The defeat of colonial rule will come to be seen as the defining event of the 20th century

What was the most important event of the 20th century? The answer might once have been 1917. More recently, the favourite has been its historical nemesis, 1989. The different vantage points offered by history provide different perspectives and, as a consequence, different judgments. What might seem incontrovertible to one generation appears less obvious to the next, and perhaps not at all obvious, even perverse, to the one that follows.

Neither date will, I suspect, stand the test of time in terms of their overarching historical significance. Viewed from the perspective of the future, the most important event of the 20th century may well turn out to have been neither 1917 nor 1989, but the defeat of colonialism and the triumph of national liberation after the end of the second world war. Without this momentous event, the transformation of Asia that we are witnessing today and that is reshaping the world so profoundly would have been impossible.

Such a proposition might seem odd. In the west it is certainly not fashionable. On the contrary, ever since 9/11 and the unilateralist turn in American foreign policy, the idea of empire has made something of a comeback, and books, articles and programmes singing the virtues of colonialism are no longer so unusual. It is a reminder that Europe, for its part, has never come to terms with its colonial past, let alone atoned for its consequences, and probably never will.

The best that can be said is that Europe, Britain included, treats this long period of its history with amnesia. While we are well-versed in other aspects of our history, the outrages committed in India, Africa and around the world remain untaught and mostly forgotten.

The present effort – as witnessed in our prime minister’s speech at the UN summit – to condemn terror as an unspeakable evil ignores the fact that terror played a key role in many anti-colonial struggles: Cyprus’s Eoka and Kenya’s Mau Mau immediately spring to mind. When we speak of our national virtues such as fair play and tolerance, our colonial history, fundamental to what we are today as a nation and rooted in an utterly contrary set of values, becomes invisible. If we cannot come to terms with our colonial history, then it is impossible to give decolonisation the significance it deserves.

Until 1945, Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and large tracts of east Asia were ruled from Europe: China was the only large exception, though for many decades parts of it were also under foreign rule, mainly Japanese. The nation-state, which the west takes utterly for granted as part of its birthright, did not lie within the compass of experience of most peoples and cultures. We forget what a novel experience the nation-state is for the majority of the world. After 1945, with the collapse of the European empires, the number of nation-states tripled. That is not much more than half a century ago; in terms of the history of western Europe, it is little more than yesterday.

It was rightly argued by another columnist on these pages that the transformation of India and China offers the most remarkable possibilities in the modern world; however, he attributed this simply to the collapse of communism and their joint embrace of the market. There are two problems with this argument. First, it writes off several decades of postwar history when both these countries made serious economic advances, which helped to lay the basis for their more recent accelerated growth rates; this is certainly true of China, for example, between 1949 and 1978. Second, and rather more fundamentally, it turns a blind eye to the colonial experience.

Before 1950 such an economic transformation – any kind of economic transformation – was impossible. Colonial rule involved the subjugation of the interests of the colony to those of the imperial power. The last thing that the European powers wanted was to allow their colonies to develop an industrial capacity and, as a consequence, become competitors for their own domestic producers. That is why industrial development in so many of Europe’s colonies was so sparse and so stunted.

As CA Bayly points out in The Birth of the Modern World, the urban population in the British and French empires in Asia and Africa remained stuck at around 10% of the total in 1900, more or less the same as it had been in the pre-colonial period, a reflection of their frozen economic development. He also suggests living standards in these colonies may have fallen over the course of the 19th century. In other words, national independence was a precondition for the economic development of the former colonies. Without it, virtually nothing was possible. Imagine what India would be like today if it were still under the British Raj; or China, indeed, if a large slice of its territory was still occupied by the Japanese, and the western powers controlled most of its big cities. The most important factor that constrained the development of vast tracts of the planet was colonialism. By the same token the most important factor in transforming their possibilities was freedom from colonial rule.

This point has somehow got lost in the growing volume of criticism of the nation-state. It comes in many shapes and sizes. Philip Bobbitt speaks of the decline of the nation-state and its transformation into a market society. Many have pointed to the effects of globalisation in undermining the nation-state. Europeans have lamented the decline of their own states and constructed the European Union in part response. The Americans are fond of talking of failed states and rogue states. Michael Ignatieff has even argued that most post-colonial states have failed.

Of course, there is substance in some of these arguments. Collectively, however, they have served to undermine the idea of the nation-state. It is no accident that this has coincided with the post-colonial era in which the vast majority of peoples enjoy statehood and in which colonialism is no longer acceptable. If the United States, as the sole superpower, wishes to reshape the world, then, given that colonialism is no longer an option, undermining the legitimacy of the nation-state becomes a central political task. The body of arguments used to justify the occupation of Iraq is a classic case in point.

As far as the majority of the world is concerned, two points stand out. First, freedom from colonial rule transformed their potential. Without it, their interests would still be subordinated to those of their colonial rulers. Of course, it has not guaranteed economic success: their fortunes have varied greatly, depending on their colonial experience and their individual histories and circumstances.

Second, an independent nation-state remains the most important means by which peoples can exercise control over their own destiny. Without it, they are rendered impotent. With it, as east Asia has shown most clearly, an extraordinary transformation is possible. Much is made of the importance and virtues of democracy, but for developing countries, the most important form of democracy – whether their regime is authoritarian or democratic – is the right to control their own destiny.

As we contemplate a century in which China and India are global powers, it is worth remembering that none of this would have been possible without the victory of the anti-colonial movements after 1945. Notwithstanding the present attempt in the west to rehabilitate colonialism and articulate a new imperialist project, it is the defeat of imperialism in the middle of the last century, that will shape our global future.