Winston Churchill

Churchill and His Crimes: The Indian Cauldron

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The following excerpts are adapted from the author’s later book, Winston Churchill – His Times, His Crimes, published by Verso Books, the largest independent, radical publishing house in the English-speaking world, publishing one hundred books a year.

Life: enough of this poetry

We need hard, harsh prose;

Silence the poetry-softened noises;

Strike with the stern hammer of prose today!

No need for the tenderness of verse;

Poetry: I give you leave of absence;

In the realm of hunger, the world is prosaic

The full moon is scalded bread.

Sukanta Bhattacharya, ‘Hey Mahajibon’ (O, Great Life) (1944)

During the interwar period India was in a state of continuous turmoil. The reforms of 1919 – which had promised increased political participation of Indians in government but denied them power – were regarded by most Indians as ill-intentioned and offering very little. In Parliament in 1917, Edwin Montagu, the secretary of state for India, had declared ‘the gradual development of self-governing institutions, with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire’. The result was a build up of pressure from below.

The British Empire clearly faced a choice: it could grant India dominion status or it could rule largely through repression. The failure to grant the first necessitated the second.

The Pashtuns, Punjabis, Bengalis and Malabari (now Keralans) saw the rise of mass movements and terrorism on the pre-revolutionary Russian model. Peaceful marches were violently broken up by the police. The 1919 massacre in Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar is the best known, but there were others. The Moplah peasant uprising in Malabar in 1924 was deliberately misinterpreted by Raj ideologues. The Chittagong Armoury Raid in April 1930 was an audacious attempt to seize police and auxiliaries’ weapons and launch an armed uprising in Bengal. The raiders were revolutionaries of various sorts, united by the belief that only an armed struggle inspired by the Easter Rising of 1916 (they called themselves the IRA: Indian Republican Army) could rid them of the British. The plan was to take government and military officials hostage in the European Club where they hung out after work, seize the bank, release political prisoners, destroy the telegraph offices and telephone exchanges and cut off all railway communications.

They partially succeeded, but could not capture the British officers and civil servants. It was Good Friday. The European Club was empty. Despite this, the main leader of the uprising, Surya Sen, assembled their forces outside the police armoury, where he took the salute as IRA members (numbering under a hundred) paraded past him. They hoisted the Indian flag and declared a Provisional Revolutionary Government. The British swiftly took back control and guerrilla warfare ensued. The IRA was outnumbered. A traitor gave away Sen’s hiding place. He was captured, tortured and, together with another comrade, hanged. Other prisoners were packed off to the Andaman Islands.

In Lahore, the capital of the Punjab, a twenty-two-year-old, Bhagat Singh, who hailed from a staunch anti-imperialist family, decided with a handful of supporters to carry out two missions in 1930. The aim of the first was to assassinate the British police officer who had badly beaten up the nationalist leader, Lala Lajpat Rai, at a demonstration in Lahore. But they shot the wrong police officer. The second was to throw a few bombs into the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi when it was empty. Bhagat Singh declared they did so because they wanted the noise of the blast to wake up India.

In prison he became a communist and wrote that terrorist tactics were not useful, but he refused to plead for mercy. Gandhi half-heartedly spoke on his behalf to Lord Irwin, the liberal Viceroy, but was rebuffed. Bhagat Singh and two comrades, Sukhdev Thapar and Shivaram Rajguru (all members of the tiny Hindustan Republican Socialist Party), were hanged in Lahore Jail in 1931.

There were similar events on a lesser scale elsewhere, and peasant uprisings too, the largest of which, in modern Kerala, shook the landlords and their British protectors. The peasants were mainly poor Muslims. They were defeated and the leaders of the revolt despatched to the Andamans for fifteen years. In 1935, the British realised the seriousness of the situation and passed a second Government of India Act through the House of Commons.

Churchill was vehemently opposed to the new law but was out of office. The Act provided for a controlled provincial autonomy, with the governors in each province holding reserve powers to dismiss ‘irresponsible’ governments. The tiny franchise was somewhat enlarged, and in 1937 the dominant Congress Party virtually swept the board in provincial elections, with the crucial exceptions of the Punjab and Bengal where secular-conservative, landlord-run parties obtained majorities.

Within two years of these elections Britain was at war. The Congress leaders, astounded that they had not been consulted before India was dragged into the war, instructed all their provincial governments to resign in protest and refused to offer support for the war. All this confirmed Churchill’s prejudices. He simply refused to grasp Indian realities.

The volume of protests and resistance from the end of the First World War till the late thirties had been rising with each passing year. Gandhi himself, in his South African phase, was a staunch Empire-loyalist. His view that ‘the British Empire existed for the benefit of the world’ neatly coincided with that of Churchill, and the Indian lawyer was not in the least embarrassed at acting as a recruiting sergeant during the First World War. He moderated these views when he returned to India and reinvented himself as a political deity. He was happy to mobilise the masses, but on a ‘moral level’. He would leave statecraft to the politicians, mainly Nehru and Patel. Though when they needed his imprimatur during crisis times (Partition and the Indian occupation of Kashmir), he always obliged.

Gandhi’s decision to make the Congress a mass party by appealing to the vast countryside had increased its size and political weight. In an overwhelmingly Hindu country, Gandhi had used religious symbols to mobilise the peasantry. This began to alienate Muslims, and since the Brahmins dominated the Congress leadership, the ‘untouchables’ knew their grievances would never get a hearing. Despite this, Gandhi, Patel and Nehru built a formidable political machine that covered the whole of India. The 1937 elections demonstrated as much, and it’s worth pointing out that in the north-western frontier province bordering Afghanistan, the predominantly Muslim Pashtuns had voted for the Congress Party as well.

The decision to take India into the Second World War without consulting its only elected representatives was yet another avoidable error on London’s part. The British underestimated the change in mood among the masses and some of their leaders. Had they consulted Gandhi and Nehru, offering them a fig-leaf to support the war, things might have panned out differently. The Congress leaders felt they had been treated shabbily and, after internal discussions that lasted a few months (revealing a strong anti-war faction led by the Bengali leader, Subhas Chandra Bose), they opted to quit office.

The British Viceroy immediately began to woo the Muslim League, and vice versa. The League’s leader gave full-throated backing to the war as did the conservative pro-British elected governments in Punjab and Bengal.

When, on 22 December 1939, the Congress Party announced its decision to resign and did so a week later, Jinnah declared that henceforth 22 December should be celebrated as a ‘day of deliverance’ from Congress rule. Ambedkar, the ‘Untouchables’ leader, provided strong backing, saying he ‘felt ashamed to have allowed [Jinnah] to steal a march over me and rob me of the language and the sentiment which I, more than Mr Jinnah, was entitled to use.’ Surprisingly, Gandhi also sent his congratulations to Jinnah for ‘lifting the Muslim League out of the communal rut and giving it a national character’. Little did he know where this would lead.

Emboldened by the emergence of an anti-Congress minority, the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow expressed some optimism:

In spite of the political crisis, India has not wavered in denunciation of the enemy in Europe, and has not failed to render all help needed in the prosecution of the war. The men required as recruits for the Army are forthcoming: assistance in money from the Princes and others continues to be offered: a great extension of India’s effort in the field of supply is proceeding apace.

With this in mind, Linlithgow was confident he could survive the storm. When the Congress ministers resigned en masse, the Viceroy ordered the arrest of its leaders and activists. They were released in December 1941 as the British attempted to reach some accommodation. Gandhi was carefully studying the development of the war in Europe as well as Japanese moves closer to the region, and wondering whether the British might be able to hold out. He was not yet sure. The local impact of Operation Barbarossa was the release of imprisoned Communist Party leaders and militants, who now came out openly in support for the war. Gandhi continued to wait. It was the humiliation inflicted on the British in Singapore in February 1942 that led to a change of course. The Congress leaders began to think about calling for a Quit India movement and, in this fashion, declared their own (partial if not complete) independence from the British. Gandhi had engineered Bose’s isolation within the Congress, but he was very critical of Nehru’s anti-Japanese militancy. Nehru had suggested that Congress should organise armed militias to fight against the Japanese were they to take India. Gandhi reprimanded him strongly. He should not forget that Japan was at war with Britain, not India.

In contrast to Gandhi’s handwringing and delays, the Bengali Congress leader, Subhas Chandra Bose, always deeply hostile to the notion of offering any support to the British war, went on the offensive. Of the entire Congress high command, he was the most radical nationalist. He began to work out a master plan that owed more to the organisers of the Chittagong Armoury Raid than to Gandhi. Bose did not believe that peaceful methods could prevail. They were fine at certain times, but the situation was now critical. Britain had insulted India by taking its young men away once again to fight in inter-imperialist wars. Bose wanted to create an Indian National Army and began to explore all possibilities.

In 1942 Churchill agreed that Sir Stafford Cripps, the left-wing, former ambassador to Moscow, be sent to India to meet with Nehru, Gandhi and other leaders and plead with them to help Britain. If they agreed, he could offer a verbal pledge of independence after the war. However, before Cripps could depart, bad news came from South-East Asia: Singapore had fallen. Churchill blamed the men in the field. The British Army had not fought back effectively: ‘We had so many men in Singapore – so many men – they should have done better.’ As stressed above, it was a huge blow.

Cripps arrived in India, but few were willing to listen to his message. Jinnah’s Muslim League and the Communist Party were backing the war, but so speedy was the Japanese advance that Gandhi genuinely believed they might soon be negotiating Indian independence with Hirohito and Tojo rather than Churchill and Attlee. When Cripps insisted he was offering Congress a ‘blank cheque’ they could cash after the war, Gandhi famously riposted: ‘What is the point of a blank cheque from a failing bank?’

After Cripps returned empty-handed, Churchill pinned his hopes for a stable Indian army largely on Jinnah and Sikandar Hyat Khan, the leader of the Unionist Party and elected Premier of the Punjab, a province crucial to the war effort in terms of manpower and for being the granary of India. When, after Cripps’s return, Churchill said ‘I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion’, he was expressing a long-held view, but in this instance was referring to the Hindus who had badly let him down.

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What Sri Lanka Can Learn From Thatcher’s Legacy

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The following article, describing the economic situation of post-war United Kingdom (UK), extracts information from “The Power of Capitalism” by Rainer Zitelmann. The reader is encouraged to refer to this book for more details and references.

After the War

In 1945 the Labour Party won the general elections, and prime minister Clement Atlee began implementing democratic socialism. About a fifth of the UK economy, comprising banks, civil aviation, mining, telecommunications, railways, shipping canals, road freight transport, power and gas, manufacturing industries including iron and steel, was nationalised.

When the Conservative Party (Tories) returned to power in 1951 Winston Churchill retained the majority of the socialist policies. During the 50s and 60s the UK enjoyed an improved standard of living by having low unemployment and increased consumption. But it still lagged behind other European countries such as West Germany, where the number of telephones, refrigerators, TV sets and washing machines were higher per 100 residents. The gap continued to widen because productivity was too low.

The Impact of Unions and Strikes

During the 70s the UK’s weakness became obvious. The country was disabled with frequent strikes. The German magazine Der Spiegel in 1974 reported:

“A row about wages and nationalised collieries turned into a showdown between the government and unions, which has plunged the country into ‘a new dark age’. Over a million people are already unemployed, over two million only in part-time employment, with a further ten million plus – almost half of the British workforce – likely to suffer the same fate in the next few weeks… the imperial avenues (of London) more sparsely lit than the streets in the urban slums of the UK’s former colonies. Candles flicker in the offices of the financial district, while hurricane lamps provide emergency lighting in department stores, and warehouses are illuminated by the headlights of lorries. Only one in four radiators is turned on inside the prime minister’s residence at 10, Downing Street, and signs at underground stations advise passengers to take the stairs as escalators have been taken out of service to save power”.

The trade unions were very powerful. The shop stewards (the union’s spokesmen within companies) were able to call a strike and break agreements whenever they wanted to. Neither the unions nor their officials could be held accountable for damages.

For some union officials their own interest and envy of co-workers mattered more. The rivalry between two steelworkers’ unions delayed the testing of new manufacturing equipment for months. The dockworkers’ union protested against the construction of state-of-the-art container terminals, because loading was to be done by a different sector. England’s most advanced high-speed train stood idle for half a year because railroad workers’ union insisted on two drivers, although there was only room enough for one in the operator’s cabin. During the 70s, 466 unions averaged 2000 strikes and 13 million working day losses per year.

Conditions escalated during the winter of 1978, when the country was paralysed by more strikes leading to the transport system breaking down and rotting garbage piling up on pavements.

Thatcher Begins Reforms

In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. She had studied the writings of the classical liberal economist Friedrich Hayek, and being impressed by his criticisms of welfare state socialism she put his free-market ideas into practice. She faced massive resistance from unions as well as many socialists in her own Tory government.

Thatcher’s pro-market reforms focused initially on inflation. She resisted price controls and abolished the Price Commission. This led to a sharp rise in unemployment from 1.3 to 3 million between 1979 and 83. Thatcher said “The paradox which neither the British trade unions nor the socialists were prepared to accept was that an increase of productivity is likely initially, to reduce the number of jobs before creating the wealth that sustains new ones”. Inflation fell in the short term, accompanied by a significant improvement in productivity.

Thatcher cut marginal tax rates from 33% to 25% in the lowest brackets, and from 83% to 40% in the highest. To balance the budget she was forced to increase VAT from 12.5% to 15%. She reduced bureaucracy by expediting planning permissions and simplifying or abolishing planning controls.

Restricting Unions

Thatcher implemented laws restricting unions. Arthur Scargill, a prominent union leader, led miners into a large-scale strike against planned pit closures and privatisations, despite three in four pits operating at a loss and receiving 1.3 billion pounds of taxpayer money.

Many miners didn’t the support the strike, and violence was used to prevent them from working. Attacks on police by striking workers or sympathizers resulted in serious injuries. Families of miners who did not participate were threatened or bullied. A Welsh taxi driver was killed by two miners who dropped a concrete block from a footbridge onto his taxi while he was transporting a strike-breaking miner to work. Thatcher refused to give in, and the unions had to abandon the strike when money ran out. Their defeat had a symbolic impact and broke the power of the unions, who had lost a third of their members and much political influence.

The Impact of Privatisation

Thatcher saw privatisation as “one of the central means of reversing the corrosive and corrupting effects of socialism”. Far from putting the people in control, public ownership simply “amounts to control by politicians and civil servants. But through privatisation – particularly the kind of privatisation which leads to the widest possible share ownership by members of the public – the state’s power is reduced and the power of the people enhanced”.

When British Telecom, employing 250,000, was privatised 2 million Britons bought shares in what was then the largest Initial Public Offering (IPO) in history. Around half had never owned shares before. During Thatcher’s premiership, public share ownership rose from 7% to 25%.

Subsequent privatisations included British Airways, British Petroleum (BP), Rolls Royce, Jaguar, shipbuilding companies and several utilities. This resulted in the state losing its dominance in the economy. Local councils sold off much of their housing stock to tenants to create a million new homeowners.

Privatisation caused prices to fall and service quality to improve. New telephone line subscriptions, which previously took months or a bribe to obtain, could now be obtained in just 8 days with the price having dropped 50%.

Deregulating the Finance Industry

Thatcher deregulated the finance sector by abolishing currency and capital controls. In 1986 she liberalized rules on share trading and the stock exchange, and eliminated restrictions on foreign banks. As a result London became the world’s leading financial centre, rivalled only by New York, with thousands of new jobs created by foreign bank branches.

In 1976 sovereign default was imminent and the government was forced to borrow 3.9 billion USD from the IMF. In 1989 this situation had completely turned around and the economy generated a surplus of 1.6%. This was possible due to increased tax revenue from foreign businesses.

Thatcher’s Legacy

Thatcher in her memoirs says there “was still much I would have liked to do”, “Britain under my premiership was the first country to reverse the onward march of socialism”.

The stuffy socialist culture of envy was replaced by a pro-market and pro-business environment where ambition was richly rewarded, leading to sharp increases in the number of private business and self-employment. The number of businesses registered rose from 1.89 to 3 million between 1979 to 89, while self-employment grew from 1.9 to 3.5 million. State-ownership reduced by 60%, 600,000 jobs had passed from the public to private sector, with 3.32 million jobs created between 1983 and 90.

Thatcher was voted into office to liberate the economy from state control. The British honoured her by re-electing her twice. Her premiership lasted 11 years, longer than any other 20th century British politician. Her policies were so successful that, in the following years, Tony Blair’s Labour government broke with party tradition and made no attempt to reverse them.

Conclusion

The Sri Lankan crisis is caused by an excess of government control and an overlarge public sector. Thatcher was faced with a similar situation. Despite public opposition, she resisted currency and capital controls and adopted free markets. Her courage was rewarded with a flourishing British economy.

West Germany and Chile are two other examples of countries that have had problems similar to Sri Lanka. They also adopted free-market policies and have now become first world nations.

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