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
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 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
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.
The Indian case was therefore crucial for Labour’s colonial thinking. But its history emphasized Labour’s inability to identify with the process of decolonization. The TUC fought against the development of socialism in Indian Trade Unionism: its mission to India in 1927–8 was accepted by the India Office as a “conciliation” tour (and accordingly praised by The Times). It was not long before the TUC found itself an adjunct of the colonial machinery (a role it was to develop later in Africa and the West Indies). The Labour Party, though pressed by Indian nationalists, the ILP and Marxists— indeed also by some of the colonial Governors—preferred in 1924 and again in 1929–31 to stall on all the main issues: though acknowledging India’s claim to independence, its practice was to support the Simon Commission, the Trades Disputes Act (which limited the right to strike and associate), and
If most of the Fabian intellectuals were kept out of office and away from official party posts, they did play an important part in trying to humanize colonial policy. Their most significant victory was probably the affirmation by Webb that Kenya was to be administered in the interests of Africans rather than settlers; this victory marked the beginning of change in Africa. But when the left interested itself in the economics of Empire, it was unable to present any effective alternative to the policies of Leopold Amery and Ormsby-Gore. In Africa, the fear of being exploiters on the one hand and the fear of a growing African industry on the other, produced little incentive to systematic economic development. Throughout the whole of this period, Josiah Wedgwood attacked not only “sweated labour” but also any form of colonial development, and for most Labour MPs the evil to be avoided was the plantation system and large-scale industry: the alternative was always the primitive peasant cultivator. Thus the laissez-faire policy of MacDonald, the negative imperialism of Bevin and the TUC, and the humanitarianism of the centre-left reinforced each other. The ideal remained the West African tribesman preached to by civilizing missionaries. If conditions were too advanced for such ideals the territories were ignored unless they forced themselves on the attention of MPs. In 1922 the Conservative MP, E. F. L. Wood (later Lord Halifax) painted a glowing picture of the Caribbean after a visit to Jamaica and Trinidad. No Labour MP seems to have been interested in questioning the report. As late as 1935 it was possible for Lansbury to say, “The West Indies have not, indeed, been granted full self-government, but most of them have at least partial self-government. The rule of the governors is generally reported to be mild and enlightened”.footnote11 Yet in 1938 the Frome sugar workers in Jamaica, followed by the dock-workers, launched a general strike which was broken by the most brutal of repressions.footnote12 W. M. MacMillan published his “Warning from the West Indies”, and the Labour party began to be “concerned”.