Colonial Affairs.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 4th August 1942.

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Photo of Colonel Charles Ponsonby Colonel Charles Ponsonby , Sevenoaks

Perhaps 90 or even 98 per cent. of those for whom he professes to speak do not really understand the meaning of such words as a "feeling of frustration" and "political consciousness." These words occur again in the Labour Party Manifesto, an interesting document from which the hon. Member quoted in his last speech. It struck me that the Labour party were trying to impose on people in a different state of civilisation ideas and ideals for which many of them were completely unfitted. They hold out to them self-government as a guiding star, quite oblivious of the fact that, as the stars are at different distances from the earth, so are the peoples of our Empire at different distances from the possibility of self-government. Their civilisation ranges perhaps from 250 years to 1,000 years behind our own.

Ideals are the life-blood of the thinking individual, but the ladder leading to the ideals is composed of rungs of reality. I wish for a few moments to deal with realities, namely, those of organisation. I am very pleased that we have as Under-Secretary a man who has been engaged for many years in business and, before coming to the Colonial Office, was at the Ministry of Supply. I feel that he attacks these problems in a new way. He has the great task of stimulating production and changing the lethargic habits of the past to meet the vital and immediate necessities of the war. I hope that he looks on all these questions from the point of view not only of developing the Empire in the best way for the immediate necessity, but for the best future of the countries themselves. In order to do this it is very important that the methods of organisation should be good and the administration smooth, I often wonder whether the Colonial Office might not take a few leaves out of the book of big businesses which have world-wide ramifications. If so, they would start by sectionalising the world, splitting it up, say, into the West Indies, the East Indies, East Africa, West Africa and possibly the Arab worlds. I was pleased to see the other day the Noble Lord hinted in another place that apparently this idea of the grouping of Colonies is now being favourably considered in the Colonial Office. So far as the lay-out of the personnel is concerned, here again it is possible to see what happens in big business. There you have the selection of personnel, their conditions of service, their place of employment and the powers you give them when they are overseas.

There is very little to say as regards selection, because I am sure that hon. Members who have had anything to do with the Colonies in the last few years will realise how vastly improved is the personnel of our Colonial officials overseas. The idea has been put forward, I think by Lord Trenchard, that, later on, it might be very valuable for our higher officials, who are to be governors and rulers, to pass through some sort of staff college, and to be given opportunities to travel and prepare themselves in every way for the great task they may be called upon to undertake. There is one matter I should like to mention as regards training, and that is in connection with the announcement made recently of the appointment to administrative jobs of native Africans in the Gold Coast. I think it would be most valuable if men who are to be appointed for such jobs started their official life in some other part of the world. The hon. Member who has just spoken gave an instance of moving a judge from Jamaica to West Africa, or vice versa. I think that is all to the good. I certainly think that, for the first five years, it would be most valuable if a man's appointment were outside the country of his birth. As regards the conditions of service, as hon. Members who have studied the Colonial bluebooks are aware, a most complicated system of pensions exists. If a man has served in six different countries, he will be charged as regards his pension in the accounts of each of those countries until his death. It is a very complicated arrangement, and I hope the unification of the service to which Lord Moyne has referred is being seriously considered.

Then there is the question of the place of employment. Big businesses, such as banks, select their men and send them to definite parts of the world. They re-main there for a large portion of their time and learn the language, customs and characteristics of people. In the Colonial Service frequently towards the end of the careers of men who have been well trained, they are moved from pillar to post, and their valuable training is to a great extent wasted. I am sure we might alter this plan and look with favour upon the arrangements made by business. In the same way junior officials in Africa have frequently been moved from place to place, regardless of the fact that a District Commissioner is far more valuable if he knows the language and the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of the people, and incidentally the native himself pays far more attention to a man he knows or has heard about—and news of a good man travels very quickly—than to a total stranger who has to spend a year before he knows anything at all. These considerations, however, do not apply to technical and scientific officers, whose research work is perhaps more valuable if they are able to move from place to place.

As regards the powers of local officials, and especially, of course, senior officials, it is possible to lay down broad principles of policy, and it should be possible with those principles laid down to allow local officials, namely. Governors, Chief Secretaries or whoever it may be, to settle matters of detail without reference home. "Yes" men are no good. You want men of initiative. Long ago, in the days of Lord Salisbury, the grandfather of the present Secretary of State, a young official who happened to be left in charge telegraphed to England saying that a revolt had broken out but that he could deal with it if he was given a free hand. Lord Salisbury telegraphed back, "Do what you want, but do not undertake more than you can carry through." That is the spirit that we want now. We now have the cable, the air mail letter and the aeroplane, but we do want the Colonial Office, with a certain amount of self-denial, to give power to local officers to settle affairs. We hope also that in the future Whitehall will make use of local experience in order to reinforce their work here. I believe it is being done to some extent, and I hope it will be done more in the future. I would not elaborate what I have said in the past but call upon the Colonial Office to adjust themselves every day and every hour to the needs of this changing and hurrying world.

Then we come to the relations of the Colonial Office and Parliament. The first desideratum is continuity of policy. How is it possible to have continuity of policy with frequent changes of Ministers, and in some cases changes of parties? This sentence appeared in "The Times" a short time ago: Lack of imagination has too often permitted British statesmen to appeal to Colonial peoples in phrases which win applause at Westminster but seem hopelessly unreal to those used to utterly different conditions of life and ways of thought. If hon. Members would put themselves in the position of, we will say, chiefs in Tanganyika who have been given orders to carry out one policy and then, owing to a change of parties in this country, are suddenly given orders to do something quite different, they can quite realise what confusion ensues, and they will realise how the black man very often considers that the white man is mad. What they want is decision, and they cannot understand the consequences of political changes thousands of miles away. In order to obtain continuity it may be that something could be done on the lines of the Colonial Development Board, which was suggested in the last Debate. I would ask the Under-Secretary to consider this matter very seriously and to remember that continuity of policy is absolutely essential if the business of administration is to run smoothly.

With regard to our attitude towards our people overseas, questions are often asked in Parliament which are inspired by perfectly good motives but of which the implication overseas is not realised at all. It is vital that questions should not be asked which are going to create trouble, doubt, and very often derision. I do not know whether it is possible to suggest that the Under-Secretary might consider some form of informal committee of the House which might meet him periodically and discuss a number of these matters quietly and frankly. It is very often done in business and even in some Departments of the Government, and nothing but good results. Lastly, I would plead for an improvement in our knowledge of the Colonies. It is through lack of knowledge that misunderstanding and wrong ideas have been put about here and in the United States, which have done us a great deal of harm. Very few people realise the great work that has been done. There are great opportunities to teach the public here. I was very glad to see that the Secretary of State has been discussing the question with the Board of Education and that there is a possibility of additional books on the Colonies being prepared for the children of the country. A deliberate policy of propaganda about the Colonies would be greatly appreciated by the people of this country who are only too anxious to learn. We have a wonderful story to tell and I hope that we shall tell it and be proud of it.