But I’m Still "British”

BEVERLEY BAXTER January 1 1949

But I’m Still "British”

BEVERLEY BAXTER January 1 1949

But I’m Still "British”



EVERY man is entitled to his own successes and blunders even if he is inclined to remember the first more readily than the

second. Therefore, today I beg leave to remind the readers of the London Letter that. I am not always wrong. Such a claim, of course, is falsely modest, being no doubt the effect of having lived so long among the English who arc; masters of understatement.

It isa melancholy satisfaction to remind you that when the war ended I predicted that Churchill and the Tory Parly would be disastrously defeated at the polls. This proved embarrassing during the election when the Labor Party here reproduced extracts from the Maclean’s article. Nor did it endear me to my leader and political colleagues.

It is more pleasing to recall that in January, 1947, I lunched with the editors of a great New York newspaper at their office, just after there had been a Republican electoral sweep. We fell to discussing the possibilities of the presidential election in the far-off period of November, 1948, and I ventured on a prophecy: “The next President will be Mr. Truman.” They were quite nice about it, and patient. After all, how could a foreigner, especially a Britisher, be expected to understand American politics? So with complete unanswerable logic they explained the absurdity of my suggestion. It was not that they disapproved of President Truman, but they knew that the United States would never elect him to the office which he had inherited merely by the accident of death.

But last winter I spent a half-hour with the President at the White House. Writing about it in Maclean’s (April 1, 1948) I used these words:

“President Truman is a good man. I believe that his heart aches in unison with the sorrows of humanity. I believe that his sympathy for the unfortunate goes to the very roots of his being. I believe that his mind is honest and that because of that he has made with

his soul . . .

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“If one could read his innermost thoughts I think we should find that, in the essential justice of his mind he realizes that America is not only the world’s supreme creditor, but that she is also a debtor . . . because America is the child of Europe . . .”

I also wrote: “No man with his

serenity of spirit will be crushed by events no matter if they come at him from the three corners of the world. If you like, Harry Truman is the common man, but he is not a little man.”

The trouble with political journalists in general, and I must be included in the arraignment, is that we listen too much to what men say and too little to the stirring of the sap in the trees. We should remember the lines spoken by Hamlet’s wicked uncle as he kneeled in guilt before the prie-dieu:

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:

Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

In the final analysis it is men’s thought« that determine the ultimate course of destiny.

The Commonwealth Club

Now for the third and last prophecy which did not have to wait more than a few months for its fulfillment. Speaking at the Canada Club Dinner in London on July 1, 1948, I ventured to say:

“All things created by man are subject to change, and the British Empire is no exception. Some of us have come to believe that we should regard the Empire as a club with Britain and the dominions as full members, and with the colonies as country members. We might even have week-end members such as Eire. I would go even further and suggest that we should consider foreign members—such as the United States, providing that they were properly proposed and seconded.”

Quite rightly the company at the dinner took it as reasonable afterdinner banter and did not allow it to impair their digestions. On the other hand, it was clear to me that the British Empire was facing a period of readjustment which would test to the full and perhaps exhaust our statesmanship.

When the club committee met—in other words, when the Empire Premiers turned up in London—Eire at once applied for week-end membership. It wanted to have the use of the club when it came to town but without being bound by the rules. In short, Eire desired to be a republic in association with nations that owed allegiance to the crown of His Majesty King George VI. The chairman of the club, the venerable John Bull, Esq., said that it was an unusual request but that he would take it up with the committee.

Then Premier Nehru of India had an idea. I remember about 12 years ago when Pandit Nehru, just out of prison, addressed an all-party collection of M.P.’s in a private room at Westminster. Educated, like Churchill, at Harrow, he spoke perfect English. His face was sombre, unsmiling, resentful. In everything he said there was a cold hatred of British rule in his country. When he was finished one of our fellows asked him if he could remember one single good action which Britain had performed in India.

“That is not my task,” said Nehru. “The British have their own means of proclaiming their good deeds. I am concerned only with their misdeeds.”

At least he was frank. Again and again he had been sent to prison for subversive activities. During one of his incarcerations his wife died. When the Hitler war came Nehru joined with Gandhi in discouraging and even preventing Indian aid to Britain. Once more the prison gates closed on him.

It was left for Louis Mountbatten and Stafford Cripps to gain his confidence in the negotiations that followed the war. India and Pakistan became self-governing dominions within the British Commonwealth. Word was sent out from Whitehall that in view of these changes Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa had ceased to be dominions and had become something different, though no one quite knew what.

With the adjustment of populations in the border territories of Pakistan and India, 400,000 people lost their lives in a communal war of dreadful ferocity. If it had not been for the air lift organized by the tyrannical British the losses would have been much worse. The British Army after its historic occupation had withdrawn and justice had lost her sword.

Nehru’s attitude might be summed up in the words: “At the birth of a

nation or a child or a star there is pain.” But how would he act and react when he came to London for the Imperial Conference?—I beg your pardon, for the Commonwealth Conference. The word “imperial” is more unfashionable today than short skirts. The fact is that he dominated the conference, not with bitterness, but with sheer ability and constructive co-operation.

Perhaps he at last admitted the truth even to himself, that Britain had laid a firm foundation for India’s future. The industrialization of India had been thorough and widespread. The system of local administration, the maintenance of order and the courts of justice, the development of road and rail communications . . . Nehru had not taken over a bankrupt concern by any means. In the whole history of overseas administration there is nothing to equal that of the British Raj in India.

Out With “British”

But Nehru the Premier could not eliminate Nehru the agitator all at once. Now that India was a self-governing dominion, at liberty to remain in or contract out of the Commonwealth, would it not be more dignified and more accurate to drop the word “British” and make of the Commonwealth a group of independent nations freely associated with each other?

Well, why not? What’s Capulet? What’s Montague? A rose by any name smells just as sweet. The word “empire” was already passé, a relic from the barbaric past when men were so little advanced that they used to fight wars with muskets and thought it a low thing to kill women and children.

So the Empire was quietly buried somewhere in Whitehall and the British Commonwealth took its place. Then our fastidious masters became worried about the designation of people as “British subjects.” There was something servile about the word. How could free men bear to call themselves “the subjects of His Majesty”? Perhaps our masters might have reminded themselves that the greatest aristocrats in the bad old days would sign their letters “1 remain, Sir, Your obedient servant,” without feeling that they were servile.

At any rate, a bill was brought in substituting the word “citizen” for “subject.” So now we are King

George’s citizens, or British citizens if we live over here. However, even that was not the last concession to progress. There was still Premier Nehru’s thoughtful suggestion that a freely associated group of nations could not accurately be described as “The British Commonwealth.” So our masters held another midnight burial in Whitehall and dropped “British” into its grave.

Let our hearts rejoice! In fact, let us sing, dance and make merry for you and I and all the rest of us are now Commonwealthers. My son is a Commonwealther, so is my daughter. I am not sure about my wife who comes from Vancouver and has her own ideas on the subject.

Civis Romanus sum! That was the proudest boast of the ancient Romans. But how tawdry and cheap it sounds beside the ringing words: “I am a

Commonwealther.” My blood tingles with pride at the very thought. If only my grandfather, old Alderman Baxter of Toronto, had lived to see the day when the lowly downtrodden Canadians would become His Majesty’s citizens, instead of subjects, and Commonwealthers before the world.

And now, having got that off my chest, I am prepared to make a concession. The strength of the Empire has always been in the looseness of its ties. Ribbentrop sneered at the Empire because it was held together by moonbeams, but he should have pondered on the difficulty of severing a moonbeam. How could a German understand that self-governing nations would automatically take their place beside Britain in a war?

It is of world importance that India should remain within the comity of the British association of free nations. Russia may be balked in Europe but she looks to Asia to supply her with the power she could not seize from the western world. India is of vital significance in the scheme of things.

Therefore, if the price of her cooperation is to drop the word “British” from the Commonwealth, then the cost is not excessive. This island kingdom, set in a silver sea, will remain the mother of daughter nations even when, as is the habit of daughters, they take other names. From the genius and wise tolerance of the British came that majestic conception—the British Empire. Its glory cannot be dimmed no matter how its title is changed.

Therefore, to revert to the club, I am all in favor of Eire coming in as a republican week-end member if that will mean the end of the historic feud

between Ireland and England. Similarly, I would agree to altering the name to the Commonwealth Club so that India and Pakistan will feel more at ease—providing that they recognize the rights of the junior members known as the Indian States.

As for the United States, she is almost an honorary member now. In all well-run clubs the same guest cannot be introduced by a member more than once a month. But all such rules are waived in the case of Uncle Sam. He is always turning up at the club with John Bull or Jack Canuck or the Australian Digger as his host, and so cordial is their feeling toward him that they actually allow him to pay for the drinks. Hospitality can go no further.

Of course, the inclusion of Uncle Sam as a foreign member might disturb things a bit. He would almost certainly want to introduce an American bar and otherwise alter our long - established customs. However, he would liven things up and perhaps, in conversation, we might even get to understand the American political system and who comes up for election when.

Yet even the United States does not end the possibilities of this amazing old-new club. The nations of Western Europe are asking for a set of our rules and the conditions of membership. In fact, to end the metaphor of the club, never was the British Commonwealth so sought after as in its period of upheaval and alteration. In fact it provides the basis of the first real League of Nations. Thus did our ancestors build better than they knew.

Therefore, we who are descendants of the British and are proud to call ourselves British subjects must, 1 suppose, control our prejudices, adopt a new outlook, and yet surrender nothing of our allegiance to the Crown and all that it represents. I shall think of it as the British Empire no matter what new name is bestowed upon it and I shall be grateful to the end of my days that I was born in one of the free dominions of the Empire.

If this edifice, created by the genius, the daring and the sacrifice of our ancestors, is to be called upon for a wider service to humanity then we must turn to our new tasks with courage but also with caution. There is a danger that by becoming too large a combination we shall lose the character and strength of a united family.

That is why the founder members, Britain and the long-established dominions, should keep in close contact with each other, lest in reaching for the moon we fall into the sea and become flotsam at the mercy of the tides. ir