Bevin's Rocky Road

He's an imperialist, cries Russia; he's wrecking the Empire, moans Woe-Woe. What's the truth about Bevin's foreign policy?

MATTHEW HALTON September 1 1946

Bevin's Rocky Road

He's an imperialist, cries Russia; he's wrecking the Empire, moans Woe-Woe. What's the truth about Bevin's foreign policy?

MATTHEW HALTON September 1 1946

Bevin's Rocky Road

He's an imperialist, cries Russia; he's wrecking the Empire, moans Woe-Woe. What's the truth about Bevin's foreign policy?


LONDON (By Cable)—Almost any night you can hear the Moscow radio abusing the Socialist Government of Great Britain, accusing it bitterly of “imperialism” and “reactionary Fascism.”

Any day and every day you can read equally bitter abuse of the Attlee Government in the Conservative press of Britain.

What is the foreign policy of the Labor Government—this policy that arouses right wing hostility at home and left wing opposition abroad?

It’s a complex policy, and it’s not all in view— or even all decided—yet. But if you were to try to sum it up in a sentence, you might say it stands for freedom. In the Empire that means freedom from repressive outside rule: among more than a fourth of the world’s people the word goes round that the Raj is pulling out.

It is no more the policy of Bevin than it was of Churchill to “preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” But there is this difference—the Socialists are intent on developing Commonwealth rather than Empire.

In Europe the British conception of freedom means freedom from dictatorship. That is where Britain runs head on into Russia. For while Russian policy is to undermine and destroy Liberal and Socialist Parties, the mainspring of British policy today is the encouragement of the Social Democrats and liberals of western Europe —including and especially Germany.

This is a heavy program for a nation of less than 50 million people—a nation being written off as finished even by some who are her friends, the nation most vulnerable of all to atomic war. Let’s see how she’s handling it.

In foreign (that is to say, nonimperial) affairs the policy of the Labor Government is not so different from Churchill’s as many think. In his famous speech at Fulton, Mo., the wartime Prime Minister said the United Nations was the first hope of the world, but if it failed, the only remaining hope was that of a close association of the United States and the British Empire, within the framework of the United Nations. This speech was widely attacked as advocating a line-up against Russia and a division of the world into two hostile blocs.

But you may have noticed that no such attacks were made by members of Britain’s Labor Government. The policy of that Government is: the United Nations above all; friendship with Russia at any price, except the fatal compromise of principle or the fatal fallacy of appeasement; and if that fails, the building up

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of such a powerful group of friendly nations that the peace may still be preserved.

Many Socialists used to believe fondly that genuine friendship with Russia would be facilitated by a Labor Government in Great Britain. The fact is that relations between the two countries, Communist Russia and Socialist Britain, have gone from bad to worse ever since the Attlee Government took office last July.

It is precisely because Britain is becoming a socialist country that she has incurred the enmity of the powerful junta called the Politburo, which makes Russian policy.

There are secondary reasons for singling out Britain: first, it is in areas of British influence— at the moment, the Mediterranean—that the Kremlin wishes to expand; second, the United States is too strong to be challenged; third, the Americans are not yet fully aware of the enormously significant conflict of ideology raging in Europe now.

But the main reason is that, in Communist eyes, a successful experiment in social democracy on a large scale would take the magic from the Communist appeal to millions of people.

When Left Fights Left

IT USED to be thought that the great ideological struggle of our times would be between socialism, of which Communism was regarded as merely an extreme form, and capitalism, of which Fascism was the extreme form.

It is now clear, in my opinion, that the struggle of ideas is mainly between despotic Communism and democratic socialism. The Russian Communists have made history by ensuring that among nearly 200 million people no man may exploit another for profit. But they have not given their people the priceless gift of freedom, without which all else is naught.

The British Socialists, on the other hand, are determined to safeguard and even enlarge freedom as they try to achieve social justice and resolve what they call the blind anarchy of capitalism.

A Conservative M.P. said to a Liberal M.P. the other day: “You are not as left wing as you used to be, you are out of sympathy with Russian Communism.” The Liberal replied: “I am more left wing than I used to be, I am in sympathy with British socialism.” Whichever is the more “left wing,” there is no doubt that the two systems are fundamentally opposed.

All over the ruined walls of Berlin are plastered the word Einheit, which means unity. In the Russian zone of Germany the Russians have forced all political parties to liquidate themselves by joining the “Socialist Unity Party” in effect, the Communist Party. The Communists are now trying to achieve the same “unity” in Berlin and in the British, American and French zones of Germany. They have not succeeded, because in those zones they cannot use force. The British are doing their best to encourage this independent spirit of the Social Democrats. But the struggle is far from decided.

Some British Socialists say, “What happens if, in our zeal to save Europe from Communism, we save it for clerical reaction, or for clerico-Fascism as in Spain. There are signs of it already. Look at the swing to the right in Italy and France. Look at the recent intrusion of the Vatican into politics.” There are many British Socialists who dislike Russian Communism no more than they dislike the prospect of a new Holy Roman Empire.

But the Labor leaders have an answer. “It is too late in the day,” they say, “for any reversion to religious authoritarianism. Too many people can raad. The Church does not advocate a one-party system—and it can’t be sure that people will vote for the party it recommends. All we ask in any country is freedom of choice. The rest will follow.” How are we to account for the undoubtedly equivocal and pussyfooting attitude of the Labor Government in regard to Spain?

Many people think this, too, is part of the British antipathy to Communism.

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Bevin's Rocky Road

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They think that Bevin is afraid that if Franco went out the back door Communism would come in at the front.

I am certain that that is not what the British Government is thinking. Rightly or wrongly, the reason for the Labor Government’s go-slow policy is that they do not think Franco can be« ousted except by force, and that they just do not think it is practical to apply it.

What Mr. Bevin has missed is that the continued rule of Franco is an incitement to Communism. When the inevitable day of blood and iron comes again to Spain, Russia will have a pretext to intervene. That is why it seems to many members of the Labor Party that every reason of selfinterest as well as of logic and morality dictates the removal of Franco, even if there is no exact precedent for it in international custom or law.

The Shrinking “Empire”

It is when it comes to imperial policy that the Socialists, in my opinion, are showing the Conservatives what large-mindedness and vision mean.

There is a pathetic and completely unrealistic nostalgia revealed in Tory speeches and the Tory Press for glories that have been. To typify it, David Low, the famous London cartoonist, has created a character called WoeWoe, a caricature who agrees with reality. Woe-Woe is a hair-shirted Tory, who continually and gloomily predicts the end of the world. Anything the Labor Government does, from bread rationing to the nationalization of coal mines, is doom and damnation to the lugubrious WoeWoe. On matters of Empire he is pathetically forlorn. To him Attlee and Co. are no imperialists; instead they are plotters out to wreck the British Empire.

Woe-Woe isn’t much of an exaggeration. For instance, the Conserva, ti ve Party has been in full cry for j

months about the British evacuation of Egypt. But let’s look at it rationally.

It may be a tragedy that Egypt wants the British to clear right out of their country. It is true, as Mr. Churchill said, that “the armies of the British Empire saved Egypt from the horrors which racked the whole of Europe and much of Asia.” But 15 millions demand Egypt’s independent; and we cannot in this century hold the Delta by force.

The Labor Government is just as concerted as the Conservative opposition about the defense of the Middle East. But the Government feels that in the age of the atom bomb it is not so important to have troops on the Suez Canal itself. It can be just as effectively — or ineffectively—defended from air bases many miles away. By going as friends we make a friend. As Ernest Bevin said: “1

think it better to go to Egypt as a friend than as a gentleman with spurs. There is only one way in which we can hoid the Arab countries with us, and that is on a basis of friendship. Force cannot do it ... I am prepared io trust rather than to shoot. I don’t think the Poona mentality is suitable today.”

The Palestine Dilemma

So the British soldiers cross the Canal at Kantara, that white, blazing hot gateway to so many famous battles in two world wars, and enter the tortured land of Palestine, and at once cume up against the problem of Jew ana Arab; a problem in which passion and prejudice blind the disputants to compromise or even rational thought.

The Arabs swear they will fight for their rights. The Zionists of New York sully their claim by insulting the British flag, which for centuries has been the protector of Israel. And simultaneously both the cheap-Jack American politicians and the watchful propagandists of the Kremlin advance gleefully on the old whipping boy, England.

Even this problem can be solved. The plain answer is either partition or federation in Palestine. But when you mention this solution to the incredible American Peter Pan, who will never grow up, and who still hates England because of George III, or to the Kremlin propagandist, who cannot wait for Britain to leave the Middle East so that he can get in there, they reply with superb disingenuousness: “If Britain is going to

leave the Middle East, why doesn’t she go now?”

They do not understand two things: first, that Britain still believes she has a mission in the world and that the British Empire has done more good than harm; and second, that the British believe they owe a responsibility to the peoples they have first conquered, then exploited, if you like, and at last brought to the consciousness of freedom.

That is the essence of present British policy in India. Yet Mr. Churchill said recently that the Government’s new plan for the future of India was a brilliant document, then added: “The Cabinet mission to India is doing its work with as much zeal is if it were building an empire instead of throwing one away.”

A jaundiced way of putting it. Why not do the work with zeal?

The British could have gone on ruling India by force; or they could have abandoned her to a civil war as ferocious as anything in history. They have done neither. They have shown India the way. And it may be that the world will now see the

marvellous spectacle of a nation of 400 million people of another race and color uniting freely with the company of British nations around the world.

True enough, in some parts of the British Empire it has been all exploitation and no freedom. One of the blackest chapters in the record is that of Malaya. The shocking admission must be made that when the Japanese invaded Malaya in 1942 many of the natives were glad to see the British bleed and go. The Malayans detested their overlords as the Dutch Indonesians undoubtedly detested theirs, and with even more reason. And they detest them today. That’s the unpleasant legacy handed down to Labor.

When Labor was asked in Parliament what the new British attitude would be to Malaya, Bevin’s answer was: “Government in the interest of the Malayans.” The principle is splendid, but it must be admitted that the Cabinet is still floundering for the difficult concrete details of a policy that must undo the effects of a greedy past.

What of Indonesia?

Some people, both friends and foes, have pointed to the repression of the freedom movement in Indonesia as proof that Labor’s colonial policy differs little from that of its predecessors. British forces were sent to liquidate the Japanese in Indonesia and found themselves in the unpleasant position of defending Dutch imperialism against another exploited people. Labor’s answer is that the British troops were sent by the Allied Supreme Command and that “law and order” had to be re-established. I don’t know what else they could have done in that cruel dilemma, but it was not a pretty picture.

In China the story of another episode in British imperialism is almost told. The day will soon come when the Chinese Government will demand cession of that rich Crown colony, Hong Kong. There can be little doubt that the British Government of the day—Labor or Tory—will have to accede.

Yes, there are many difficult legacies for a government which avows the ideals of a Socialist Commonwealth and yet doesn’t want to see the end of an empire. One of the most unpleasant is brewing up now—and this time it’s extraordinarily interesting because it concerns a British Dominion. It is the case of the Indians in South Africa, who are still refused such civil rights as suffrage, supposed to be a prerogative of all men under the British flag. Leaders in India are already bitter at this discrimination against Indians in a free Dominion— free only for white men. There’s dynamite here for the day India becomes self-governing. What will be Whitehall’s policy when two British dominions find themselves in conflict? For that matter, what will it be when we can no longer shut our eyes to the dark story of South Africa’s treatment of its Negroes? That question will be on the agenda one of these days—with the world gathered around the table.

Just to mention that problem induces speculation on the future of Labor’s relations with the Dominions of the Commonwealth as well as with the subject peoples of the Empire. But there’s no space to discuss them here. The waves of emancipation are beating too hard on the shore to be ignored. Labor’s policy can be put in a word—it is to try to save the British Empire by leading emancipation, not by crushing it.