In his speech to the Labour Party Conference in 1962 Hugh Gaitskell put the party’s case for supporting the Commonwealth in preference to the European Economic Community in these terms: “It means something to us and to the world. Where would our influence be in the world without the Commonwealth? It would be very much less. And I believe with all my heart that the existence of this remarkable multi-racial association . . . can make a great contribution to the ending of the cold war.” And he went on “If I were a little younger today, and if I were looking around for a cause, I do not think I should be quite so certain that I would find it within the movement for greater unity in Europe. . . I would rather work for the Freedom From Hunger campaign; I would rather work for War on Want. I would rather do something to solve world problems. And if we look for examples here, we can find them, as a matter of fact, in the United States.”footnote1 The speech is a fitting climax to a long history and contains the essence of the Labour dilemma: the appropriation of the Commonwealth as a significant aid to influence, the multi-racial community, the search for causes, reliance on charity, and a nervous approval of the United States. It is necessary to trace the development of this history if we are to understand the role that the Labour party might play in the future development of the Third World.

After 1904, when Joseph Chamberlain convinced the Webbs of social imperialism,footnote2 three ideological groups co-existed on the Labour scene: the free-trade anti-imperialists, the protectionist social imperialists and the neoMarxists. Though all three groups continued to influence the Party through to the Second World War, the Marxists had little obvious influence: the important conflict was between the free-traders and the protectionists, and, within the free-trade camp, between the exponents of a humanitarian decolonization policy (led by Barnes, Wedgwood, Morel, Woolf and Olivier) and the “reluctant imperialists” (MacDonald, Snowden, Thomas). Prior to 1940 there is little evidence that the decolonizers got very far in the party hierarchy, though Lansbury was prominent. The Labour party never forced a division on the Colonial Office vote until 1936, and the Morel-Wedgwood attack on colonialism was never translated into policy. Some idea of political development was held by all parties, and as early as 1920 some Labour and Conservative MPs were talking about the “multi-racial Commonwealth”. Trusteeship was a widely-held concept, though exactly what it meant differed enormously. As far as the Labour party was concerned, little effort was made to develop a constructive policy for decolonization while in office: Richard Lymanfootnote3 notes that in 1924, in colonial affairs, Labour was willing to “sacrifice its radical heritage. It was original in being neither a routine Conservative policy nor a routine Liberal policy, but an amalgamation of the two” and upheld “the defence of the status-quo in India, in Egypt, Cyprus and the Mosul Oil fields.” In 1930 Lunn, under-secretary at the Dominions office, accepted that there was no substantial difference between Labour and Tory policy, thanked a former Conservative Colonial Secretary for explaining his own policy for him, and proclaimed that “the greatest instrument for peace in the world is the British Empire.”footnote4 Drummond Shiels, another of Webb’s assistants in the 1929–31 government, noted Webb’s inability to break out of the tradition of the Colonial administrators: Webb had “got into a civil service way of looking at things . . . a real old-time Fabian . . . He did not realize that many of the younger men, at least, in the colonial field, as well as in the Colonial Office itself, had already got a change of spirit and were expecting a vigorous lead in its application from a Labour government.”footnote5 There was some strong pressure from inside the party and from the ILP for a more positive colonial policy, particularly from Leonard Woolf, MacGregor Ross and Norman Leys on Kenya and labour conditions in East and South-Central Africa, and from a large India lobby on Indian independence, but in spite of some overtures to multi-racialism and labour conditions, Webb and his colleagues were barely influenced.

The most important debate was on the role of Empire in Britain’s trade policy: within the Labour Party (particularly during 1929–31) the issue became one of whether aid to colonies was exploitation or not. Josiah Wedgwood had always argued that any form of aid was exploitation because it could only be administered by the British capitalists. But in 1929 the party introduced a Colonial Development Act (taken straight out of the Conservatives’ election manifesto) and the issue became one of whether aid should be granted in the context of imperial preference or a free trade policy. The 1929 act (like most considerations of economic development in the colonies) was designed specifically to solve the British unemployment problem. Oswald Mosely and the TUC as well as the bulk of the Conservative party and the Federation of British Industries called for “a systematic planning organization . . . to rationalize the machinery of imperial trade, to put through a big merger, to unify a lot of small businesses into one great, highly centralized organization . . . to insulate these islands and this Commonwealth from the shocks of world conditions, and, in the area under our own control, to build, while there is time, a high standard of civilization which may absorb the production of our industrial machine”.footnote6 MacDonald and the party leadership opposed this argument and the simpler protectionist one on the grounds that such planning would jeopardize Britain’s standard of living: “If we let in our Dominions’ products free, what of our farmers? Are Hon. Members prepared to sacrifice the standard of life of our people in order to come to some sort of agreement with the Dominions on economic grounds? We are not going to improve the position of our 2,000,000 unemployed by reducing our standards of life.”footnote7 Ernest Bevin, supporting the TUC’s memorandum on planning the Empire, saw it as a safeguard against industrial competition: “I sit on a Colonial Development Committee under an act passed by the Labour Government and I see expenditure of millions of pounds going on for the development of areas where native races have not yet begun to be industrialized. You talk about the coal trade. Ought there not to be some control against the possible development of coal in Tanganyika which might come into competition with your coal here?”footnote8 Thus, although questions of decolonization periodically recurred, the main discussion was essentially in terms of the economic possibilities for Britain and methods of easing the depression. Until the late 1930’s few MPs saw the need for substantial aid to the colonies: if the aim of achieving a multi-racial Commonwealth with independent states was there, the need to use the colonies as a source for economic growth was the major preoccupation; and until the late 1930’s nobody accepted that this would involve a great deal of initial expense by the government.

The question of an active decolonization policy was raised. In 1928 the Party Conference passed a resolution committing the party to the “firm conviction that all the dependencies of the Crown ought, as soon as possible, to become self-governing states”. In his “Autobiography” Nehru noted ironically that George Lansbury was once elected president of a Congress of Oppressed Nationalities and of its sub-committee, the League Against Imperialism, but he soon “repented of his rash behaviour” for “future Cabinet Ministers cannot dabble in risky and revolutionary politics”. Lord Olivier (Coloured Labour and White Capital) and Leonard Woolf (Empire and Commerce in Africa and Economic Imperialism) produced major attacks on imperialism in Africa. Norman Angell was prominent in advocating an internationalist approach to colonial affairs, and most of the party leaders were, at some time or other, members of the Union for Democratic Control. The party had its own Imperial Advisory Committee under Woolf. None of this seems to have had much effect on policy while the party held office, and when MPs met nationalist leaders from India and the West Indies, Labour had very little point of contact. The early Commonwealth Labour Conferences show how little. Confronted by Indian delegates who attacked Labour’s colonial record, the Labour leaders refused to discuss policy and retreated behind the protection of constitutional formalities: Lansbury defended Labour’s part in the Simon Commission (1924–27), which recommended no changes in Indian representation, as “a matter of procedure that has never been departed from in any single instance”.footnote9 And though MacDonald pledged Dominion status for India in 1928, by 1929 as Prime Minister he was responsible for the imprisonment of 100,000 Indians who agitated for self-government.

There were, of course, several types of colonies: India, Ceylon, and the West Indies had been under British control for over 150 years, and, by the 1930’s had growing national movements and trade unions. Then there were the settler colonies of East and South-Central Africa. The greater part of Africa had little economic development and was controlled to a large extent through forms of indirect rule. The Arab emirates and “protectorates” were held more specifically for their economic and military value, but also controlled through local feudal lords. Finally there was the Malay group, Cyprus, Egypt, Palestine and assorted minor territories. Throughout the interwar years Labour had little to offer most of these: India and the East African plantations received a proportion of attention, and Palestine, because of its peculiar racial problems, was frequently discussed. But for most of Africa, Arabia and the Caribbean there was no policy that was not derivative from Britain’s own economic interests. Trusteeship was a concept now accepted by all parties, yet it involved no theory of political development and rested substantially on the ability of local governors and the static nature of tribal rule.