Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 16: What Makes the British Commonwealth Hold Together? (1946)

In some parts of the Empire Britons settled in considerable numbers and, as in Canada or Australia, pushed the relatively small or weak native population out of the way. Elsewhere, as in South Africa, the natives were reduced to a menial level. In New Zealand the native Maoris have now been accorded equal status.

In all the above instances it was natural for the essentially European society to progress from colonial dependence to dominion self-rule. In one case, however, the process went into reverse. Newfoundland’s financial troubles forced it in 1934 to give up its dominion status and again become a crown colony.

A different situation existed where the British went into regions thickly populated by primitive tribes—as in tropical Africa—or by peoples of ancient cultures but diverse languages, religions, and customs—as in India. In these areas the white man was doomed to remain a small minority in a multitude. If conditions were favorable for the enterprise that took him there, he could leave well enough alone. If not, he could do one of three things.

He could pack up and go home—a choice no true enterpriser could take.

He could, by persuasion or pressure, get the native authorities to work with him and each other—a process known as indirect rule.

Or he could overthrow the native rulers by force and take direct control. The British East India Company followed the last method in much of India. The British government, learning from it, has relied on the second procedure. Moreover, as any Britisher will tell you, London has constantly tended to loosen the reins of imperial control and to encourage native peoples to develop their own capacity for self-rule.

This is not to say that the British have granted independence to every colonial people that asked for it. In fact they have usually—though not always—resisted such demands until circumstances left no choice. But if the situation now prevailing with respect to India, for example, does not satisfy the Indians (or anybody else, London included) there is nevertheless a long history of progress toward greater self-rule for India. Burma, as another example, was separated from India in 1935 and given a constitution and a considerable degree of self-government. Other examples could be cited.

All in all, quite a good case can be made out to show that the colonial parts of the British Empire are moving—slowly and not all at the same rate—toward self-government probably within the Commonwealth. Inasmuch as India is the crux of most arguments on this score, we may give it particular attention.


What of India?

Since 1885 Indians educated in Western ideas have organized in political parties to press for greater use of Indians in the British administration, for elected legislatures, and for full self-government. Their pleas were increasingly supported by the British Labor and Liberal parties, and were accepted, more reluctantly, by the Conservatives.

In 1917 the British all-party wartime government announced that its policy for India was one of responsible government and dominion status, to be reached by steps and installments. By two steps, in 1919 and 1935, Indian governments—with elected legislatures and ministries responsible to them—secured a substantial measure of control in the eleven provinces.

For British India as a whole, the 1919 installment consisted of the admission of three Indians to the viceroy’s executive council and the establishment of a largely elected legislature to make laws and control finance. The 1935 installment was a plan for bringing the provinces and the princes’ states together in a federal government for the whole of India. For different reasons this plan was unacceptable to the various parties in India.

The Congress party, the largest and oldest, said the plan gave the princes too much power. The princes did not like the idea of sharing power with native politicians. The Mohammedans, 90,000,000 strong, were afraid they would be politically swamped by the nearly 300,000,000 Hindus. And many friendly onlookers felt that the welfare of the Indian masses would be neglected by the small minority of educated, high-caste, middle-class, moneyed, and industrially powerful Indians who would run the political machine. The federal plan was therefore dropped. The provincial scheme went into full effect, however.

In 1942, with the enemy at the gate, and with the Congress party refusing to cooperate in support of the war, Sir Stafford Cripps was sent from London to India with a far-reaching offer. He was to propose that-as soon as the war ended, the various parties and interests in India gather in a constitutional convention to thresh out a plan for an all-Indian union. He was to give a pledge that Britain would accept the constitution, even though it led to complete independence and departure from the British Commonwealth. Meanwhile he was to invite the political leaders to enter the viceroy’s executive council and assume the direction, under the present constitution, of all phases of Indian government except defense. But even though the Japs were in Burma, the Cripps offer was not acceptable to the political parties, and agreement among Indians proved to be impossible. Until agreement is reached, Britain does not feel that the last step to self-government can properly be taken.

Next section: Will the Commonwealth Hold Together?