Colonial Affairs.

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

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Photo of Mr David Gammans Mr David Gammans , Hornsey

It may be some considerable time before we have the opportunity of discussing Colonial affairs again, and so I hope the House, or what remains of it, will bear with me if I do not confine my remarks either to the interesting matter which has just been raised by the hon. Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale) or the original question with which the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Creech Jones) opened the Debate. We have had a slashing attack on British Colonial policy and on our British Colonial record generally by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Dr. Morgan). I am afraid that I cannot follow him very far in the picture which he has drawn of our Colonial Empire. To him it is a story chiefly of exploitation, even of oppression, or at best neglect. To me, in spite of the many mistakes we have made, and I hope to refer to one or two in a moment, it is rather a story of solid achievement of which we have every reason to be proud. To-day our Colonial Empire is being attacked in many directions, both at home and abroad, and I feel it is a time for us to make a spirited defence of what we have done and what we hope to do in the future.

In the Debate a few weeks ago hon. Members opposite spoke about "restoring liberty" to our Colonial peoples. So far as I am aware, we have not taken away anybody's liberty in any part of the world. What is to-day our Colonial Empire was, before we went there, either uninhabited territory or else a civilisation, if it can be called a civilisation where little flourished except anarchy, oppression, slavery and in some cases even cannabalism. I spent many years in Kuala Lumpur, in the Federated Malay States, one of the most beautiful cities in Asia, with a standard of living which was the envy of all surrounding countries, where you had a male population which was 100 per cent. literate. Fifty years ago Kuala Lumpur was a small Chinese mining village where rival gangs of Chinese were paying a dollar each for each other's heads, where there was debt slavery in its most hideous form, with the Malay smallholders literally shut up in cages. When people talk about restoring liberty, is that the sort of liberty they want to restore? The fact is that if we were to walk out of our Colonial Empire to-day, as some people apparently suggest we should, the conditions which I have described would return, or else those countries would pass under the domination of another Colonial Power like Japan, whose Colonial record of dope and pillage and of oppression and brothels I have seen for myself in Korea and Manchukuo. Surely one of the most pathetic things which has been said in the world to-day, in an age when the talking of arrant nonsense has reached a high pitch, is the remark of Gandhi that if we were to walk out of India there would be no inducement for the Japanese to attack it.

I do not quarrel in any way with the desire of some of my hon. Friends opposite that our Colonial peoples should enjoy the highest possible standard of prosperity or that they should attain responsibility for their own affairs. I am even prepared to go a long way with them in some of their criticisms of our failures in the past, referring more perhaps to what we have not done than to what we have done. But I sometimes feel that they are over-simplifying this vast problem of many races, many religions and great divergencies in economic background and in history. We must get out of our heads the idea that we can solve most of the problems of the world, and of our Colonial Empire in particular, by doling out copies of the British Constitution. There are very few parts of the Empire to-day where democracy is likely to work. I say that with regret, because I believe in democracy. I think it is the best form of constitution which has yet been devised for human beings, but you cannot confer it on people. Certain conditions must exist before it can possibly work. We have seen in India how, with the attainment of self-government, communal tension and communal hatred have increased year by year, and the same thing will occur in Malaya, Ceylon or in any other part of the Empire where there is divergence of races. I sometimes think that perhaps one of the most important things that we of this generation have to do is to apply our undoubted political genius to devising a form of Constitution which is suited to the Colonial Empire, which will give Colonies true self-government and at the same time is likely to work.

This war has, I think, taught the world many lessons, and in particular that independence without security is a meaningless term. It is not sufficient to have a brave people and a large army in order to feel secure. There must be industrial potential behind. In other words, in the post-war world to which we are all looking forward only three great Powers, the United States, Russia and ourselves, are likely to be capable of waging modern war at all. Surely that fact cannot fail to affect our ideas of trusteeship and our whole Colonial policy, because it means that countries like Nigeria, Ceylon and others can only have any political or economic future at all in so far as they are allied with some great Power.

A few weeks ago this House listened to a masterly review of the Colonial Empire by my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, and if he will allow me to do so I should like to add my congratulations to the many which he has already received. There are, however, three points to which I would like to refer. The first has already been mentioned by an hon. Friend who was sitting in front of me. I should be glad to know, and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can tell us at the end of the Debate, what he proposes to do to explain our Colonial policy not only to our own people, but also to the world at large, especially to the United States. I have spoken in the United States on several occasions on British Colonial matters, and everywhere I found a keen interest in the subject but almost complete ignorance. As several hon. Members have told us, the American Ambassador in London made a remark only last week which filled me with alarm. He said there was no subject on which there was greater divergence of viewpoint than British Colonial policy. I hope that the Minister will be able to give the House some assurance that a really active policy is being pursued to tell the world what we have done and what we propose to do. That is not propaganda; it is a plain statement of fact. We hope that the United States will co-operate with us in Colonial development after the war, but that co-operation will not be of very much value unless it is based on knowledge.

The second point upon which I would like to put a question to my right hon. Friend—and to which I was hoping he would refer more in his speech the other day—is in regard to the British community in Malaya. There never was a more disgraceful campaign than that which followed the Japanese invasion of Malaya and the final surrender of Singapore. Singapore is the greatest military disaster in our history, but it was a military and not a civil disaster. Singapore was lost not in the Malayan Peninsula but, if anywhere, it was lost here in London. In the past few weeks I have had the distressing experience of meeting many of the wives of civilians who have been left behind in Singapore. It is terrible to see members of your own race in the role of refugees. These women have lost everything—their homes, their possessions and their husbands. I have spoken to many of them. There is not the slightest shred of evidence that the European community in Malaya behaved otherwise than as we should expect them to behave.

The male population was mobilised to a man, up to the age of 60. The greater part of the younger men were already in the volunteers. The women were all doing hospital work, A.R.P. or Civil Defence of some sort. All this talk about whiskey-swilling planters and "blimp" civil servants is among the most disgraceful calumnies that I have ever heard. I was glad to see that in the case of Burma, the Governor told the world that out of a population of 14,000,000 people only about 4,000, and those mostly the criminal element, were disloyal. From all I can gather from Malaya, everybody did his best—all races, both sexes and all ages. I have not heard of a single case of deliberate sabotage or fifth columnism.

A good deal has been made of the remark that the civilian population stood aside from the struggle. What did we expect them to do? They were unarmed because we had deliberately not instructed them to arms. Surely one of the outstanding lessons of this war is that no civilian population, however brave, can stand out against mechanised warfare. How long did Holland hold out against the Panzer divisions? About three days. But has anyone ever accused the Dutchman of lack of courage? Has anybody alleged that the Dutch Government had no roots in the population? Surely that is the outstanding lesson of Holland, Yugoslavia, Crete and other places. In the small space of 50 years that small British community which we so glibly condemn to-day transformed Malaya from a worthless jungle into the richest Colony under the British flag. They have contributed more than £50,000,000 during the past 20 years to Imperial defence, also a battleship of the line and two bomber squadrons which are operating in this country and, when this country was being blitzed, they donated £500,000 to the Lord Mayor's Fund for London. During the first two years of the war it was the sale of Malayan rubber and tin to the United States that provided us with the resources which we so sadly needed in those days. Surely the least we can do when that community is passing through its time of trial and agony is to keep quiet, if we cannot say anything pleasant. If there has been any letting down it is not they who have let us down but rather we who have let them down.

I should like to raise one other matter. I rather hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would say something about it in the comprehensive review which he gave us. It is war damage. I do not know whether he realises that when the war is over and the Japanese are finally cleared out of Malaya, a lot of people will be lining up on the doorstep of the Colonial Office asking for claims to be met, because they have blown up their tin dredges or destroyed their rubber factories at the direct orders of the Government. They will expect somebody to pay for that. In case somebody may say that that is money going to the City of London, it would be as well to remember that more than 50 per cent. of the rubber produced in Malaya came from Asiatic holdings and over 40 per cent. of the tin. I do not know where the money is to come from, but I cannot imagine it can come from the pockets of the British taxpayer. I wonder whether the Colonial Office have considered the advisability of some Empire-wide scheme of war insurance. Just as in this country you may, if you have a house in Wales which is not likely to be bombed, be asked to help to bear the risk on a house in the East End of London which has been bombed, so it may be possible—I put it no higher than that—by some comparatively small tax on raw materials over the whole Empire, to build up a fund, out of which people can re-erect their smoke houses and their broken dredges after the war.

I would like to refer to one last point in the speech of the right hon. Gentleman. I hoped he would say a little more about future policy. The surrender of Singapore marked the end of an epoch. Whether there will be a Colonial Empire when the war is over will depend, in the end, on what we do or fail to do in the next two years. I want to be frank in my criticisms of our Colonial policy. I have seen the Colonial Empire from the inside and from the outside. We have made mistakes and most of the mistakes which we have made in the past 20 years come from one very simple cause; it seemed as though the spirit of Empire had gone out of us. We ceased to believe that we had an Imperial mission at all, and, in the long run, you cannot expect others to believe in something if you do not believe in it yourselves. To get down to some practical points: At home here the average person knew little and cared less about our Colonial possessions. He did not know what it had done and did not care, nor did he realise to what extent our overseas and Imperial trade enabled the people of these islands to maintain the highest standard of living in Europe. I would like to see Colonial history and economics taught much more thoroughly and comprehensively in our schools and I hope when this war is over we shall have the vision to create large numbers of free travelling scholarships for the boys and girls in our schools. I am in favour of the proposal which has been stressed several times since I have been a Member of this House, that a Colonial Parliamentary Committee should be created even while the war is on, so that more Members of the House can take an interest in Colonial affairs and know more of what is going on.

I am always hoping that someone will put up for us here in London—perhaps this may take tangible form after the war—a great Colonial House which is worthy of our Colonial Empire. A foreign visitor coming to London would never believe that we had a Colonial Empire at all. The Colonial representatives are poked away in back streets. I want to see a great building housing the Press and the local representatives, with a library, a hostel, a permanent exhibition, and so on.