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    Jan 15

    Gandhi and the Philosophical Letter


    The Philosophical | Letter:

    Mahatma Gandhi

    This paper was written for a conference held in Oxford in June 2016 on the Philosophical Letter.  My contribution was on Mahatma Gandhi. We were each asked to present a letter, and mine was one from Gandhi to Maganlal Gandhi in 1910. You can read the original letter below on the right.  On the left is what I said.

    The letter I’ve chosen to present is just one from a vast correspondence. Gandhi was a prolific writer of letters. He wrote dozens of letters by hand almost every day of his adult life. The Sabarmati ashram, which holds the largest collection of his correspondence, has around 35,000 letters.

    Gandhi also took correspondence very seriously. In his journalism, he often chided Indians for being casual about it: for failing to read letters carefully, or being slow to reply. He wrote – and was written to by – almost anyone. And he wrote about almost everything: not just politics but almost every aspect of modern life.

    The example here was written by Gandhi in 1910 to Maganlal Gandhi, a relative of his, but not a close one. Maganlal (1883-1928) was the grandson of an uncle of the Mahatma, and he was twenty-seven years old in 1910.

    The letter was written at a decisive moment in Gandhi’s life. He was forty-one. For the previous four years he had led the passive resistance campaign in South Africa (the Transvaal) against the requirement for Indians to register for special permits for residence and work. He had been imprisoned several times. The previous year he had spent mostly in London unsuccessfully lobbying the British government to over-rule the South African government. On his return voyage to South Africa in November 1909, he had written a book: Hind Swaraj, to which he refers in the letter.

    Hind Swaraj sets out, tellingly in the form of a dialogue, Gandhi’s position on Indian freedom. It argues that India has been made unfree not by British occupation, but by Indians’ acquiescence in alien rule. The cause of this acquiescence has been Indian seduction by western modernity. Swaraj – self-rule – meant not only self-government (political independence), but the government of the self, by each individual (self-discipline and autonomy). In terms of political strategy, this meant self-reliance, rather than mendicancy – the tactic of petitioning others that Gandhi had used hitherto. ‘What is secured for us by others’, he wrote, ‘is not swaraj but pararaj, i.e. foreign rule’. Indians should make themselves free by resigning from government jobs, leaving western schools and colleges, boycotting British goods. They should reduce their dependence on, and admiration for, western modernity and rediscover the strengths of their own civilization. Getting the British to leave India might take many generations. But Indians could free themselves now if they wanted. ‘You and I can enjoy it even today,’ he tells Maganlal. ‘Emancipate your own self … Nobility of soul consists in realizing that you yourself are India.’

    Gandhi was opposed not only to mendicancy, and also to revolutionary violence, which was the other dominant opinion among Indian anti-colonialists. Violence is mistaken because the enemy lies within and not without, but also because violence claims certainty for itself. Instead, Gandhi advocated ‘truth-force’ – satyagraha – non-violent action which is a courageous insistence on the truth: neither coercing nor begging, but insisting on the truth and being willing to suffer publicly for it.

    It’s fair to say, I think, that when Gandhi set out this philosophy, he was not only in the minority, but almost entirely alone. To the mendicants, Gandhi seemed hostile to the most generally accepted boons of colonial influence – western medicine, legal systems, and education, the railways, industrialised cotton-mills. How was India to become a modern, independent state without these things? To the revolutionaries, Gandhi’s non-violence seemed quaint. Wasn’t ‘truth-force’ just the sort of Hindu passivity that had made India easy to conquer in the first place?

    To persuade his critics, Gandhi therefore needed to provide answers to the hundreds of questions Indians had for him. Maganlal, as you can see, had asked him some. How was India to become free without modernising itself on western lines? How could non-violent satyagraha work against violent tribes like the Pindaris?

    Gandhi did have answers to these questions. Modernity was not the strength of the British, which Indians should emulate, but their weakness which the Indians should reject. Satyagraha is not weakness. It is about not using the strength that you have.

    But what is puzzling about the letter – and the reason I chose it for this workshop – is that as well as challenging all these conventional assumptions, Gandhi has some critical things to say about correspondence itself. This is a letter which criticizes letter-writing. The value of correspondence is exaggerated, Gandhi says. ‘When we give up railways and such other means,’ he writes, ‘we shall not bother ourselves about writing letters’. Indeed, so far as possible, we should give these things up now. The isolated Indian village, he tells Maglanlal, will be better off without the post office.

    So there is an intriguing performative contradiction here. Gandhi is advocating the restriction of correspondence in a piece of correspondence. Why should Gandhi, knowing that he was almost alone in his views, wish to restrict one of the ways by which they might best be disseminated to others? Considering this puzzle also seems to speak to the central question of our workshop: what can correspondence do, and what can it not do?

    What correspondence can do     *

    Let’s start by looking at what Gandhi says in the letter about how truth spreads itself. The search for truth is a personal search: you have to pursue it yourself and not receive it from others. You have to be self-reliant. But the truth for Gandhi is also many-sided and inexhaustible. Because it is inexhaustible, no one person, no matter how energetic, could ever find it all. And because it is many-sided, each individual will see a different (and small) part of it. So dialogue between individuals – correspondence, if you like – is necessary if the truth is to be found. Each individual is uniquely constituted and must make his or her own search for truth, but the search necessarily involves seeking unity with the widest number of other human beings.

    Because the truth is many-sided and inexhaustible, each searcher for truth needs to be humble and aware of his or her fallibility. Correspondence is valuable to Gandhi as a way to test and correct one’s own view. We’ve been thinking about how correspondence can be dialogic (two-way) or instructional (effectively one-way), and about letters which expect answers and letters which don’t. Gandhi’s conception of correspondence is emphatically dialogic. He asks for consideration and replies. ‘Please ponder over the meaning of this statement’, he writes in this letter. And right at the end: ‘Please ponder over this … If you want to ask anything more, please do’. Think it over. Let me know what you think.

    Another of the dimensions of our discussion so far has been the relative merits of the philosophical letter and the philosophical treatise. Gandhi never produced a comprehensive treatise. Instead, he developed a set of approaches which he described somewhat misleadingly as experimental. The title of his autobiography was The story of my experiments with truth. Gandhi thought that India’s long civilization was itself a form of scientific enquiry in which people had worked out, and were still working out, through observation and experiment, which moral and social practices worked and which didn’t. We might well doubt that these were real experiments: they often confirmed as truth the beliefs that middle-aged male Hindus already held. But the point is that experimental testing could not be done alone. The task was too great for any individual, so it had to be pursued by like-minded others, sharing their findings. Some lived alongside each other in ashrams, but others, in India and across the world, would share their findings through correspondence. In other words, Gandhi had what you might call a ‘correspondence theory of truth’.

    Gandhi therefore offers a distinctive position on three of the problems we’re considering in this workshop. First (1), he has an answer to the problem of ‘reach’ that philosophy needs to reach large audiences, but letters only reach one or two. The assumption that (unless it is published) the influence of a letter stops at its immediate recipient is something Gandhi would have denied. He thought in terms of a network of influence, in which experimenters shared their findings through correspondence with each other. He did this himself by reading out letters at public meetings, and also by printing and publishing letters in journals which he also edited, and which in turn were republished as contributions in other journals, elsewhere. Something which started out as an exchange of letters – and which needed to do so: an article would be different in audience and tone (more finished, more authoritative) – later achieved a wider circulation through republication. But it began through private circulation through correspondence.

    What Gandhian experimenters were sharing, moreover, were their personal experiments. Their correspondence had impact, therefore, not despite the fact that it was personal, but because it was personal. Perhaps we are mistaken, therefore, if we assume (2) that the personal quality of a letter diminishes its wider effectiveness. For Gandhi the force of a view turned on whether it was practised by the individual who held it. He was very critical of people who espoused but did not live out their ideals. You can see this insistence on the importance of personal example-setting in the letter. We shouldn’t be deterred from giving up modern practices, Gandhi says, just because we can’t end them overnight, nor because some people will never follow us. This doesn’t matter. ‘Even if one man reduces or stops their use’, he writes, ‘others will learn to do so.’ Making ‘only’ a personal connection with a single individual through a letter is therefore not an impediment to spreading the truth. On the contrary: it is the best means – perhaps the only means – by which to do so.

    Gandhi also has a distinct position on a third problem we’ve been considering: (3) the fact that letters are private yet often seek to address public matters. Gandhi draws the line between the public and private in an unusual place. In many of his letters there is an odd mix of conventionally public and private topics. Discussions of high political developments rub up against advice on diet, health, hygiene, dress, sexual desire, marriage, child-rearing, and so on. To Gandhi these are not incoherent juxtapositions, because his concept of freedom is one in which these supposedly ‘private’ matters have a profound public importance. To be politically free you have first to free yourself in ordinary life. Gandhi thought that India’s subjection was a consequence of regarding its own social practices as inferior. This was what had made Indians servile and imitative. To become free was not just about political campaigning, but also about freeing oneself, even alone, and today, in matters of everyday life. ‘In your emancipation is the emancipation of India’, Gandhi tells Maganlal. ‘All else is make-believe’.

    So letters can have great influence, even if ‘only’ personal, even if ‘only’ addressed to individuals, and even if ‘only’ private.

    What correspondence can’t do   +

    What, then, can letters not do? What does Gandhi mean when he says that it would be better if the Indian village never got a post office?

    Gandhi feared that Indian rural localities would be overwhelmed by western modernity. This was not because he romanticised the condition of the traditional Indian village. Nor was it because he wanted to keep new ideas out. He thought Indian culture had always been open to and influenced by the ideas that came from outside it, which it absorbed, traditionalized and Indianised, so as to remain true to itself. The trouble with western modernity was that, unlike earlier religious incursions like Buddhism and Islam, it was spiritually impoverished. It had made Indians indifferent to the cultural resources they already possessed, and anxious to imitate alien ones. The ironic consequence of greater openness to communication, therefore, was that people became more isolated, and more alienated from their own identities, and hence the world more fragmented.

    Letters, therefore, (1) cannot substitute for the local. Correspondence connects people across distance, but in doing so, it also distracts people from what is closest to them. For Gandhi, living under colonialism, the alien had displaced the indigenous, and this had happened not only by invasion and coercion but by the dangerous seductions of western modernity, which had stimulated desire – as he says in the letter, we have to beware of our desires – and pushed aside duties to others. Modernity had alienated Indians from the local, the situated, the familiar, the timely. ‘The English have not taken India’, he wrote in Hind Swaraj. ‘We have given it to them’. ‘They are not in India because of their strength, but because we keep them.’

    The trouble with modern communications was not only that they carried spiritually dead cargo. We also have to remember that Gandhi was trying to reach a largely illiterate society. The Indian literacy rate was about 5% in 1910. There were around 200 languages. So written correspondence in English, or even Hindi, could never have been enough for him. The traditional information order in India relied less on printed or written materials and more on relayed news, story-telling, dramatic production, song. Gandhi was suspicious that the prioritisation of the written form would displace these non-written and even sometimes non-verbal symbolic modes of communication. So there was a second thing that letters could not do. They (2) cannot substitute for non-written and non-verbal communication.

    Modern communications also worked too fast. They failed to respect the pace at which human lives could sensibly be lived. Letters, especially pouring in at modern rate, (3) cannot substitute for consideration. While Gandhi rejected the idea of monkish withdrawal from the world, he also thought that everyone should engage in daily meditation, without distraction, to reflect on things and compose their own thoughts. You can have too much correspondence. Enough, as we have already learned from Epicurus, is enough.

    There was a fourth objection. Letters (4) cannot substitute for the face-to-face. Gandhi sets great store by the change of heart: the connection that is made when you speak with others directly and without mediation. He thought, for example, that it was harder us to lie face-to-face than it was when we write to each other (the opposite of the view of Goethe, as we heard earlier). He thought too that people were more likely to change when they directly witnessed truth-force, rather than read about it. In India, and especially in the Gandhian ashram, much of ordinary life was carried out in full view of everyone else. So, yes, the fact that letters are private does not preclude their having wider influence, but the most valuable forms of influence are exerted face to face in local communities, like ashrams, and villages.

    But Gandhi’s largest objection to mass communication concerned the way that it rendered the individual a passive recipient and echo for others’ ideas. Correspondence (5) cannot substitute for action. From the letter to Maganlal: ‘It is not enough merely to profess [humility]’ … it should stand the test when the occasion comes’. So Gandhi is very critical of the lawyer who writes to boast of his altruism or spirituality. ‘Let him learn his livelihood through physical labour and carry on his legal practice without charging anything for it’, he argues. Action carries meanings that letters can’t. Indeed, it is telling that Gandhi, although a prolific correspondent, did not much value the physical letter – the piece of paper – itself. He takes care with correspondence, but does not take care of his letters. He did not preserve them or refer to them or regard them as in any permanent way defining his view. They were needed only for the moment: for the impact they might have on people’s thinking or action.

    The letter as an enabling weakness of empire 

    So in colonial conditions, modern correspondence was double-edged. It was both the means by which India might develop an alternative to colonialism, and also the means by which India had come under colonial rule in the first place. Correspondence is an instance of a wider dilemma for Gandhi, which was how to fight a battle against western modernity without relying on the weapons of western modernity.

    Like other instances, this expressed itself in terms of opportunities and vulnerabilities. Let me give one example of each. First, the vulnerability. These concerns about the corruptibility of the Indian village cut against the dialogic. One interpretation of what Gandhi is saying to Maganlal is that natural leaders may continue to correspond, provided their heads are not turned by it, but that the Indian villagers will be too easily corrupted, so must not be permitted it. ‘Swaraj is for those who understand it’, Gandhi writes. There’s a double meaning in that. First: anyone can be free: once you have understood, you are free. But also: you need to understand what freedom means before you can use it. ‘You and I can enjoy it today’, Gandhi says to Maganlal. ‘All the others will have to learn to do likewise’. There’s a tension here between autonomy and liberation, on the one hand, and slowly learned self-discipline on the other.

    Now, to finish, the opportunity. The British empire, we should not forget, was governed through correspondence. The post is one of its enabling weaknesses. How had Gandhi corresponded with Maganlal? He had bought a stamp with King Edward’s head on it, and used the imperial postal service. In order to govern a far-flung empire, the British had developed a system of postal communication. And in order that it should work cheaply and in depth, the system was not reserved for the governors, but could be used by anyone who could afford a stamp. This meant that it could be exploited by anyone.

    Indeed, twenty years after the date of this letter, Gandhi was able to plan a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience, which the British struggled to control by censorship because the flow of propaganda and conspiracy through the postal systems they had themselves introduced was so great.

    In that campaign, Gandhi wrote another letter, to the Viceroy of India, on the eve of his famous Salt March in 1931. He could have issued a press statement, but he sent a letter. Addressing the Viceroy ‘Dear friend’, rather than the expected ‘Your Excellency’, Gandhi claimed the level status of friendship. He did not beg or make threats: on the contrary, he informed his ‘friend’ of his plans and asked for his views.

    Gandhi’s letter to the Viceroy can, I think, usefully be contrasted with the written communicative forms generally used by other Indians when addressing the British. It differed both from the petition, which Gandhi had used himself when a mendicant; and the threat, made by the revolutionaries.

    The petition comes from below: it concedes a position of superiority to authority, and defers to the recipient’s conceptions of what is right and just. Threats, on the other hand, are violent. To impose your own view on others is a form of violence, made from above, from omniscience. In Gandhi’s correspondence, by contrast, you can set out your own views, and you can try and persuade, or even educate, your reader. But you cannot compel them. And you must not beg.

    This sort of communication-on-the-level was very destabilizing to the British. They knew what to do with petitions from below. They met them not exactly with rejection, but perpetual deferral – always holding out the prospect that they might satisfy them one day. They knew too what to do with threats: they fought back, or they gave in. But the personal letter – Dear Friend – had a strange forcefulness they couldn’t easily reject. Friendship with Indians was, as E. M. Forster saw in A Passage to India (1924), incompatible with imperial relationships, in which ‘the office defined the man’, and the personal and the official were kept firmly apart.

    So firm was this separation, indeed, that the British actually separated the correspondence they received into distinct categories – official, demi-official, private – precisely so that they could file letters appropriately, for fear that the private and the personal might corrupt the public and official. But Gandhi’s letter could not be filed properly. He broke the rules of correspondence, and he did so using correspondence as his weapon.

    Nick Owen

    Mohandas K. Gandhi to Maganlal Gandhi, 2 April 1910, from The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, (New Delhi, 100v., 1958- ) vol. 10, pp. 473-7. Translated from the Gujarati Gandhiji-ni Sadhana by Raojibhai Patel, and Mahatma Gandhiji-na Patro, edited by Dahyabhai Patel.

    Chi Maganlal,

    Your letter to hand. I return it to you so that you can understand my reply to it.
    I shall try to answer the questions you have raised. But even then you may not understand thoroughly. You will perhaps find the explanations you have sought from [Hind] Swaraj itself if you read it afresh once or twice.

    There is no doubt that we shall have to go back to the extent to which we have imbibed [modern] civilization. This part of the task is the most difficult one, but it will have to be done. When we take a wrong path there is no alternative but to go back. We have got to free ourselves from attachment to the things we are enjoying. For this it is necessary that we begin to feel disgust for them. Whatever means and instruments appear to us to be beneficial are not going to be given up. Only he who realizes that there is more harm than the apparent benefit from a particular thing will give it up. I personally feel that no benefit has been derived from our being able to send letters quickly. When we give up railways and such other means we shall not bother ourselves about writing letters. A thing which is really free from fault may be used to a certain extent. We who are engulfed in this civilization may avail ourselves of postal and other facilities as long as we are so engulfed. If we make use of these things with knowledge and understanding we shall not go crazy over them, and instead of increasing our preoccupations we shall gradually reduce them. He who will understand this will not be tempted to take the post or the railway to the villages which do not have these. You and I should not remain passive and increase the use of steamers and other evil means for fear that these things cannot be abolished forthwith and that all the people will not give them up. Even if one man reduces or stops their use, others will learn to do so. He who believes that it is good to do so will go on doing so irrespective of others. This is the only way of spreading the truth; there is no other in the world.

    It is very difficult to get rid of our fondness for Parliament. It was no doubt barbarous when people tore off the skin, burned persons alive and cut off their ears or nose; but the tyranny of Parliament is much greater than that of Chengiz Khan, Tamerlane and others. Hence it is that we are caught in its meshes. Modern tyranny is a trap of temptation and therefore does greater mischief. One can withstand the atrocities committed by one individual as such; but it is difficult to cope with the tyranny perpetrated upon a people in the name of the people. It seems to have happened in the past that some rulers were like King Foolishman while others turned out to be wise. Had Edward alone been our ruler it would not have been so objectionable; but every Englishman is ruling over you and me. Please ponder over the meaning of this statement. I do not refer here to people’s fondness for this world. The common man in India at least believes that the Parliament is a hoax. Even an extraordinarily intelligent man, caught in the meshes of this civilization, loses his sanity in Parliament. By saying that mercy cannot have any effect on the Pindaris you have denied the very existence of the soul or its [essential] attribute. Lord Patanjali has emphasized the greatness of mercy, etc., in such a way that we feel delighted even while thinking of those virtues. The real fact is that fear has taken deep root in us and consequently truth, mercy and such other virtues do not develop. And then we think that mercy has no effect on cruel people. If we show mercy to the person who shows mercy to us it is no mercy; it is only the return for mercy.

    We should be considered weak if someone protects us free of charge or even if we pay him for doing so. If we have to seek outside help to be free from the menace of the Pindaris, etc., we are unfit for swaraj. If we would subdue them with physical force, we shall have to develop that force in ourselves. We shall not then have to pay blackmail or tribute. A woman seeks her husband’s protection as a matter of right; but she is considered an abala (weak) after all.

    Swaraj is for those who understand it. You and I can enjoy it even today. All the others will have to learn to do likewise. What is secured for us by others is not swaraj but pararaj, i.e., foreign rule, whether they be Indians or Englishmen.

    In calling the cow-protection societies cow-killing societies, I have but stated the truth; for their object is to rescue the cow or protect her by bringing pressure on Mussalmans.

    To rescue the cow by paying money is no protection of the cow; it is a way to teach the butcher to be deceitful. If we try to coerce the Mussalmans they will slaughter more cows. But if we persuade them or offer satyagraha against them they will protect her. No cow-protection society is necessary for doing this. That body should be for teaching Hinduism to the Hindus. It is better to kill an ox by a single blow of the sword than to kill it by starving it, by pricking it, by over-working it and thus torturing it.

    It would be very confusing to take the examples of Shri Ramachandra and others literally. I have never imagined the possibility of a Ravana in the physical form of a man with ten heads and twenty arms. But to imagine that he was a huge passionate senseless animal and that he was killed by Shri Ramachandra representing the divine essence may appeal to the intellect.

    Tulsidasji has described Ramachandraji as the forces of the Sun who is the destroyer of pride, infatuation, and the darkness of the night of excessive attachment. Do you think we shall have the least desire left in us to destroy anybody when we are rid of all pride, infatuation and attachment? If you say ‘no’, how could Ramchandraji who was free from pride, infatuation and attachment and who was an ocean of mercy destroy Ravana? However, let us first attain his stage, like Lakshmana1 give up sleep and observe brahmacharya for fourteen years and then see where physical force could be used.

    I want to say that everything is achieved by humility. The example you gave of the Transvaal is quite appropriate. It is not enough merely to profess orally to have the above sentiment; it should stand the test when the occasion comes. Think of the numberless adversities Harishchandra had to face before his [devotion to] truth was proved. Think of the suffering Sudhanva had to undergo before his bhakti (devotion) was proved to be genuine. We may not consider these as mere legends. It may be that the names and forms were different; but they who have composed these stories have given their own experiences through them. Even in the Transvaal the babblings of persons like me are being put to the test. Also bear in mind that many who were regarded as satyagrahis have proved to be insincere demagogues. Who, then, should be regarded as true satyagrahis? Of course, they who possess virtues like compassion, etc. Nowhere has it been said that suffering may not have to be undergone. And what does suffering after all mean? It is the mind, says the Gita, which is the cause of our bondage as well as of our freedom. Sudhanva was thrown into boiling oil. The person who got him thrown into it thought that he was inflicting suffering on Sudhanva; but for the latter it was a grand opportunity to show the intensity of his devotion.

    It will never happen that all are equally rich or equally poor at the same time. But if we consider the good and evil aspects [of the various professions] it seems that the world is sustained by farmers. Farmers are of course poor. If a lawyer would boast of his altruism or spirituality, let him earn his livelihood through physical labour and carry on his legal practice without charging anything for it. You will not easily realize that the lawyer is lazy. Just as a sensuous man, even when exhausted by indulging in passions, remains engrossed in sensual pleasures, so a lawyer, even when he is exhausted, goes on straining his nerves to the breaking point in his practice in the hope of getting wealth and attaining to greatness and later on passing a life of luxury and comfort. This is his objective. I am conscious that there is a little exaggeration in this; but, what I have said above is true for the most part.

    What service will an army of doctors render to the country? What great things are they going to achieve by dissecting dead bodies, by killing animals, and by cramming worthless dicta for five or seven years? What will the country gain by the ability to cure physical diseases? That will simply increase our attachment to the body. We can formulate a plan for preventing the growth of disease even without the knowledge of medical science. This does not mean that there should be no doctors or physicians at all. They will always be with us. The point is that many a young man who gives an undue importance to this profession and wastes hundreds of rupees and several years qualifying for it, ought not to do so. We must know that we are not, nor are we going to be, benefited in the least by allopathic doctors.

    I hope I have replied to all your questions. Please do not carry unnecessarily on your head the burden of emancipating India. Emancipate your own self. Even that burden is very great. Apply everything to yourself. Nobility of soul consists in realizing that you are yourself India. In your emancipation is the emancipation of India. All else is make-believe. If you feel interested, do persevere. You and I need not worry about others. If we bother about others, we shall forget our own task and lose everything. Please ponder over this from the point of view of altruism, not of selfishness. If you want to ask anything more, please do.

    Blessings from



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    Feb 13

    Colonial violence

    We have learned a lot in the last few years about the violent abuses of British imperialism in retreat, such as those in 1950s Kenya and elsewhere. Historians have exposed the extent of violence, named its perpetrators and its victims, and established its immediate causes. But there is also a further question to be asked – the one I focus on here – concerning the knowledge of violence, especially at the metropole. Who knew?

    Here I think the debate is indeed unresolved. The two loudest voices are contradictory. The first voice says, ‘hardly anyone knew’. A combination of censorship, distance, lies, silencings, the destruction or concealment of the evidence, all meant that the metropole was largely unaware. It is only now that the government has opened the archives, and the historians have dug deep enough, that we know what happened. The second voice, however, says, ‘almost everyone knew’. As David Anderson points out, what is ‘most astonishing about Kenya’s dirty war is not that it remained secret at the time but that it was so well known and so thoroughly documented’. In his work, and that of Caroline Elkins, it’s suggested that the Kenyan abuses were known about ‘at every level’ and indeed ‘at the highest level’.

    One explanation for the dominance of these two voices is that they can both be, in different ways and with respect to different actors, exculpatory. One achieves this by concentration: if hardly anyone knew, then hardly anyone is to blame. The other achieves it by dilution: if almost everyone knew, then almost everyone is to blame. Since the historical investigation has been driven forward by – and has itself driven – a legal case for compensation, the question of blameworthiness has been especially sensitive. Legal proceedings demand a definitive answer to the question of whether someone knew – whether abuses were ‘known about at the highest level’. For lawyers, the state of knowledge has to be a binary matter, not a scalar one.

    But perhaps not for historians. We have to consider the possibility that people have different things in mind when they make claims concerning knowledge. What knowledge is is in dispute: not just what was known and by whom, but how it was known, what status the knowledge-claims had, and what use was made of them.

    So in this paper, I say something not only about what the colonial state knew, but also about how it knew it. I also discuss how this knowledge could be contested by others, namely the colonised. And to the degree to which things were known ‘at every level’, a further question arises: why was there so little contemporary protest over them at the metropole?

    Press photographs in the period of Indian civil disobedience (1929-32) recorded instances of colonial violence. They did not commonly appear in the British press, let alone the Indian press, but the American press did publish them. The photographs themselves have been preserved in the collections of the American press agencies, which have been selling them off as they close down their paper archives. You can find some examples from the large number I have collected here. I have added the original, often badly spelled, captions provided by the press agencies. They appear if you hover the mouse over the image.


    The first part of the paper tries to complicate knowledge. I contrast two view concerning the production of colonial knowledge. One influential view is that colonisers sought to construct truth itself, through a system of meanings and representations – a colonial discourse – which was constituted by and helped to perpetuate colonial rule. This included a knot of power and knowledge concerning violence. The authorities’ violence was legitimate because it was the violence of sovereignty applied in the maintenance of order and regulated by law. The violence of the colonised, by contrast, represented the savagery which colonial conquest had displaced, and the state of chaos to which the colony would return if the civilizing mission were to fail. Anti-colonial violence was interpreted as illegitimate “disturbance”, “unrest” or “criminality”, but the violence of the state as a matter of obligation – General Dyer”s “horrible, dirty duty” – regrettable but made necessary by the latent unruliness of the colonised themselves.

    A second view is that coloniser conceals truth. Here it is acknowledged that, for many audiences, violence can be shameful – a sign of failure and error –and therefore knowledge of it must be controlled. The colonial state knew what had happened and concealed it, or perhaps better selectively revealed it, to some and not others, to as to shape its impact. In short, censorship: the cover-up.

    Both these views make an assumption, which I want to challenge. Whether it is smothering the truth or producing it, the colonial state itself knows. Either it knows what is happening and attempts to conceal it; or it determines what is known to be happening through its capacity to produce knowledge, or what counts as knowledge. Either way it knows. It knows either as a precondition of censoring. Or it knows because it decides itself what may be known.

    There are also newsreel images of the repression of Indian civil disobedience. These were shown in British cinemas. The example below comes from British Movietone, in September 1930. It shows the violent policing of anti-colonial demonstrations in Bombay.


    However, I think, what we see in the official exchanges, however, is that the authorities – in London or on the spot both wanted to know and not to know.

    They needed to know because there was so much uncertainty about the scale of colonial protests and the capacity to contain them, and partly because only they could judge what was needed to satisfy sensitive metropolitan audiences. They therefore asked a lot of questions. At the same time there was a definite disinclination to know too much, or to know in the wrong way. The higher up you go the more carefully worded the questions and answers are. Higher officials rarely heard the raw voices of colonial policemen, let alone victims: everything had gone through multiple rewritings from the district officer upwards.

    Why is this? Part of the motive for this was doubtless to preserve honest deniability. If you can claim not to know, then you can’t be blamed. But that can’t be the whole story, because the demands of accountability, especially on civil servants, were so weak. No one would expect them to speak to the press, or appear in front of a parliamentary select committee.

    Not-knowing was less about evading responsibility. It was more about flexibility of rule. It allows you say not only “I didn’t know about it so you can’t blame me” but “I didn’t know about it so I am not implicated, and now well-placed to make a ruling.”

    Flexibility was needed because protest situations were dynamic and endlessly various, and the authorities needed to make fine adjustments – not arbitrary ones – to the mixture of repression and reform to handle them. What the officials therefore did was try to ask the right questions, so as to receive the sort of provisional knowledge which did not finally resolve matters. The information had to be full enough to allow for several possible interpretations – that was why they wanted so much information – but it also had to be insufficiently definitive so as not to point to one conclusion. A complete and definitive account would just have to be accepted. Lots of information pointing in different directions: a grey and blurry photograph indeed – was quite useful.

    It was therefore important that in their progress up the bureaucratic chain, the information retained for a long as possible the status of allegations, even when the evidence available offered grounds for something much more definitive. This allowed the officials to consider the information they received carefully, reserving the possibility that they might cut loose those junior servants who had “exceeded their authority” or “gone too far”. In this way, the weight of the structure bore down most heavily on those at the bottom, in order to maintain flexibility and control at the top. It was inconceivable that the men in the citadel would be publicly held to account or publicly overruled except in the most extreme circumstances: the costs to prestige and administrative morale were simply too great. But failings at the lower levels had a perverse value in confirming the unfitness of the colonised to take responsibility.

    In sum, therefore, the senior officials therefore needed to know everything. But they also needed to know nothing, in order to be able to “make enquiries” and discover abuses which justified continued and improved rule. This was a paradoxical process, poorly captured in the notion of a “cover-up”. Not-knowing was not a failure to know: it was useful: it had strategic value, because it licensed more investigation and more rule. It kept the authorities in a flexible position: to cut loose or to judge.

    We need a new word for this. The binary that the lawyers have to insist on – the ‘light-switch’ of knowledge that is either on or off – is no use. But what should the word be? It is not exactly ignorance – a blank space of unknowns. Nor is it inattention or incuriosity. They are intensely interested in what happened. Nor is it quite suspicion – beliefs that are not confidently held, the nagging feeling that something might be the case – perhaps even something very improbable. Nor is it doubt – awareness of the probabilities that something is or isn’t true. It is a willed refusal to come to knowledge, a refusal to acknowledge knowledge. Not-knowing, then, is my proposal for what was ‘known at the highest level’.

    I wonder whether this is not a distinct position in the debate on colonial knowledge? In that debate one view suggests that the imperial rule consists in the knowing. Another view denies that the imperialists could ever know enough to rule. My evidence suggests a different relationship between knowledge and empire: that it was in the not-knowing that the imperialism resided. It challenges the idea – shared by both sides – the state wishes to know all it can / that it regrets not knowing what it does not know / that it wants to know everything, even if it can’t fully satisfy that want. It also challenges the assumption that knowledge provides comfort and security, and not-knowing means discomfort and anxiety. In this instance, not-knowing is sought because it can confer a greater security.


    The second part of the paper aims to complicate the relationship between knowledge, feeling and action. We are probably familiar with the debate concerning how much the metropolitan British knew or cared about the empire. The competing positions in that debate differ not only in their answers to the question of how much was known about empire, but also in their assumptions concerning the effects of knowledge and ignorance. One side finds abundant evidence of everyday, cultural familiarity with empire, yet little formal anti-imperialism, and concludes that the British probably knew a great deal about empire and were therefore heavily emotionally invested in it. The other side takes the evident lack of knowledge concerning empire to suggest widespread apathy and indifference. But the inter-relationship of knowing and feeling might be more complicated than that. Ignorance of the facts was compatible with a variety of affective stances towards empire, ranging from indifference to considerable enthusiasm. The more knowledgeable could be critics as well as cheerleaders, which is one reason why those who ran the empire were wary of teaching people about it. This points towards the importance of appreciating not just whether people knew, but the complicated ways that knowing, feeling and action are related.

    For example, one puzzling finding is that even knowledge of colonial violence did not lead naturally or easily to an anti-imperialist politics. This seems odd, but only because we assume that once we know certain things, we naturally feel and act in certain ways. The inter-relationship of knowledge, feeling and action is much more complicated. One reason is that an ethical case could be made for imperialism which was actually strengthened by exposure of its violence. It is very striking that sometimes the most powerful denunciations of imperial violence have been those whose imperialism can hardly be doubted. We might think of Curzon’s treatment of the 9th Lancers in 1902, or Enoch Powell’s speech on Hola Camp in 1959. It is the idealism that drives the criticism. This perhaps may have extended across the political spectrum to left-wing idealists of empire too: atrocities and excesses require reform, and reform means staying to put things right.

    Even those who thought things could not be put right through reform, because violence was simply an inevitable part of imperial rule, could (and did) say so. But their knowledge was also awkwardly articulated with feeling too. Knowing what they did, they could not claim to be shocked, or indeed moved, or shamed, by what had happened. They didn’t believe in empire – indeed, they thought it was inherently dirty – so news of a dirty war was no news. In consequence, their criticisms did not derive as much force as we might expect from the exposure of violence. Very often such knowledge led to disaffection, not a mobilized anger.

    Indeed, studying metropolitan anti-imperialists soon shows how few of them can be easily dropped into the box marked ‘imperialist’ or ‘anti-imperialist’, at least as long as those boxes imply singular emotional responses, or simple relationships between what they knew, how they felt and how they acted. The most informed could be paralysed by their knowledge, or moved to action. The action could be tolerant of, or even enthusiastic for empire. The least informed could be easily deflected or impossible to stop. They were unstoppable because they knew so little. Those who felt most strongly could find it hard to take sides. How can we make sense of such conflicting behaviour if all we have is a framework that insists that everyone took a side, and such simple ideas of what a supporter looks like, how much they know, and how they feel? So here too we need new words. Pro and anti will not do. We need a more sophisticated taxonomy of affect to capture the diverse and complex emotions that can be loosely grouped together as ‘imperialism’ and ‘anti-imperialist’ feeling.

    If you would like to read this paper, please click on the paper dart icon to the left, and send me a message.

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    Dec 29

    Democratization and the British Empire

    This paper grew out of work I first set out for a conference at Berkeley, CA in 2015 on democratic innovation and the British Empire, and later developed for a conference in 2017 in Oxford to celebrate the work of John Darwin. It tries to bring together two literatures: one on democratization and the other on the history of the British Empire.

    The starting point is the finding of theorists of democratization that colonial rule is significantly associated with democratic survival. This claim is sometimes made by sleight of hand: democratic survival is credited to the British presence, and democratic collapse to the British departure. But the claim here is based not on selective cases, but on ‘large-n’ studies of democratization. Indeed, the longer a colony spent under British rule, the likelier it is to have sustained democracy since independence. And it is British colonial rule specifically: there is a weaker effect for colonial rule in general. But the strongest effect is for British colonies.

    There are many different ways to explain these findings, but one of the most prominent concerns political institutions. Under British rule, democratic innovations were introduced: most obviously elections, but also ‘training ground’ legislatures, and pre-independence constitutions.

    The trouble with this argument is that it clashes with what archivally-informed historians generally argue about the motivations of the British in making such innovations. Representative institutions were not intended to discover the popular will so that it could be expressed and made effective in creating and sustaining state authority. They were constructed to manage the popular will so that it could not challenge British rule.

    Indeed, representative institutions actually functioned very differently across the empire. In Britain, they functioned as a way of controlling the arbitrary power of the state. In the settlement colonies, they were prompted by the need to need to create a government which would pay for itself. Responsible government meant a government charged with responsibilities, answerable to a legislature representing taxpayers, which was also itself thereby made responsible for creating and sustaining an executive. In India and the colonial dependencies, in the absence of white loyalties, responsible government, when it was given, was not intended as a prelude to self-government, but to strengthen the colonial state, and stabilize its rule against disloyalty from below.

    The franchise was designed not to better capture popular demands, but to shape those demands through the way it elicited them. Voters were summoned to the polls as members of state-defined communities. No one could speak for any interest other than that to which the colonial power had assigned him or her. And no one except the colonial rulers could speak for the whole.

    When franchises were widened and diversified, as in India between the wars, this was designed to prevent the formation of majorities that might press for full independence.

    Legislative discussion was not intended to foster consensual deliberation, let alone aggregation of demands into a general will. It was rather meant to divide up colonial society and force it to represent itself as divided, particularistic and antagonistic, in need of a colonial sovereign to preserve its peace and unity.

    The concession of ‘responsible government’ was meant to solve the problem not of irresponsible British autocrats but those created by irresponsible nationalist politicians. To take responsibility in straitened circumstances was certain to split the nationalist movement on precisely those questions on which the colonial state had already divided its electorate.

    The paper explores the use that the British empire (and its opponents) made of ‘democracy’, and proposes its own explanation of the correlation between democracy and the post-colony, in terms of traditions of protest.


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    Dec 02

    Facts are Sacred: the Manchester Guardian and India

    This article examines the reporting of colonial violence in Britain. This is one element in the working of metropolitan anti-imperialism. For such anti-imperialism to be effective, it needed a steady stream of reliable accounts of injustice and repression on the part of the British authorities, and justifiable revolt and growing support among the nationalists. So if such a stream was choked by censorship, this may be part of the explanation of the weakness of metropolitan anti-imperialism.

    Censorship of the truth, moreover, is only one possibility. It may be that the the truth was itself produced by colonialism. Rather than regulating true accounts of its violence, colonialism may have constructed its own discourse concerning violence. Such a discourse distinguished between the legitimate violence of the colonial state, needed to preserve law and order, and the illegitimate violence of those who revolted against it. It enabled the colonial state to tighten its grip every time violence was used, on either side.

    The idea of the article is to focus as close to the moment of violence as possible, tracing how the words of the earliest witnesses took shape in the hands of those who recorded them - British district officers, anti-colonial nationalists, investigative reporters, travelling observers, and others. These reports could then be traced onwards, through the hands of higher officials, other nationalist leaders, politicians and newspaper editors, before they reached British readers.

    What state the reports arrived in matters for an important debate in the political history of British imperialism. How much did the British know about their empire? To simplify a little, one side in this debate finds abundant evidence of everyday, cultural familiarity with empire, and concludes that the British knew and cared a great deal about the empire. The other side finds ignorance, and concludes that the British were indifferent or apathetic. So it is helpful to know how much the British knew about colonial violence. It also helps to know how they felt about it, since knowledge and feeling relate in complicated ways. The ignorant can be apathetic, but sometimes they are the most vehement, precisely because of their ignorance. The best-informed do not to be those who care the most. Their knowledge may insulate them from caring. So we also need to consider what the British felt about the reports.

    The interwar period, and specifically Indian civil disobedience, is my case study. The interwar years are a good choice because this is when justifications for British rule started to rely heavily on the peaceableness of British rule, just as, at the colonial periphery, violence was being deployed against nationalist uprisings more than ever before.


    The first part of the article examines how British officials constructed an account of colonial violence which vindicated their authority. This was rarely as simple as censorship. Indeed, the British called forth accounts of their violence, often in considerable detail. But these accounts were the raw material for an exercise in assigning blame. Sometimes this blame could be directed at the nationalists for making the violence “necessary“. At other times it could be directed at junior officials of the Raj - Indian policemen, for example - who had “gone too far“. This was a long way from a “cover-up“. There was censorship, of course, but the Raj did not always want to conceal its own violence, partly because it was intended to have an exemplary effect, but also because it had a useful consolidating effect. If the violence was perceived to be legitimate, it deterred and reassured. If it was illegitimate, it justified renewed colonial rule, to protect Indians against abusive junior officials.

    The nationalists also produced their own accounts of colonial violence, based on witness evidence they solicited themselves. To a degree these constituted an alternative discourse. It was designed to demonstrate the repression of the struggle for freedom from British rule. The nationalists too shaped the raw material, suppressing unsuitable injustices, such as those in which Indian communities had attacked each other, and developing injustices with anti-British potential by coaching witnesses.

    However, nationalist accounts struggled to achieve authority with British audiences, because the situation was epistemically unequal. The British sat in judgement over all the Indians in the case: both the Indian junior officials and the nationalists. They could summon and compel witnesses and the nationalists could not. Their account was therefore more to be trusted. It was not, of course, a complete account. But even the unknown elements helped the consolidate the British narrative. A fully knowable colony could be governed transparently and without mistakes. One that was edged with uncertainty was hard to govern and prone to occasional, exceptional error. But when errors were made, invariably by the defective junior Indian official and almost never by British officials, the solution was reintensified British rule. The British therefore did not always need to censor rival accounts. Discursive authority did the work instead.


    The third part of the article considers the difficulties of investigative journalism in deciding between the British and nationalist accounts. It uses the example of the journalist H.N.Brailsford, who was commissioned by American newspapers and a British publisher to investigate repression in India. Lacking Indian languages, Brailsford was forced to rely on Congress guides to take him around the countryside, and solicit and question peasant witnesses for him. They also translated the answers. Since the Congress guides also wielded organizational, economic and social power over those whose testimony they provided, it was fairly easy for the British officials to discredit Brailsford’s findings. They did this rather than censor them.


    So rival accounts were available in Britain, and the British press had a choice whether to report neither, or both, or choose between them. In the article I examine this choice as it was made by the Manchester Guardian. The Guardian was not the most-read paper in Britain, but did, unlike better-read papers such as the Daily Herald, retain Indian correspondents. It also had a readership interested in imperial questions, and willing to hear criticism of British actions. Its mission, captured in the motto of its editor, C.P.Scott, that “comment is free, but facts are sacred“, was to report the truth without fear or favour. It had done so, at some cost to itself, over British atrocities in the South African War, and over “black and tan“ repression in Ireland.

    It is therefore intriguing that The Guardian reported little of the news it received regarding repression in India from Brailsford and others. There were several reasons for this. First, although The Guardian retained an Indian correspondent, it was not until the late 1930s that it employed an Indian in this role. Before then, it employed liberal-minded British ex-officials, who treated Indian accounts with scepticism. The principal expert was a retired district magistrate called J.T.Gwynne, who told Scott that Indians were not to be trusted. “Many of the victims of “repression“, he wrote, were “silly asses or conceited asses who don’t deserve much sympathy“. Another correspondent, the writer G.T.Garratt, was also an ex-official, and told Scott that Congress allegations of atrocities were mostly cooked-up.

    When The Guardian received reports from a British missionary, Verrier Elwin, alleging police-led murders and punitive house-burnings, it was thrown into a quandary. Here was a British witness with an apparently sincere account. Scott’s son Ted, now running the paper, felt instinctively - a true Guardian moment - that “the truth must lie somewhere in between“ - and therefore dispatched a new correspondent, the ex-missionary and literary critic Edward Thompson. Thompson was a complex man, and his position with respect to Indian nationalism was a strange mixture of assertiveness, deference, and prickly self-regard. He travelled to check Elwin’s story and spoke to both sides, and concluded that Elwin’s account had been exaggerated. The nationalists had provoked the repression, and Elwin had swallowed their stories too readily. He had, Thompson wrote to Ted Scott, yet to realise “how much real moral character can exist in India alongside … indifference to truth of fact. He believes what people he finds attractive tell him“.

    Elwin’s reports would have been spiked, had it not been for another recruit to The Guardian, Malcolm Muggeridge. In the weeks following the unexpected death of Ted Scott, Muggeridge had a brief inter-regnum as assistant editor and repeated Elwin’s allegations.

    Even so, neither Elwin’s reports nor Congress accounts achieved wide circulation in Britain. This was less a consequence of censorship, than the reservations of publishers and editors. Indian accounts, where they did get through, had to be endorsed by trusted British public figures. Indian writers could not be commissioned to write on Indian subjects unless a British expert, almost always an ex-official, had given his approval. Indian speakers at public meetings had to be introduced by British chairmen. Even the BBC’s commitment to balance did not extend to Indian voices. When it planned a series of talks on Indian politics, it accepted the India Office’s view that the voice of Congress should not be heard directly, but given by Gandhi’s British friend, C.F.Andrews, or the Labour Party leader, George Lansbury.



    State censorship was not the most important means by which information was regulated. It was hard to do, and it almost always failed to block rival accounts from reaching Britain. At least some part of the British press - The Guardian in this case - heard these two accounts, and made its own, independent judgment between them, based on attempts to verify the story through investigative journalism and the use of foreign correspondents.

    What mattered was not censorship but the effects of this judging and verifying. This was not for the reasons often proposed to explain why distant violence has little impact on western societies, such as indifference to troubles far away, or the dulling effects of political consensus, or unthinking patriotism or disempowerment. None of these applied much in the case of The Guardian. It was not complacent about India, and it sought out more information than could be obtained from official pronouncements. It was suspicious of the unquestioning consensus that imperialists sought. It acknowledged duties that went beyond the nation, and loyalties to the nation that were not simply loyalties to its government. It did not feel disempowered or unqualified to speak out. On the contrary, it accepted the responsibility to know and to criticise, and urged it on its readers.

    The problem was partly mechanical. The Guardian refused to employ Indians as Indian correspondents, and its reliance on British ex-officials as guides seems almost certain to have led to distortion. Ex-officials like Gwynne and Garratt believed as an article of faith that Indians were - if not actually mendacious - less to be trusted than British witnesses. In judging Indian accounts, The Guardian‘s demand for written proof in a society still largely illiterate also seems naive, and its preference for simple and honest accounts seems oddly insensitive to the likelihood that true accounts of violence would be confused and traumatised.

    But the larger problem was epistemic. The Guardian editors believed that they would always publish the truth, no matter how painful it was. Professional commitments to truthfulness in reporting and scepticism about unchecked power were important guiding principles and led to a refusal to line up uncritically with the government view. But The Guardian‘s manner of separating truth from falsehood in rival accounts, and of identifying the voices of authority, exhibited certain biases.

    These were a matter of who was trusted, which was in turn a matter of shared and unshared identities. There was scepticism about the statements of the Raj, unlike the tendency of other parts of the British press to print these as though officials were impartial experts rather than parties to a conflict. But the officials were believed by The Guardian unless there was evidence to the contrary. On the other hand, the evidence of Indians was generally discounted in advance as partial, unless there was evidence to the contrary. This helped the Raj because it did not need to produce a watertight account of its own, but merely doubt concerning rival accounts.

    When pushed into doubt, the editorial response of The Guardian was not to take sides, but to seek to bring the parties together. The round table - the political strategy of the Raj in this period - was also The Guardian‘s approach. All men of goodwill might gather round it, to seek a solution together. With respect to the dispute itself, The Guardian offered a kind of permanently suspended judgment. It practised a journalism of detachment. Its editorials insisted on the tractability of every conflict; the essential unity of opinion among reasonably minded men concerning its solution; the inexhaustible supplies of “hope” that might be squeezed out - “easily, smoothly … like brushless shaving cream from a full tube”, as Muggeridge described it, to reconcile the disputants. Elwin’s journalism of attachment looks very different. Made in advance of proof, without guarantees, it took sides. This was why The Guardian could not print it.

    These findings throw some doubt upon the idea of a moral disarmament of empire. Knowledge of the violence practised by colonialism did not necessarily lead to anti-imperialism. Indeed, my account suggests that an ethical case could be made for imperialism that was actually strengthened by exposure of its violence. Perhaps, therefore, the moral disarmament of empire came later, and not through liberal or humanitarian anguish at colonial violence, but through the interaction of more marginal European philosophies and the direct experience of colonialism.

    We might also reflect on the role of the metropolitan press and publishing world as an advocate of anti-imperialist ideas. It did not silence Indian voices in the 1930s. On the contrary, it brought them forward more enthusiastically than ever. But it did so firmly framed by British endorsements. While this helped colonized voices to be heard and published in Britain, it came at a price. British support for the Indian struggle became at best vicarious in character, and at worst self-undermining, unconsciously reproducing in itself the asymmetries of power it ostensibly wanted to overturn.

    Finally, my account has implications for views of the reach and significance of the empire in British politics and society. To simplify: one view in this debate has been since people knew about the empire but did not much protest, they must have been imperialists. The other has been that since they did not know, they cannot have been imperialists. My account offers a third possible relationship between knowledge and empire: that it was in the not-knowing that imperialism resided. Ignorance was not a blank space, but a construction in itself, which took discursive work to achieve. Such work arguably made it possible for the British to believe in an empire quite distinct from the one their colonial subjects knew by direct experience. The way the competing stories mutated, as I have traced them almost from the originary moment of violence in India to The Guardian editorial, helps us to see how that might have happened.


    The article was published in the Journal of Modern History in September 2012. The journal is published by the University of Chicago Press, and you can find my article here.

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    May 20

    The Conservative Party and Indian Independence

    The puzzle that this article addresses is the question of why the Conservative Party failed to revolt against the granting of Indian independence in 1947. Constitutional advances in the 1930s, after all, had given rise to one of the most bitter struggles within the party during its long history. Of course, the majority of Conservatives had proved ultimately amenable to the suggestion that provided the essence of imperial rule could be preserved with safeguards, there was no great harm in loosening the formal bonds that tied India to Britain. But they had done so because the constitutional reforms promised to tame Congress, not to surrender power to it.

    In 1943, at the time of the Cripps Mission, when India was promised dominion status at the end of the war in return for immediate co-operation in national defence, the Conservatives had only been reassured by the guarantee that post-war independence would be conditional upon the satisfactory negotiation of a treaty to safeguard British interests and the inclusion of a clause allowing provinces which disliked the new constitution to remain outside it.

    What was contemplated in India in February 1947, however, was very different. Power was to be transferred to the unreconstructed Congress. Britain was to abandon control by a set date even if Congress and the Muslim League were at war. There were to be no safeguards for the protection of British business and trading interests, and precious few for the careers of police officers, soldiers, civil servants and judges which had so exercised the diehards of the early 1930s. It was widely expected that India would achieve independence not as a Dominion but as a republic outside the Commonwealth, with no formal ties to ensure that she would contribute to imperial defence.

    Moreover, the Conservatives were now led by the principal rebel of the 1930s, a man who had been prepared to risk his considerable ministerial ambitions, to split his party and to destroy its leaders over the Indian question. Nothing in the war had moderated Churchill’s view of India. The messy slate of his political reputation wiped clean by wartime successes, Churchill enjoyed a new ascendancy in his party, especially on matters of world politics. Enjoying all the authority with which the Conservative party once endowed its leader, and the irresponsible luxuries that a period of opposition brings, Churchill was in a uniquely strong position to tackle the ‘pygmies’ whose cowardice and irresolution – in India as well as Europe – he blamed for the failures of the 1930s. He had been right about Hitler. Was he, perhaps, right about Gandhi too?

    After the 1945 general election, although the Conservatives were a much-depleted parliamentary force, they did not hesitate to divide the House over other imperial issues. Whenever Britain’s rights as an independent world power were challenged, whether by Americans as at Bretton Woods or over the postwar loan, or by Arab nationalists seeking to close the Suez base, the Conservative bulldog barked as loudly as ever. Yet on what had been the central question of imperial policy between the wars, there was – in the end – little more than a whimper. How should we explain it?

    There are three existing explanations. The first is the unprecedented turnover of Conservative parliamentary representation in 1945. The long-delayed defeat of 1945, Miles Kahler suggests, brought in a much younger generation of Conservative MPs, less sentimental about imperial ties, whose political views had been formed not in the invigorating era of imperial expansion but in the more debilitating climate of war and economic depression. Doubtful of the morality of the imperial mission, squeamish about repression, especially when conscripted servicemen came in the line of fire, the new MPs were reluctant to lift their gaze from domestic concerns to imperial horizons. Much as Churchill might dislike it, the ‘pygmies’ whom he had derided in the 1930s had come to dominate the party.

    A second possibility is that Conservative indifference was sharpened by the wartime erosion of British material interests in India. India’s significance to British trade had declined substantially, and her debts to Britain had been replaced by sterling balances. The Indian Army was an outdated and ill-equipped force of little relevance to modern strategy. The war had exacerbated discontent with colonial rule, and holding on to India was likely to be costly and irritate anti-colonial Americans.

    Finally, it is suggested by Robert Holland, the 1945 election made clear the dwindling importance of India to British voters. The priorities of the electorate had hardened: jobs, housing, welfare and demobilization, not the maintenance of imperial rule over unwilling subjects.

    By 1945, colonial India had become an economic anachronism, a military irrelevance, an electoral liability, even an ideological embarrassment.

    The article argues that until the last moment the Conservative stance on Indian independence was much more hostile than has hitherto been recognized. The hostility was not merely Churchill’s. It was shared by the younger generation of Conservative frontbenchers, including Macmillan, Eden and Butler, as well as many backbenchers, especially those with connections to Indian military and bureaucratic ‘service’ families. Given the zest they showed for modernising their party’s domestic programme, and their later reputation for hardheaded pragmatism in colonial affairs, we might have expected to find them unsentimental about the Indian connection. But this was not so. Such Conservatives were well aware of the dwindling importance of India. But the rapid collapse of India as an imperial asset made it no less desirable that Britain remain in control, to minimize the damage.

    Conservatives stressed above all else Britain’s persistent responsibilities. While Britain had a duty to guide her colonies to eventual self-government, she also bore a weighty responsibility to the rest of the Empire-Commonwealth, and perhaps – in a more mystic way – to its long-dead builders and to future generations, to do so in such a way as to prevent imperial fragmentation. India should therefore remain undivided and join the Commonwealth. The promises made to Indian allies – to the minorities and the princes – must be kept. Above all, British troops should remain, reinforced if necessary, to preserve order. They were not opposed to the principle of Indian self-government: on the contrary, most Conservatives were prepared to accept that India was indisputably set on the path to independence within the Commonwealth. But they required that the transfer of power be unhurried, orderly, and honourable.

    The possibility that the Conservatives might take up the Indian question deeply worried the Labour Government. They knew that the Conservatives could hold up their plans in Parliament. There was also a chance that an anti-surrender campaign might win public support. True, India had long been an issue which emptied meeting-halls and had hardly featured in the electioneering of 1945 at all. But the very paucity of discussion gave Labour little confidence that they enjoyed a mandate for sudden retreat in India. For many, not only Conservatives, British India was still the embodiment of British power and self-esteem. Opinion polls confirmed public expectations that Britain should remain in India until a new constitution was established and that India should be granted only dominion status. Public opinion could react dangerously if retreat in India appeared dishonourable, disorderly, or smacked of national humiliation, especially if expatriate British citizens were attacked, or their property confiscated.

    That this opposition did not blossom into a full-scale diehard revolt is explained less by the conversion of Conservatives to acceptance of the new Indian policy than by the inability of unreconciled opponents to sustain a coherent campaign against it. The decision not to fight Labour’s policy of accelerated independence was not a principled but a tactical one, made and enforced by party leaders in Parliament, largely out of fear that such a campaign would become unsustainable.

    The main difficulty lay in choosing a satisfactory rallying-point. Dragged down the slippery slope of seemingly minor concessions, the first task of the opponent of decolonization is to find a secure foothold at which to dig in the heels and make a stand. In earlier periods of resistance, diehards, for all their inability to win the party over, had at least managed to unite in defiance of it. Conservative party managers in 1947, much as they disliked what they saw at the foot of the slope, found it much harder to identify stable ground. Cripps had already promised Indian freedom on behalf of Churchill’s War Cabinet. The crucial reservation – the need for the minorities and the Princes to accept the new constitution – was increasingly seen as a licence for partition. The Conservatives’ strategy was fatally dependent upon the assumption that neither Congress nor a British Government would be prepared to sacrifice the unity of India. Rapidly diminishing British control in India made it hard to see by what means the constitutional imperatives were to be enforced. Once the pressure of communal disorder pushed Mountbatten and Nehru to contemplate partition, the Conservatives, despite all their reservations, found themselves forced by their own constitutional logic to acquiesce in the transfer of power.

    This raised the real danger that the force of the Conservative attack would be dissipated in a welter of contradictory voices, or worse still, the re-opening of the wounds of party division inflicted by the Indian issue in the early 1930s. Here the problem of Churchill was paramount. His indifference to the feelings of the party he led, his disregard for the opinions of his colleagues and the sheer violence of his attacks on Indian politicians made him an infuriating and unpredictable force. Labour would be certain to exploit these historical differences.

    As in the 1930s, such a decision did not in itself preclude protests at other levels of the party hierarchy. That these were contained is to be explained by the erosion and disappearance of the organizational advantages enjoyed by the diehards twelve years before. In Parliament, the diehards were hampered by Attlee’s skill at stifling debate. Carefully chosen Conservatives were dispatched to India with Labour MPs in an attempt to build bipartisan bridges. To dampen awkward questions, responsible Conservative leaders had been briefed in advance of each new statement of policy. The constituencies had suffered badly from the effects of war and electoral defeat. In Lancashire, where the diehards had once linked Indian retreat to recession, Conservative representation had almost entirely collapsed. Neither of the diehard lobbying machines, the India Defence League and the Indian Empire Society, had survived the war. Nor did the Conservatives have an equivalent to the Fabian Colonial Bureau to provide them with information on Labour’s failings in India.

    The Conservatives also failed to persuade administrators or soldiers to join their attack on government policy. Practically the entire Indian Civil Service establishment had entered the service in the knowledge that self-government was the end of British policy. Many of the ageing and disillusioned officers welcomed the prospect of retirement, which had been stopped at the outbreak of the war. The pension and compensation settlements provided by the Government were generous. British military officers had never been encouraged to challenge the legitimacy of their political masters. The Indian Army was an imperial force, well-used to deployment outside India’s borders. There was no sudden return of troops, for about 49% of Indian Army officers and 94% of other-ranks chose to remain after Independence Day in the service of the new Dominions. Business interests, many of which had already adapted to the transfer of power, were reluctant to jeopardise their future trading prospects by an alliance with diehards. The Princes and Muslims could not be encouraged to defy constitutional progress without risking the collapse of Indian unity.

    That Churchill might explode was a constant fear for the Government and his Conservative frontbenches. Yet ultimately, his emotional relationship with India had always been somewhat ambivalent. His harangues sometimes ended in a renewed determination to fight against Indian self-government as long as he lived. But on other occasions, he would favour abandoning India with all the petulance of a baby hurling aside an unwanted toy. He never ceased to regard retreat in India and the accompanying chaos as ‘a colossal disaster’ for which Labour was to blame. But his preferred political stance was always that of a jeremiah crying in the wilderness, and he now relished the opportunity the loss of India provided for him to adopt it. Denied a strong lead from Churchill, there was little likelihood that dissident Conservatives would choose to take the Indian issue further.

    For the planners of decolonization, Indian independence was a prototype which offered both good points to be copied and failings to be avoided in future. For the Conservatives, the experience of 1947 had been no less instructive. When they came to reformulate their imperial policy the following year, they were determined to do better. On returning to office in 1951, therefore, Conservative policy towards colonial nationalist movements was dedicated primarily to slowing the pace of political reform.

    The diehards too had cause to reflect. The likelihood of victory against the decolonizers was never very high. But India showed that the chances of a successful campaign were influenced less by the extent of the discontents than by the ability of the diehards to organize them. In the early 1930s, the sheer longevity of the Indian reform process had given them ample opportunity to do so. The 1935 Government of India Act had been nearly six years in the making. In 1947, however, it had been a mere six weeks between Attlee’s announcement of partition in the House of Commons and the Royal Assent to the Indian Independence Bill. As over the Irish Treaty of 1921, similarly concluded at breakneck speed, the diehards had been outpaced. On future occasions – over retreats from the Suez Base, Cyprus, Kenya and the Rhodesias – they were to be better organized.


    This article appeared as Nicholas Owen, ‘The Conservative Party and Indian Independence, 1945-47’, Historical Journal, 46 (2), 403-36, June 2003. You can read it here.


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    May 17

    The Cripps Mission: A Reinterpretation

    In March 1942, the Lord Privy Seal Sir Stafford Cripps arrived in India bearing an offer from the British War Cabinet. Cripps hoped to secure the support of Indian political leaders for the war with promises of wartime co-operation in government and a post-war assembly to draft the constitution of a free India. However, after negotiations between Cripps and the leaders of the Indian National Congress, the Offer was rejected. For R. J. Moore, author of the leading scholarly account of the Mission, the Offer Cripps took to India was ‘a watershed in the history of the partition of India’. This is because its failure and the subsequent exclusion of Congress from wartime government allowed the Muslim League to gain sufficient ground to make an effective challenge for Pakistan. Had the Mission succeeded, Moore argues, the trend towards partition might have been checked by the experience gained by Congress and Muslim Leaguers working together in wartime government. Moore also regards the Offer as a watershed in imperial policy, marking the first explicit declaration of India’s right to make its own constitution and Britain’s last opportunity to transfer power from a position of strength.

    Many of the earliest accounts of the Cripps Mission were produced on the basis of interviews, contemporary newspaper reports and the published correspondence of the British Government and the Congress, and were, perhaps inevitably, coloured by the mood of mutual recriminations in which the negotiations collapsed. Insider views subsequently provided by, among others, Reginald Coupland, H. V. Hodson, and B. Shiva Rao, offered some insight into the Mission’s activities, but were able to do little more than speculate about the deeper reasons for its failure. It was not until the release of official papers that a series of more fully researched works appeared. In 1970 the Mission was the subject of the first volume of Nicholas Mansergh’s documentary sequence The Transfer of Power, and it was on the basis of these documents that several new analyses of the Mission were written, starting with a long review by Eric Stokes in 1971, followed by R. J. Moore’s article ‘The Mystery of the Cripps Mission’ in 1973, Gowher Rizvi’s Linlithgow and India (1978), and a monograph-length treatment by Professor Moore in 1979. Since the 1970s, studies of the various actors in the drama have added detail to the picture, but its outlines remain unchallenged.

    Moore, in common with other writers, finds the origins of the Mission in the twists and turns of British wartime politics and in particular the incorporation of the Labour Party into wartime government. The Mission was the culminating-point of a long conflict over India between Cripps and Churchill. The Offer, he writes, was ‘a Labour initiative to tackle the problem of Indian freedom with unity’. It failed because Cripps was tripped up by the unreconstructed imperialist Churchill and the Viceroy Lord Linlithgow, and forced to retract part of the Offer. Churchill seized on Cripps’ over-enthusiastic pursuit of agreement, and the consequent complaints of the Viceroy, as excuses to abort the negotiations. The Mission ‘was defeated by a Conservative axis that linked the Prime Minister to the Viceroy’. Cripps was ‘stabbed in the back by Englishmen who disagreed with him’.

    In this article, I re-examine each of these claims. My arguments can be summarised thus. I first argue that, while the Mission marked a significant advance in imperial policy, its origins are to be found in pressure less from the Labour Party itself than from a loosely organised group of progressives which stood outside the Party and the Coalition Government. Before the war, these progressives had been persuaded by Nehru that Congress was an anti-fascist movement which would assist a British war effort against the Japanese in return for a constituent assembly to draw up India’s constitution. In fact, however, Congress attitudes to war and fascism were much more complicated than this, and when war came and Nehru was unexpectedly called upon to deliver the movement’s support, he proved unable to do so. The Labour leadership’s attitude to the original pact with Nehru was already ambivalent and hedged about with serious reservations, thanks to a long history of mutual suspicion. By the end of 1941, it felt that a constituent assembly on its own provided insufficient protection for India’s minorities, and while keen that Congress should participate in wartime government, was unwilling to give it the extensive powers it sought. For this reason, the Mission lacked the stable base of party support assumed in previous accounts. It was carried upward by an unexpectedly volatile tide of public and political unrest which began in December 1941 as Japan successfully entered the war. Weakened by the feeble support of Labour for Congress and of Congress for the war, the Cripps Offer could never have taken the weight that each side wished to put on it. Although they did more, Churchill and Linlithgow had merely to point this out.

    My explanation of the failure of the Cripps Mission differs in several important ways from existing accounts. Some of the differences derive from the introduction of new evidence, such as those concerning wartime politics in Britain, and others from re-interpretation of existing evidence, such as those concerning Congress attitudes to the war. The most important differences, however, result from studying the same events using a different degree of magnification. Despite its pin-sharp focus on the failed Easter bargaining between Cripps and the Congress, Moore’s account leaves the surrounding picture less clear. At a lower power of magnification, it is possible to see that hardly anyone in Britain was prepared to see Congress given strong guarantees in advance that the wartime Council would operate as a Cabinet, and that hardly anyone on the Congress Working Committee was prepared to enter wartime government unless they got them. Both the War Cabinet, keen to show its critics that something was being done to win Indian support for the war, and the Congress leaders, anxious to preserve their movement’s unity and popularity, had good reason to negotiate, and to lay the blame on the other for the failure of the negotiations. But neither had good reason to give way. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Cripps and Nehru were struggling to bridge an unbridgeable chasm which divided not progressive and conservative, but Briton and Indian. If that is so, then the Mission was not a missed opportunity, but no opportunity at all.


    This chapter was published as ‘The Cripps Mission of 1942: a reinterpretation’, in The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 30 (1) January 2002, 61-98.


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    Apr 30

    Independence Day Ceremonies

    This article was one of the first attempts to analyse the ceremonies of decolonization. It was inspired by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s edited collection The Invention of Tradition, with its accounts of how apparently ancient ceremonies were often much more recent than they seemed; and how they were designed to deliver certain symbolic messages concerning the concentration and stability of power, often despite the realities. I also used some of the theoretical insights of anthropology and sociology concerning the uses of ritual and ceremony. The ceremonials of colonial independence had not previously been considered in this light, but they seemed very well suited to this sort of analysis.

    The article examined the design of the ceremonies in India and Pakistan in August 1947, and tried to explain the sorts of impressions they were intended to deliver. There was no technical need for a ceremony. The transfer of power, in the legal sense, occurred in London with the Royal Assent to the Indian Independence Act. But the ceremonial was vital to convey the meaning of the Act. The partition of India was a violent, traumatic event in which millions died or were made refugees. The impression given on independence day, however, was one of an orderly and long expected ‘transfer of power’. This was the consequence of conscious planning of ceremonial on the part of the political leaders.

    For the British, independence had come more quickly than they had expected, and on terms that were very unsatisfactory. It was expected that when the partition border was announced the localised communal rioting already underway would become widespread. For this reason it was decided not to make the announcement of the border until the day after the ceremonials. The Labour Government also feared a domestic backlash against independence and partition, and therefore gratefully accepted the plans devised by Mountbatten (the last Viceroy) for ceremonies that gave a very different impression. These ceremonies were devised to give a strong sense of British control, and to avoid at all costs the suggestion of a dishonourable ‘scuttle’ from imperial responsibilities.

    For example, although similar ceremonies later incorporated the hauling down of the ‘union jack’, for example, the India ceremonies ones did not, on the grounds that it was too symbolically unacceptable. Instead, no flags were flown on independence day until the new independence flags were raised.

    The purpose of ceremonial for the new government is to stamp their authority on the new state. For them, the ceremonial therefore both to show continuity of state power, but also to build on the symbolic aspects of their struggle. Indeed, symbolic action, as used on the ‘salt march’ in 1930, had been an important part of the Indian struggle for independence. It was especially effective in a society in which political education and literacy were at low levels. Congress had, where possible, celebrated its own ‘independence day’ each 26 January throughout the 1930s and early 1940s. Where it held provincial office after 1937, it had raised the Congress flag over government buildings

    This made Congress leaders very unwilling to accept Mountbatten’s proposal that the union flag should be incorporated into the flag of free India, something that British provincial Governors had made a condition of their willingness to remain in office after independence. Their own contribution to the ceremonial involved a second flag-raising ceremony, held at the Red Fort, a symbolically important as the site of resistance in 1857 and of the politically controversial trials of members of the Indian National Army in 1945.

    However, the Congress and Muslim League leaders shared the worry of British officials that independence day would lead to general rioting. They therefore favoured low-key local ceremonies, without inflammatory speeches, especially where communal conflict was fiercest. In the Punjab, especially, the ceremonies were either not held, or failed to serve their purpose. Amritsar and Lahore were burning, and streams of thousands refugees crossed the countryside. Little of this was visible in Delhi, where the ceremonies proceeded very differently.

    Dissent is almost always a possibility at ceremonies, which is why they are both attempts to stabilise and control, and also fragile occasions. Participants might refuse to do what was expected of them. They might boycott the ceremony or oppose it by the ‘anti-ritual’ of ‘black flag’ demonstration or flag-burnings. In India, the mass occupation of Government House in Calcutta on the night of independence day, provides an important example. So also does the place of Gandhi. Gandhi spent independence day away from the public ceremonies, engaged in prayer, fasting and hand-spinning. The Indian princes too, who had been at the heart of the imperial durbar of 1877, 1903 and 1911, were uninvolved in the independence celebrations. Their future under Congress rule was too uncertain. Who is not at a ceremony is as important as who is present.

    The Indian model was applied elsewhere in the empire during the era of decolonisation. Among its main elements were (1) the use of elements from earlier imperial ceremonies, such as durbars, investitures and troop parades, both as a demonstration of continuity and a show of force; (2) the deployment of large crowds (for to attend a ceremony as almost always, in some sense, to assent to it); (3) the involvement of representatives of the ‘white’ dominions and associated new members of the Commonwealth; (4) the presentation of a Speaker’s Chair, or a mace, or some dispatch boxes to indicate the persistence of parliamentary government; (5) extensive media coverage, increasingly involving television; and (6) the co-option of the Royal Family. Indeed, the ‘first dance’ at the Independence Day Ball, in which the visiting Princess and the new Prime Minister danced together was meant to symbolise the harmonious and close relationship which the British hoped would follow the granting of ‘flag independence’ to their colonies.

    The imagery of the orderly, consensual transfer of power, hazily promoted through ceremonial, so often at odds with the violence and trauma of independence struggles, entered British public consciousness and has arguably played its part in securing the widely held view in Britain that the end of the British empire was a peaceful, dignified process.



    The article was published in the journal of the Institute of Contemporary British History, Contemporary Record, as Nicholas Owen, ‘”More than a transfer of power”: Independence day ceremonies in India, 15 August 1947′, Contemporary Record, 6 (3) 1992, 415-451. You can find it here.


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    Apr 26

    Mountbatten and the End of Empire

    This article re-examined Louis Mountbatten and decolonization. Mountbatten’s career intersects with that of British imperial decline at a number of points. Most famously, he was, of course, the last Viceroy and the architect of partition of India. His appointment to that post had been largely the result of his handling of the resurgent nationalist movements of south east Asia during his time as Supreme Commander at South East Asia Command (SEAC). After its completion, he returned to the Navy, rising to Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean, in which capacity he encountered the struggle for enosis in Cyprus, and more directly, Dom Mintoff’s pursuit of Maltese independence. As First Sea Lord, he clashed with Anthony Eden over the political unwisdom of the Suez expedition of October 1956. As Chief of the Defence Staff, it fell to him to handle the reorganisation of Britain’s defences, with its profound implications for Britain’s ability to intervene in post-imperial crises east of Suez.

    Such extensive involvement in these momentous events has, of course, made Mountbatten a highly controversial figure in the history of decolonisation. Taken at his own estimation, his leadership was decisive in ensuring that British decolonisation was characterised by judicious and well-planned efficiency. In planning his own funeral, Mountbatten left instructions that if the Prime Minister should wish to say a few words, he or she should say that ‘his personal leadership, as long ago as 1945, had set the line on which the British Empire changed itself into the Commonwealth of sovereign states’.

    Needless to say, this rosy picture has been greeted with considerable scepticism, especially among Conservatives, many of whom, among Mountbatten’s contemporaries regarded him as a baleful and destructive influence responsible for hasty, ill-considered and treacherous scuttles.

    These two perspectives share one common feature: they both take it as axiomatic that Mountbatten’s part in the history of decolonisation was decisive, whether for good or ill. The focus of this article is to test this assumption against the evidence of Mountbatten’s time at SEAC. I begin by tracing the development of Mountbatten’s ideas on anti-colonial nationalism in the reoccupation of Ceylon, Burma and Malaya. In the second half of the paper, in examining the role of SEAC in the reoccupation of French Indo-China and Dutch Indonesia, I aim to place Mountbatten’s contribution in a comparative perspective. My conclusion is that Mountbatten’s ideas, though significant, owed a good deal to a set of peculiar circumstances that not all military leaders have enjoyed.

    In the reoccupation of South-East Asia, Mountbatten continually stressed the need to meet political aspirations through constitutional advance and social progress. Most controversially, in Burma he decided to recognise and rearm the Anti-Fascist Organisation of Aung San. Aung San was leader of the Burma National Army (BNA), established by the Japanese in 1942, but which had switched sides as its sponsors suffered military defeat and failed to deliver their initial promises. Indeed, Mountbatten clearly intended that Aung San should be recognised as a national leader even once it became apparent that the rapid collapse of the Japanese Army had made his military support less valuable. He blocked attempts by Burmese Civil Affairs officers to charge Aung San with war crimes, worked hard to incorporate his forces into the Burmese Army and asked the civilian Governor to provide a guarantee that his representatives would be included in the advisory council that was to be set up when civil government was restored. He saw Aung San’s organisation as the ‘politically active’ element in the situation and gave it all the backing he could, despite the opposition of the local British civilian officials.

    The dispute between Mountbatten and the officials should not be regarded as a clash between die-hards and liberals. It was about the correct approach to be taken to an unprecedented and tricky task: the reoccupation of former colonial territories, after ignominious military defeat, at a time when the Japanese remained undefeated and the fundamental purposes of colonial policy were being questioned as never before. Some favoured the initial show of force, before political negotiations were started. This enabled the incoming colonial administration to negotiate from a position of strength. This technique – the so-called tache d’huile – was successfully adopted both by Leclerc in Indo-China after the departure of SEAC, and by Templar during the Malayan Emergency. But it was expensive and politically controversial with Britain’s American allies.

    The other model of colonial reoccupation reversed the stages. It consisted of getting ahead of the nationalists, in granting political concessions before they became unavoidable, thereby keeping the initiative, sustaining the moderates and undercutting the radicals. Such a strategy depended, however, upon two prerequisites. First, a clear distinction had to be made between moderates and radicals, a diagnosis that newly arrived soldiers working with out-of-date political intelligence were not in a good position to make. Secondly, to retain the initiative, it was vital that the occupying forces retain a near-monopoly of the use of force. Once armed, nationalist groups were bound to use their new-found strength to dominate their own communities and to present the British with the prospect of departure or a drawn-out civil war.

    At all events, it is hard not to conclude that Mountbatten’s strategy was at best only a partial success. Given the rapid collapse of the Japanese forces, the value of the BNA as a military ally had proved less significant than Mountbatten had been led to believe, a fact he was forced to acknowledge in a late attempt to cut it down to size. Indeed, the vast bulk of Aung San’s forces were never absorbed into the Burmese Army, for Aung San proved unwilling, or unable, to make so great a concession to the occupying forces. Nor did it prove possible to recover the arms distributed to them. Rather the BNA, or the Patriotic Burma Forces (PBF), as it was renamed, was deployed as a political army to silence its political opponents and extort campaign funds. Thus although Mountbatten had hoped to see the AFPFL break into a number of parties, it simply grew in strength. When Mountbatten attempted to crack down on Aung San, it was too late.

    The question of whether Mountbatten’s strategy was correct is a very hard one to resolve, dependent as it is upon counterfactuals and the benefit of hindsight. That Aung San was victorious in the subsequent elections may be taken, as it was by Mountbatten himself, as a triumphant vindication of his decision to recognise him. Similarly, supporters of Mountbatten have laid much stress upon the fact that he enjoyed a co-operative relationship with Aung San. But to critics, this is scarcely surprising if Aung San owed part of his influence to Mountbatten’s sponsorship.

    Burma proved the model for Mountbatten’s strategy in Malaya too. He called for early elections and the abrogation of the treaties Britain had made before the war with the sultans. He also demanded permission to rearm the Malayan Anti-Japanese Resistance Movement (AJUF), and give it the task of keeping order in the country districts were there were no Japanese. But far from rising to fight on behalf of the British, as Mountbatten believed, the AJUF was dominated by Chinese Communist guerrillas dedicated to the overthrow not merely of Japanese, but of all foreign influence. It later formed the basis of the Malayan Communist Party’s force, which the British dedicated twelve years to repressing. In the event, the reoccupation of Malaya was a comparatively smooth process, and Mountbatten’s attempts to influence policy towards nationalist movements relatively insignificant. That its eventual decolonisation worked in British economic and strategic interests, however, owed almost everything to the ability of Mountbattten’s successors to build a working alliance with the Malay community based on putting down the Communist forces Mountbatten had been keen to arm.

    Mountbatten’s preference, in short, was for political concessions to win over the ‘politically active’ elements and paternalistic socio-economic policies to secure the support of colonised peoples. He tended to regard all nationalist movements as united peoples struggling to be free and was often unaware of the subtle conflicts of interest and ideology which divided them. The problem with this was that it was precisely upon these divisions that the ability of the British to influence the process of decolonisation rested. By exploiting the apprehension of those anxious not to be left behind in the struggle for succession, such as traditional elites fearful that their property and position would be swept away in social disorder, or regional leaders afraid that independence would mean the seizure and entrenchment of power by a single tribe, community or religious group, and by adjusting the details of constitutional plans, especially the conditions of the franchise and representation, to favour those prepared to accept progress on British terms, colonial officials could often frustrate the attempts of their opponents to weld the disparate classes of colonial societies into an effective anticolonial alliance. In neglecting these subtleties, Mountbatten deprived himself of what had hitherto been the most powerful weapon in the colonial armoury.

    Mountbatten also tended to present problems to his superiors in quite stark terms. In his cables to the Chiefs of Staff, he would often set out two or three possible courses of action: repression or negotiations; suppression or co-operation. The Hobson’s choice was, of course, to be offered most starkly by Mountbatten as Viceroy of India.

    When we turn our attention to Mountbatten’s activities in the reoccupation of The Netherlands East Indies (NEI) and French Indo-China, a further dimension to the question appears. Mountbatten’s directive instructed him to reoccupy no more of French Indo-China and the NEI than was necessary to disarm the Japanese, repatriate Allied prisoners and preserve law and order until power was duly transferred to their former colonial masters. But in each case, the local commanders found themselves dragged into conflicts between European settlers and nationalists.

    In Indo-China, Mountbatten’s local commander, Douglas Gracey was caught between the newly declared government of Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh and the returning French. He energetically pursued a policy of tying himself to the French re-occupation and – in a touch that would have been quite uncharacteristic of Mountbatten – refusing to talk to the Viet Minh. But though it has been the subject of much speculation, Gracey’s attitude towards colonial nationalism made little difference. Both sides had their hands tied: the French officials by Paris’ refusal to go beyond its own modest proposals and the Viet Minh by the suspicion of its radical supporters that it might trade the principle of sovereignty.

    As in Indo-China, SEAC troops arrived in Java some weeks after the Japanese surrender to find a functioning, well entrenched nationalist government, led in this case by Sukarno and Hatta, backed by military forces determined to resist the return of their former colonial rulers. The local commander, Philip Christison, found his troops drawn into the conflict between the Dutch settlers, the Dutch military forces and the Republican provisional government.

    Mountbatten found it `heartbreaking’ to have to leave the political negotiations in Indo-China and NEI to the French and Dutch. ‘I can assure you’, he wrote to Tom Driberg, `that if I was left as free a hand in French Indo-China and the Netherlands East Indies as I was left in Burma, I could solve both these problems by the same methods.’ But though Mountbatten frequently lectured his French and Dutch colleagues on the need to deal with Asian nationalists, basing his arguments on the success he believed he had achieved with Aung San in Burma , the analogy was far from perfect.

    In the first place, the French and Dutch were in a much weaker military position than the British had been in Burma and Malaya. By the time the British took control of Rangoon, the Japanese were in headlong retreat. But in the cases of Indo-China and the NEI, they had remained in place, encouraging the nationalist movements against the return of European colonial powers. Where the British had fought their way across Burma and enjoyed an extensive military presence there, which gave them the ability to negotiate with the nationalists from a relative position of strength, the French possessed only small, underequipped and ill-trained forces in the SEAC theatre, while the Dutch were almost wholly reliant upon the United States for training and equipment.

    Secondly, in the period of anarchy between Japanese defeat and the arrival of SEAC, nationalist groups had gained a much greater ascendancy in French Indo-China and the NEI than they had managed in Malaya or Burma.

    Thirdly, the nationalist groups which the French and Dutch military faced were less politically acceptable than their counterparts to the British in Burma, Malaya and Ceylon. While the Japanese remained undefeated, Mountbatten could argue to his political superiors that operational necessity dictated unpalatable concessions. Parallel arguments could not be made by the Dutch or French commanders. Sukarno had collaborated with, not fought against, the Japanese, who had in any case surrendered by the time SEAC arrived in Java, so there was no military reason to enlist his support. It was therefore impossible for Dutch commanders to argue, as had Mountbatten to his political superiors over Aung San, that he had ‘worked his passage home’ and was therefore entitled to political concessions. In the case of Indo-China, there were other complications. Not only was Ho Chi Minh a former Comintern agent, a fact which caused great anxiety in France, but his soldiers possessed a much more radical leftist programme than Aung San. This made repression more likely partly because recognition of a Communist succession in Indo-China was considered politically unacceptable by the French government, anxious about political opponents at home, and also increasingly to the United States, which might otherwise have acted as a restraining influence on the French.

    Fourthly, there was no tradition of constitutional progress on which to build. This marked a further contrast with the British position. In Ceylon, constitutional progress had been set firmly on a course to independence when, in 1938, cabinet government had been put in place. The familiar promise that Burma would enjoy no less privileged treatment than India and the new intentions stated in the White Paper of May 1945 gave Mountbatten a political direction to follow. In Malaya, the War Cabinet had a plan of advance in readiness, which though unannounced until January 1946, had been privately known to Mountbatten since May 1944. The arrival in office of Attlee’s Labour government, with its tradition of sympathy for colonial freedom, made the destination of British policy even clearer. In the French and Dutch cases, however, political promises were much more qualified, and rested on shaky domestic consensuses. Whatever Mountbatten’s liberal instincts, they owed much of their influence to the fact that they were in tune with the policy of his political masters. There was much less scope for French and Dutch commanders to push policy in a different direction.

    Moreover, in the Netherlands, as in France, the question of the treatment of Asian nationalists was inextricably bound up with the treatment of collaborators at home. The newly-installed `liberation’ governments in Paris and the Hague could not easily countenance negotiations with anti-colonial collaborators in the east at the same time as they prosecuted those who had collaborated at home, particularly if those negotiations were at the expense of loyalists who had fought to protect Dutch interests and suffered years of imprisonment at the hands of the Japanese. Here again there was no British parallel.

    A final, and perhaps key, variable in the reoccupation was the position of expatriate settlers. In Java, there was a substantial population of recently released exiles and expatriates, whose fears that SEAC would not help them drove them to band together for strength. In French Indo-China, there was a similar population in Saigon. Commanders on the spot were well aware that the settler population constituted a liability. But in the absence of other troops they were obliged to use them. All in all, the British military, never so deeply engaged in the practice of colonial rule and without the complication of fellow countrymen and women in danger, were less likely to identify with settler groups or with the preservation of a specifically colonial form of international influence.

    Much of the case for Mountbatten’s liberalism rests upon contrasts between his actions and beliefs and those of his French and Dutch counterparts. Certainly the French and Dutch forces contained their share of diehards. But they also had liberal-minded soldiers. In Mountbatten’s shoes, these men might well have followed a similar line. But the constraints that they faced made it all but impossible for a liberal policy to be employed. They lacked the advantages that Mountbatten enjoyed which enabled him to countenance political concessions to South-East Asian nationalists. In particular, he possessed reliable troops unaffected by ties of loyalty to expatriate settlers, and clear political instructions. To see how significant these advantages were, we have only to imagine how much harder it would have been for Mountbatten to follow his chosen course had he been forced to rely upon an army of disaffected Burmese planters, or had he arrived in Malaya to find the Malayan Communist Party ensconced in power, or had he encountered the former Indian National Congress leader Subhas Chandra Bose, whose Indian National Army had fought with the Japanese during the war, and who, unlike Aung San, had failed to switch sides.

    The trajectories of the European decolonisations in Asia were greatly divergent, ranging from smooth and orderly transfers of power to intense racial wars. The contributions of European military forces were correspondingly varied. While acknowledging that the perceptions and prejudices of military leaders played a significant part in determining their course, and that it is therefore important to characterise them accurately, it has been argued here that – however enlightened – they were but a single factor in more complex equations.


    The chapter was published in Chris Woolgar (ed.), Mountbatten on the Record (1997). You can find copies of the book here.


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    Apr 21

    The Labour Government and the Middle East, 1945-51

    ‘The benefits of partnership between Great Britain and the countries of the Middle East have never reached the ordinary people’, Ernest Bevin wrote to Halifax in October 1945, ‘and so our foreign policy has rested on too narrow a footing, mainly on the personalities of kings, princes or pashas. There is thus no vested interest among the peoples to remain with us because of benefits obtained. Hence it is easy for Great Britain to be blamed when difficulties arise.’ Bevin’s unsuccessful attempt to raise the standard of living of ‘peasants not pasha’ through economic and social development in the Middle East has usually been mocked as sentimental and ignorant. For John Saville, it amounted to little more than an old man’s vanity, which the career diplomats of the Foreign Office were prepared to indulge provided it did not disturb the familiar rhythms of Britain’s traditional alliances in the region. From the opposite end of the historiographical spectrum, Correlli Barnett has pilloried Bevin as a deluded ‘world fantasist’ obsessed by the fallacy that the Soviet Union was itching to acquire the marginal and poverty-stricken states of the Middle East and that as a consequence, Britain should pour scarce national resources into a fruitless attempt to develop them. However, between the lines of William Roger Louis’s account of British policy in the Middle East and in more detailed studies by Wesley Wark of the diplomat Sir John Troutbeck and by Paul Kingston of the Development Division of the British Middle East Office, a more sympathetic reading of Bevin’s policy can be found. The experiment repays study, not least for the intriguing light it casts both upon Labour perceptions of empire and upon the severe constraints under which any new departure in imperial policy operated.

    The origins of Labour’s distinctive Middle Eastern policy are to be found in several developments. The first was the belief – new in Labour circles – that the British Empire-Commonwealth, if suitably reformed, might serve as a vehicle for the strengthening of socialism and prosperity at home and peace abroad. This view had been far from dominant in the Labour Party of the interwar years, when under the influence of Liberal refugees such as H.N.Brailsford, Leonard Woolf and J.A.Hobson, imperial policy had been dominated by the internationalist conviction that since competition for colonial raw materials and markets had been a prime cause of the recent global conflict, only the establishment of open diplomacy, regulated by democratic checks and controls, and the placing of colonies under international supervision might prevent a future war. By 1945, this had changed. Radical critics on the left had felt from the start that, in the absence of socialist victories at other metropoles, internationalising the empire would simply collapse into a form of collective colonialism. By 1940, with the failure of the League of Nations to fulfil the internationalists’ expectations and the apparent resilience of European colonial systems in the face of internal and external criticism, it now appeared even to Labour’s pragmatists that internationalists had placed too much faith in the benevolence of other nations and the power of international organizations. Most importantly of all, Labour had come to favour schemes for strong, centralized, state-led development and active trusteeship with the aim of transforming the colonial empire through economic planning, educational and technological development and scientific socialism. It was hard to see how these could occur without keeping, even strengthening, the framework of colonial rule.

    Of course, Labour’s attachment to developing the empire was not merely a matter of ideological preference. It seemed to follow from the cold logic of Britain’s post-war economic and strategic position. In these calculations, the Middle East, delicately poised between the emerging superpowers and their conflicting post-war interests, was to play a central role. With the loss of the Indian Army, bases in the Middle East were essential bulwarks in Britain’s global defences. Airfields in Iraq offered a means of striking at the Soviet Union’s oil interests in Grozny and Baku. The Suez arsenal provided Britain with unrivalled military installations in the region and the ability to control the vital artery to the east through which dollar-free oil supplies and Egyptian cotton, each in their way essential for Britain’s industrial recovery, were brought. It lay at the heart of Britainís system of global communications to India, the Far East and Australia and its loss would force costly excursions around the Cape or across central Africa. Were Britain to weaken her presence, Soviet influence, already pressing hard at the northern tier of the region (Greece, Turkey, Iraq and above all Iran, where they remained in occupation until mid-1946) would swiftly move in, with exactly the same hideous consequences for British prestige and power as had occurred in eastern Europe. Soviet success in the Middle East would provide communism with a way in to India, Burma and Malaya and southern and western doors into Africa. For Bevin no less than Eden, therefore, the Middle East was Britainís jugular vein, to be protected at almost any cost. It was with these arguments and the aid of the Foreign Office and the Chiefs of Staff, that Bevin was able by the summer of 1947 to crush Attlee’s attempt to question Britain’s place in the Middle East. For Attlee, modern air power and decolonisation in Asia had rendered the historic role of the region as the gateway to the Indian Ocean redundant. It might be left as a huge and desolate buffer zone – a ‘wide glacis of desert and Arabs’ – between areas of British and Soviet influence. But Bevin’s view prevailed.

    If the region was to play this part well, however, it had to be developed. ‘My whole aim’, Bevin wrote to Attlee in January 1947, ‘has been to develop the Middle East as a producing area to help our own economy and take the place of India.’ True, its economies were still weak and vulnerable, lacking the trained manpower necessary for high productivity in peacetime and effective defence in war. Its states were divided by ethnic and dynastic rivalries. But with measures to promote economic growth and regional defence reorganisation under British auspices, Bevin hoped, this could all change. ‘This was once a rich region’, he told Attlee, ‘and could be so again with good government and modern methods’. Besides its military and economic benefits, development would bring political stability to the region. Schemes of economic modernisation, in offering a better standard of living to the peasants and workers who benefited from them and political experience and authority to the educated classes who would be trained to administer them, would strengthen the case for future partnership with Britain. They would also undermine the arguments of radicals and communists both in the Middle East and the Soviet bloc that such ties were inherently exploitative. The sensitivity Britain showed in handling the nationalist demands of her colonies, after all, was a significant measure of her international moral reputation, and as such an important weapon in the propaganda of the cold war. To meet the Soviet challenge required an effective partnership with the United States and acquiring a reputation for liberalism at the United Nations and other international forums by replacing the language and practice of colonialism with that of partnership and development.

    Bevin’s schemes for the Middle East drew on plans he had made with Cripps concerning India in the Second World War. These had been intended to bypass and disempower the Congress leadership and strike new alliances with the younger nationalists. They had been abandoned when Congress victories in the 1945 elections rendered them irrelevant. But many of the same ideas found their way into Labour’s plans for remaining parts of the Empire-Commonwealth, such as Cyprus and west and central Africa. In the Middle East, it took the form of Bevin’s attempt to harness the energies of Arab nationalism for new purposes. Force and coercion would not be used to repress nationalist political activity, except where this itself took the form of violence or terrorism. New treaties would make it clear that the British were keen on partnership, development and political progress. Socio-economic reform would divert anti-colonial feeling into nation-building, blunt the edge of anti-British criticism, and develop the prosperity and institutions which would enable democracy, when it came, to flourish.

    Bevin’s plans failed almost wholly to achieve their objectives. When Churchill brought the Conservatives back to office in 1951, British power in the region rested largely on the old foundations. Negotiations to renew the treaties had either collapsed, as in Egypt, or had resulted in agreements that were almost immediately repudiated, as in Iraq and Transjordan, and Britainís presence in the region remained heavily dependent upon privileges secured under the old regimes, above all for the increasingly vulnerable soldiers in the costly and resented Suez base. Worse still, Bevinís cherished development plans were only implemented in the most limited way and never proved sufficient to win Britain popularity, let alone reshape Arab nationalism. Neither in India nor even in West Africa did Labour’s new imperial policy stem the tide of political agitation against British rule to any appreciable degree. But nowhere did it fail as spectacularly as in the Middle East.

    This was largely because the constitutional structures through which the reforms were to be proposed, debated and implemented were unwieldy. Since the 1920s, only Palestine had been under direct British rule. Especially before the development of the region’s oil resources, Britain’s economic penetration had been relatively shallow and its cultural influences had never succeeded in making much impact upon established patterns of belief and social practice. British control was sustained much more through military and diplomatic supremacy than through the imposition of an administrative structure and the construction of networks of local collaborators, as was the case in Asia and Africa. The emerging party structures of the legislatures of Cairo and Baghdad lay largely outside the reach of British influence. Few credible intermediaries thus existed to publicise and argue for the worth of British socio-economic reforms. Lacking sufficient popular support to call for sacrifices on the part of the colonised themselves, the British found themselves able neither to explain the lure of development to those who might benefit from it nor anticipate likely objections.

    There was, indeed, a contradiction at the heart of Bevin’s policy. Acceptance of British views, especially on questions of socio-economic reform, had to be won indirectly, through the careful courting of clients and the promotion of local initiative. This dictated a cautious and slow approach right from the start. His commitment to the principle of partnership debarred him from more energetic attempts to push reforms on reluctant pashas and governments.

    Such a potentially abrasive process inevitably required copious supplies of lubrication. Unfortunately, this was in lamentably short supply. Proffering development aid to such allies was difficult to justify to hard-pressed British taxpayers. Without the ability to levy local taxes themselves, which – especially now that Egypt and Iraq were sterling creditors – would have made British-led development look somewhat like vicarious generosity, Bevin found his schemes lay at the mercy of the Treasury, which treated requests for overseas development with miserly parsimony, especially when they involved spending outside the dependent empire. Staffing and expertise proved hard to attract, and bureaucratic rivalries in London made matters worse. U.S. assistance with development might have helped, but the Americans wanted a swift return to free and private international trade, and American involvement meant that American firms would win the bulk of the contracts that resulted.

    Bevin also failed to find his desired allies. For the ‘old guard’ of British allies, shaken and discredited by the reassertion of imperial power during the war, public association with the British was a dangerous gamble that threatened to expose them to their political rivals at their most vulnerable point: their inability to resist foreign domination. Bevin’s schemes required an army of British technicians, experts and advisers intervening in the way that merely created anti-foreigner feeling. Most of the Arab political elite preferred American plans for capitalist free trade as the best means of defending the region against communism,to Bevin’s socialist remedies. Younger nationalists feared that development aid would simply drain away into the old gutters of palace corruption and be used to consolidate the power of existing elites. To them, Bevin’s offer of development and a settlement of Anglo-Arab differences threatened the prospect not of partnership, but of a more permanent exclusion from power. Those who were interested in social reform were not interested in co-operation with the British, while those who were interested in co-operation with the British were not interested in social reform.

    Above all there was the question of Palestine. In 1945, Bevin had hoped that the rising standards of living that development would bring might even ease the Palestinian situation, by softening the conflict for land and resources in the area and thereby allowing rates of Jewish immigration to be stepped up. Such optimism did not last for long. Broken promises on the questions of Jewish immigration and the Palestinian homeland, and Britain’s acquiescence in the creation of the state of Israel suggested to Arab leaders that British promises of security – and hence the military alliances of which they were part – were not worth having. Bevin was undoubtedly desperate that the resolution of the Palestinian problem should not be allowed to disrupt his attempts to build new alliances in the Arab world. But American pressure from without and the Zionist ties of the Labour Party within made it impossible for him to go further in meeting Arab demands for the suppression of Israel. In the poisonous atmosphere this created, plans to create a new Anglo-Arab understanding based on economic development were bound to be seen at best as an irrelevance. While Arab states remained uncertain and divided about the regional ambitions of the new Jewish state, there was little chance of British-led economic development being successful unless it was primarily directed towards military preparations for a war with Israel, rather than to the education, welfare and redistributive projects to benefit the least well-off that Labour favoured.

    At the end of their efforts, therefore, Bevin and his Labour colleagues, like a small team of foreign developers struggling to complete an over-ambitious hydroelectric dam in hostile country, found their resources inadequate for the task, and the great river, whose force they had hoped might drive the turbines of British influence, impossible to divert.


    The full version of this chapter appeared in Michael J. Cohen and Martin Kolinsky (eds.), Demise of the British Empire in the Middle East: Britain’s responses to nationalist movements, 1943-55 (London, 1998). You can find the book here.


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    Apr 14

    Decolonisation and Postwar Consensus

    The eight photographs above are a piece of photographic Butskellism: the four principal postwar Colonial Secretaries: Arthur Creech Jones (Lab, 1946-50), Oliver Lyttelton (Con, 1951-54), Alan Lennox-Boyd (Con, 1954-59) and Iain Macleod (Con, 1959-61), mixed up to make eight imaginary Colonial Secretaries, each vaguely resembling another.

    This chapter was a contribution to a book on the idea of the postwar consensus. It examined how far the Conservative and Labour Parties differed over colonial questions after 1940. I made a distinction between three definitions of consensus – consensus as “policy settlement”, consensus as “partisan convergence” and consensus as “social harmony”. The main conclusion was that the notion that there had been consensus over decolonisation was much too simple.

    “Policy settlement” corresponds roughly with what Paul Addison terms a ‘Whitehall consensus’: that is, elite-level agreement among policymakers. For present purposes, this means a group consisting of the core executive (cabinet ministers and senior civil servants) which extends through the Colonial Office and other relevant departments to governors and their advisers. Policy settlement is generally indicated by continuity of policy from one administration to the next.

    Consensus as “partisan convergence” entails harmony among party leaders and activists outside the policymaking elite, and is usually characterised by interpenetration of party programmes and the low intensity of (genuine) party competition.

    Consensus as “popular contentment” involves the relative absence of divisions in the electorate and those non-party bodies which sought to influence the public (rather than the ministerial, parliamentary or official) debate, and is best indicated (if not by unanimity) by the existence of a broad-based ‘middle ground’.

    Of course, some individuals (cabinet ministers are the obvious example) participated in more than one arena. But while the definitions overlap, they remain centred in different places, and distinguishing them allows us to capture the tensions that such figures experienced when required to meet the expectations of different constituencies.


    I argued here that, contrary to the impression sometimes given that decolonisation was chaotic and unplanned, there was actually much consistency among the policymakers from one administration to the next. The impression of inconsistency is one created by the variety, complexity and mutability of the settings in which decolonisation took place. Much of the official work of decolonisation thus involved dragging mutually suspicious parties to negotiating tables and forcing them to embrace each other and a British-sponsored solution. Progress came through the successive rejection of alternatives: trying out a plan on one of the parties and making adjustments to suit its objections, then taking it back to the others. Each move required the building and re-working of coalitions sufficiently broad to command support across a wide range of rapidly diverging interests and stable enough to act as a support for British interests. Under such circumstances, it was not merely natural but utterly rational for policymakers to take swift initiatives to force the pace, or to slow it down with a dose of well-calculated repression. Hence there was great reluctance to tie Britain to a specific plan for decolonisation, and it is perhaps significant that attempts to do this (such as those by Bennett and Cohen in 1947 and Macmillan’s ‘cost-benefit’ exercise a decade later), were never regarded as more than ‘mission statements’.

    But this does not mean that British policy was purposeless, let alone contradictory. In fact, among the policymaking elite, there was broad agreement on the essentials of colonial policy, at least in terms of the response to colonial nationalism. This was created primarily by the narrowing constraints of the cold logic of Britain’s postwar economic and strategic position.


    Support for the Whitehall settlement among party politicians was more heavily qualified. As is well-known, until the 1960s, the assumption that Britain must remain a world power was challenged only on the fringes of British political life. But the parties disagreed about the means by which greatness was to be sustained. In particular, they remained fundamentally divided over the question of how colonial nationalism should be handled. The Conservatives never fully accepted the transfer of power in India – I argued this through more fully elsewhere – and were determined that it should not lead to a general decolonisation. When they returned to power in 1951, they were determined to slow down the pace of constitutional concession. This did not prove altogether possible, but even if as policymakers the Conservative leaders accepted the necessity for concessions, as partisans they were profoundly unhappy about them. Even the snail’s pace of Lyttelton and Lennox-Boyd had attracted criticism from those in the party keen for something more glacial. While few now believed that colonial peoples were unsuited to self-government, almost all held that a lengthy period of apprenticeship was necessary. Nationalists were accordingly still privately regarded as unrepresentative trouble-makers, bent on securing advantages by agitation. At best, they were simply unschooled and over-ambitious, at worst corrupt, authoritarian, anti-western and probably pro-communist demagogues.

    By this point, the Labour Party had moved away from its own distrust of anticolonial nationalism. After Suez, it was the party left which cam to define the party’s policies. The unexpected dominance of the left was partly due to the vigorous campaigning of Tony Benn and Fenner Brockway’s Movement for Colonial Freedom, which persuaded a large cohort of Labour MPs that only independence at an early date would avert a series of futile colonial wars. More importantly, perhaps, even party leaders traditionally cautious about the unpopularity of attacking the empire and those bored by colonial affairs saw in anticolonialism a political weapon to divide the Conservatives, win the moral high ground and rally their divided party. After the 1959 election, the Labour right found itself thoroughly outflanked by the rapid transfers of power effected by British policymakers in east and central Africa. The left, by contrast, found itself pushing at a door that was not merely open, but through which Macleod had already passed.

    There was also a partisan backlash on the right of the Conservative Party to policy settlement. Ever since 1951, Powell had told a post-Suez Conservative Study Group in 1957, Conservative colonial policy had been ‘on the wrong track’. ‘We had used our enemies’ thinking’, Powell argued, ‘used phrases we did not believe in, accepted arrangements because the alternative was worse or could not be defended in public, and adopted a set of principles and attitudes in which we at best half believed.’ Wheedling and pleading with nationalist leaders, diluting the strength of the Commonwealth to attract new members, and going cap-in-hand to Washington for support were essential skills for the modern decoloniser, but held little attraction for traditionally-minded Conservatives, many of whom gathered in the 1957 Committee and the Monday Club established to commemorate the black day of Macmillan’s ‘Winds of Change’ speech. That the diehard groups found themselves unable to hold the centre of the party for long is explained less by Macleod’s ability to persuade MPs of the merits of his policies than by the size of Macmillan’s majority, and the skill of his party whips at deploying persuasion, patronage and threats.

    Their last stand was over white Rhodesia. At least in the way they regarded it, it encapsulated many of the values of Toryism: hierarchical, anti-communist, Christian, resolute, prizing responsibility, effort, independence and enterprise, with a severely limited role for state ownership or the provision of welfare services. It was a sanctuary from the moral stagnation of Wilson’s Britain, beset by strikes, inflation and high taxation. Conservative support for white Rhodesia was a kind of frustrated reaction against the ‘Whitehall’ consensus not merely as it had operated in colonial affairs, but in all its works.


    It is not straightforward to discover what voters thought about decolonisation. It can easily be established that there was widespread public ignorance about the colonial empire. A 1948 government survey famously found that half its sample could not name a single British colony. Even in 1959, when the parties were at their most divided, colonial matters did not raise much interest at the polls. But ignorance and apathy are not the same thing. Indeed, it is quite possible that the ignorant feel more strongly about a situation than the well-informed. Certainly, policymakers and partisans alike feared that public opinion would turn against their policies and preferences. They might do so if British national prestige was diminished, or if British investments or trading opportunities suffered, or if kith and kin settlers’ livelihoods were threatened. Equally – and with the reverse implications for policymakers and partisans -too heavy-handed an assertion of British power, especially if it involved the use of emergency powers, was bound to arouse the anger of those revolted by colonial violence and the fears of those anxious to avoid expensive and dangerous military entanglements.

    This placed emphasis on questions of presentation. Great care was taken to suggest that losing an empire meant gaining a Commonwealth, that the loss of formal powers would be more than balanced by the gain in influence, that the economic and strategic substance of the colonial connection would survive the transfer of power, and therefore that decolonisation, in short, meant not national decline but the fulfilment of an imperial mission. And colonial violence was carefully presented as the restoration of order, peace-keeping and policing.


    What should we make of the claims of ‘consensus’? At the level of high policy, it is possible to identify the main features of an agreed approach to the challenge posed by anti-colonial nationalist movements, pursued by ministers of both political colourings. However, the main cause of this coincidence of policy was less partisan convergence than the harsh economic and international constraints which all British policymakers had to face. Where partisan considerations were able to make their influence felt, there were genuine divergences of opinion, especially after the mid-1950s. Indeed, the very fact of policy coincidence fostered partisan dissent, especially on the right. The fear that these discontents might spread to the public at large seems to have been a genuine one, and inspired efforts to insulate the electorate from the implications of colonial collapse.

    Like, perhaps, its counterpart in domestic affairs, the `consensus’ on the end of empire was therefore janus-faced. Among the policymaking elite, it arose from a genuine recognition of the necessity to adapt Britain’s colonial system to meet the challenges of nationalism. Had it been possible to control the pace of concessions, it is likely that partisan dissent would have been confined to the political fringes. But the necessary, if largely unforeseen, acceleration in these plans required careful handling. For decolonisation to work to British advantage, policy now had to be pragmatic and flexible. It was vital (as the fate of the French Fourth Republic in its Algerian dealings reminded party leaders) for it to be kept free from the paralysing effects of party strife. In their hands,’`consensus’ was a device by which partisan divisions were to be bridged, and popular anxieties contained or even concealed: less, perhaps, the happy product of a people’s war than a highly successful exercise in the political management of discontent.


    This chapter was published in Harriet Jones and Michael Kandiah (eds.), The Myth of Consensus: New Views on British History, 1945-64 (Macmillan, 1996) which is available here.


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