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Saturday, 28 August 2010

“What Soviet Threat?” What If Attlee’s Radicalism Had Prevailed?

“What Soviet Threat?” What If Attlee’s Radicalism Had Prevailed?

Although British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee (1945-51), is properly known as a Cold Warrior no less gung-ho than his Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, or the American president, Harry Truman, less well known is Attlee’s rejection of the salience of the Soviet ‘threat’ and promotion of a policy of closing British bases in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Had he prevailed, Clement Attlee may have changed the the role of Britain in the postwar world, prevented the Americans from relying on Britain’s support in numerous foreign wars, and thrust a relatively disarmed, more prosperous Britain into a leading role in a European superstate.

But, of course, Attlee did not get his way and we all know where that led: the 'special relationship' with the United States that lasts till today, a position of subservience in defence of a particular interpretation of British interests as world-wide and requiring very high levels of military spending and an ability and willingness to ‘punch above its weight’ in world affairs. This not only caused Britain (under Attlee) to follow America’s intervention in Korea (1950-53), but also to Harold Wilson’s support short of war (i.e., ground troops) to President Lyndon Johnson’s war on Vietnam, and to Tony Blair’s unflinching backing for George W. Bush’s wars on Iraq and Afghanistan.

What precisely did Attlee do that was, on the face of it, so radical? And how did the British military and foreign policy establishments react?

It seems that Clement Attlee (rather naively, according to Churchill’s more ‘realistic’ foreign secretary, Anthony Eden who, it must be recalled, was later to attack Nasser’s Egypt for the temerity to desire control of Egypt’s Suez Canal) took seriously the idea of the United Nations as an international organisation for peace. Attlee thought that rather than holding on to a series of expensive naval and military bases in the Mediterranean Sea and in Egypt, and thereby constitute to Soviet eyes a military threat to the communist superpower, Britain ought to internationalise the defence of the route to India and the east, as well as come to an understanding with the Soviet Union. To Attlee, what looked like defence of British interests to his colleagues in the Foreign Office looked like aggressive preparations for an attack on the Soviet Union to Stalin. This remarkable insight, because of its novelty among the political establishment, earned Attlee opprobrium from the Admiral Cunningham, the First Sea Lord: “What an ass!” retorted Cunningham.

Yet, for a time, Attlee was undaunted. “Where’s the [global] danger now?” he asked: “there was no one to fight.” In almost panto-fashion, Cold Warrior, Ernest Bevin invoked the Soviet Threat – positions vacated by Britain would fall under Soviet control and, one by one, the dominoes would fall. Yet, the Joint Intelligence Committee estimated that the Soviets were unlikely to risk a major war for at least 5 years, given the devastation visited upon that country by Nazi bombardment. But Bevin was undeterred: “It would be Munich over again, only on a world scale, with Greece, Turkey and Persia as the first victims in place of Czechoslovakia. If I am right about Russian ideology, Russia would certainly fill the gap we leave empty whatever her promises…” Attlee refused to budge.

Then, quite suddenly, Attlee changed his mind. Why? The Chiefs of Staff, under Lord Montgomery of Alamein, threatened en masse to resign should Attlee persist in opposing their desire to hold Britain’s positions in the Middle East. And that is pretty much the last the world was to hear of Attlee’s foreign policy radicalism.

What if he had prevailed? Would Britain have withdrawn from its military commitments across the Middle East, Asia and the Far East? Could it have then done without American financial support and built an even stronger welfare state? Would it have seen the ‘loss’ of Korea as just one more domino or, more likely, refused military support for American intervention in Korea? Britain would probably have been unlikely thereafter to intervene in Middle Eastern affairs, perhaps, including helping overthrow the Mossadegh regime in Iran in 1952, invading Egypt with the French and Israelis in 1956 or, perhaps, in putting down the communist-nationalist insurgency in Malaya in the 1950s and 1960s.

Of course, we will never know, though Attlee was still committed to defending the British Empire: but the question is still worth pondering.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Clement Attlee, David Cameron and the Special Relationship With India

British Prime Minister David Cameron recently declared his wish to build – or rather renew – Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with India. The likelihood of that, I suspect, is strong mainly because of the character of India’s elite, and the evolution of that society since 1947 when India won its freedom from British rule. But what kind of independent Indian elite did Britain leave behind? How independent was it?

As Indian independence day approached - August 15 1947 – an Indian ‘nationalist’, one M.R. Jayarkar, wrote to the-then British prime minister, Clement Attlee, that Attlee had “enabled Macaulay’s hope to be fulfilled”. Attlee himself regarded Indian independence “probably” to be his greatest achievement – ahead of the formation of NATO, sending British troops in support of the American war in Korea, building the welfare state and socialising large sectors of the British economy. That the transition to Indian rule occurred relatively peacefully (that is, British forces withdrew rather than being driven into the sea) and into the ‘right’ hands was central to Attlee’s evaluation.

But what sort of ‘independence’ did Attlee have in mind and negotiate with Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders of the ‘freedom’ struggle? There is an interesting clue in Attlee’s private papers which I have had the privilege of reading over the past few weeks.

Among those papers, held at Oxford’s Bodleian library, there is an interesting item dated 8 July 1947, just a few weeks ahead of India’s ‘tryst with destiny’. One entry of special interest contains quotations from two nineteenth-century imperial administrators – Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence and Mountstuart Elphinstone – both of whom foresaw the ‘end of empire’. Rather than despairing of what they both believed to be an historical inevitability, Lawrence and Elphinstone, among others, urged British rulers to prepare the way for a peaceful, negotiated settlement with the sort of people that could be trusted to govern India in an ‘enlightened’ and noble manner, i.e., ensure the security of British interests. Which brings us to Lord Macaulay, according to whom Britain needed to foster a class of Indian middlemen “who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect.”

Henry Lawrence argued the same: “We cannot expect to hold India for ever,” he noted in his Essays, Military and Political. “[W] hen the connection ceases [let us hope] that it may do so, not with convulsions….”, presumably because ‘convulsions’ might bring ‘disorder’ and ‘chaos’ and a movement for revolutionary change as well as political independence. Lawrence hoped for an India that would be “a noble ally, enlightened and brought into the scale of nations under her guidance and fostering care.” This was in the 1850s, before the Indian ‘mutiny’ or, rather, the first war of independence.

Montstuart Elphinstone, before he rose to become Governor of Bombay in the 1850s, noted in his journal that, “The moral is that we must not dream of perpetual possession, but must apply ourselves to bring the natives into a state… beneficial to our interest as well as their own, and that of the rest of the world.” Twenty years earlier, Elphinstone wrote in his diary that “The most desirable course for events in that country to take is that European opinions and knowledge should spread until the nation becomes capable of founding a government of its own, on principles of which Europe has long had exclusive possession.”

India today is a ‘rising power’ and has come a long way since 1947 and all that. No point blaming the British now. Yet, its self-conscious Anglophile and English-speaking elite is open for business, eager for a place at the world’s top table, while over half its one billion+ people live and die in shameful poverty. Did India merely exchange one set of elites for another to preside over a subcontinent, making a mockery of the term ‘independence’? I suspect that this is the vision Attlee had for India. Certainly he appreciated Nehru’s role at the UN and as Britain’s virtual shadow during the Korean war, boosting Attlee’s stance in ‘moderating’ the more aggressive President Truman, and in his jockeying for position – another special relationship - with the United States. India’s elite may very well believe that their time has come and Lawrence, Elphinstone, Macaulay, and Attlee, having laid the foundations, may well have got what they hoped for: the Indian elite is ready to serve its own interests, Britain’s interests, and probably America’s broader strategy towards China. But they all forget one thing: all those people who don’t figure in the Indian dream – the bulk of the country’s population who, it now seems, are not even worthy of Britain’s foreign aid.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Anglo-American Relations: The Special Relationship Marches On

Even as British leaders, and the media, proclaim the imminent death of the 'special relationship' with the United States, they cannot seem to help backing America's line in world affairs. Last week, when Prime Minister David Cameron was in Turkey, he rather 'boldly' (for a British leader), criticised Israeli policies in Gaza. He stated, rather obviously, that Gaza resembled a prison camp.

A day or two later, in India, Cameron found himself criticising the Pakistan authorities for supporting and exporting terrorism - again, claims controversial only because made by a British leader of a staunch ally/patron of the United States.

The previous week, of course, David Cameron, had been visiting President Obama in Washington, DC. Prior to that, Cameron had asked everyone to not obsess about the special relationship. During the election campaign, he had criticised New Labour's Gordon Brown of "slavish" dependence on the United States. In turn, Obama has been, it is said, somewhat 'cold' towards Britain (and Europe), and rather warmer towards India and China, emerging powers rather than waning ones.

Interesting how Cameron's criticisms of Israel and of Pakistan echo almost identical comments made by Obama, Clinton and other high officials in Washington, DC. And interesting too that Cameron seeks a 'special relationship' with India at precisely the moment that the United States elevates that country on its own global agenda.