This article is based on notes prompted by reading an interesting book, Imperialism and the British Labour Movement, 1914-1964, by Partha Sarathi Gupta, published in 1975. I find it particularly of interest because it presents some original material from a time when the Labour Party will claim to have been 'socialist' in some sense. So, this article can be seen as an anti-nostalgia exercise! Things never were any good with this pro-imperialist party.
Gupta has extensive documentation of debates in the House of Commons, Labour Party conference speeches and policy recommendations from such bodies as the Fabian Colonial Bureau and the Movement for Colonial Freedom. He also gives examples of the racism of many leaders of the 'labour movement', especially regarding Africa. More important for my current purpose is that he highlights how Britain's plans for colonial development were always presented as being mutually beneficial, but were always based upon Britain's needs and in directions determined by the colonial rulers, not by the local populations.
The book is a dry read, and with a number of questionable views, for example that by the early 1960s 'social imperialist sentiment had been eliminated' in the UK (p. 393). However, it offers some striking comments and statements that illustrate the 'socialism in words' and 'imperialism in deeds' perspective of the Labour Party in the 1940s and 1950s that I will set out below. A good summary of Labour politics is given in Gupta's conclusion to a chapter on 'Colonial reforms':
"A large body of opinion inside the [labour] movement was representative of 'little Englanders', who were preoccupied with social transformation at home and anxious to avoid military and political engagements abroad. In moments of crisis a social imperial syndrome became active. Though it was originally noticed mainly among those trade unionists who were least affected by socialist ideas, the imperialist bias displayed by Bevin in general [Ernest Bevin, Labour's staunch anti-communist Foreign Secretary, 1945-1951] and by John Strachey over the groundnuts affair [see below] showed that persons with a Marxist background could slide easily into a social-imperialist position once they became pre-occupied with building socialism in their own country only." (pp. 346-347)
Despite the little Englanders being 'anxious to avoid military and political engagements abroad', Gupta does not mention that there was no labour movement opposition to Britain's military efforts to re-establish its own and other European colonies after 1945, possibly because these used Indian and recently defeated Japanese troops against local nationalists in Asia, and hardly any British troops. But, I will turn attention to the more direct British dimension of colonial economic exploitation.
The first example is John Strachey. Named in House of Commons records as Evelyn Strachey, MP for Dundee, and with the more elaborate nomenclature on his birth certificate of Evelyn John St Leo Strachey, he was an outcome of Eton and Oxford and an itinerant politician (see his Wikipedia entry) with successive socialist, Mosley, Communist, anti- and pro-Keynesian views. He was also a Minister of Food and a Secretary of State for War. Despite these dizzying turns, throughout his life he remained a consistent British nationalist. In a January 1948 House of Commons debate on the Colonial Development Corporation bill, he concluded:
"I should like to end this discussion by striking this note, that by one means or another, by hook or by crook, the development of primary production of all sorts, in the Colonial areas, Colonial territories and dependent areas in the Commonwealth, as well as generally throughout the world, in far more abundant quantities than exist today is, it is hardly too much to say, a life and death matter for the economy of this country."
This perspective was behind his support for the infamous groundnut scheme in Tanzania, then called Tanganyika. Britain's plan to plant groundnuts in an unsuitable region with idiotic technology turned into a loss-making fiasco and was abandoned. However, while this is often seen as a dumb development project, the basic notion behind it receives less attention: it was to use cheap labour in the colonies to grow products that would feed the British back home, and so reduce the need to import from outside the Empire. This would avoid paying in US dollars for some food supplies when there was already a shortage of dollars in Britain's reserves. Instead, the producers of Tanzania would receive payment in terms of a devaluing sterling.
The groundnuts scheme was only one case of colonial exploitation, realised or planned. More importantly, Britain had a number of marketing boards that were monopoly buyers of the commodity output of its colonies, and limited the development of any processing operations so that they received at best, and usually below, the world market price for the raw commodity. House of Commons Parliamentary debates always argued that a 'fair price' was being set, and that the buying operation carried risks to Britain's finances. But the buying prices were always set at below what the market price turned out to be. Furthermore, the surpluses from selling these products on the market always ended up in sterling balances based in London banks! This was how the system worked.
In a May 1951 debate on the West African Marketing Boards, one Labour MP, the Rugby and Oxford educated barrister, Richard Acland, made the following comment as part of a longer apologia:
"Firstly, the prices in the long-term contracts made by our Government were perfectly fair prices, there being genuine arguments at the time of the contracts to suggest that world prices for the crops might have fallen. But in fact that has never happened and the opposite has always taken place. To give an example: We are purchasing West African palm oil at £94 a ton, when the same oil on the free market has been fluctuating from £134 to £210 per ton."
What a stroke of luck that no West Africans were listening! Just in case they were, he denied that the amounts concerned were of any significance.
This is not to say that Labour MPs were being too truthful, and not forward-looking enough. How forward-looking, to see the way in which British imperialism's economic stresses could be solved so that we could have a 'Jerusalem builded here', on the backs of the colonies, is shown in the next quotation. Harold Wilson, a future Labour Prime Minister, had this to say in the House of Commons when Labour was in opposition in February 1953:
"There are very many schemes that can earn and save dollars and we want to know about them. There is copper in Rhodesia and Uganda; zinc and lead in Nigeria and tin in Uganda and British Honduras. We have to face the working out of the tin reserves in Malaya, before many years are over. There is, too, bauxite in Jamaica, manganese in India and South Africa, tungsten in Uganda, beryllium in India and columbium in Uganda. I am sure that these things are being considered by the Foreign Secretary, and what we should like to know at some convenient time—I would not press him to answer in detail tonight—is what is being done to press on with these schemes.
"Perhaps the most important step in the Commonwealth development [sic!] would be for the Government to work out now a wide-ranging geological survey of Colonial Territories ... I do not think that anyone in the House would deny that the answer to all our dollar problems may well be found 200 or 1,000 feet below the soil in the Colonial areas, and a really imaginative geological survey might possibly solve a lot of our problems over rather a long time."
The economic policy in the colonies, now given the honeyed description of 'Commonwealth' rather than Empire, was to meet British imperialism's requirements. That is not a surprise for critics of imperialism, but let me leave you with a sickening Labour socialist conclusion. Recognising that the Empire, sorry, Commonwealth, may not persist on the same footing, noting the colonies' contribution to the Sterling Area balances and expressing a desire that colonial peoples have a better future, Jennie Lee, wife of Aneurin Bevan, the Labour left saint, had this to say at Labour's Annual Conference in October 1956:
"We have to work for the day when there will be a higher standard of living here, a higher standard of living in the colonies, and when as free and friendly nations they will want us to be their bankers." (p. 376)
She was ahead of her time. The City of London today is the biggest centre of global banking, despite Britain having a much worse current account deficit than when she was speaking. British imperialism found other ways of appropriating the value of what others produce.