Interwar Colonial Rule and Development

In addition to these external threats to the British Empire in the interwar period, there was an internal one: Britain’s ‘deplorable’ colonial rule itself. According to Hyam, there was no colonial purpose or general policy; the Colonial Office ‘was fumbling, daunted by the bewildering and kaleidoscopic variety of problems’, toward which the British public was at most apathetic. Parliament was ‘inattentive’. Commentators tended to be indifferent in the cases of the press and academia, or female, which the British establishment generally viewed as ‘seriously unhealthy’.15 Domestic criticism of British colonial rule intensified after 1929, when the Great Depression significantly affected both colonial producers and colonial governments, thereby limiting the provision of social services. These economic problems prompted disturbances throughout the empire; between 1936 and 1938, economically driven strikes and riots plagued Northern Rhodesia, Mauritius, the Gold Coast, Nigeria, Palestine, and, most importantly, the West Indies.16

In fact, the 1931 riots in Cyprus were some of the first of these depression-era disturbances. In October, in response to Governor Sir Ronald Storrs’s controversial socioeconomic policies, the Legislative Council resigned and Greek-Cypriot nationalists took to the streets to demand enosis. In the process, rioters burned down Government House. The KKK criticized the riots and its members generally abstained from the violence. The Comintern admonished the KKK for opposing a genuine revolution and purged its general secretary.17 On 23 October, as the revolt was collapsing, the KKK’s Central Committee announced its support for the violence on anti-imperial, but not pro-enosis, grounds.18

Despite being a last-ditch effort to save face and despite Storr’s belief that ‘the communist movement, although harmful, is not at all worrying’, the KKK was identified by the Cyprus government as the ‘chief instigator’.19 Storrs eventually suppressed the riots, suspended the constitution—Cyprus was ruled thereafter by decree until its independence in 1960—dissolved the Legislative Council, and exiled those he considered to be the primary agitators, which included two prominent KKK leaders.20

The 1931 riots marked the transition from the government’s cautious tolerance to overt repression of the Cypriot communist movement.21 Two years later, Storr’s successor, Sir Reginald Stubbs (incidentally a former governor of Hong Kong), became convinced of an immediate communist threat. In August 1933, he amended the Criminal Code explicitly to proscribe the KKK and its seven front organizations on grounds of sedition. The courts convicted twenty-three KKK members for sedition, some of whom were imprisoned for four years.22

Hong Kong, on the other hand, managed to avoid unrest during the 1930s, despite its previous experiences of significant anti-colonial disturbances and labour-led strikes. The significant devaluation of its currency between 1929 and 1931 notwithstanding, Hong Kong fared relatively well during the early years of the Great Depression. Hong Kong’s trade depressed to its lowest in 1935, but China’s internal problems and the onset of an undeclared Sino-Japanese war in mid-1937 actually stimulated Hong Kong’s economy. Chinese refugees brought increased tax revenues for the government, while industries, such as the production of gas masks and other military equipment, were transplanted from the mainland to Hong Kong.23

The problems highlighted by the unrest in Cyprus, Hong Kong, and elsewhere in the empire were further heightened by European politics as fascist Italy looked to expand in North Africa and the Nazis demanded the return of colonial possessions which Germany lost as part of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Arthur Creech Jones, a Labour Member of Parliament (MP) and member of the Colonial Office’s Advisory Committee on Education in the Colonies, announced in the House of Commons on 14 June 1938 that ‘[d]uring the last few years our own complacency in Colonial administration has been rudely shocked’. Creech Jones was but one critic urging for colonial reform. Demands ‘for a more constructive form of trusteeship which would repair the neglect, stimulate economic recovery and improve social conditions’ also came from the likes of W. M. Macmillan (historian and social critic), Lord Hailey (former colonial governor and prominent Africanist), and even the Colonial Office itself, while the Labour Party soon emerged as the ‘rather better organised, better informed and better led critic of colonial matters’.24

Domestic critics, fascist expansionism, and widespread colonial unrest did prompt significant changes to British colonial rule. In October 1937, William Ormsby-Gore, the secretary of state for the colonies, announced that:

it is now the settled policy of all United Kingdom Governments to be guided in their Colonial policy by the doctrine of trusteeship. [...] We fully accept the position that it is our duty to advance to the fullest possible degree the interests of the Colonial territories under our charge.25

The Colonial Office was subsequently expanded to include a labour advisor, and in 1938 it sought from the Treasury authorization to create a department dedicated to social services. The Colonial Office despatch to the Treasury explained that:

at the present time it is a matter of the highest political importance that His Majesty’s Government should be able to show unassailable justification for its claim that it acts as a beneficial trustee for its subject peoples, and that there is urgent need for us to undertake an effective forward movement in developing the progress of social services, including the improvements of labour conditions, nutrition, public health, education, housing and so forth, in the Colonial Empire.26

However, while the Colonial Office, Creech Jones, and others were driven, perhaps primarily, by notions of paternalism and trusteeship, it was the looming international crisis which dictated colonial policy formation thereafter. By July 1938, British rearmament took precedence over civil expenditure, especially in the colonies. Nevertheless, Malcolm MacDonald—whom Joanna Lewis has aptly described as ‘the right man, in the right place, at the right time, but not for long enough’—replaced Ormsby-Gore as the secretary of state for the colonies in May and forged ahead in the Colonial Office to revise the Colonial Development Act and, in the process, the nature of British colonial rule.27

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