This chapter began life as a paper at a conference on the fiftieth anniversary of Harold Macmillan’s ‘Winds of Change’ speech. I was asked to speak about metropolitan anti-imperialism in 1960, and had the idea of examining four anti-imperialist texts which were written during the short six week period of Macmillan’s visit to Africa (5 January – 16 February 1960).
The four texts were chosen to bring out the variety in metropolitan anti-imperialism. They represent four distinct answers to what I argued was the main dilemma of metropolitan anti-imperialism: how to work with anti-colonial movements whose struggles were being carried on thousands of miles away, and which now asserted independence not merely of Britain, but of British support. My central argument was that tensions between activists in Britain and in the African colonies mainly arose from difficulties of positioning British and African contributions in relation to each other, and defining the relevance of British activists to struggles that more and more clearly belonged to other people. Studying these four texts therefore offered, in microcosm, a new way of describing the arc of British imperial decline. My four texts – or four ‘straws in the wind’, as I called them – were these:
THE LABOUR PARTY
AFRICA YEAR 1960
This pamphlet, issued in January 1960, as Macmillan set off for Africa, represents the anti-imperialist voice of the official opposition. Labour had broken from the bipartisan consensus over Africa in 1959, but remained cautious about taking sides with the colonised against British settlers or troops, or sounding ‘anti-British’. When things went wrong, Labour found it easy to put distance between itself and the Conservative Government. But it did not find it quite so straightforward to draw closer to African nationalists. It is telling that when Labour MPs denounced colonial atrocities, in Kenya and the Central African Federation, it attacked the Government and not the empire. Indeed, Labour speakers paid tribute to the dedication of colonial officials, including those involved in the ‘rehabilitation’ of the barbarous Mau Mau. They demanded accountability in the interests of restoring confidence in British rule, in setting a good example to future African governments, and in protecting Britain’s good name for fair dealing in Africa and beyond. In short, Labour’s attacks were Dreyfusard, seeking truth in the interests of national honour. The sentiments to which they appealed only made sense if it were assumed that colonial rule was not routinely violent and exploitative. Labour MPs were ‘shocked’ by atrocity. But shock only occurs as a consequence of surprise. A different sort of critic might have argued that colonial violence was really not very surprising at all, and that the appropriate response was not a ministerial resignation, but an accelerated transfer of power.
Labour did attempt to build close relationships with young African nationalists such as Tom Mboya, Hastings Banda and Kenneth Kaunda. This was helpful in debates because it provided Labour with more up-to-date information than the Government about the colonies.But Labour’s shadow ministers did not always trust what their African friends told them. A lot of ‘hysterical nonsense’ and exaggeration came out of the colonies, Barbara Castle privately admitted, and Labour could not simply parrot it. It had to exercise ‘judgment’. Much as it had argued over India before, Labour invariably instructed African nationalists that they should work inadequate constitutions rather than sit on their sidelines or try and bring the government down through agitation. ‘No body of people can learn to govern themselves without the experience of government, just as you cannot learn to swim until you go into the water’, the shadow Colonial Secretary James Callaghan (left) instructed Mboya. This headmasterly advice was increasingly resented. ‘What right has any other person to set himself up as our tutor and our judge?’ Mboya demanded.
THE MOVEMENT FOR COLONIAL FREEDOM
AFRICA’S YEAR OF DESTINY
My second ‘straw’ is the Movement for Colonial Freedom (M.C.F.) pamphlet Africa’s Year of Destiny, written by its president, Fenner Brockway (left), again in January 1960 as Macmillan toured Africa. The M.C.F. was much less inclined to judgment than the Labour leaders had been. The metropolitan activist should not be judge or trustee for Africans, but supporter. The M.C.F. therefore wanted the empire to end, but it was also keen that there should be an ongoing place for the British in what had once been their colonies. It was telling that at its foundation a proposal to call for Britain to quit its colonies was defeated on the grounds that this would leave nothing for the British to do. Room had to be found for metropolitan activists to make a difference. The activists were also anxious about the political and social malaise of Britain as its empire ended, especially by the loss of purpose and certainty, especially among young people. Their solution was, in the language of the time, a ‘cause’: an external object to be transformed – in this case, colonial relations – which, in the process of being transformed would also help to resecure British identities and their sense of a place in the world. A blocked and stagnant old country – Britain – was contrasted with the vibrant, emerging nations of Africa. Its tired and remote political leaders were contrasted with the African nationalist leadership: young, idealistic, self-sacrificing, and instinctively in touch with popular aspirations.
Such ‘cause’ politics perhaps qualifies the suggestion that British culture in the late 1950s, even in its younger and angrier manifestations, was disabled by nostalgia or melancholy for past imperial certainties. The M.C.F. was one of a lengthening list of new social movements which offered a way of arresting the sense of national and imperial malaise by continuing to seek global influence while rejecting the framework of colonial or neo-colonial rule as the means of doing so. Their orientation was firmly forward-looking, and optimistic not melancholic. Other examples include the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, with its nicely ambiguous slogan to ‘Let Britain Lead’, the new, cleaner internationalisms of the United Nations and the Commonwealth, and even charities such as Oxfam, Christian Aid and Save The Children, as they turned in the late 1950s from European reconstruction to global horizons. The primary purpose of the M.C.F. was to end colonial rule as a matter of justice. But its acceptance of a specific set of British responsibilities and ‘wider horizons’ remained important in gaining support among the very large numbers for whom the loss of empire was not regretted, but was a source of anxiety. This had two noteworthy consequences. The first was to make the organisation less relevant to Africans, for whom these British anxieties were less relevant. They increasingly deserted the M.C.F. in favour of African-only organisations such as the Committee of African Organizations (C.A.O.). The second consequence was to create quite unrealistic burdens of expectation. The M.C.F. did not project judgments on Africa, like the Labour Party, but it did project hopes. Brockway’s 1960 pamphlet was brim-full of confidence in African freedom, much of which collapsed in disapointment in later years.
THE PAN-AFRICAN PEOPLES’ CONFERENCE, TUNIS
The third text takes us to Africa itself, though not with Macmillan to colonial Africa. On 25 January – the day Macmillan landed in Nyasaland – the second All African People’s Conference (AAPC) opened in Tunis. The Conference was a meeting of free governments and freedom fighters. Macmillan’s itinerary was in form a colonial progress, planned to model the progress of colonies to independence. British Africa stood still, while Macmillan inspected it. The movements of the African anti-imperialists made in over fifty Pan African conferences held from 1957-65, by contrast, made a dynamic and disorderly scribble across the map. The scribble even extended to London, since Africans denied permission to fly direct within their own continent often stopped over there, and British activists flew out with them to observe. The Tunis Conference was an occasion where Africans talked to each other. The solidarities invoked were exclusively African, extending to African exile communities and to African Americans, but not to white allies. African members of the CAO attended as delegates, but the British attended only as observers.
Tony Benn (left) attended the Tunis Conference as an observer. He was among those for whom Britain had historical obligations and experience to draw on, and wider horizons to scan. But the Tunis Conference persuaded him that the flow of influence should run both ways. ‘We can no longer dictate the speed at which independence will come’, Benn told his colleagues. British allies should abandon any attempt to set the direction of African struggles. Instead, they should try and learn from the Africans and their new anti-colonial political techniques. ‘I feel I have much more in common with a young African than I have with many older members of my own party’, Benn wrote. ‘[C]oming back from the Tunis Conference where one had the opportunity of inhaling this … fresh wind from Africa, I found it gave me all sorts of new ideas about British politics and the desire and need for change … so that we might benefit from the pioneering work that … [Africans have] done.’
Indeed, in the work of the C.A.O. and in the Anti-Apartheid Movement (A.A.M.), which was also founded in 1960, the methods of anti-colonial struggle came back to the streets of Britain. The A.A.M. employed not only the march or rally – the great standby of M.C.F. protest – but also shop boycotts, picketing, vigils, and acts of silent, symbolic protest. These directly confrontational, participatory, consciousness-raising methods marked the return to the metropole of techniques of protest originally devised in colonial settings. The A.A.M. did not entirely solve the eternal problem of metropolitan anti-imperialism – how to put down roots in British society and yet remain accountable to someone else’s struggle. It proved very successful at putting down roots, but there was unease that this was sometimes achieved through a public ‘whiteness’ intended to maximise support in the British churches and political parties. Nevertheless, its relationship with the London External Mission of the African National Congress – accepting, for example, the A.N.C. commitment to Soviet-backed armed struggle – suggested that the internal relationships were very unlike those of earlier anti-imperialist movements.
THE PLEASURES OF EXILE
My final text returns us to the metropole, but not as it was. It is George Lamming’s The Pleasures of Exile (1960). Lamming is a poet and novelist, from Barbados via Trinidad, who came to Britain in 1950 among the first generation of West Indian migrants, finding work with the BBC Colonial Service and as a writer. The Pleasures of Exile is a set of interconnected essays, comprising a memoir of his life as a self-exile in London, addressing the assumptions and exclusions of British cultural institutions such as the BBC and literary journalism. In what is presumably a coincidence, but if so a remarkable one, Lamming began writing it on the day that Macmillan’s African itinerary appeared in the London press. He finished it on 5 February 1960, the day Macmillan boarded the Capetown Castle to begin his own passage home. Its power as a piece of anti-imperialist writing is that it relocates the problem, from being that of the migrant to that of the metropole. The metropolitan British, unlike the Caribbean migrants, knew little about their history. In the ‘desolate, frozen heart of London’, Lamming found, ‘[t]he English themselves were not aware of the role they had played in the formation of these black strangers’. They needed to be brought to see that ‘[w]e have met before’.
Lamming identified a problem which the British activists had as yet barely recognised, but which we can now see to be a postcolonial one. The Pleasures of Exile challenged the unacknowledged privileges that constituted British identity, including those enjoyed by those who thought of themselves as hostile to empire. This perhaps helps us to see why, in 1960, it was so hard to unite the various forms of anti-imperialism I have discussed in a single ‘cause’. The disillusioned Caribbean migrants and the disaffected ‘angry young men’, as well as the anti-imperialists of the M.C.F., seemed in many ways to inhabit the same metropolitan cultural landscape. They all held the Conservatives’ empire in contempt. The problem, for Lamming, was that the anger the British could work up against the empire was no guide to their willingness to surrender their own privileges. He relates an encounter with Kingsley Martin, veteran anti-imperialist and, editor of the New Statesman and Nation. Martin told an audience, in the familiar M.C.F. manner, that the British had largely solved their problems at home, so it was now their duty to ‘widen their horizons’. But for Lamming, Britain’s problems at home were not all solved, and could not be until the empire came to an end there too. The problem with the ‘cause’ was that it directed its energies to fulfilling and securing unexamined identities, rather than taking them apart. Lamming’s suggestion that colonialism pervaded every encounter, even those between ‘civilised men’, was shocking to other forms of metropolitan anti-colonialism, which may be why its implications took a long time to sink in. It called almost every liberal motive into question. The pose of concern about race adopted by some of the English was really just a move in their internal quarrel with other English people. ‘Our friendship’, Lamming wrote of his English friend, ‘is the absolute proof of his “difference” from his aunt … In order to rebuke his aunt, he may marry my niece’. As long as colonial privileges were so pervasive and yet so unconsciously held, such dialogue could only consist of polite incomprehension on the surface, and mutually accusatory ressentiment and ‘chips on the shoulder’ beneath it.
FOUR STRAWS IN THE WIND
There are many anti-imperialist voices in January 1960 and many ways to distinguish between them, but I have chosen to emphasise not so much the nature of the task they set themselves, but the relative positioning of metropolitan and colonial actors in performing it. ‘[My] one lasting impression’, the Labour Party’s John Hatch had written after a visit to Africa in 1955, ‘is that African eyes are turned inexorably on … the British Labour Movement’. By 1960, few still thought this. The metropolitan activists had largely abandoned the idea that it was their business to free Africa when they judged it ready for freedom. Dealing with the colonies was now a matter of behaving decently to people, and with a sense of what national honour and humanitarian principle demanded. But anti-imperialism is made by the colonised too, and the shifts here were just as significant. African movements which had first looked to Labour to form a judgment in their favour, now began to act independently, thinking of Labour in a more mixed way, and finally not much at all. Responding to these changes forced the metropolitan activists to work out how to form judgments or otherwise participate in struggles that they no longer owned. Thinking this through was eventually to create the basis for new, but quite different solidarities. Even in the six week snapshot I have described here, such solidarities were starting to take shape, as were their accompanying difficulties. Both the possibilities and the dilemmas would become clearer in the decade that had just begun, in student protests as they erupted over Vietnam and Cuba, in the linking of Third World solidarity movements abroad and anti-racist campaigns at home, and of course in the tricontinental postcolonial struggle. In this respect, perhaps, 1960 is neither a moment of triumph, nor defeat, nor redundancy, but of incipient transformation.
My chapter appeared as ‘Four straws in the wind’: Metropolitan Anti-Imperialism, January-February 1960′, in Sarah Stockwell and Larry Butler (eds.),The Wind of Change: Harold Macmillan and British Decolonization (2013).
‘Nicholas Owen’s chapter on (the often overlooked) British anti-imperial activism of 1960 is an essential read for historians of both modern Britain and its empire … Owen offers a compelling narrative of a politics in transition and underscores the political significance of metropolitan anti-imperialism in new and unexpected ways.’
Camilla Schofield, Twentieth Century British History 26 (2015) 340-341.
IMAGE CREDITS: WORKERS PRESS PHOTO, ANTI-COLONIAL DEMONSTRATION, CENTRAL LONDON (FEBRUARY 1960) / LABOUR PARTY, AFRICA YEAR 1960 (JANUARY 1960) / DAILY HERALD, JAMES CALLAGHAN, MP SHADOW COLONIAL SECRETARY (1956-61) (BROMIDE PRINT, c.1960), NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY / MOVEMENT FOR COLONIAL FREEDOM, AFRICA’S YEAR OF DESTINY (JANUARY 1960) / BASSANO LIMITED, FENNER BROCKWAY, MP (HALF-PLATE FILM NEGATIVE, SEPTEMBER 1959), NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY / ALL-AFRICAN PEOPLE’S CONFERENCE, ACCRA SECRETARIAT, REPORT OF SECOND CONFERENCE, TUNIS, JANUARY 1960 / LABOUR PARTY, N.E.C. COMMONWEALTH COMMITTEE PAPERS 1959-60, REPORT BY ANTHONY WEDGWOOD BENN ON THE ALL-AFRICAN PEOPLES’ CONFERENCE (JANUARY 1960) / BRISTOL EVENING NEWS, ANTHONY WEDGWOOD BENN, MP (1960) / GEORGE DOUGLAS, GEORGE LAMMING, FROM STEPHEN SPENDER, ‘ARE POETS REALLY NECESSARY?’, PICTURE POST, VOL 51 ,NO 9, 2 JUN 1951.