Labour Monthly

Civil Liberty in the Empire

By Desmond Buckle

Source : Labour Monthly  February, 1941, No.2.
Publisher : The Labour Publishing Company Ltd., London.
Transcription/HTML : Salil Sen
Public Domain : Marxists Internet Archive (2010). 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.

The National Council for Civil Liberties is holding a Delegate Conference on Civil Liberty in the Colonial Empire on 15th and 16th February, at which four main aspects of civil liberty will be examined in relation to seven colonies or groups of colonies. These four aspects of the subject are as follows: (1) The Liberty of the Subject; (2) Civil Liberty and Labour; (3) Freedom of Expression; (4) Civil Liberty in War-time.

It might be argued that the present time is not a suitable one for the discussion of civil liberties and democratic rights in the Colonies, when civil liberty is denied in England itself. In the announcement of the Conference, the National Council for Civil Liberties gives the answer:

The British Government has proclaimed that among its objects in the present war are the protection of democracy and the establishment of liberty. The Peoples of the British Empire, irrespective of race or creed, are called upon to make sacrifices in the war. It is essential, therefore, that liberty and democracy on the widest scale possible should be given to the inhabitants of the British Colonies.... If we have learnt nothing else from the last war, at least we must have learned that there can be no lasting peace so long as one people is left in the position of subjection to another.

Further, liberty is indivisible. The encroachment upon the liberties of the people of this country goes hand in hand with, and is an essential part of, the attack upon liberties that is being carried on throughout the world by the ruling classes at war. The destruction of civil liberties in Germany in 1933 was a step in the direction of the loss of those same liberties in this country, the destruction of civil liberties in France by the Daladier-Blum Government brought the peril nearer to us. But throughout this period, and for long years before, the basis and the vitality of our own liberties have been undermined by the denial of democracy and civil rights to the millions of colonial people of the British Empire.

It is necessary that the British people should know what is happening in "their" Empire, for ignorance can neither absolve them from their share of responsibility nor will it be any consolation if the day arrives when they find themselves subject to the same humiliations and restrictions as an African suffers in the land of his birth.

We have been treated recently to a spate of Empire propaganda emanating from the Ministry of Information: "The Empire Crusade", "Our Allies and Proud of It", "A Commonwealth in Arms", "Democratic Imperialism", and so on. This expensive advertisement aims at proving that justice and freedom reside within the realms of the King Emperor. The Labour Party has not protested, but on the contrary carries on the same propaganda. We are bound to infer that the basic war aim of the Government is the preservation and extension of the existing imperial system. But to the people of this country and to the colonial people it is a matter of the utmost importance that a new Versailles should not be imposed upon the world together with a redivision of the colonial areas. They cannot agree that the New World Order should be based upon an extension of the British Empire system -- even if it calls itself a Commonwealth of Nations.

A detailed survey of civil liberties in each of the subject countries is out of the question here. The Conference now to be held will be able to make such a survey upon the basis of the reports which it is receiving from representative organisations in the countries concerned. In this article I propose to give only a few instances which exemplify the limitations of democracy and civil liberty in the Colonial Empire.

The Union of South Africa boasts of being a Dominion of the British Commonwealth; Southern Rhodesia is virtually also a Dominion, boasting of being a "self-governing" Colony; Kenya (or rather the white settlers of Kenya) are energetic applicants for the privilege of Dominion Status. But in not one of these countries does the black man qualify for the vote or have any say in the management of his country's affairs. The freedom which Dominion Status confers is enjoyed only by the small minority of white settlers, planters and other vested interests.

The composition of the Legislative Council in Kenya will make this clear:

Population Percentage with vote Nominated Elected
Europeans 19,211 33.2 23 17
Asiatics 46,026 25.9 nil nil
Arabs 12,166 2.7 nil nil
Africans 3,253,689 nil nil nil
TOTAL 3,331,092 0.6 23 17

In Gambia the Legislative Council boasts of 6 nominated members and 4 officials.

In Tanganyika, a mandated territory and therefore an area in respect of which Britain has special obligations to instruct the natives in the art of self government, the Council consists of the Governor and 13 officials along with not more than 10 unofficial members. There are no Africans amongst the non-officials, the reason officially given being that Africans cannot speak English!

In the West Indies the situation is as follows: The total population is 2,004,543; percentage with vote is 4.8 per cent; nominated members in the Councils are 86 in number as compared with 57 elected on a very restricted property franchise.

In Ceylon, which enjoys the most liberal constitution in the Empire, there is a reactionary move for constitutional revision, and the Governor has on several occasions used his powers to override his Ministers.

In every Colony, the Governor has the right, even where it is not the normal procedure, to rule by Ordinance and executive decree. The Legislative bodies, where they exist at all, are façades behind which bureaucracy rules. If, as in Cyprus in 1930, they start to obstruct the policy of imperialism, they are superseded.

An elementary right of a citizen of any state is that of complete freedom of movement and equality with his fellow-citizens, subject only to compliance with the necessary rules and laws of society. This right is denied to a great section of the peoples within the Empire, particularly in East Africa where "Pass Laws" and "Segregation" are in operation. These laws, as their names imply, prohibit the movement of individuals (Africans, of course) outside certain reserved and specified areas, and enforce the carrying of one or more "passes" by those to whom the laws apply.

In some places half a dozen or more "passes" have to be carried before an African can safely venture to move about. Judge Krause, a South African judge, recently stated that "the African is a prisoner in his own land". He had no hesitation in saying that 90 per cent of the prison population was due to the Pass and Tax laws. With the increase of these laws and regulations, he said, "a raw native will be lucky if within twenty-four hours of entering an urban area he does not find himself in prison."

This system of Pass Laws (as indeed the whole principle of herding Africans into "reserves" and then by means of poll taxes forcing them to leave the land in search of labour in the mines or plantations) is dictated by the require¬ments of the white settlers. The African is by tradition an agriculturist; the wages offered to him in the mines and plantations are not much of an incen¬tive to change his mode of life willingly; but the white settlers need an adequate and cheap labour force. The Pass Laws, operated in conjunction with the Masters and Servants Act, are directed towards the organisation and regulation of this labour supply.

Concerning the subject of Forced Labour a great deal has been said and written. The League of Nations laid upon all its member States the obligation of abolishing forced labour in the territories under their control. But forced labour is still a recognised and legal institution in East Africa. In Kenya, in 1937, there were 53 camps for the detention of 19,000 Africans (mainly tax-defaulters) who were employed on compulsory labour schemes. In addition, under the Compulsory Labour Ordinance, 3,414 days were put in by workers called up by the Government. In Tanganyika (1936) the Government requisitioned 15,750 working days.

It would be difficult (says Lord Hailey), and it would be unsafe, to generalise as to the extent to which the restrictions placed by legislation upon the use of forced labour for public purposes are observed in practice.

Where, as in Africa, Trade Unionism is illegal and strikes are expressly penalised under the law, it is inevitable that trouble should occur in cases where the workers are driven to back up their demands by withholding their labour. Recently in the Rhodesian copper mines 17 workers lost their lives and 70 were injured when armed police were called in to deal with a strike situation.

But, whilst action in the shape of organisation of the workers for strikes is regarded by imperialism as a seditious and dangerous activity, equally the free expression of opinions is a danger that the ruling class cannot counten¬ance. Each Colony has its own Sedition Ordinance or Defence Regulations or similar apparatus for the effective control of the spoken and written word.

A few years ago a native of Nyasaland was sentenced to three years' hard labour for bringing into the colony a copy of the Workers' Herald freely circulating in South Africa.

In the majority of African dependencies it is a punishable offence within the meaning of the Sedition Acts to make the remark that employers pay low wages.

The war has been used as an excuse to put even more serious obstacles in the way of popular political and economic organisations and to limit the narrow field within which a man may safely say what he feels. Since the war broke out many working class or progressive newspapers, where such existed, have been banned, for instance: The African Standard, the Jamaican Standard, the Worker and Peasant, Young Ceylon, and others.

Not only trade union meetings but even the customary meetings of organisations like the Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association have been forbidden in Trinidad. It is interesting to note that in this particular case the Commissioner of Police in conversation with one of the organisers, Mr. O'Connor, is reported in New Dawn to have said that among the "undesirable features of a previous meeting was a quotation of passages from Your Liberty in Danger issued by the National Council for Civil Liberties"!

Bustamente (Jamaica), Butler (Trinidad), Wallace Johnson (Sierra Leone), working class leaders in Ceylon and Cyprus, along with many others whose names are not reported, have been arrested and interned or deported sine the war broke out for the parts they have played in the organisation of the workers to struggle for their demands.

Behind the optimism of official propaganda about Democratic Imperialism can be heard an undertone of disquiet at the currents of feeling developing among the colonial peoples. Through the blanket of the censorship now and again is heard the voice of the workers in the Colonies, more openly expressed in the "advanced" colonies of Cyprus, Ceylon, Palestine, Malaya and the West Indies, demanding freedom from exploitation by any imperialist power. But even where that voice cannot at the moment be heard because of the heard because of heavy penalties imposed on "sedition", nevertheless the demand for democratic rights and civil liberties rises to make a mockery of official propaganda about the Empire.