By and large the colonies were delighted, since every tiny outpost wanted its independence. Thus Bermuda's decision in a referendum this week to remain within our protection seems unlikely to a Britain that has long lost any interest in imperialism.
But the mix of expediency and idealism of the Fifties and Sixties has given way to the realism of the Nineties. Bermuda is one of the island colonies scattered around the oceans that are clinging to Britain, rather than Britain clinging to them.
Bermudans chose financial security above autonomy. They enjoy a high standard of living, unlike most of the Caribbean islands to the south. They have no income tax - a situation that might change with independence. The trappings of a nation state can be expensive. Bermuda would have to set up diplomatic missions abroad, send delegates to the UN in New York and be represented at numerous UN and regional meetings. It would need to set up a foreign ministry and worry about its defence.
For a country of 58,000 people living on 58 sq kilometres, it is a big world out there and many smaller states have been disillusioned by the few benefits and greater responsibilities that have followed independence.
It is true that countries much smaller than Bermuda are independent. One of the smallest is Tuvalu, an island in the Pacific with only 9,000 inhabitants. Its experience has not been a happy one because it found itself totally dependent on outside economic help, mainly from Australia and Britain, after it ended colonial life as the Ellice Islands 17 years ago. It could meet only 10 per cent of its expenses and has to earn much of its foreign exchange from the sale of postage stamps.
Independence also leads to vulnerability. Small states cannot protect themselves adequately and can become the victims of bands of mercenaries or international racketeers. A few men can take over such a country, as a band of South African mercenaries once did for a few days in the Comoros in the Indian Ocean until they were overthrown and jailed.
There is now another factor: the law of the sea's 200-mile economic zone means that small islands suddenly find their territory taking in huge zones of ocean. They benefit, but find it hard to cope with their new responsibilities. Countries such as the Maldives and Vanuatu have found it hard to protect their fishing rights. For a colony, someone else - in this case Britain - is there to deal with these worries.
In the Fifties the old principle that a colony should not be launched into the world unless it could be viable was thrown to the winds. With one or two exceptions (notably Gibraltar and Hong Kong, which remained dependent territories) independence was given to any colony that asked for it. On the question of whether it had to be shown to be the people's will, Britain was selective.
Usually, independence was granted to the party that commanded the most political support. In most cases the party platform was independence, but the question was never put to a referendum, as has happened in Bermuda.
One small member of the British Empire did get halfway to independence and then came back - Anguilla (population 7,500). It had become part of what was called the Associated State of St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla. But in 1980 Anguilla rebelled and pulled out of the federation. In a situation reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan, Britain sent in policemen and had to take it back as a colony, which it remains to this day.
But few small countries struggling with independence are clamouring to return. Nor would Britain want to take back such burdens. It is stuck with some expensive places it would rather not have, such as St Helena and Tristan da Cunha, although it is happy to keep the Falkland Islands with its promise of oil. And for the future there are the much wider and more mature connections with the very different 51-nation Commonwealth. Our remaining colonies are like grown-up children who will not leave the parental home because the real world is far too troublesome and costly to face on their own.Reuse content