Yes, Comrade Bwana: The British Empire and the Labour Party
In 1947 a then popular English novelist, and farmer, A.G.Street (Farmer’s Glory, The Endless Furrow) wrote how it was that Britain came to have the largest Empire the World had ever known:
“Why were sailors from such a small nation so successful wherever they voyaged? Largely because they did not set out with any idea of conquering the world…. In their travels they landed on strange shores, where in most cases they found a state of things that offended their ideas of what was fitting for human beings. So they stayed and put it right, not so much because they wanted the job, but rather because they stumbled upon it, and felt it was up to them to do the right thing. Thus, without deliberate design they founded a great empire overseas.” (1)
So, according to A.G.Street, be careful where you berth your boat: you might come across people with disagreeable habits who your moral sensibility and sense of duty dictates that you and your countrymen and women spend years educating them and showing them the moral and spiritual way – a.k.a The White Man’s Burden.
The leading ‘thinkers’ of the British socialist Fabians in the late Victorian and Edwardian period – George Bernard Shaw, the Webbs and their like – believed that it would take years to bring these people with disagreeable habits up to scratch. Some like Beatrice Webb thought it was an impossible mission, that many of the “native races” would never be able to run their own affairs (even though they had been managing in their own way for centuries, before the White Man arrived).
The attitude of British Fabians was also shared and supported by British Conservatives and Liberals. In the early 1930s the local party chairman of the Conservative Duchess of Atholl’s constituency went further, advising her that democracy was not only unsuitable for ‘natives’ but also for nine tenths of the white races. (2)
The founding groups in the early twentieth century (which included the Fabians) of the British Labour Party all agreed on the benefits of the British Empire for the British working classes, such as guaranteeing jobs in the Lancashire cotton mills, or providing cheap food for the toiling classes. Before the First World War Beatrice Webb also saw the usefulness of the British Empire in mooting the idea of cleansing the slum areas in London and Manchester of their undesirable semi-criminal and idle lumpen proletariat by boating them out to the open spaces of the British Empire dominion Australia. Frederick Engels the German Manchester factory owner and co-founder of Marxist ideology would have warmed to the idea: in the nineteenth century he had described the lumpen proletariat that he observed in the Manchester area as “scum”, and both Engels and Karl Marx (who coined the term lumpen proletariat) saw this social group as a hindrance to the advance of communism.
In the second Labour Government of 1929 Beatrice Webb’s husband Sydney was appointed by Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald as Colonial Secretary. He echoed his wife’s views when he expressed his ministerial view that some of the subject colonial races would not be fit to govern themselves for at least a hundred years, mentioning, for instance the disenfranchised Empire subjects of Kenya.
The “internationalist” and leading member of the ILP (Independent Labour Party), and evangelical lay preacher, Keir Hardie , was one of the prime movers for the establishment of the British Labour Party. Despite his enlightened reputation (support for the cause of India and woman’s suffrage, and opposed to the colour bar in South Africa) he didn’t extend his internationalist or Christian outlook to Lithuanian workers, let alone – when it came down to it – the “native races” of the British Empire, who, disenfranchised, were digging out diamonds in South Africa, planting cotton in India, picking tea in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and cutting sugar cane in the West Indies. His internationalism stopped at the English-Scottish border and the Port of Leith.
“Keir Hardie, in his evidence to the 1899 House of Commons Select Committee on emigration and immigration, argued that the Scots resented immigrants greatly and that they would want a total immigration ban. When it was pointed out to him that more people left Scotland than entered it, he replied:
‘It would be much better for Scotland if those 1,500 were compelled to remain there and let the foreigners be kept out… Dr Johnson said God made Scotland for Scotchmen, and I would keep it so.’ According to Hardie, the Lithuanian migrant workers in the mining industry had “filthy habits”, they lived off “garlic and oil”, and they were carriers of “the Black Death”.”
“The first Independent Labour Party MP (Keir Hardie) blamed immigrants for driving down wages of Scottish workers and he accused them of stealing and being dirty. In an article written for the journal The Miner in 1887, he criticised the owners of the local Glengarnock ironworks for using “Russian Poles”. He said: “What object they have in doing so is beyond human ken unless it is, as stated by a speaker at Irvine, to teach men how to live on garlic and oil, or introduce the Black Death, so as to get rid of the surplus labourers.” (2)
The German left revolutionaries Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were blunt in their mid nineteenth century assessments about the native races of the world, whether in Africa or China: “savages” they called them. They also regarded some of the European races – Slavs and Celts – as untermenschen, who were part of the problem, and not the solution, and in the case of the Celts believed they would need to perish in the Final Solution. Even the French as a race were a bit suspect in their eyes, saved only by the fact that they had subjugated the “native races” in North Africa. The race that met their ideal as torchbearers of the new communist movement (as determined by Marx’s crystal ball gazing which he labelled ‘historical materialism’) were their own race: the Germans. Anglo Saxon and similar Aryan races were also considered by them as torchbearers for the reordering of the class world. (3)
The attitude of Marx and Engels was a geological strata that ran through all socialists, whether Marxist revolutionary, 0r social democratic – and usually Christian – socialist in the Western world.
Two left of centre Englishmen who unusually and fairly uniquely didn’t share this view of “native races” within the British Empire were Robert Blatchford (1851 – 1943) and George Orwell (1903 – 1950). And for different reasons the two also didn’t support the British Empire. A third English socialist who went on to campaign for the rights of British Empire disenfranchised colonial “subjects” was Fenner Brockway, another early member of the I.L.P. (1888 – 1988).
In general, the rest of the Labour Movement and the Labour Party into the early 1950s were positive about the British Empire, and had a low view of many of the Empire’s subjects. Martin Pugh in his Speak for Britain!: A New History of the Labour Party (2010) mentions that the Smethwick Labour Club in the English Midlands was still operating a “colour bar” in 1964.
George Orwell knew the British Empire from the inside. Between 1923 and 1927 he was an Imperial Policeman in Burma (Myanmar). His first published novel Burmese Days (1934) and his two short pieces A Hanging (1931) and Shooting an Elephant (1936) takes a scalpel to the belly of British Imperialism. In Burmese Days there are echoes of the near halugenic quality of the Frenchman’s Louis Ferdinand Celine’s descriptions of being in French West Africa at a similar time just after the First World War, written in his Journey to the End of Night.
Like Robert Blatchford, who was in the British Army between 1871 and 1878, and rose to be a sergeant, George Orwell was often out of sympathy with his fellow socialists. Both were independent thinkers. In a July 1939 review of a now forgotten book Union Now by the American Clarence K. Streit, Orwell highlights bogus and hypocritical aspects of the European democracies such as France and Britain rationalising their alignment against the totalitarianism of Nazism.
“In a prosperous country, above all in an imperialist country, left-wing politics are always partly humbug…… One threat to the Suez Canal and ‘anti-fascism’ and ‘defence of British interests’ are discovered to be identical……
Like everyone of his school of thought, Mr Streit has cooly lumped the huge British and French Empires – in essence nothing but mechanisms for exploiting cheap coloured labour – under the heading of democracies!…..
The British and French empires with their six hundred million disenfranchised human beings….
……. What we always forget is that the overwhelming bulk of the British proletariat does not live in Britain, but in Asia and Africa.” (4)
“Some talk about the Empire and Imperialism as if it were something to decry and something to be ashamed of. It is a great thing to be the inheritors of an Empire like ours … great in territory, great in potential wealth. … If we can only realise and use that potential wealth we can destroy thereby poverty, we can remove and destroy ignorance.” – Suffragette leader and I.L.P member Emmeline Pankhurst.
There was nothing “potential” about the wealth being generated within the British Empire, whether before the First World War or after the Second World war. The wealth was there. The Labour Government of Clement Attlee (1945 – 1951) used conscripted troops to maintain the status quo in Malaya, and maintain the output of valuable tin and rubber. Seemingly the Malayan War was termed an “Emergency” at the request of owners of tin mines and rubber plantations. That way they could claim any losses with insurers Lloyds in London, whereas their claims would be null and void if the country was officially at war. This manoeuvre seems to have acted as a template also for Kenya, Cyprus and Aden, for instance.
The quote above from the leading suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst about using the wealth of the British Empire to destroy poverty and remove ignorance is, without knowing the context in which she was speaking, ambivalent. Did she mean destroying poverty through cheap food and goods imported for the British working classes from the Empire? And in removing ignorance, was she referring to the natives of the Empire? There were many white Christian evangelists sweating under the Tropical skies of the British Empire who were precisely doing that: working on morally and spiritually uplifting the native. Fenner Brockway’s parents worked as missionaries in India, and sent the young Fenner to a Missionary Boarding School in England. Did his missionary parents, bracing their shoulders for the weight of the White Man’s (and Woman’s Burden) know that Christianity first came to the Indian sub-continent when their European antecedents were still pagans?
Missionary and evangelical zeal were to be found everywhere, including within the Labour Party. Besides Labour Party founder Keir Hardy, prominent Labour and Coop activist, and later Labour minister, and Minister within Churchill’s coalition wartime government A.V.Alexander remained an active protestant evangelist to the end of his life in 1965.
For him the benefits of the British Empire was mitigating the poverty and removing the ignorance of the British working class, through cheap food and welfare provision. This view was shared by trade unions leaders, later to be Labour Government ministers, such as Jimmy Thomas and Ernest Bevin. There was nothing unusual in their views within the Labour Party and Trade Union movement.
When the Labour Party was overwhelmingly returned to power in 1945 there had been nothing in its Election Manifesto about introducing self-government in the colonies, with the exception of India. It is said that Ernest Bevin, Foreign Secretary in the Labour Government, justified this by saying the loss of the colonies would mean falling living standards for British people. (The post war Labour Government saddled a near bankrupt nation with the secret development and massive spending on an atomic bomb, which meant imposing rationing of bread, never rationed during the siege economy caused by the Second World War.)
In general it was only in the early 1950s that some in the Labour Party would start to think about, and agree with Fenner Brockway’s views on disenfranchised British subjects. There were, and had been other voices, of course:
In 1954 along with others, Fenner Brockway founded the British based Movement for Colonial Freedom .
But of course the work of freeing the “native subjects” was done by themselves.
In the 1950s period of the Labour Party being in opposition, under their leader Hugh Gaitskell, it is difficult to get an idea of whether the Party had started to move, in terms of official Party policies, to the acceptance of self-determination for disenfranchised British colonial subjects. Most of the histories of that Labour Party period concentrate on the wrangles over the Clause Four nationalisation commitment, and unilateral nuclear disarmament, and their failure to win the 1959 General Election.
It was the Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1960 who coined the term and accepted that there was a “Wind of Change” blowing through the British Empire, and particularly in Africa. Remarkably, he was the first British Prime Minister ever to visit the British Colonies in Africa.
He had been visiting African colonies for a month on a ‘fact finding’ mission when he gave his speech in the heartland of white supremacy sentiment and practice: South Africa. He made the speech to members of the South African parliament in Cape Town on 3 February, 1960.
“In the twentieth century, and especially since the end of the war, the processes which gave birth to the nation states of Europe have been repeated all over the world. We have seen the awakening of national consciousness in peoples who have for centuries lived in dependence upon some other power. Fifteen years ago this movement spread through Asia. Many countries there, of different races and civilisations, pressed their claim to an independent national life.
Today the same thing is happening in Africa, and the most striking of all the impressions I have formed since I left London a month ago is of the strength of this African national consciousness. In different places it takes different forms, but it is happening everywhere.
The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it…….
……. As a fellow member of the Commonwealth it is our earnest desire to give South Africa our support and encouragement, but I hope you won’t mind my saying frankly that there are some aspects of your policies which make it impossible for us to do this without being false to our own deep convictions about the political destinies of free men to which in our own territories we are trying to give effect.”
The speech was met with contempt and hostility from the bulk of the white Dutch descended Afrikaner community in South Africa, and with alarm amongst the white politicians and settlers of the East African colonies. He had already given a similar speech, less reported, in Accra, the Gold Coast (Ghana) the month before, on 10 January, 1960.
In the 1960s the Labour Party had too accepted that self-rule (where desired) in the colonies was inevitable. However, like the Conservative Party there were some areas that had a strategic defence interest (docks, airfields, army logistics) that they were loath to relinquish too quickly: Malta, Cyprus and Aden, for instance.
And security and strategic concerns (often in conjunction with the United States) continued to effect ‘native’ populations in scattered colonies: Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean, for instance. Part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, it and associated scattered islands are now known as the Republic of Kirbati, becoming independent in 1979.
The forced depopulation of Diego Garcia (part of the British Indian Ocean Territory) in the Indian Ocean to make way for a United States base began in 1968 (Harold Wilson Labour Prime Minister) and was completed in 1973. The permanency of the depopulation was effectively sealed when the Labour Government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown secretly proposed in leaked documents from 2009 to make the area a Marine Conservation area. (5)
So, Darkie Comrades, watch your step. Socialist Internationalism for the British Labour Party stops at the Port of Dover.
Oh, and yes, nearly forgot:
p.s. Fraternal Greetings.
- A.G.Street shared his views on the British Empire in his introduction to the Odhams Press book England Today in Pictures. Odhams Press was a large publisher of popular photo based books, encyclopaedias, popular histories, DIY related reference and tutorial books etc. It was also the publisher and majority share holder, from 1931, of the British Labour Party’s Daily Herald.
- Quoted in Hurrah for the Blackshirts: Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars, Martin Pugh, 2005.
- Keir Hardie quotes are from several sources, including scottishmining.co.uk and Wikipedia.
- see The Social and Racial Characteristics of…. in Recent Posts.
- Not Counting Niggers, July 1939. Orwell: Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters Volume 1.
- “According to leaked diplomatic cables obtained by Wikileaks and released in 2010, in a calculated move in 2009 to prevent re-settlement of the BIOT by native Chagossians, the UK proposed that the BIOT become a “marine reserve” with the aim of preventing the former inhabitants from returning to their lands. The summary of the diplomatic cable is as follows : HMG would like to establish a “marine park” or “reserve” providing comprehensive environmental protection to the reefs and waters of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), a senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) official informed Polcouns on May 12. The official insisted that the establishment of a marine park — the world’s largest — would in no way impinge on USG use of the BIOT, including Diego Garcia, for military purposes. He agreed that the UK and U.S. should carefully negotiate the details of the marine reserve to assure that U.S. interests were safeguarded and the strategic value of BIOT was upheld. He said that the BIOT’s former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos Archipelago were a marine reserve.” (This material quoted in Wikipedia)