Not available in 2020/21
Retreat from Power: British foreign and defence policy, 1931-68

This information is for the 2020/21 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof Matthew Jones SAR 3.09


This course is available on the BA in History, BSc in Government and History, BSc in International Relations and History and BSc in Politics and History. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit and to General Course students.

Course content

The period between the onset of the Manchurian Crisis of 1931 and the decision of the Wilson Government in 1968 to accelerate the withdrawal from East of Suez saw Britain’s position in the world transformed under the multiple pressures of economic decline, world war, nationalist opposition to colonial control, and the demands of Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union and international communism more generally.  This course examines how this change occurred by studying several central episodes in British foreign and defence policy.  Its focus is predominantly on high-level policymaking in the diplomatic, military and economic realms, but it will all give attention to shifts in popular attitudes, parliamentary debates, the influence of electoral considerations, and the larger-scale transitions taking place in the international system.  In common with other Level 3 courses, it will include study and discussion of primary sources throughout.  Documents will be drawn from either published collections, including British Documents on Foreign Policy, 1919-1939, and Documents on British Policy Overseas, 1945-, official publications such as Command papers (including such material as international agreements and Defence White Papers), the diaries of key politicians or officials, and copies of documents from The National Archives at Kew.  Much use will be made of online sources.  Specific topics include the Italian invasion of Ethiopia; the Munich Agreement of 1938 and appeasement; British strategy in the Second World War; Anglo-Soviet relations in the Second World War; the formation of NATO; the Korean War; the Malayan emergency; Suez crisis; the first application to join the EEC; and the withdrawal from East of Suez in the 1960s.


20 hours of seminars in the MT. 20 hours of seminars in the LT. 2 hours of help sessions in the ST.

Students will be expected to read essential primary and secondary material for each weekly class, to deliver presentations, and to participate in seminar discussions.

There will be a reading week in the Michaelmas and the Lent terms.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 essay in the MT and 1 essay and 1 other piece of coursework in the LT.

Formative assessment is by one essay for submission in week 5 of the MT, and one essay for submission in week 5 of the LT (each essay should be a maxmium of 2000 words and be drawn from a list supplied at the start of the course).  One gobbet exercise will also be conducted in the LT as a form of revision for the final examination.

Indicative reading

Paul W. Doerr, British Foreign Policy, 1919 -1939 (1998)

David Reynolds, Britannia Overruled: Britain and World Power in the 20th Century, 2nd ed (2000)

C. J. Bartlett, The Long Retreat: A Short History of British Defence Policy, 1945-70 (1972)

Alan Bullock, Ernest Bevin: Foreign Secretary, 1945-1951 (1983)

Anne Deighton (ed), Britain and the First Cold War (1991)

Robert Holland, The Pursuit of Greatness: Britain and the World Role, 1900-1970 (1991)

Ronald R. Hyam, Britain’s Declining Empire: The Road to Decolonization, 1918-1968 (2007)

Paul Kennedy, Background Influences on British External Policy, 1865-1980 (1981)  

R. A. C. Parker, Chamberlain and Appeasement: British Policy and the Coming of the Second World War (1993)

Christopher Thorne, Allies of a Kind: The United States, Britain, and the War Against Japan, 1941-1945 (1978)

John W. Young, Britain and the World in the Twentieth Century (1997)


Exam (100%, duration: 3 hours) in the summer exam period.

The summative assessment consists of a three hour examination paper which involves each candidate writing two essays selected from a list of questions, and two comments on a selection of extracts from primary sources.

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2020/21 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the situation of students in attendance on campus and those studying online during the early part of the academic year. For assessment, this may involve changes to mode of delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: International History

Total students 2019/20: Unavailable

Average class size 2019/20: Unavailable

Capped 2019/20: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Leadership
  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Specialist skills