dodge fair payment by making a dash for Switzerland or one of the other tax paradises”), the Bond novels are replete with affirmations of the glories of being British. In You Only Live Twice, after being on the receiving end of Tiger Tanaka’s taunts (“Britain has not only lost a great Empire, you have seemed almost anxious to throw it away with both hands…”), Bond confidently retorts:

England may have been bled pretty thin by a couple of world wars…But there’s nothing wrong with the British people – although there are only fifty million of them.

Bond’s optimism in the face of decline is a brief summation of what made Fleming’s character so popular initially. Even before the big-budget motion pictures, Bond, the dashing, hard-drinking ladies’ man with the killer wardrobe and the determined grit of a well-trained assassin, provided hope and escape for an entire nation that felt itself slumped up against the ropes. Better yet, even though Bond had dalliances with international women and often fought alongside Americans and other allies from Western Europe and Asia, he was always fundamentally British, with a cool emotional reserve and a firm and stiff upper lip.

In short, Fleming’s Bond is one part Kim Philby sans treachery and one part refined Philip Marlowe. He is the product a nation that was in need of heroes, and the fact that so many non-English speakers have latched onto him over the years is small proof that the little island nation has not entirely lost its puissance.

Incidental Intelligence

‘The Special Relationship’: Ian Fleming and America

Lee Child on why Ian Fleming’s secret agent makes us believe we can still rule the world (Daily Mail)

The New British Empire: Pop-Culture Powerhouses (NPR)



3 thoughts on “Born on the Brink: The Birth of James Bond and the Decline of the British Empire

  1. Great article that gives the context for a cultural revolution of which, the James Bond phenomena, played a significant part.

  2. Pingback: “Mad Mitch” And The British Empire's Last Days - Social Matter

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