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.
IMAGE CREDIT: MARGARET BOURKE-WHITE, GANDHI AT HIS SPINNING WHEEL (DETAIL), SILVER GELATIN PHOTOGRAPH, 1946.