BRITAIN TRY'S TO KEEP THE EMPIRE TOGETHER
The end of the First World War left Britain with an Empire greater in size, population and apparent unity than ever before. The marvels of Science seemed to promise an even closer relationship. Wireless brought the voice of the King-Emperor to millions of his subjects and air travel was soon to “annihilate” the distance between London and the dominions. But imperial sentiment was dying, stricken by rising nationalism in subject nations and economic decline at home: while the Empire show went on, the audience was dwindling fast.
When the guns fell silent at the end of the Great War and much of the world lay numbed and shell-shocked by the greatest human upheaval in history, the British Empire remained apparently as firm and immutable as before. In 1919 it actually reached its greatest extent. Three vanquished empires - the Austro-Hungarian, the German Overseas and the Ottoman Empires were tactfully dismembered by the peace treaties and many of the fragments went to the victorious Allies, including Britain.
Although the old Habsburg dominions were split up according to a fitfully applied formula of national self-determination, and many former subjects won independence, this most European procedure was not thought suitable for non-European. Instead the German and most Turkish colonial possessions were appropriated by the victors as mandates under the League of Nations, a way of making annexation seem respectable.
New splodges of British red appeared on the map: Palestine, Iraq, Tanganyika and strips of the Cameroons and Togoland. Even Australia, New Zealand and South Africa got their share.
In this way the Empire acquired some 13 million new subjects and nearly a million square miles of fresh territory. It sprawled across the globe, diverse and impressive: some regions stagnant, others vitally productive; its people comprising backward savages and sophisticated urban-dwellers; their attitudes varying from dull obedience or ardent patriotism to virulent anti-imperialism.
There was apparently a good head of steam in the imperial engine. Leading figures from the heyday of imperialism, such as Curzon, Milner, Kipling and Baden-Powell, still held the stage. Young men still prepared for a lifetime’s service in India or the colonies, just as their fathers had done. The bond with the dominions had taken on a new, tangible reality in the Great War, and memories of Anzacs and Canadians fighting at Gallipoli and Vimy Ridge were still fresh in the public mind.
Cultural and economic links counted for a great deal. When the most important industrial combine of the decade was formed in 1926, it seemed entirely right and proper that it should be christened Imperial Chemical Industries. Very few people supposed that within little more than a generation the imperial sun would have set.
But compared say, with the frenzy of ‘fin de siècle’ imperialism, when the Dervishes went down before the maxim guns at Omdurman, or Field Marshal Roberts carried the flag to Pretoria, the glamour of the imperial ideal was definitely fading in the 1920’s. In efforts to halt imperial disintegration and preserve Empire sentiment, the latter day imperialists hailed every advance in communications as a new link to bind the Empire together and exploited to the full every existing imperial asset.
The greatest imperial asset was the monarch. The king was still Rex Imperator. He embodied even now the grandiose image created in 1877 when Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. And in George V, Britain had a king who entered into the role of imperial parent-figure much more naturally and convincingly than his grandmother, Queen Victoria herself.
In 1880 when he was 15, George V had sailed round the Empire with his elder brother Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, in H.M.S. Bacchante. At that time he had no notion that he would ever rule over it. He was to have been a professional sailor. Only the death of Albert Victor , the heir apparent in 1892, brought him to the threshold of kingship
King Edward VII himself was not an enthusiastic advocate of this royal foray to the Antipodes, and had indeed argued that “he had only one son left out of three and he will not have his life unnecessarily endangered for any political purpose.”
But these objections were coolly and persuasively countered by Arthur Balfour, the leader of the Commons, who saw the value of promoting the Crown as a link of Empire and who put his views in sentences which still had great power in the inter-war period. During his lifetime George V visited all the major territories of the British Empire, from loyalist New Zealand to troubled southern Ireland, from the West Indies to Singapore. In the process he showed himself as the embodiment of imperial unity to suspicious Cape Dutch, disaffected Bengalis and unresponsive French Canadians.
Not only did King George continue to exhibit a consistent and serious concern for the Empire unrivalled by any predecessor save George III, but he imbued his sons with it too. With the exception of Prince John who suffered from epilepsy and died at the age of 14, he sent them all on Empire tours at different times
Although Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936 and the scandal over Mrs. Simpson tarnished the royal image,there was a determined effort to restore confidence at the coronation of George VI the following year. Canadian troops mounted guard at Buckingham Palace; visiting chiefs and rajahs were written up as colourfully as possible in the Press; department stores vied with each other in putting on patriotic displays. For the last time, the citizens of London were treated to a full scale imperial extravaganza.
Of course it was arguable that the whole paraphernalia of royal tours, augmented by the much rarer beanos of coronations and jubilees, merely appealed to the converted and left the cynics and sceptics unmoved. There is no doubt that George V took a naive view of royal tours, claiming for instance in 1910, that if news of the proposed Coronation Durbar due to be held in Delhi could be “made known sometime before, it would tend to allay the unrest which unfortunately exists in some parts of India.”
Looked at dispassionately, the Delhi Durbar and royal tour of 1911 had as much success in curbing the growth of Indian nationalism as King Canute’s peremptory instructions to the waves long ago.
Even the brisker, less pretentious tours of the future King Edward VIII were not without their problems. Rapturously though the dashing Prince of Wales was received, he was also closely pursued by journalists anxious for copy of an unusual, even scandalous nature. There was a good deal of journalistic tittle-tattle that the Prince of Wales shirked his duty at some dances and receptions by avoiding the wives of officials and seeking out females from the younger set. His royal papa brooded over these allegations, unable to accept them as legitimate behaviour.
More predictable than royal tours, and considerably less expensive, were the Imperial Conferences of the inter-war years. Here was a vehicle fashioned for improving Empire co-operation. Conferences were called in 1921, 1923, 1926, 1929, 1930, 1932 and 1937 - though those of 1929 and 1932 dealt only with specific economic problem.
The dominions and India sent delegates to these early gatherings of the “Commonwealth Club.” Discussions ranged over issues as diverse as the definition of Dominion status. Valuable though the conferences were as forums for the friendly exchange of views, they lacked the smallest particle of executive or legislative power. The dominions wanted a properly recognised independence and had no wish to subordinate their flourishing manhood to restrictive schemes for imperial reorganisation.
Although improving noises were made over the usefulness of Imperial Conferences only one conference in the 1930’s was fully attended. For much of this decade, as in the 1920’s, British governments continued to ignore the opinions of the dominions on foreign policy when they thought it suited their interests.
Although, in the 1930’s, some measure of imperial commercial preference was achieved, it needed the Great Depression which began in 1929 with the Wall Street Crash, and the subsequent shrinking of world markets, to galvanise the British government into actually starting the scheme.
From 1930 Lord Beaverbrook clamoured for Empire Free Trade, but there were problems with the dominions who wished to retain some protection for their growing industries. The result was a compromise, hammered out at a special Imperial Economic Conference at Ottawa in 1932. Three members of the British cabinet were responsible to Parliament for the good governance of the Commonwealth and Empire: the Secretary of State for the Colonies, the Secretary of State for India and, from 1925, the Secretary of State for the Dominions.
Beneath the three Secretaries of State were the permanent officials at Whitehall, and then, spreading out over a quarter of the globe, the administrative services which backed up and exercised imperial power. The dominions recruited and appointed their own civil services, but the British crown still continued to appoint their Governor-Generals.
The Indian Empire was ruled by the Viceroy and his Lieutenant-Governors, shored up by the most prestigious civil service of them all - the Indian Civil Service. For 60 years after the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the I.C.S. Creamed off the ablest graduates from Oxford and Cambridge and dispatched them, fortified by grand prospects and high salaries, to the contrasting squalor and magnificence of the teeming sub-continent.
But by the 1920’s the Colonial Service, for so long the poor relation of the I.C.S., was at last coming into its own. The shadows cast in India by the 1919 Amritsar massacre and by Gandhi’s mobilisation of the Indian masses made a lifetimes career in the I.C.S. less attractive than hitherto, and this impression was heightened by the steady “Indianisation” of the administrative services in the 1930’s. In contrast, the African Empire looked permanent and relatively promising and the quality of recruits into the Colonial Service benefited as a result.
The civil servants of the Empire were bound together by a broad sense of purpose and (perhaps more important) by the old school tie.
Salaries might differ widely (from £8250 for the Governor of Nigeria in 1922 to £200 for a cadet in say, Kenya), but the vast bulk of administrators had been to similar, if not the same, public schools and many had passed through the ancient universities.
Lord Lugard of Nigeria was in no doubt as to the quality of these administrators, claiming in 1922, that the public schools “have produced an English gentleman with an almost passionate conception of ‘playing the game.””
In academic circles the most obvious attempt to consolidate imperial unity came with the founding of 60 Rhodes Scholarships at Oxford. According to Boer propaganda, Cecil Rhodes, the great diamond magnate of Kimberley was “a rich jingoistic lunatic.” Wrongheaded he may have been and rich he certainly was; but his intention was always to achieve unity, not conquest, preferably under the British flag., and his grand visions were amply reflected in his scheme for scholars.
Indicating that he was an internationalist as well as an imperialist, Rhodes included German and American students - fellow Anglo-Saxons, as he thought - in his scheme. It was a beneficence that still plays a valuable unifying role today, though the Empire it was to serve, has disappeared and the qualities of leadership Rhodes wished to encourage in his scholars have become discredited in an age of egalitarianism.
A far less sophisticated, but more universal, appeal to imperial brotherhood came from the Scouting movement. Taking its inspiration from Baden-Powell, the well publicised defender of Mafeking during the Boer War, Scouting boys and girls paid solemn lip service to God, King country and Empire, and apparently saw no contradiction between ideals of universal fraternity and a world order which largely rested on the assumption that between rulers and ruled, there was fixed a large gulf.
For readers of the Champion and the Hotspur, Canada meant less Mackenzie King as Fireworks Flynn, the Wizard Sports Master of Caribou College. If he wanted something more substantial to read, the schoolboy could always try the latest John Buchan adventure novel or a best seller such as Major Yeats-Brown’s Bengal Lancer. In the 1930’s Hollywood’s faith in the British Raj was apparently unimpaired, with Cary Grant in Gunga Din, Gary Cooper reenacting The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Sabu and C. Aubrey Smith doing their loyal best for the Queen-Empress.
At a cost of £11,000,000 in 1924, as part of the Wembley Exhibition, was built a great stadium it was one of the most lavish imperial spectacles ever staged. When the King opened it on St. George's Day, April 23, 1924, it had been two years in the building.
The most promising of the ‘new links of Empire’ was the radio. In 1922, six manufacturers of radio equipment had contributed £100,000 to found the British Broadcasting Company and the ‘wonderful wireless’ had entered half a million homes by the end of the BBC’s first year of operation. After the Exhibition, the wonderful wireless continued to make great strides as a link of Empire. Here truly was a means of drawing the Empire closer together, and, as the popular Daily Mirror said, “brought the mother country’s voice into the Australian shearing shed, the Indian plantation and the Canadian Ranch-house alike.
Yet another promising new link was provided by the growth of air travel. When, soon after Alcock and Brown’s crossing of the Atlantic in June 1919, both India and Australia were linked with Britain by aerial flight. Nothing could suppress public interest in the new marvel of flight. There was a huge potential of vicarious travellers attracted by its novelty and possibilities. Sightseers at Croydon, London’s Terminal Aerodrome, noted the fanciful signposts that had been erected: Karachi 4000 miles, Cairo 2000 miles: Sydney 11,000 miles; Johannesburg 6000 miles and so on.
Imperial Airways was founded in 1924 and its success was impressive. In its first year of operation it carried 12,000 passengers and 250,000 letters over an aggregate of 852,042 miles; and by the end of the decade the annual number of passengers had grown to 58,000 and the number of letters to 11 million.
One of the firmest and most enduring links of Empire was the Boy Scout movement. Founded in 1908 by Robert Baden-Powell, who had thrilled the ‘Empire a generation before as the heroic defender of Mafeking against the Boers, the movements motto was that of The South African Constabulary: “Be Prepared.” Baden-Powell deliberately appealed to the adventurousness and idealism of young people.The response was world-wide : when Baden Powell died in 1941 there were some 3½ million scouts throughout the world.
Shortly before publishing his book, “Scouting for boys” in 1908, Baden-Powell had held an experimental camp on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour, Dorset. It was here, as the Union Jack of Mafeking floated overhead, that he had tested out the value of the outdoor life on boys.
Basing his theories on his own experience of active school holidays and his subsequent soldiering life in India and South Africa , Baden-Powell taught the boys how to enjoy as well as survive life in the open air. Mundane but essential tasks such as cooking were combined with exciting projects like cave exploration, canoeing and gliding.
New branches were formed as the movement’s popularity grew. In 1916, Cub packs based on Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books were launched for boys under 11. Sea Scouts were introduced in 1910 and Air Scouts in 1939. Even handicapped boys had their own troops as early as 1925 so that they could join the world-wide brotherhood that filled young lungs with fresh air.
Hailed as a hero of the British Empire, Robert Baden-Powell established a unique movement which transcended national as well as racial and religious boundaries. At meetings or in camp, Scout Law was the only code of behaviour and Scouts were expected to practice tolerance and good-fellowship.
The blend of idealism, self-reliance and adventurousness preached by “B.P.” as he was known, produced an eager response from youngsters outside the Empire as well as from within it. In 1920, Scouts from 26 nations attended an international jamboree held in London and a permanent international Scout Bureau was set up. A second international jamboree held in Copenhagen only 4 years later drew Scouts from 33 nations. When Baden-Powell died in 1941, the movement he had led and inspired for over 30 years, was already flourishing throughout the world. Today 12½ million youngsters subscribe to his ideal. Its influence has remained with many throughout their lives
Another grandiose and ambitious project of imperial imaginations was the airship or dirigible. When the aeroplane was still in its infancy, the airship, with its larger capacity and greater comfort, seemed to have a good chance of becoming the air transport of the future. The Zeppelin company in Germany had been flying dirigibles since 1912 and in July 1919. The British R-34 had made a two way Atlantic crossing.
Then at the Imperial Conference of 1923, Sir Samuel Hoare set in motion a government plan to sponsor two gigantic airships for transoceanic service to India, Australia, Canada and Africa. These were to be called the R-100 and the R-101, and they were supposed to be in service by 1926, though neither was ready on time. In August 1930, the R-100 flew to Montreal and back, but special attention was reserved for the R-101. The Secretary of state for air, Lord Thomson was to be a passenger on her maiden voyage to Delhi via Egypt, on October 4. At 2 ‘clock on the morning of October 5, the R-101 crashed in flames on a hillside near Beauvais in Northern France. All but 6 of the 52 men on board were killed including Lord Thomson. British interest in the dirigible waned, and the aeroplane forged ahead.
In 1927, Alan Cobham had made a solo flight to and from Australia, and in 1930 Amy Johnson, the Queen of the Skies, reached Darwin via Vienna, Baghdad and Karachi. The world was demonstrably smaller. Optimists hoped that the traditional bonds of Empire, such as common language and culture, similar political and judicial institutions, and a shared history, would be strengthened. But dominion and Indian nationalism and the drive towards imperial decentralisation were by now too powerful to be halted. The foundations of the Empire were shifting well before that fateful day on September 3, 1939, when the British government declared war on Nazi Germany.
The whole European order had been severely shaken by the war, while at home the hereditary ruling class no longer had quite the same sublime faith in itself, and the rise of Labour at the expense of the Liberals had established a new play of domestic political forces.
Not that the two inter-war minority Labour governments were able to contribute much to decolonisation. Anxious to appear politically respectable , Ramsay MacDonald’s cabinet did not open the floodgates to Indian nationalism. Like Winston Churchill in 1940, MacDonald had not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire! Nor was the trade union wing of the Labour party, which tended to equate imperial possession with a reasonable domestic prosperity, overwhelmingly committed to the cause of colonial freedom. Traditionalists were now obliged to refer to The British Empire and Commonwealth, an awkward double-barrelled name which emphasised the duality of the imperial inheritance.
In what remained of Empire proper, neither India nor the colonies gave imperialists much cause for jubilation. Black Africa, which had seemed to promise so much in the days of Joseph Chamberlain, was on the whole proving a disappointing investment. In India, the life was beginning to ebb from the Raj: diehards might fulminate against Gandhi, but he increasingly held the initiative and the headlines.
Only in the Middle East could Britain be said to be making decisive advances and here too, there were insurmountable troubles, and the spread of British influence in the region came too late to find unqualified imperial expression. Lawrence of Arabia was not only the last of the great story-book heroes of British expansion but the most ambiguous, and his popular reputation was that of adventurer rather than empire-builder.
Given the decline of imperial sentiment, it is scarcely surprising that no new seers of Empire arose, and that those who remained began to look isolated even cranky. Lionel Curtis one of the leaders of the Round Table group, was at work on a voluminous declaration of faith in the imperial mission, Civitas Dei: it caused barely a ripple, whereas 50 years before it might have made him famous. In politics the old attitudes still found a notable exponent in Churchill, but it was his attitude towards the Empire as much as anything, which kept him out of office. Unyielding imperialists now constituted a faction on the right, rather than the main body of Conservative opinion; nor were the newspaper barons, Beaverbrook and Rothermere, able in the end to get anywhere against Prime Minister Baldwin with their crusade for “Empire Free Trade.”
The critics of Empire were pressing home the attack as never before. The 1920’s were the decade which invented debunking - and, by implication, one of the chief targets of a book by Lytton Strachey - Eminent Victorians was the imperial ethos. These years were also marked by a deep revulsion against war and a surge of League of Nations idealism.
In a more practical way the ordinary citizens of Britain voted against the Empire with their feet - or rather with steamship tickets. In 1913, 304,000 emigrants had left the country, of which 78% made for the dominions. The Empire Settlement Act of 1922, tried to encourage this trend and the Treasury promised up to £3 million to finance assisted passages. But the massive exodus of migrants never took place.
In the end therefore, the hoped for new spirit of Empire proved incredibly faint. When the colonies demanded independence, few in Britain - and those almost entirely from the older generation or with family ties to the Empire - thought to resist.
Perhaps the British were imbued with a liberal and tolerant attitude towards Empire, though this is a charitable assessment. More compelling is the argument that in the inter-war period, as in the years after 1945, the British people got their priorities right, and on the whole treated the Empire as a comforting and occasional spectacular backdrop to the more vital activities being played out at home or in the European theatre.
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