MN Roy

India and the British Labour Government

Published: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 6, April 1924, No. 4, pp. 200-210
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.


(M.N. Roy, whose activities on behalf of the Indian working class are well known to the Labour Movement of the whole world, is at present under trial in his absence by the British authorities in India. The charge is one of “conspiracy against the sovereignty of the King Emperor” and his crime is to have advocated the organisation of a mass party of workers and peasants in India. We hope that all readers of the LABOUR MONTHLY will take the opportunity to consider this article, the latest from his pen, and to decide whether they will allow this blow at Indian working-class organisation to take place under a British Labour Government.—Editor, LABOUR MONTHLY.)

It is generally known that the British Labour Party came to office not by dint of its own parliamentary strength, but by the grace of the Liberals. Without the support of the Liberals the MacDonald Cabinet cannot live for one single day. In fact, Mr. MacDonald did not take the responsibility of forming a Labour Government until he was assured that the Liberals would not only vote for his amendment to the King’s Speech, but would continue supporting him while in office. This invisible coalition could not be realised just for the asking. The anxiety of the Liberals to overthrow the Tories was not so strong as to drive them to put a “Socialist” Government in office instead. Mr. MacDonald had to pay dearly for this invisible coalition, which has made his residence in 10 Downing Street possible.

The price with which this very uncertain Liberal support has been purchased is very great. This fact is not generally comprehended. That section of the Labour Party which would not permit an open coalition with the Liberals would be staggered if they stopped to think how much of the Labour Programme had been sacrificed. The Capital Levy and Nationalisation of the Mines were the two planks that distinguished the Labour platform from that of the Liberals. They have been unceremoniously rejected as outside the realm of practical politics.

The same Mr. Snowden, who but a few weeks ago declared that the economic life of Great Britain could not be saved without a Capital Levy, is to-day engaged with equal enthusiasm in the task of salvaging British Capitalism without the Capital Levy. The question of Nationalisation is very conveniently forgotten. His duties in the Admiralty do not permit Mr. Hodges to bother about other questions. Mr. Smillie’s radicalism is evidently damped by age. Or is he bewildered by the rapid march of events so adroitly manipulated by the “intellectuals” in the Labour Movement? Whatever it may be, Nationalisation is rejected. It is done because the Liberals demanded it. They would not permit the least tampering with the sacred rights of property.

In addition to these very large concessions made in the realm of home politics, Mr. MacDonald had to guarantee that he would not do anything to weaken the Empire in the least. Here he sacrificed two of his most precious personal principles, namely, Disarmament and Self-determination. Of course, he would not admit that this sacrifice has been made. In fact, he still talks of disarmament if not of self-determination But so also do Lloyd George and Asquith.

The military strength of the British Empire will remain intact under the Labour regime. In his Programme Speech in the Parliament, Mr. MacDonald has declared that the question of disarmament will be discussed without impairing in any way the forces of defence.

As regards the principle of self-determination, Mr. MacDonald has swallowed his own words no less remarkably than the prophet of this cult, the late lamented Woodrow Wilson. Even before he came to office he had made it unmistakably clear through the repeated declarations of his colleague, Mr. J.H. Thomas, that the Empire would be perfectly safe in the custody of a Labour Government. Since then, he has put the same Mr. Thomas (who according to his own words loves the Empire and is proud of it) in the Colonial Office, which is permeated with the spirit of such personalities as Winston Churchill and the Duke of Devonshire.

Mr. MacDonald acted so wisely as regards the three pivots of the Empire—namely, India, the Navy and the Air Forces—that he merited the approbation of The Times. The day after the composition of the Labour Cabinet was announced, this organ of Imperialism congratulated Mr. MacDonald upon the happy choice by had made for the three vital offices concerning the Empire. Indeed the incumbents for the India Office, Admiralty and the Air Ministry surprised even those who entertained little illusion about a “Labour Government” headed by Mr. Ramsay MacDonald. An experienced colonial governor, Sir Sidney Olivier, went to the India Office; Lord Chelmsford of Amritsar fame and not a member of the Labour Party became the head of the Admiralty; and a member of the Military Caste, General Thomson, was selected to be the custodian of the Air Forces—the backbone of the army of the future. Naturally such a choice could not but win the approval of the ruling class. The bourgeoisie, as it were, was allowed to station its own sentinels within the citadel of the Labour Government, to guard the three vital spots of the Empire. Mr. J.H. Thomas had proved himself perfectly reliable to be entrusted with the self-governing Colonies. In this post he would be very helpful in carrying out the project of dumping the unemployed in the wilds of the Dominions. He is an ardent advocate of Empire development and stands for sending out not only British capital but British man-power as well, to exploit the “incalculable riches of our splendid possessions.”

In making at least one of these sacrifices in the imperial sphere, Mr. MacDonald, however, was not quite within his rights. Being the elected head of the British Labour Party, he is legally competent to distort its programme in any way he likes, provided that his flock acquiesces in this act of distortion. But his liberal professions, particularly of the doctrine of Self-determination, won for him admirers among the Indian Nationalist leaders. These expectantly looked up to Mr. MacDonald’s advent to office as the beginning of the era when the principle of Self-determination would be put into practice in India.

Part of the price that Mr. MacDonald had paid for Liberal support was to throw overboard these Indian admirers of his. Here, however, he paid the price in coins that did not belong to him. The Indian Nationalists did not delegate to him the authority to interpret the aspirations of Indian Nationalists as it suited his convenience, nor would they permit him the privilege of dictating haughtily the lines they should follow. Consequently, his Indian policy has raised a hornet’s nest. The advent of the Laboul Government to office has filled Nationalist India with indignation and disillusionment, rather than with hope and friendliness, would have been the case had Mr. MacDonald not sacrificed hi Socialism on the altar of imperial interests.

It is true that the faith of Indian nationalists was misplaced in Mr. MacDonald. He wrote much about India; but he never advocated self-determination for India half as ardently as he did, for instance, in the case of Georgia. But there were other reasons which accounted for the partial optimism that prevailed in India concerning the Labour Government. These were the pronouncements of some leading members of the Labour Party, who are looked upon as specialists on the Indian question.

Col. Wedgwood is the leading figure, Ben Spoor occupying the second place. These two gentlemen visited India in the heyday of the Non-co-operation campaign. They were present in the Nagpur Congress (1921) when the programme of Non-co-operation was finally adopted. They, in the same year, attended the first session of the All-India Trade Union Congress as fraternal delegates from the British Labour Party. Lajpat Rai, an influential Nationalist leader and a personal friend of Col. Wedgwood as well as of Mr. MacDonald, presided over the Trade Union Congress, and dwelt upon the sympathy of the British Labour Party for the cause of Indian self-determination. It is true that, on his return home, Col. Wedgwood expressed himself against the campaign of Non-co-operation, which in those days was a great mass movement fraught with revolutionary possibilities; nevertheless he partially approved of the Nationalist claims, and gave it out that when Labour came to office in Britain these claims would not be overlooked.

Since 1921 the Indian Nationalist movement has gone through an historic period full of exciting events. The attitude of the Labour Party during this period and before it, even in the case of the Amritsar massacre, does not encourage optimism. Neither the programme of the Labour Party nor that of the I.L.P. calls for the application of the doctrine of Self-determination to India. Nevertheless, occasional pronouncements and stray resolutions put forward by individuals and passed in meetings, caused the vague notion that a Labour Government would somehow modify the relations of India with the Empire.

During the last year, as the possibility of a Labour Government drew nearer, speculation as to the personality of the Labour Secretary of State for India was rife. Col. Wedgwood was generally looked upon as the candidate. His advent to the India Office was considered to be a foregone conclusion, The surprise of the Indian press was great when Wedgwood was not sent to the India Office by Mr. MacDonald. The choice did not even fall upon the second best man, Mr. Ben Spoor. The appointment of Sir Sydney Olivier was as unpopular in India as it was satisfactory to the British ruling class. On the average Indian, it does not make any impression that the new Indian Secretary is an old Fabian. What forms his judgment is the fact that Sir Sydney is an old member of the Colonial Civil Service, an institution heartily hated and suspected, with ample reason, in India.

Whatever might be his defects, Col. Wedgwood would have been an innovation. For the first time in the history of British domination, the administration of India would have been out of the hands of rank imperialists guided exclusively by the British Civil Service in India, and placed at the disposal of one who had pledged himself, however perfunctorily it might be, to reform the present system. Let it be repeated that there are indeed few among the Indian nationalist leaders who expected that the advent of Col. Wedgwood in the India Office would work a miracle. But in the light of his pronouncements, a certain amount of optimism was natural. Those very pronouncements, which caused a lingering hope in India, deprived the colonel, however, of the coveted job.

Col. Wedgwood represented the pound of flesh which was exacted from the rather too willing Mr. MacDonald by the Shylocks of the Liberal Party. Mr. MacDonald himself must have been also very pleased to be relieved of this compromising burden. Col. Wedgwood had committed himself much more than Mr. MacDonald was willing to go, even had there not been the pressure of the Liberals to contend with. It was a problem for him how to get rid of the much-too-generous colonel. The exigency of placating the Liberals came as a handy excuse; Col. Wedgwood was made a martyr; and the Labour Government, free from all pledges, left India to the continued safe-keeping of the “steel frame” of Lloyd George (the Civil Service).

Now, what were the crimes of the gallant colonel? Did he by any chance stand for the freedom of India? Or did he even promise that the highly constitutional and modest demands of the Indian bourgeoisie would be immediately granted? Nothing of the kind. Even as far back as 1921, when the responsibility of office was not in sight, he deprecated Gandhi’s movement of passive resistance. So it is simply idle to think that he would insist upon the literal application of the doctrine of self-determination to India. The fact that even he could not be accommodated speaks for the imperialist nature of the so-called Labour Government. His appointment would have created a very good impression in India to begin with; but might have led to eventual difficulties by raising unwarranted hopes.

The message that Mr. MacDonald sent to India upon his accession to office is well known. Any other Prime Minister might have attached his name to such a communication. It was wondered, why did he send such an excessively discouragingly message? There was ample reason; it was to counteract the effects of some statements made by the presumptive Secretary of State for India. If Mr. MacDonald would not disassociate himself with the policy that Col. Wedgwood promised to pursue if he came to the India Office, he could not get that benediction of the British bourgeoisie without which he could not be the Prime Minister of the British Empire. The relegation of the indiscreet Colonel would not alone suffice; the Prime Minister must declare that the views of his discredited lieutenant are not his own.

Speaking before the University Labour Federation on January 12, Col. Wedgwood said

India will prove the test of a Labour Government. The Labour Party hopes to overcome the difficulties by accelerating the conversion of India into a self-governing dominion. This depends not merely on matters of finance, defence and internal order, but on the winning of the Indian Nationalists to meet them half way. . . . The aim or the Labour Party is a British Commonwealth of peoples of various colours and a free union of free peoples.

This was too much for the British bourgeoisie. They could not permit a party with such subversive ideas to be at the helm of the country. It would be preposterous. When Mr. MacDonald looked hungrily at the votes of the Liberal minority that controls to-day the most democratic parliament of the world, he was reminded of those indiscreet pronouncements of his colleague. If he would have the good graces of a wing of the bourgeoisie, he must atone for the sins of his less diplomatic followers. He must eat the words of the guileless colonel, and inform his Indian admirers that self-determination is all right when it does not concern the Empire too closely, but when the safety of the British Empire is involved he would not tolerate any “monkey tricks” (to quote his polite words used subsequently in relation to a great power with which he is eager to trade).

It was not only the bourgeoisie at home that Mr. MacDonald had to deal with. There were also the colonial pro-consuls to be reckoned with. Col. Wedgwood’s statement enraged the latter, and they clearly said that they did not care a damn what the Labour Government thought or did; they would know how to defend their privileged position. Thus wrote the Englishman of Calcutta, the most authoritative semi-official organ:—

It ought to be obvious to Col. Wedgwood that he cannot accelerate self-government by the mere stroke of an India Office pen. Self-government can only be brought about by a modification or substitution of the Act, and this cannot be done without the consent of the Parliament. But in their present position the Labour Party cannot possibly hope to carry such a measure without the support of the Liberals; and Mr. Lloyd George’s followers are not likely to favour any premature speeding up of what their leader described as “an experiment”!

Then the organ of the Colonial lords boldly takes up the challenge, if challenge it was:—

Should he (Col. Wedgwood) still be disposed to pursue such mischievous tactics, he would have to reckon with the Viceroy. We believe that Lord Reading will act as a very necessary buffer to a too pushful Secretary of State.

So there you are! What can one do while “in office, but not in power”? One must be a practical politician and sacrifice all programmes and principles if they stand in the way of approach to the glories of office. The bourgeois dictatorship at home cannot be got around by means of Parliament, which is the weapon of bourgeois dictatorship; on the other hand, the ruling class will always be beyond your power unless you are prepared to pull them down by helping the subject races to rise in revolt. But the British Labour Party, as it is to-day, desires neither the one nor the other. It stands for democracy at home and imperialism abroad.

By rejecting nationalisation and the capital levy, the Labour Government proved its capability to rule at home; while by shaking his mailed fist at India, the ex-pacifist Ramsay MacDonald convinced the British bourgeoisie at home and in the colonies that he can keep the subject races in domination—that he is a Britisher first and Socialist last. Here are some of the choice words which he hurled at the Indian Nationalists who expectantly looked up to him as a man of just principles, and above all as the leader of the British proletariat, who do not have any reason to be attached to the Empire even if their leaders are proud of it.

In the course of his notorious message to India, Mr. MacDonald said:—

I can see no hope in India if it becomes the arena of a struggle between constitutionalism and revolution. No party in Great Britain will be cowed by threats of force or by policies designed to bring Government to a standstill; and if any sections in India are under the delusion that that is not so, events will very sadly disappoint them. I would urge upon all the best friends of India to come nearer to us rather than stand apart from us, to get at our reason and our goodwill.

The gravity of some of these words is immense. In one sentence he dispels any doubt that might have been created somehow or other concerning the imperial policy of the Labour Party. Instead of giving any indication that, true to his profession of self-determination and democracy, he would in any way modify the present unquestionably irresponsible and autocratic government of India, Mr. MacDonald pledges the Labour Party to the task of suppressing any attempt of the Indian people to free themselves in a way not liked by Mr. MacDonald and his task masters, the British bourgeoisie.

And all this sword-rattling at whom? At the Indian Nationalists, who are strict adherents of the constitutionalism so dear to Mr. MacDonald. He supplements this Curzonian gesture with a gracious demeanour. It is like inviting the dog to eat out of one’s hand after having whipped it. Mr. MacDonald throws out a hint to the Indian upper classes that, if they behave, they will be given a modest seat in the corner of the great Empire. He bids them to “get at our reason and our goodwill.” But he forgets that everybody may not look upon him just as he looks upon himself. Indians can have as much faith in his reason and goodwill as in those of Curzon. To Curzon at least they can concede the credit of consistency to principle, but the same cannot be said of Mr. MacDonald.

Ever since the Labour Government came to office, ample expression has been given to this feeling in the Indian Press. Only a few days ago a nationalist leader of moderate views told in the Legislative Assembly that India questioned the good faith of the new Labour Government. By stepping in the shoes of Curzon Mr. MacDonald has won the good graces of the British bourgeoisie, who are letting him do their dirty job, but events will sadly disappoint him if he believes that he and his colleagues will succeed in establishing Labour Imperialism.

While the message of Mr. MacDonald was the first official pronouncement of the Labour Government policy towards India, it was not the last. The statement of Lord Olivier, as Secretary of State for India, to the House of Lords on February 26 was eagerly awaited by Indian politicians as a final indication of what to expect at the hands of the new “Socialist” government. The fact that this statement had been preceded a week before by an official pronouncement of the National Council of the Independent Labour Party, which declared itself in favour of an immediate revision of the Government of India Act of 1919, subject to Indian advice and consultation, re-kindled the lamp of hope which had been well-nigh extinguished by the Premier’s message. Would the India Office reflect the opinion of the I.L.P., and was this opinion an indication of a change of heart on the part of Mr. MacDonald since his accession to office?

Lord Olivier’s pronouncement may be taken as the third and final expression of the policy of the Labour Government towards Indian political aspirations. It can only be described as worthy of the best Conservative traditions, and as such merited the considered approval of The Times, which characterised the views of the noble lord as “reassuring,” “sound” and “deserving of full and emphatic recognition.” It is the fate of the Labour Government to merit the almost unqualified approval of Conservatives; this fact may well console them for failure to please in other quarters. The indistinctly-mumbled and confused utterances of his lordship anent the “Swarajis” (a new species of nationalist of whom he had apparently only just learned and that imperfectly) betray, besides a deeply-rooted, dyed-in-the-wool Imperialism, a conscientious and school-boy-like effort to cram an utterly new subject in order to pass an examination. Lord Olivier, besides being a Fabian of scholarly tastes and accomplishments, has been in Civil Service harness in the colonies for many a long year. This fact greatly helped him to cram his subject by a familiar technique, and to pass his examination with flying colours, so far as the safeguarding of the Empire was concerned. After giving a hasty summary of the present causes of unrest in India, the noble lord took his stand with His Majesty’s Government on the provisions of the Government of India Act of 1919, to change which for the establishment of full responsible government “would be worse than perilous, would be big with disaster to the people of India.” “The programme of Constitutional Democracy . . . . was not native to India . . . . It was impossible for the Indian people or Indian politicians to leap at once into the saddle and administer an ideal constitution with all those disastrous religious and other dissensions. The right of British statesmen, public servants, merchants and industrialists to be in India to-day was the fact that they had made the India of to-day, and that no Home Rule or national movement could have been possible in India had it not been for their work.”

The Indian people did not require the advent of a Labour Government to hear all these stock arguments of Imperialists, which Conservatives and Liberals have dinned into their ears from time immemorial. Such a speech could have been expected from a Curzon—but it fell instead from the lips of a Fabian Socialist, a “labour lord” raised to the peerage by a party pledged to advance the Indian nation to self-government by the quickest possible route. Coming as it did from such a source, the Die-hard pronouncements of the Secretary of Sate for India fell with more sickening emphasis upon the withering hopes of the Indian people than would have been the case had another government been in office. The Government of India Act was to run its full course unaltered, and “there the matter rested,” said his lordship. Unfortunately, he reckons without his host. His lordship’s definition of policy was transmitted to India just in time to have its effect upon the Indian Budget Debate in the Legislative Assembly at Delhi. The Swarajists, known vaguely to the India Office as “Swarajis,” succeeded in rallying the Independents and Moderates to their support under the stimulus of disappointment and disillusionment, and the Customs estimates for the year were rejected by a vote of sixty-three to fifty-six. The betrayal of India by the Labour Government is tending to throw the people more and more upon their own resources in the struggle for emancipation. The advent of the Labour Party to power means the pricking of the last bubble of faith in British pretensions to “help India on the path to self-government.”

If Imperialism triumphs Mr. MacDonald will be pushed into abject ignominy like his German confrères, in spite of the thankless services rendered. The Indian people will be free, just as surely as the British proletariat will outgrow the present leaders. Had Mr. MacDonald followed the policy of killing by kindness, India’s struggle for freedom would have been sabotaged by winning over the native bourgeoisie. The attitude of the Labour Government has indirectly helped the cause of Indian freedom, while it has damned the Labour aristocracy and the so-called Socialism of the I.L.P.


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