Dec 10

The Soft Heart of the British Empire


This article, which appeared in Past and Present in 2013, begins with a puzzle. Why did many of the leaders of the Indian nationalist movement move to London in 1908? The three principal leaders of the time were Lal, Bal and Pal – Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal. The first and third moved to London that year. The third – Tilak – was in prison in India, but his lieutenants, G. S. Khaparde and Vishnu Karandikar, also moved to London. So did Har Dayal, the Punjabi revolutionary and a host of student radicals M. P. T. Acharya, Haidar Raza, Basudev Bhattacharji, Hemanto Kumar Ghose, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, and Senapati Bapat. Most lived at or regularly visited Shyamji Krishnavarma’s student hostel “India House“, which was now led by one of Tilak’s younger protégés, the Bombay revolutionary, V. D. Savarkar. In 1909, a member of India House, Madan Lal Dhingra, assassinated the India Office official Sir Curzon Wyllie.

Of course, London had been a home for revolutionary exiles since the 1840s. At various times in the preceding decades it had housed revolutionary nationalists such as Garibaldi and Mazzini, anarchists like Malatesta and Kropotkin, and socialists including Louis Blanc, Marx, Herzen and Lenin. But their movements had been centrifugal, away from the centres of European repression. The Indians, by contrast, had moved centripetally, to the heart of the empire that repressed them. So the first puzzle is why they saw the centre of British imperialism as a haven.

A second puzzle is why the imperial authorities tolerated anti-imperialism at the heart of the empire. It did not do so in India. But there were problems in applying the rule of colonial difference at the metropole. In India, there could be one rule for the Indians, and another for the British. This racial differentiation was harder to impose in London. Although it was known to the authorities that the Indian radicals were plotting for an Indian revolution, almost nothing could be done legally to stop them.

For example, their freedom of movement to and from India was almost wholly unchecked. It was too politically controversial to restrict the rights of imperial subjects to travel freely in the empire, even if their purpose in doing so was to undermine it. The authorities also had no powers to seize funds, or prevent their use for anti-imperialist purposes. Deportation was only possible after conviction for a criminal offence, not on grounds of general “undesirability“. The Indian radicals also travelled frequently and easily to European capitals to plot with other opponents of British rule. When they settled there, they could almost never be extradited back to Britain or India.

In theory, extraditing criminals and defendants back to the colonies was easier. The 1881 Fugitive Offenders Act, which applied to the empire, had few of the protections governing extradition to foreign states and made it relatively simple for colonial officials to extradite those who had escaped their custody into another part of the empire. However, it only applied to fugitives, which meant those who had fled India after warrants for their arrest had been issued. This was not even true of Savarkar, who had not fled to Britain but simply moved there to study and plan an Indian revolution. Hardly anyone else was vulnerable. The legislation did allow non-fugitive Indians to be returned to India if they were suspected of offences which were triable both in Britain and India, but in such cases, the courts had to consider whether it would be in the interests of justice to do so. In India many legal rights – such as those concerning bail, jury trial, cross-examination, admissibility of evidence, and appeal – were suspended or qualified by the 1908 Criminal Law Amendment Act and this meant that British judges sometimes declined to return suspects there. Offences committed in Britain would therefore have to be tried in Britain. The trouble with British courts, the imperial authorities, concluded, was that they would be too soft-hearted, applying British precedents, concepts and sentiment.

Intelligence work at the metropole was also hampered. In India, the government had a network of spies to inform on political agitators. But in London, the India Office would not allow the Government of India to employ spies to gather evidence. It would provoke local outrage and probably prove inadmissible in court. The Metropolitan Police were much less heavy-handed than its Indian counterparts. Pal, indeed, wrote of their “wondrous patience“ and “scrupulous regard for the sanctities of private relations and personal freedoms”. They did not search premises without evidence, open the Indians’ letters, or harass them provided they remained within the law. Freedom of association was also protected. Political meetings on Indian questions in London could never be subject to the surveillance or bans used in India.

Freedom of expression was also mostly guaranteed in Britain. The British press was not merely free to publish what it wanted about India, but did so to a degree that would have led to prosecution for sedition in India. The Times, for example, printed Krishnavarma’s letters unedited, even when they advocated political assassination. When Government ministers complained, the editor replied that it was the paper’s policy “to give even the devil fair play”. Sedition law, which was used extensively in India to restrict even moderate criticism of the government, had effectively fallen into disuse. The India Office concluded that the Indian radicals could not be prosecuted for advocating violence, even though in India merely arguing that violence was bound to follow repression had earned Tilak a six-year sentence.

The influence of the Indian radicals over Indian students in Britain was especially worrying to the British authorities. But the universities and the Inns of Court refused to make Indian students a special case or subject them to surveillance. They and the British officials agreed that it would be “politically disastrous” for British universities to close their doors to Indian applicants. Indeed, the India Office wanted to keep them open in the wider interest of imperial unity.

Indeed, besides the stubborn attachment of the British to liberal principles, which they refused to alter to make an exception for Indians, wider imperial interests prevented any revision of these rules. British officials in India often wished that they could block the traffic of anti-imperialists between India and the metropole. They disliked metropolitan visitors from London almost as much as they disliked the way that Indian radicals escaped to London and worked there against them in safety. The trouble was that liberal imperialists refused to stop the traffic. To them, empire was only justified if it extended opportunities for the colonised to learn the skills necessary for self-government. This meant that ideas, print and individuals must flow.

Even less liberal imperialists found themselves obliged to agree. They feared that India might get forgotten in plans for the closer integration of the white dominions through tariff reform and imperial federation. Since India was not itself a destination for economic migrants from other parts of the empire, they had to make it easier, not harder, for educated Indians to travel. Even the arch-imperialist Curzon therefore wanted students and journalists to move easily between Britain and India, though some of them used these opportunities to attack British rule.

So it proved impossible to draw a border between Britain and India. The solution, therefore, was to try to draw a border between Briton and Indian. Such a line could not be crossed unless identities themselves dissolved. The Indian radicals would carry it with them wherever they went.

Moreover, this colonial difference was defined not simply in terms of racial identity, but in terms of behaviour or conduct, and required that special attention be paid to judging it. The effect was to make citizenship possible for Indians, but a matter of a protracted – even indefinitely deferred – probation, rather than entitlement. It positioned them as candidates, distinct from both the “self-disciplining” British citizenry and also the externally-disciplined colonial subject.

Such differentiation, however, could not be carried out by the state alone. Policing an indelible geographical or racial border could be attempted by a suitably competent state. But differentiation on the basis of character and conduct was not the same as policing a border. It could not be done by the state alone, because it required expertise, judgement of nuance, and attention to innumerable, repeated, everyday transactions. The state therefore relied on British civil society – its universities, editors, writers, intellectuals, public figures, charitable trustees, among others – to make judgements of character and conduct. It was these figures, as much as state officials, who applied the modified rule of colonial difference.

In London, the radicals therefore encountered a world quite unlike India. Power was concentrated not in the hands of the state, but dispersed among many non-state institutions, actors and associations, who stood apart from, though still in a certain relation with, the state. The most relevant for the Indians were the parliamentary lobby, the press, the Inns of Court and the legal profession, and the universities and the public intellectual arena. The autonomy of these spaces was considered essential to a liberal mode of governance, in creating and shaping self-governing individuals, in permitting supposedly natural social and economic processes to occur without distortion, and in providing locations from which a critique of the state and its actions could be made. Although the state did not control them, they were nonetheless governed by internally-enforced codes of behaviour. They defined for themselves what constituted fair use of the freedom they possessed, thereby controlling the practical delivery of civil liberties. Being a “reasonable litigant“ in court, a “respectable lobbyist“ at Westminster, a “responsible journalist“ in Fleet Street, or a “good chap“ at university was a necessary condition for equal treatment. Furthermore, full entitlement to civil liberties could not be obtained by Indians directly, but only via British intermediaries whose right to them was undisputed. These were the people who mattered: the MPs who might raise their cases in Parliament, the editors who might publish their letters and articles; the college tutors who might protect them against the India Office; the lawyers who might admit them to the Bar, or take their cases. A very large part of the radicals’ activities and correspondence was directed towards these people, in terms that ranged from formal lobbying to begging letters.

Almost all such efforts failed. The Indians, as I argue in more detail in the article, therefore abandoned the metropole, and took their struggle back to India, or to dispersed, diaspora locations. They left the metropole not because of state power, but because of the unwillingness of these intermediaries to align in solidarity with them.

This finding has implications for the way we see metropolitan anti-colonial resistance. The people who applied the rule of difference included many of those usually seen as the metropolitan allies of the colonised. They were the advocates, but also the probation officers of those they wanted to help. Each in his own way discriminated according to a rule of colonial difference. And because colonial rule at the metropole held out the possibility of acceptance, however conditionally, it placed Indians in a dilemma too. Even those who came to London to oppose the empire therefore found themselves subject to temptation.

The experience of the Indian radicals also throws an sidelight on the debate concerning the relationship between nineteenth century liberalism and a co-emerging, even co-existent, imperialism. It is now broadly accepted that liberalism was not in any simple sense a tool of empire. Its principles could be invoked by advocates of an expansionary, missionary imperialism, but also by their opponents. Liberalism was used against the British in India. But this proved hard to achieve in London. The Indian radicals did invoke liberal authorities, and even approached some of them in person for help and advice. But they were never allowed to be co-makers of liberalism. Liberalism, British thinkers insisted, was the product not just of abstract rational reflection but of a particular socio-historical experience, which had, not by chance, happened first in Britain, and had yet to happen in India. Perhaps liberalism in time could stretch to include everyone, but this did not mean that it belonged to everyone. True, some Liberals wanted to find out what was going on in India, and especially whether liberal ideals were taking root in Indian soil. They were also prepared to be critical of the Raj, often precisely for its failure to nurture liberalism. Yet this was combined with a strong sense that whatever India had to learn of liberalism, liberalism had little to learn from India.

Anti-imperialist Indians were able to take advantage of the tolerance for refugees, even though they were refugees from the British Raj. However, this tolerance was not proffered by the state freely. It was extracted, sometimes without its knowledge, and often without its approval, as a consequence of existing commitments, some of them intrinsic to imperialism itself. The routes that empire needed to keep open in order to sustain itself were pathways along which anti-imperial ideas and actors could be smuggled, or even travel freely.

Nonetheless, despite its many legal freedoms, Britain had turned out to be more a stifling than supportive place. The Indian radicals were shaped and directed by soft power, exercised in multiple and dispersed ways, and only loosely co-ordinated, if at all, by the state. It worked through a diverse group of Britons, including many who were not regarded as wielders of imperial power. In Britain, civil liberties were not enforceable rights, but privileges which, for their full value, required endorsement by British intermediaries. Parts of British civil society were prepared to offer such endorsement, but it came at a price: submission to the moulding processes by which the British made themselves. This acceptance was, moreover, always provisional and revocable, and the codes under which it was offered reserved final judgement to the British intermediaries. The Indians were therefore not excluded on grounds of race, but were admitted as such.

The value of liberalism, whether in justifying or criticising empire, was thus not just a matter of what its complex and meaning-laden texts said, but also who got to interpret them. It was a matter of textual belonging, as well as meaning. Indians could appeal to liberal principles, but they did not get to define or apply them, and increasingly that was what mattered most.

For the Indian radicals, the colonial metropole was not simply a nexus of useful interconnections, as “junction box” theories have proposed. It was also a troubling place, made so not through coercive policing and surveillance, but the temptations and shapings that it exerted on those to whom it offered probation. The friendship of British allies was therefore a mixed blessing. The fact that the strongest mode of metropolitan anti-imperialism was self-criticism – of the British by the British – and that this was essential for it to be effective with British audiences, weakened the possibilities of a friendship of equals.

However, this meant that the metropole was also a place for decisions and breaks of trajectory: a critical juncture more than a junction-box. Several important crises were resolved there. For some of the Indian radicals, the freedoms of the metropole were surrendered in favour of a straight fight with the more obviously coercive state in India. Others left for international work largely free of the complications of British freedom. Gandhi – a visitor to India House in 1909 – departed from Britain to imagine an India free not merely of British rule, but of British concepts of freedom. As a consequence, the metropole was, in the last decades of imperial rule, strangely quiet, isolated in certain ways from the collapsing empire of which it believed itself the centre. It was thereby deprived of the political convulsions and reassessments that might have been forced by a confrontational anti-imperial challenge at its heart. Instead, Britain formally decolonised with surprisingly little metropolitan reappraisal, the challenges mostly occurring far away, leaving – battered but still standing -the complex mix of attitudes to freedom, difference and government which had sustained empire.













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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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Jun 02

Civil Society and British Progressives in India

The header above uses a photograph taken by the Victorian photographers Bourne and Shepherd of Sir Sayaji Rao, the third Gaekwar of Baroda (1863-1939). He was twelve years at the time this photograph was taken. A few months earlier he had acceded to the throne after his predecessor was accused of poisoning the British Resident and deposed by the British for maladministration. In 1911, at the Delhi Durbar, the Gaekwar famously ‘insulted’ the King-Emperor George V by half-bowing only once (three times was expected) and turning his back on him.

The Labour Party leader Keir Hardie, who had visited India a few years earlier, took this incident to indicate a degree of anti-British hostility it probably did not convey and defended the Gaekwar in Parliament and press. Hardie had been impressed by what he had seen of Baroda on his visit, and argued that it showed that Indians could govern themselves without help from the British. Indeed, Baroda was much paraded to visitors as the most modern and enlightened of the Indian princely states. Visitors included the Radical journalist Henry Nevinson, and also Ramsay MacDonald who arrived in 1910. He was shown the modern schools, state bank and prisons, and given copies of the plans for industrial development, but he remained doubtful that western plants could ever acquire deep roots in India. ‘The West’, he wrote, ‘…is fading and rotting in the Indian heat’. Sidney and Beatrice Webb also met the Gaekwar on their visit to India in April 1912 and thought him and his wife ‘real enthusiasts for social reform’.

In this chapter, I examined the way that these early British socialists, radicals and progressives saw India. What did they see? How did they understand it?

A key question for all these observers was whether the kinds of social reforms they wished to see in India, such as the redress of poverty, widening educational opportunity and the growth of meaningful trade unionism were more likely under Congress rule than they were under British rule. The unreformed Raj seemed to lack the capacity to undertake such a programme. Its finances were squeezed by imperial military demands and those of an expensive European-dominated administration. It pursued agricultural policies which merely created peasant debt and famine, and industrial strategies which were haphazard. Lacking sufficient authority of its own, it was forced into compromise with the existing elites and the most socially regressive elements of Indian society, the landlords and the princes.

On the other hand, Congress, despite its hostility to the Raj, seemed detached from the masses. Though highly articulate, its core support came from a Hindu urban high caste western-educated intelligentsia. It had little autonomous support among workers and peasants. Its primary aim was to secure its own place in the administrative work of the Raj, but social reforms, as well as religious matters, had been avoided as divisive. Land tenure and rents were rarely discussed, and the problems of Indian rural poverty were considered mainly as evidence of the ‘drain’ of resources to Britain, and rarely as a problem of internal inequity.

This made it hard to judge progress. Judged by the criteria of home, the emergence of a rich urban associational life, characterised by ‘moderate’ politicians speaking the familiar language of western liberalism, seemed at first sight an authentic, if infant, development. Yet on closer inspection, seen in its own setting, it appeared a somewhat artificial, imitative phenomenon, lacking deep roots in Indian society. The alternative forms of mobilisation visible in ‘extremist’ politics initially offered different signs of authenticity: popular support and clear indigenous roots, and most encouragingly, self-reliance. But they were quite unlike the forms with which British politicians were familiar, relying as they did on pre-modern methods of mobilisation and on the authority of caste and class. Many of the politicians they met as heads of ‘western’ organizations in London, were, in India, leading narrower, communal organisations dominated by quite different methods of working. These were often reforming organizations of which British socialists approved, concerned with reforming religious practices such as widow remarriage, untouchability or prohibitions on foreign travel, in the light of new thinking. But they had unfamiliar modes of operation, such as the use of religious injunctions, caste sanctions, money-power and force.

At the heart of the problem, however, was confusion over the marks of authenticity. Indian nationalism seemed to most western observers too narrow, too shallow and excessively derivative. Yet efforts to deepen and broaden it, or to ‘Indianise’ it, inevitably made it look even less familiar.

Although, in discussions of this kind, the political development of India was usually claimed to be decades, or sometimes centuries, behind that of the west, it is very evident that a great deal of what the socialist travellers suggested projected on to an Indian canvas some contemporary and domestic concerns. Hardie wanted to bring Congress leaders face to face with the problems of the rural poor. The village council – the panchayat – was the foundation of self-government. MacDonald thought that participation in the local councils would be for Congress what parliamentary work had been for the British Labour Party, a necessary apprenticeship. For the Webbs, the Indian ‘aristocracy of intellect’ needed – contra Hardie – to be detached from the uncivilized masses, and brought into alliance with similarly progressive British officials. What each most admired in the mirror of Indian nationalism was the reflection they saw of their own ideals.


This chapter appeared in Jose Harris (ed.) Civil Society in British History: Ideas, Identities, Institutions, (Oxford, 2005). You can find the book here.


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May 25

The British Left and India

The British Left and India is the story of two interwoven quests: (1) the search of the British Left for a form of anti-colonialism if which they could approve; and (2) the search of Indian nationalists for a mode of agitation which did not offend their commitment to self-reliant struggle. One of its innovations is to try to tell these two stories in parallel, altering the direction of the gaze chapter by chapter. Some chapters examine how India looked to the British Left. Others examine how the British Left looked to India. The book also tries to show how these two perspectives interacted.

My starting point is to consider some of the usual explanations of the British Left’s failure to develop a strong and committed anti-imperialism. The first was economics. The British trade unions, and the Labour Party which they dominated, it is often suggested, gained economically from imperialism, through higher wages, cheap consumer goods, and the export opportunities provided by colonial trade. They were therefore unlikely to ally with those who sought to end the empire.

This argument had already been much damaged by the “imperial accountancy” school of thought, whose work showed that, before the First World War, “Labour Britain” – industrial, working class, and outside the south-east of England – was economically, geographically and socially almost the opposite of “Imperial Britain” – finance and service-oriented and based in south-east England.

I added to this two further points: (1) that the pattern of economic gains and losses from empire was not well understood, and (2) that the implications for this economic stake of ceding power to nationalists were not clear. Was the stake safer under imperial rule, or only once power had been ceded to the nationalists? The effect of this uncertainty, I argued, was indeterminacy. Trade unionists and Labour MPs were potential allies of an Indian nationalism which might end a cotton boycott, or promote industrial co-operation, and also potential allies of the Raj in suppressing the challenge of an unregulated industrial competitor.

I also explored five further explanations of the weakness of metropolitan anti-imperialism. They were (1) the apathy and ignorance of the Left’s political constituencies; (2) the electoral consequences of adopting anti-imperial positions; (3) the lack of a theory of anti-imperialism and the reliance on liberal humanitarianism; (4) the Left’s inability to challenge an all-encompassing orientalism; and (5) the resourcefulness of imperialists and their capacity to co-opt their critics.

In each case, these factors were complex, and again indeterminate, in their effects. Apathy and ignorance about India, for example, were certainly widespread. But it is a mistake to suppose that they are necessarily a barrier to effective anti-imperalism. Apathy allowed those who were anti-imperialists to define the party’s programme. Provided they did not demand too many resources, or clash with bigger priorities, they could take control of policy. Ignorance was not as profound as might be guessed especially among the leadership of the Labour Party. The party’s five principal leaders from 1906-1947, four – Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, George Lansbury and C. R. Attlee – made India a specialism, three of them – Hardie, MacDonald and Attlee – made visits to India, and two – Attlee and MacDonald – served lengthy terms on specialist commissions on India. In 1924, MacDonald was the first Prime Minister since Wellington to have visited India before taking office. Ignorance was greater lower down the party. But ignorance should not be conflated with apathy. The most informed could be the most conservative about India, and the least informed the most radical.

Electoral considerations also neither promoted nor precluded anti-imperialism. Any Indian policy could be defended to a working-class audience, the Labour Secretary of State for India cheerfully admitted in 1930. They were “a mixture of ignorance and idealism, always with racial prejudice ready to be excited, so that the ground is indeed clear for any argument”. When an Indian crisis threatened to take advantage of British weakness, or interlock with parallel disturbances elsewhere, especially in wartime, Labour MPs and ministers drew back from alliance with nationalists. On the other hand, maintaining the momentum of political progress, timely concession and good relations with the rising classes were the key skills of the leaders of an empire under stress. After 1945, a close political relationship with anti-colonial nationalists was far from an electoral liability. It was a sign that the Left was in touch with modern developments.

The argument that ideological weaknesses explain the weakness of the Left’s anti-imperialism comes in two forms. The older one stresses the poverty of British Marxism in addressing questions of empire, and the existence of a powerful Fabian alternative which saw the empire not an obstacle to international socialism, but as a framework through which it might be built. The newer one – postcolonialism – suggests that all those ideologies which might have developed an anti-imperial cutting edge, including classical Marxism, failed to do so because they were themselves children of imperialism, and until challenged by the colonised themselves, tainted by orientalist assumptions of colonial inferiority. Here too – as much other writing has shown – there is indeterminacy. Socialist ideologies are not definitionally anti-imperialist. Indeed, there are socialist critiques of anti-imperialism, and perhaps even socialist forms of imperialism. Yet socialism has, at times, and selectively, formed one of the most effective cutting-edges of anti-imperialist work.

Orientalist images and assumptions, finally, are certainly very visible in the British Left’s accounts of India. But they did not always lead to imperialism. For one thing, there was an affirmative Orientalism which argued that India was the civilizational equal of the west, and which mobilised anti-imperialist argument on that basis. For another, after 1900, forms of Orientalism which insisted on essential “racial” difference and the impossibility of India ever “catching up” with the west, were giving way to more contingent “civilisational” forms, which suggested the desirability of devolving power to modern, westernising elites. Indeed, the insistence of many British liberals and socialists that there was only one true route to modernity – that taken by the British – could make them keen to develop the necessary modern institutions in India – constitutionally limited and accountable government, a free press, the rule of law, widening educational opportunities. This could work against certain traditional forms of colonial rule, although it was also possible to co-opt it into support for the modernising forms.

In each case, therefore, there is a high degree of indeterminacy.

My own explanation begins with a suggestive point made by Edward Said. At one point in his book Orientalism, Said describes Orientalism as not so much a matter of holding particular views, but of “positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient, without ever losing him the relative upper hand”.

This idea of relational superiority is, I think, a very powerful explanation of the gulf between the British Left and Indian nationalists. It was not only a matter of the views they held but of where they stood in holding them. Despite the fact that Congress had been founded some fifteen years before their own party, Labour often saw it as a junior partner in need of education in the arts of political activism or of good government. It seldom questioned whether tactics designed to advance the interests of uniquely class conscious workers in an industrial society whose ruling classes generally eschewed repression were appropriate for the divided mix of classes and interests over which Congress presided.

Before the First World War, a procession of Labour’s senior figures visited India. They included J. Keir Hardie in 1907-08, Ramsay MacDonald in 1909 and again in 1913, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb in 1911-12. Each set down thoughts on the nature of healthy political development. The lessons they drew were quite varied, and were strongly coloured by their views of how the Labour cause had advanced at home. For Hardie, the devolution of political power to village councils would ensure that the urban professionals who made up the Congress movement were brought face to face with the problems of the rural, labouring poor. The Webbs hoped to see co operation between the “natural aristocracy” of educated Indians and sympathetic British officials in local schemes of social improvement, through which Indians might acquire the skills to run a modern, interventionist state. MacDonald regarded Congress as only at the first stage of its development, comparing its proposals to the narrow, class bound demands of the mid Victorian Liberal Party. Indian nationalism should, he argued, follow the same lines of political evolution as the movement for labour representation had at home. Congress was a healthy development, but to develop further had to carve out a broader based political support among Indian workers and peasants, reduce its dependence on middle class activists, and campaign not merely for political independence but for social reform to raise the condition of India’s impoverished masses.

In the years after 1914, Labour scanned the subcontinent for signs of appropriate progress and the emergence of authentic nationalism: perhaps the emergence of a multi-party system divided along class lines, or the political recruitment of peasants and workers, or the development of schemes for practical socialism, or the evolution of party programmes that went beyond attacks on the raj. As Labour moved from oppositional movement to party of government after 1918, it became increasingly keen to push Congress down the same road to responsibility. But judged against these standards, Congress, in moving away from parliamentarism towards Gandhian non-co-operation, seemed to be going in reverse. Many British observers, especially in the trade unions, doubted whether it was truly interested in social reform. Its demands for independence seemed too closely entwined with the vested interests of the Indian middle classes and too bound up with impractical Gandhism to act as an instrument for genuine industrial and economic change. Indian unions seemed too prone to spontaneous and undisciplined outbreaks of labour unrest, their leadership provided by lawyers or even employers rather than workers, and their work characterized by political objectives that ranged too far beyond wage-bargaining. This could all be satisfactorily changed, given time and patience, but to those who had won acceptance for Labour through negotiation in the parliamentary arena and demonstrating their fitness to govern to local electorates, there could be no short cuts to political maturity. As late as 1943, Labour ministers worked on plans to undermine the Congress leadership and remould Indian nationalism into a more acceptable form.

However, there were very good reasons why Congress and other Indian nationalists were unable to meet Labour’s criteria. India lacked nearly all the structural underpinnings that would have made Labour’s strategy appropriate. The emergence of British Labour had been greatly eased by the fact that it happened in a state with a liberal constitutional framework, in which trade unions and socialist societies could operate without serious restriction. Labour’s leaders had come to see the state as a largely neutral force, committed to rule-following and publicly declared “fairness” between classes, which could be captured by winning a parliamentary majority. In India, by contrast, politics were very much more circumscribed. The raj, despite its liberal pretensions, was very ready to lock up nationalist agitators without trial, ban newspapers and proscribe hostile organizations. It was quite impossible for nationalists to see it as neutral, or to make capture of local legislative power the sole aim of its strategy.

Labour had emerged almost entirely within pre-existing political structures, and only rarely needed to step outside them. Even when it did, it did so within the wider margins of acceptable dissent. Congress, since it sought to displace the raj from India, could not work wholly in the same fashion. It had to step, often and far, outside the plans of the raj. Moreover, the Indian nationalist struggle after 1920, as Gandhi and others conceived it, was not intended to mimic British political traditions. It rejected the mendicancy of the early Congress. Independence was to be won through the purification of Indian efforts, not learned at the feet of British sympathisers, no matter how well-intentioned. This kind of struggle was dictated by the specificity of Indian conditions, and in particular by the need to rally the support of much wider groups than had been attracted by the westernized strategies used hitherto. But it was also quite new and it is hardly surprising that so many Labour figures misunderstood it. The inner workings of the “dominant parties” that led anti imperialist struggles were more complex than their own typologies allowed, and could only be poorly understood by those anxious to squash them into the moulds of western, and usually British, experience.

The problem, therefore, was akin to those identified in contemporary postcolonial theory as false universalization and of the neglect of multiple routes to modernity. The judgement and values of the British anti-imperialists were “provincial”, the product of a specific and localized historical experience, but falsely universalized as the paradigmatic standard form, against which Indian versions were found wanting. Labour’s early twentieth century leaders, like most of their contemporaries, were soaked in Victorian ideals of unilinear social progress. For them the rise of democracy and the emancipated working man were the highly desirable fruits of these ideals, and it was their duty to encourage them to emerge elsewhere. Labour’s industrial struggle was thus, as befitted the world’s first industrial nation, the model from which others might learn. India was judged for its ability to replicate this pattern of development. From this standpoint, there was but a single route to maturity. Few could see India’s differences as other than deviations from proper, western norms of historical and political development. Its industrial workers were judged against the superior rationality, energy and technical expertise of their British counterparts. Its political leaders were judged by their capacity to foster western conceptions of modernity, progress and development.

This helps to explain a feature of the interaction which is hard to understand in terms of persistent economic interests or enduring apathies: the repeated, almost cyclical pattern of engagement and failure. When Labour leaders visited India, they hoped to identify signs of modernity that they recognised. They were not wholly disappointed, for Congress leaders showed them newspaper editorials modelled on The Times and printed appeals resembling Victorian petitions. They took them to public meetings where the procedure and platform oratory seemed slightly dated, but familiar. Yet like all such mimicry, it also seemed too imitative to be authentic. Other sightings – the unfamiliar modes of anti-partition protest – caste sanctions, the use of religious appeals, and traditional forms of leadership, for example – seemed to have more popular resonance and deeper roots, but they also seemed immature and pre-modern, rather than non-modern. At the heart of the problem, however, was confusion over the marks of authenticity. Indian nationalism seemed to most western observers too narrow, too shallow and excessively derivative. Yet efforts to deepen and broaden it, or to “Indianise” it, inevitably made it look even less familiar.

This pattern of projection, crisis and paralysis was to be repeated many times, as the movements of the western left stepped forward to engage with Indian nationalism. A number of possible responses might follow from this lack of fit: sometimes a sense of blockage, followed by withdrawal and disengagement – the apathy noted above – sometimes conditional support, provided only if things changed; sometimes efforts, more or less successful, to ignore one or other side of the picture. Postcolonial theorists, often persuaded that the psychological tensions of encountering such irresolvable contradictions led to a kind of anxious fracturing of identity, probably underestimate the degree to which distance damped them down: the most common response was simply retreat.

It is here that Labour’s dilemma interlocked with that of Congress. Some of the early Congress leadership shared the view that there was only one route to modernity, and made the case for home rule on that basis. But others did not, either because they believed that such a perspective undervalued Indian traditions, or because they did not think that a nationalist movement could be built on such foundations. Others again varied their repertoire: to their British supporters and their fellow Indian professionals they appealed in the language of universal Victorian liberalism; to other, less westernized Indians in the language of Hindu tradition and other local idioms. The former appeal was not necessarily weak strategy, despite its imitative character. Opponents held that it could only lead at best to a perpetually deferred promise of equality and hence a permanent secondariness. But the early Congress was not just engaged in mimicry, but in using the leverage provided by commonly held values to demand consistency of treatment. Its occupancy of British liberal positions was designed not purely for the purposes of mimicry, but in order to stretch them and reveal their limitations. Such appeals gained in effect at the metropole from being framed in the language of their occupiers, and also from their proximity. The officials of the raj feared a united front of Indian nationalists and their British friends speaking the language of modernity more than a solely Indian movement which could be depicted as alien, hostile and regressive. Nevertheless, such a strategy was contested by those who wanted an indigenously-oriented and self-reliant struggle, which would sacrifice intelligibility in London for gains in support in India among those who had not been much troubled by the compatibility of their world view with the dominant ideologies of the west. Gandhi, who became the spokesman for this position, exposed the false position in which the otherwise effective early Congress had placed itself. Rather than representing themselves as imperial subjects of sufficient maturity to be granted self-government, Indians should grant themselves the status of equals.

This debate had implications for the relationship between Congress and its British sympathisers and supporters. This relationship could operate in a number of different modes. The early Congress used an agency arrangement, hiring a British journalist to act for them. However, this was short-lived, and was abandoned in favour of reliance upon voluntary, unpaid, British “responsible public men”, among them former civil servants of the raj and Liberal MPs, running an autonomous British Committee of the Indian National Congress. This method was, however, disliked in India for its mendicancy, and was countered in Britain by the rejectionist mode favoured by Vinayak Savarkar and the India House which tried to dispense with British supporters altogether in a version of nativist struggle. However, such rejectionist campaigning was very hard to achieve, partly because it was so much easier to resist. Without the British supporters to create space for its operations, it was generally either ignored, or easily crushed by the raj, but also, and more subtly, because it inverted, rather than displaced, the claims of the west.

Vicarious struggle at the metropole was thus unavoidable, so the problem, when Gandhi encountered it in 1909, became one of finding a mode of interaction with Britons which did not leave them in charge, or Indians deferring to them. Gandhi believed that it would not be right to reject the contribution of British supporters, but that if their priorities were not to distort the growth of swaraj – i.e. self government, but also autonomy – they had to be dislodged from positions of authority. More widely, as Ashis Nandy has argued, Gandhian strategy sought to decentre Europe and topple it from the position of natural hegemon in any discussion, in an effort to reassert the basic equality of cultures and their mutual imbrication.

This explains the otherwise mysterious destruction of the British Committee in 1920. It was not, as is usually assumed, a failing organization, but one which had to be destroyed because of the redundancy of the mode of interaction it represented. “I do not want you to determine the pace”, Gandhi told an audience of British allies in Oxford in 1931, “Consciously or unconsciously, you adopt the role of divinity. I want you to step down from that pedestal.” Was there not much that England had yet to teach India, a Labour Party member had asked Gandhi: “certain things for which she has a special gift” such as “her political sense and her gift for evolving and managing democratic institutions’?” “I question this claim to exclusive political sense that this English arrogate to themselves”, Gandhi had replied. “There is much in British political institutions that I admire. But … I do not believe that they are the paragon of perfection… Whatever is worth adopting for India must come to her through the process of assimilation, not forcible superimposition.” Many of Congress’ British supporters were disconcerted by such claims, as they were intended to be. Resistance will always be in certain senses incomprehensible, at least at first, from the perspective of the dominant. Gandhi neither succumbed to nor straightforwardly rejected their authority. This would have been easier to meet, either with instruction or a shrugging indifference. Instead, he aimed to transform it, and them in the process. This was why they generally preferred Jawaharlal Nehru, with his demands for the consistent practice of international socialism – oddly reminiscent of the pleas of the early Congress for consistent liberalism – he asked less of them.

Each of the modes of interaction therefore required a different type of response from the British left, whether the provision of guidance, as in the days of the British Committee; distant sympathy – the rejectionist preference of Savarkar – dependable, active support or mutual affiliation to wider, internationalist bodies – Nehru’s preference – or a kind of critical solidarity in the search for truth – Gandhi. These are often elided into a general notion of support, but they are really quite different phenomena, varying according to the relative position of the parties in relation to each other and to the raj, and the functions that each undertakes. There was an important difference, for example, between British supporters who saw their role as being not to side with either the raj or its opponents, but to interpose, or negotiate, between them in the hope of achieving conciliation, and those who became more directly absorbed into the struggle on the side of the latter.

Only rarely before 1920, and almost never thereafter, did British supporters seek positions of formal or even informal leadership. They saw the necessity for this to be in Indian hands, although paradoxically their exhortations to this effect often took the form of instruction. But they did not disdain to act as advisers, adjudicators, intermediaries, conciliators or defence counsel. Indeed, one type of support, at times perhaps the dominant one offered by the British left, was a kind of professional mediation, involving sincere feelings of sympathy for the Indians as victims of imperialism – though not usually fellow-victims – and the desire to intercede on their behalf, speaking for them and representing them to British audiences. It was guided more by an ethos of public service to those less fortunate than by one of common struggle.

Some effective anti-imperial work was undoubtedly done in this fashion, but it was structured unequally, seeking to alter the relationship between the Indians and the raj without much altering the relationship between the emancipating sympathiser and the emancipated Indian. The professional campaigners on Labour’s Imperial Advisory Committee were drawn to the lawyers, writers and political organizers of Congress, whom they believed represented the same civilizing force in Indian society as they themselves did in Britain. But they were reluctant to give them places on the Committee, instead preserving their own role as spokespersons for Indians and mediators of their interests to the British Government. It was their books and journalism which represented India to Britain and their parliamentary speeches which stated India’s demands. The informal title “Member for India”, bestowed at Westminster on MPs who made India their specialism, was, for Josiah Wedgwood and Fenner Brockway as it had been for John Bright, Henry Fawcett and Charles Bradlaugh, a highly prized one, even though it involved a kind of appropriation.

Congress’s strategic dilemma was, after 1920, translated into an organizational problem. Once authority was denied to them by Gandhi, British supporters lost a key incentive, for which no substitute was easily found. It is usually assumed that as Congress outgrew its early reliance on British leaders it shed them, as a multi-stage rocket jettisons its boosters. But self-reliant campaigning was not at all easy to achieve, mainly because Gandhi’s hope for self-generated movements of solidarity were disappointed. Congress moved through a series of attempts to organise its British work, none of them satisfactorily reconciling the need for self-reliant, India-centred activity with the need to persuade British allies and audiences of India’s case for self-government. Support for Congress in Britain came to be a function of other commitments and objectives, communist, theosophical, pacifist, socialist, anti-fascist, etc. It was in essence parasitic, reliant on the hospitality offered by progressive movements of the left, but still vulnerable to their desire for status. This pattern of indirect engagement was not necessarily weak: parasitic arrangements only arise at all if each party is getting some net benefit out of them. What mattered was the closeness of fit between these primary objectives and the anti-imperialism. When this was close, as it became briefly, and arguably misleadingly, over anti-fascism, then Congress was feted in London. But such enthusiasm was generally fragile, transitory and characterised by boom and bust, as competition between different elements of the left first distracted and then split the Indian nationalists.

There was little inevitable about the scale of such disappointment. British and Indian concerns did not need to be identical to provide each other with mutual support, but only to mesh more effectively. The forms of struggle which might have avoided this trap altogether are not always easy to discern. The key elements were probably critical solidarity, a location alongside and not above or ahead of the colonised, a sharing of risk, and willingness to undertake what a later generation of theorists, notably Gayatri Spivak, has identified as the “unlearning of privilege” or “learning to learn from below”. There are some isolated examples of such practices in the relationships between the British left and India, though they are isolated, and it is evident that it was hard for most to descend from the pedestal Gandhi had identified in 1931.

Some recent historical studies have identified individual efforts to stretch threads of friendship across the barriers thrown up by imperialism in other settings. There are some examples of transcendental personal friendships in this story too. Yet the unresolved problems in making such connections even at the personal level are very evident in such studies, let alone the difficulties of expanding them beyond the personal, into the larger public sphere of organised political action, with implications for the lessons which their authors might wish to draw from them. Does their rarity suggest that they are unreasonably demanding? Are they really relationships of equals, or does only one party to it hold a guarantee of support from the other? What scope is there for criticism or other expressions of conditionality in a solidaristic relationship.

Viewed in the longer perspective provided by such considerations, the work of the metropolitan anti-imperialists in the interwar years might be judged as provisional, but not deferred, work. Like much politically oppositional activity, anti-imperialism made necessarily crab-like progress, before triumphing, as C.L.R.James wrote “by whatever tortuous and broken roads, despite the stumbling and the falls”. Gandhian techniques, for example, were self-consciously experimental, and failure was written into their design, though failure from which one learned. The tensions and disagreements between metropolitan anti-imperialists played out in the pages that follow might seem, from this perspective, no more than the unease through which any liberatory politics emerges, through which, as Homi Bhabha once put it, “newness enters the world” and ideas productively “travel” from one setting to another, or encounter the limits of their application. Attractive though this vision is, it needs to be sharply distinguished from simpler possibility of failure, and to be true to the lived experience of its subjects. What distinguishes the enabling tensions posited by postcolonial theory is their propensity for growth, and the test of them is what, if anything, is left at the end of the engagement.

The British Left and India was published by Oxford University Press in 2007, in its series Oxford Historical Monographs. The opening chapter was chosen in 2009 as one of the one hundred best pieces of writing on imperialism, in William Roger Louis’s ‘100 Top Hits of Imperial History’. William Roger Louis, Ultimate Adventures with Britannia (2009), pp. 277-81.

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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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May 10


This paper concerns the British Labour Party and its relationship with the defining figure of Indian nationalism: M. K. Gandhi. This relationship is usually regarded as close and supportive, thanks to the occasion recorded in the photograph above: Gandhi’s visit to Lancashire in 1931, where he was greeted with cheering crowds, despite the effects of the Indian nationalists’ cotton boycott on Lancashire exports.

Immediately before Gandhi’s takeover of Congress in 1920, the Labour Party had been on the verge of an alliance with Congress, mediated by B. G. Tilak and his allies. The alliance was based on some pledges concerning the plight of the Indian worker and peasant on the part of the Congress leaders, and a commitment to Indian self-determination on the part of Labour. Gandhi’s new direction for Congress, however, seemed much less familiar. There was the resort to boycott, which threatened British workers involved in export industries. There was also the resort to non-co-operation, a technique which the trade unions and the Labour Party thought should be used only sparingly and on important single issues, such as to counter the threat of war.

Above all, however, there were worries about how Gandhi garnered support. Congress under Gandhi clearly now had a mass base, which had worried Labour in the past. It was no longer possible to argue that it was an unrepresentative clique of westernised politicians. However, there were still worries about how this base had been acquired, and the relationship the Congress leaders had with it. Gandhi linked the political project of self-government to a religious movement of self-discipline – ‘swaraj’ meant both things – and his techniques motivated supporters through reworked conception of Hindu duties. Gandhian agitation thus gave expression to exactly those traditional and backward-looking forces which progressive and socialist British observers had believed precluded genuine democratic advance.

The price of Gandhian mobilisation, moreover, was a certain loss of control. Subaltern protest had its own logic and easily slipped out of the control of Congress leaders. This was most evident when participants abandoned non-violence for attacks on landlords, and also as Congress demonstrations changed from orderly marches of well-behaved petitioners into uncontrolled festivals characterised by the rowdy, undisciplined energies of the peasantry and urban poor. Insufficient leadership of the right type seemed to have been displayed by Gandhi and his associates.

In fact, closer inspection showed that great thought had been put by Gandhi into imposing discipline on the mass movement. Constitutions, rules and orders were developed to govern the conduct of non co-operators. However, the imposition of Gandhian discipline on the masses was not what Labour had envisaged when advising Congress leaders to base their movement on the demands of the worker and peasant. It reversed the proper relationship, as Labour saw it, between leaders and followers. The Congress leadership had not gone to the trouble of winning consent for their nationalist programme. The Indian peasantry was a resource to be mobilized by a Brahmanic elite using religious authority, for their own purposes. Gandhi himself did not stand for election. His leadership was, it seemed, completely unaccountable to anything except his own divine inspiration. Too much leadership of the wrong type seemed to have been displayed.

These differences deepened in the interwar years. The Gandhian Congress moved from respectability to agitation. The Labour Party moved in the opposite direction, as it abandoned direct action and brief spurts of ‘outsider’ industrial militancy in favour of the long slog of parliamentary politics and organized ‘insider’ pressure.

Through the 1920s, it became slowly clearer that Gandhi was not simply an agitator whose brief ascendancy had ended in 1922, but the defining figure of Indian nationalism. This revived the question briefly smothered by Tilak: was Congress really a modernising, progressive, even socialist, force, or not? As Congress demands were enlarged from swaraj (self-government) to purna swaraj (self-determination), moreover, this question became more urgent, for if India were to write its own constitution, the Indian poor would have to look to indigenous nationalists like Gandhi, and not British constitution-makers, for protection.

This especially troubled the British trade unions, who made their own enquiries into the Indian position in the mid 1920s. Visits were made by the Dundee MP Tom Johnston in 1925-6, Tom Shaw for the Textile International in 1926-7 and A. A. Purcell and Joseph Hallsworth for the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in 1927-8. India was industrialising, which created opportunities for some British industries, such as engineering, railways and shipbuilding. But industrial competition with an unorganised labour force and atrocious working conditions was more threatening to the British worker. Indian trade unions were often run by Congress lawyers, and used to exert political pressure on British rule, rather than economic pressure on an exploitative employer class.

Thus although the TUC sent money to support Indian workers in their industrial disputes and lobbied the India Office with the demands of the All-India TUC, its support for the political aspirations of the trade unionists was more conditional. It accepted that, under colonialism, the national struggle necessarily preoccupied the Indian unions and that they were right to attack the legal and practical restrictions on labour organization imposed by the raj. At the same time, they had to maintain their independence and build their internal strength for a larger struggle, against the landlords and capitalists who, increasingly, were taking control of Congress. Gandhi’s attitude to the rich seemed worryingly untroubled.

When Gandhi visited Britain in 1931, he made a poor impression on British Labour leaders. The cheering crowds gave a misleading impression of their response. The cotton boycott was disliked , even though Gandhi blamed the raj for making it necessary. Trade union leaders suspected that the boycott was backed by the Bombay cotton millionaires for the same reason they wanted Indian freedom. Labour MPs were unpersuaded by Gandhi’s paternalist attitude to Indian workers, and his plans for the future of India, which favoured hand-spinning over factory work, and moralising and self-purification over union organization. While they could admire Gandhi’s ‘satyagraha’ (truth-struggle) as a fine example of personal spiritual growth, they found it much harder to see it as an adequate solution to the deep economic and communal problems of India.

In this respect, Gandhi’s visit was ill-timed. Labour’s sensitivity to questions of class interest was particularly raw. Only a few days before he met Labour MPs, Parliament had reassembled for the formalities of the end of the second Labour Government. Its first business thereafter had been an emergency budget and cuts in unemployment benefit even more drastic than those that had been dividing the party for months. At his first meeting with Labour MPs, therefore, Gandhi was subjected to some fairly rough questioning. There was incredulity about his attitude to machinery, the Middlesbrough MP Ellen Wilkinson demanding to know ‘if it was not a reactionary policy to refuse to use the inventions of science … [and] the human mind’, the effect of which was simply to keep India poor. But most of the points the Labour MPs raised concerned the Lancashire boycott and Congress’ attitude to questions of industrial relations. The Co. Durham MP Manny Shinwell told Gandhi that the Indian coal-owners were ‘much more reactionary and brutal to their employees than British coal-owners’ and that he wanted to know how Gandhi reconciled that with his claim that Britain exploited India. Gandhi replied that when he spoke about exploitation, he ‘was not thinking about these few thousand labourers in the coal-mines, or in the factories of Bombay or Calcutta’ but of India’s immensely larger rural population. The Indian coal-miners were ‘oppressed but … not starving’ like the villagers. Gandhi also insisted that the cotton boycott was designed only to serve the interests of these villagers in year-round employment. However, the anti-imperialist Norman Angell, now MP for Bradford North, pointed out that its likely effect was that Lancashire goods would be replaced by the products of the industrial mills of Bombay and Calcutta rather than home-spun cloth. The Sowerby MP and weavers’ leader, W. J. Tout asked Gandhi to deny the rumour that the boycott was paid for by the Bombay mill-owners for precisely this reason. Gandhi was unable to deny the financial involvement of the mill-owners, but claimed that the hand-spinners would be able to take them on and win when independence came. Another Labour MP asked Gandhi what the Indian villagers would answer if asked why they were led by Gandhi. Gandhi replied that he led them ‘because they could not express themselves [and] that he was expressing their aspirations for them’. ‘Bloody hopeless’ had been the verdict of Tout afterwards.

A second meeting, held at the National Labour Club, was little better. Here the questioning touched on the issue of communal tension in India. Asked whether he was not risking a communal war after a British withdrawal, Gandhi told the Labour MPs:

It is likely that we the Hindus and Muslims may fight one another if the British Army is withdrawn. Well, if such is to be our lot, I do not mind it. It is quite likely. Only if we don’t go through the ordeal now, it will simply be postponement of the agony and therefore, I personally do not mind it a bit and the whole of the Congress … has decided to run the risk of it. .. Did the British people themselves not run the maddest risks imaginable in order to retain their liberty? Did they not have the terrible Wars of the Roses?

There was little more reassurance for questioners eager to know Gandhi’s plans for Indian defence. Foreign rule, Gandhi announced, had fostered a ‘rot of emasculation’ which was worse than fighting. Invasion would therefore simply be met by non-co-operation with the invader. Gandhi, Dalton had already concluded after an earlier meeting, had ‘a terrible physical inferiority complex’ on this question.

Attlee, although he is not recorded as having spoken at these meetings, also had substantial reservations. He had told the Fabian Society earlier in the summer that there were three difficulties that a Socialist must encounter with the proposal to leave India. The first was the likely effect on the Indian economy, for the British, far from impoverishing the country, had created an artificial prosperity which would collapse into confusion and famine on their departure. Conditions in native-owned industry were worse than those in British-owned factories, and Indian trade unionism was ‘largely racketeering run by the lawyers’. The second difficulty was the question of defence, which Attlee continued to believe could not be transferred to Indian ministers without removing British officers, and thereby stripping it of all its senior ranks. Finally, there was the problem of religious minorities. The Moslems formed a kind of ‘diffused Ulster’. On the Hindu side, few inroads had been made into caste prejudice, and the Brahmins would certainly oppose democratic growth. The only solution was to attract the ‘best nationalists’ who, in Attlee’s view, were not the Gandhians but more moderate nationalists who were participating in provincial government. With franchise extensions, ‘unscrupulous lawyers’ would give way as ‘parties in the proletariat’ rose against them. But there could be no immediate clearing out of India: the result would be ‘the loss of the North-West Frontier and of the bulk of our Indian trade’.

On the eve of his departure, Gandhi was pressed by Labour’s Indian experts to come back into co-operation with the British. But Gandhi was no help at all. There was, he insisted, no real room for manoeuvre in what had been wrung from the Conservatives, and the Labour experts’ suggestions that he should welcome the prospect of future conference work merely revealed ‘the paralysis of the British mind’. Gandhi genuinely found the insincere politics of coalition, as the Labour experts explained them to him, simply incomprehensible. He could not see how MacDonald could make an equivocal declaration at the behest of the Conservatives and expect to please Congress at the same time. When Laski told Gandhi that some members of the coalition Cabinet did not support the use of repression in India, Gandhi snapped back `No? Then the members should resign. It is a sickening thing. It is positively horrid … If you remain silent in a matter of this kind you are guilty.’ This was no less than an irreducible clash of moralities. One of those present, the writer George Catlin, later wrote of the occasion:

Everyone was, I think, a little stiff and a little embarrassed. The politicians and worldly men did not know what might be said next. They might be asked whether they had been saved, as by a Salvationist…

I was impressed – impressed by the signs and wonders, by Gandhi as an unusual kind of politician; but I had, as yet, no insight…. Even some of those at the party … dismissed him as “too much of a Jesuit for them”. His religiosity offended their Fabian common sense, their Marxist prejudices, and indeed their Bloomsbury good taste … [A] god in a drawing room … [is] always liable to say things in bad taste… There is a collision of two worlds.

British interest in Gandhism in 1931, which was considerable, reflected neither sympathy nor hostility, but a desire to find a place for the seemingly anomalous Gandhi in the belief-systems and political world-views of the progressive left. Gandhi was not so alien that this task was impossible. Some aspects of his thinking were undoubtedly attractive, notably those which had been derived from familiar sources. Ruskin, for example, who had provided Gandhi with his belief in the dignity of labour and the necessity of service to the poor and marginalized, had also been one of the dominant influences on the thinking of the British left. Gandhi’s disparagement of western materialism, technology and uncritical scientific progress aroused distant echoes of similarly-inclined critiques by Edward Carpenter and other `new age’ critics, which had been influential in fin-de-siecle socialist circles. The popularising of Gandhi by Romain Rolland and others in the 1920s had also helped to assimilate Gandhi to dissident Christian traditions, especially the Franciscan one of poverty and service, which resonated among Christian Socialists and others influenced by Christianity. The Gandhian ashram seemed to offer an ideal of equality, simplicity and austerity and Gandhi himself the incorruptibility of a man of the people, an exemplar which had a special place in Labour mythology. His concern for the harijan was a useful counterweight to their suspicions of the entrenched caste system.

However, in the Labour Party of the interwar years, alternative visions of modernity and radical approaches to realising socialism and democracy, which had been quite prominent before 1914, had been marginalized, if not squeezed out altogether, in a drive for electoral growth and state power. While Gandhi’s personal integrity and commitment to social experiment could be admired, therefore, most thought his ideas too retrograde, anarchic or utopian for nation-building. British socialists favoured hierarchical, pyramidal political structures, in the interests of central planning. Villagers would have to make way for dams. But Gandhi wanted structures made up of ‘ever-widening , never ascending circles’ in which the village would resist control from the centre. His hostility to machines which displaced manual labour, for example, suggested an admirable concern for rural employment, and appealed to the dwindling numbers of ruralist or handicraft socialists in the William Morris tradition. But to the majority of British socialists, Gandhi’s ‘absurd economic dreams’, as Beatrice Webb termed them, offered no solution to the material impoverishment of the Indian peasant. Industrial modernisation, with its accompanying clash of class interests, was seen as quite inevitable if India was to be free. ‘Rejection of the machine is always founded on acceptance of the machine’, wrote George Orwell, ‘a fact symbolised by Gandhi as he plays with his spinning wheel in the mansion of some cotton millionaire.

Of course, many of Gandhi’s Indian critics agreed much of this critique, and certainly with its underlying assumptions. This made them, especially Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress Socialists, closer allies of the British left than Gandhi ever managed to be. But in making such alliances, they were neither willing nor able to disown Gandhi. While they disagreed with many of his beliefs, they were dependent on him to reach supporters and voters to whom their own ideals remained unintelligible. They were also in awe of him as a strategist. Congress leaders who hardly agreed with a word of Gandhian thinking on the questions that mattered most to Gandhi – spinning, self-purification, harijan uplift, and so on – nonetheless deferred to his leadership of political campaigns, even when he was not formally placed in charge of them. Thus Gandhian ideas and strategies, for all their novelty and complexity, remained the force-field within which Congress was policy was made even when Gandhi was not directing the campaign.

Such strategies seemed alien and unfamiliar to the British Labour Party. Non-co-operation had a legitimate, if limited, place in their armoury. But Gandhi used it as a technique for building and cementing a movement, rather than as a tactic of last resort. Labour’s preference was for the capture and use of legislative power and, above all, the exploitation of the opportunities that office-holding permitted for a party to strengthen its position. This was why, from the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms in 1919 to Stafford Cripps’ offer in 1942, Labour invariably advised Congress to stand for election or take office as a stepping stone to further advance. From Congress’s point of view, however, such offers looked more like traps rather than stepping stones. To step forward risked splitting the movement and diverting its energies, as occurred in the mid-1920s. Hence those who did enter the councils always kept one foot outside, and one eye on those who had not entered, above all on the irresponsible Congress Working Committee, and, of course, Gandhi.

Above all, Gandhi was an anti-politician. Labour had been able to work with Tilak in 1919, despite differences of view about India, because they shared with him a sense of how politics worked. Tilak had been mildly misleading about his commitment to socialism, and doubtless this, had he lived, would have become evident sooner or later. But this would not have wholly surprised his Labour friends, because they understood the business Tilak was engaged in. While Labour’s leaders did not altogether like it, they did understand it. Gandhi’s more principled refusals were harder to construe. ‘Politics is a game of worldly people and not of sadhus’, Tilak had told Gandhi reproachfully in 1920. But Gandhi was engaged in building a largely new form of sadhu politics much better adapted to the position of weakness in which Congress found itself. As Ashis Nandy observed, he ‘wanted to liberate the British as much as he wanted to liberate the Indians’, awakening dormant or undeveloped elements in their civilization and making them aware of the wrongs they had committed. This was an unsettling and largely unwelcome reversal of the expected direction of influence. To Indians who asked for their advice, and leadership, Labour offered support and apprenticeship. Those who simply refused to address them at all, they ignored. But the Gandhian proposal bewildered and at times infuriated them because it did neither. It spoke to them, but as equals.


Material from this paper appeared in Nicholas Owen, The British Left and India: Metropolitan Anti-Imperialism, 1885-1947 (Oxford, 2007).

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May 03


When the Indian National Congress was founded in the 1880s, one of its purposes was to seek to influence the British Raj not only directly, in India, but by going over its head to lobby government ministers, MPs and the public in Britain. The dual structure of imperial power – a Viceroy in India ultimately subject to a Secretary of State in London, in turn responsible to an elected Parliament – provided leverage. It was a heavily qualified leverage. The Viceroy had considerable autonomy, and the civil servants in the India Office and the Council of India, dominated by retired Indian officials often made it hard for the Secretary of State to get his way, even if he was well-disposed to Indian pressure. Parliamentary powers of scrutiny were restricted, and there was an understanding among MPs that they might criticise government ministers, but not take sides with the Indians.

Nevertheless, there was some scope for criticism, which could invoke arguments, especially liberal ones, which were more readily heard in London than in India. Such criticism was exercised through the British Committee of the Indian National Congress. This had not been the first choice of the Indians. They had begun in 1888 with an agency arrangement: paying a political agent and sympathetic MPs who were willing to raise Indian issues in Parliament for cash. However, it proved hard for the Congress to collect the money for such distant work, so the agent’s activities were subsidised by private parliamentary work for other rich Indian clients. This work – which sometimes aired Indian scandals – threatened to discredit the Congress and its parliamentary allies. Instead, therefore, the Congress set up the British Committee, made up of Liberal MPs and a few Indian politicians resident in London. The British Committee was unpaid, unlike the agent, but it reserved the right to make India’s case in its own way. The best symbol of its approach was its journal India. This was ostensibly a newspaper provided to make India’s case in London, but was actually written by British Liberals and exported to India to inform Indians, whose subscriptions paid for it, what they thought and felt. The various points of difference between the British Liberals and the Indians – free trade, for example, which the Liberals insisted upon, but which the Indians disliked for its effects on home production – therefore never became the source of open disagreement . Instead the Indians grumbled privately and withheld their subscriptions.

The form of metropolitan agitation favoured by the British Committee was an appeal to shared liberal values. These appeals had mixed success. On the one hand, British Liberals were vulnerable to being criticised on precisely the grounds on which they now justified empire: its capacity to produce self-government. Where empire seemed to be impeding progress along these lines, it could be effectively criticised, using arguments grounded in claims the British Liberals had already acknowledged. The Indians could demand consistency between liberal principles held at home and their application in India. On the other hand, the Indians struggled to acquire sufficient authority to challenge the buried assumptions of liberalism – its single model of development, its undervaluing of other cultures – let alone rework its principles for themselves, stretch them, bring them to crisis or reject them. British liberalism was shared with Indians, but not commonly owned.

The organizational outgrowth of this asymmetric relationship was the British Committee itself, with its reliance on British sponsors to validate Congress grievances and guide its political strategy. This explained its successes, especially its work on civil liberties, which British liberals cared deeply about and which enjoyed unquestioned authority. But it also explained its failures: its inability to connect with emerging movements of Indo-centric struggle and self-reliance, and the hidden grumbling and footdragging this aroused in India. The Committee, the radical Indian critic Bipin Chandra Pal wrote bitterly (though for Indian eyes only) in 1905, ‘vitiates the very root-springs of our own political life and activities, by leading our best and ablest men to view Indian questions through British Liberal spectacles’.

For this reason, political radicals like Pal who wanted to build more challenging, self-reliant movements in India also needed to reverse the relationship of dependence on British Liberals in London. Their chosen method was for Indians themselves to seek to persuade the British public, without the complications of British Liberal intermediaries. Shyamji Krishnavarma’s Indian Home Rule Society, based at India House in Highgate was the best example. Unlike the British Committee it was open to ‘Indian gentlemen only’. Its newspaper, The Indian Sociologist, was a counterweight to the moderate coverage of India.

This mode of agitation had a brief flowering in Edwardian London, which I have explored at greater length in another article, called The Soft Heart of the British Empire. It took advantage of the extent of freedom available at the metropole for anti-British agitation. As police repression of Indian extremism grew, indeed, London proved a useful haven for the agitators. Many of them moved there, including Pal himself. For reasons I explore in the article, the experiment was shortlived.

This left the British Committee in command of the field in London, but increasingly resented in India. It experienced financial crises and drifted into irrelevance. After the First World War, the Committee was finally disbanded. This is usually explained as the consequence of its slow decline in effectiveness. In fact, however, the Committee had undergone a revival, stimulated into action by the upsurge in Indian nationalism in 1917. The leading figure in this upsurge, B. G. Tilak, insisted that the British Committee must henceforth take instructions from the Congress in India rather than decide for itself what was best. The new arrangements also included more secure funding from India, a professionalised press campaign, and an alliance with the Labour Party.

Following his takeover of Congress in December 1920, however, Gandhi unilaterally abolished the British Committee. His explanation was the necessity for Indians to be self-reliant. The struggle was to be waged in India, not Britain. The old reliance on British public men, who expected deference to their expertise, and whose priorities were set by British left-wing politics, was therefore too dangerous a temptation.

Material from this paper appeared in Nicholas Owen, The British Left and India: Metropolitan Anti-Imperialism, 1885-1947 (Oxford, 2007).


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Apr 11

British India in the Second World War


This chapter was written for a book on the political effects of the Second World War. It dealt with the effects of the war on politics in India.

At the outbreak of the war, British policy for India was the pursuit of All-India federation as enshrined in the 1935 Government of India Act. India was to achieve independence by gradual stages as a self-governing Dominion within the Commonwealth, with continuing military, trading and financial links to Britain. It would be a federation, in which the Princes would act as a conservative brake on the demands of more radical nationalists. There were five unwritten assumptions. (1) nationalism should be weakened less by repression, except in obvious cases of insurrection, than by the encouragement of moderate politicians to co-operate in government. (2) the staged advance should be a result of British initiative, not Indian pressure. (3) the administration would need to be very gradually Indianised, under British leadership, and decisions over tariffs and taxes would increasingly need to be made by Indians, and reflect their interests, not British or imperial ones. (4) rapid social and economic change should be avoided, especially if it could be used by nationalists to arouse anti-British discontent. (5) communal rivalries must operate within the political frameworks established by the British, not on the street. The war broke all five of these assumptions. Under the pre-war plan, defence was the last matter to be delegated to Indians. But it had now become the primary political issue. The war strengthened the diehard influence in London, especially through putting Churchill into Downing Street. It also soured the relationship between Congress and the Labour Party, whose priorities, once Labour took office and Congress declined to support the war, seemed to have diverged. The wartime negotiations for India – the ‘August Offer’ of 1940 and the Cripps Mission of 1942, were very different from the Round Table Conferences that had preceded the 1935 Act. They were much less the result of British initiative, than political crisis and pressure in India.

The war also divided Congress, deepening divisions that had already emerged once some of its leaders had taken up opportunities for provincial government. Gandhi opposed war on principles of non-violence. Nehru favoured resistance to Japanese expansion not by means of the Indian Army, but popular militias. Others, such as Rajagopalachari, were prepared to enter a national government in return for a firm promise of independence. Subhas Bose favoured confronting Britain with an ultimatum: to hand over power or face open revolt. Early in the war, Gandhi forced the co-operating Congress leaders to hand in their resignations, and won a majority for individual, limited civil disobedience which would register symbolic protest without seriously disrupting the war effort. As Japan came to the borders of India, the British Government sent Sir Stafford Cripps to India with a promise of post-war Dominion status with the right to secede from the Commonwealth, a constitution-making body elected by the provincial legislatures, with individual provinces allowed not to join it, and immediate places on the Viceroy’s executive. The offer divided Congress more painfully than ever, and the eventual rejection, over the question of whether the executive would work as a Cabinet or not, left little choice but resort to full civil disobedience if Congress unity were to be preserved. In violently repressing the ‘Quit India’ movement, the British broke their own rule that coercion should be avoided in favour of co-operation wherever possible, and united their opponents in ways that pre-war policy had been designed to avoid.

The war also placed unprecedented strain on the administrative machinery of the raj. Under ‘Indianisation’, the British component had been set to decrease, but not at the pace now required by wartime demands elsewhere. In many places, local politicians began to supersede the raj almost by default. Congress officials became a parallel source of authority. Relations between British civil servants and moderate, co-operating Indian politicians, which had become almost cordial in the days of provincial self-government before the war, rapidly deteriorated after the resignations, the resort to civil disobedience in wartime, and the repression of ‘Quit India’. The Indian Army too expanded its recruitment beyond traditionally loyal catchment areas, to embrace groups less tolerant of British rule.

War also forced the British to make demands on the colonised which in peacetime they avoided. Imperial interests took precedence over Indian ones. The most obvious instance was the wartime inflation created by the Government of India’s mounting liabilities and declining revenues. Famine in Bengal in 1944, itself partly caused by wartime decisions concerning shipping, pushed the British to intervention in local economies on an unprecedented scale. The methods included price-fixing and requisitioning. Lacking the popular base to justify the sacrifices which such policies created, the consequence was mounting unpopularity.

Arguably the most decisive wartime development lay in the increased leverage gained by the Muslim League and the escape of communal rivalries from the flimsy bonds with which the British had sought to contain them. Jinnah’s Muslim League seized on the ‘Pakistan demand’ – that India was two nations and not one – as a means of maintaining nationalist credentials, while also making a distinctive appeal to Muslims who might otherwise have been tempted into the Congress camp. He gambled that the British would never countenance the destruction of Indian unity, so vital to its strategic and economic interests, and Gandhi would never accept the loss of India’s Muslim provinces. The ‘Pakistan demand’ was a bargaining counter – nations, unlike minority communities, bargain as equals – which Jinnah expected to trade away for an equal say in a united India. The effect of the war was to turn the bargaining counter into the central plank of Muslim political strategy. Muslims were prominent in the Army out of all proportion to their share of the population, and the possibility of war with the USSR in 1940 made it vital that the Muslim North-West was secure. The Pakistan demand also ensured that the alliance of Congress and India’s Muslims which had formed powerfully in the First World War could not be reassembled. The consequence was to give Jinnah a dangerous veto over constitutional revisions, and communal tension a decisive part in the postwar negotiations. At the war’s end, none of the assumptions that had guided pre-war policy still stood.


This chapter was published in Brian Brivati and Harriet Jones (eds.), What difference did the war make? Themes in Contemporary History (Pinter, 1995), which you can find here.


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Feb 27


The independence of India, which occurred under the Labour Government in 1947, was a heavily constrained decision, due to overstretched global military commitments, financial weakness created by wartime debt and a crippled export trade, a moribund and unpopular civil administration and an increasingly Indianised Indian Army. I explored these constraints at greater length in a chapter in Nick Tiratsoo’s The Attlee Years.

The point I take up here is that these constraints make it hard to be sure whether the outcome was really what Labour wanted.

Since Labour had been in favour of an Indian settlement before the war, it has been natural to assume that independence was what the party sought. However, Labour’s pre-war position was more complex and conflicted than this judgment suggests. This is what I have argued in The British Left and India. There were also important shifts in opinion which occurred in wartime. In the late 1930s, Jawaharlal Nehru and his London-based ally Krishna Menon had persuaded British socialists such as Stafford Cripps that the Indian National Congress was becoming more socialist in orientation, more attuned to class identities than communal ones, and, above all, readier to fight against fascism. Unlike the Raj, Congress was ready to modernise India along western socialist lines. However, when the test came, Nehru proved unable to deliver Congress in support of the anti-fascist war. Gandhian non-violence and the opportunistic exploitation of the war by Subhas Bose made it impossible. Cripps himself brought an offer of independence to India in 1942, in return for co-operation in wartime government. But Gandhi and Nehru rejected it. When the ‘Quit India’ movement was launched and quickly crushed later that year, almost no one in Britain protested.

In the years between the suppression of `Quit India’ and the 1945 election, Labour therefore worked on alternative plans. These are the focus for this paper. There were three.

1.First, I look at Labour interest in sponsoring a new political party in India: M.N.Roy’s Radical Democratic Party. This had formed after ‘Quit India’ to support the war. Its trade union wing – the Indian Federation of Labour – persuaded many British trade unionists that it spoke more authentically for Indian workers than the Congress-dominated All India Trades Union Congress, let alone the Congress itself, dominated by financiers, business interests and the absurd ruralist Gandhi.

2.Secondly, I examine the plans drawn up by Cripps and Ernest Bevin to use social and economic development schemes in India. After the defeat of his 1942 mission, which he put down to the artificial hold that Gandhi had obtained over Congress, Cripps wanted to split it, using government-led socio-economic development as the wedge. He and Bevin produced a grand plan for agricultural mechanisation, model villages, infrastructural investment, cheap credit, and modern, scientific education. This would salve anti-British grievances and break the unnatural hold enjoyed by Congress over the Indian poor. Churchill, long convinced that Congress spoke only for ‘lawyers, money-lenders and the Hindu priesthood’, thoroughly approved.

3.Thirdly, I look at Attlee’s desire to make an appeal over the heads of the imprisoned Congress leaders to a new generation of more representative local politicians. Attlee had always been cautious over India, a consequence of his experience on the Simon Commission in the late 1920s. The behaviour of Congress in the war merely confirmed his view that Indian nationalism was socially conservative and dominated by speechifying anti-British leaders who shied away from the hard work of developing proposals, winning consent for them, and implementing them. It would therefore be a mistake to give the Congress leaders power in wartime. They were irresponsible in both senses of the term: unaccountable to electorates, and unserious as democratic politicians. It would be better to seek out those non-Congress Indians who were co-operating at the local level in wartime government. These views were sufficient to tempt the Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, to propose Attlee as the new Viceroy in 1942.

All three of these schemes suggest that Labour ministers – there are similar statements by Hugh Dalton, Herbert Morrison and others – believed that something had gone wrong with Indian nationalism. They shared a concern to divert it from the sterile oppositional tactics of the Gandhian Congress towards the more constructive channels of nation-building. In defining such constructive work, the Labour leaders fell back upon the paths which had brought their own party to prominence: local government, labour organisation, and practical social and economic reform, reinvigorated by new wartime impulses and commitments to planning and collectivism.

None of the schemes came to anything. M.N.Roy’s party collapsed at the polls in 1945. The cost of Cripps’ and Bevin’s schemes was prohibitive, and there was little chance of implementing them in wartime without the help of Congress politicians. Attlee’s hopes for a non-Congress alternative were swept away at the war’s end, once the Congress leaders were released from detention and rapidly re-established their grip on the electorate.

Nevertheless, the Labour schemes have their importance as indications that other routes to Indian freedom existed, and that these were perhaps for Labour more attractive routes than the one they were forced to follow. Independence, in the form in which it occurred, was therefore a second best solution, something which is not very often acknowledged in existing accounts. This was so not only because the partition of India marked such a defeat of pre-war objectives, but also because, for Labour, there was more work to be done in India. Signs of what this work might have involved are visible in the more considered plans adopted by Labour in other colonial settings – Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean – where the constraints seemed less pressing.


Material from this paper appeared in Nicholas Owen, The British Left and India: Metropolitan Anti-Imperialism, 1885-1947 (Oxford, 2007).


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