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Home arrow Political science arrow Britain’s Cold War in Cyprus and Hong Kong: A Conflict of Empires

Trade Unionism

Before youth was on British policy-makers’ radar, perhaps the most fundamental battleground in the imperial Cold War was labour. It took the broad shift towards colonial development and welfare of the late 1930s before the provision of education was seriously contemplated in Whitehall. With the labour unrest of the early 1920s, given that the elemental justification for having an empire was profit as well as the central position of the working class in Marxist ideology, colonial policy-makers were much quicker in recognizing the need to address labour affairs.

Extensive labour unrest in the colonies, especially in Hong Kong, during the 1920s and the subsequent and rapid growth of colonial trade unionism in the 1930s, particularly along militant and pro-independence lines, created significant problems for British authorities. Without some sort of intervention, British policy-makers feared that these increasingly popular and organized movements could seriously threaten British colonial rule and jeopardize the colonies’ economic value. Furthermore, no longer could the British rely on repression as this provoked further unrest in the colonies as well as British domestic and international criticism. The British response had to be positive, reinforce their colonial rule, and improve the empire’s contribution to Britain’s economy. Collaborating with the British Trades Union Congress, the Colonial Office called on the colonies to legalize and guide the formation of ‘responsible’ trade unions.18

By 1930, only British Guiana, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Malaya, and Northern Rhodesia had legal frameworks for trade unions. In September, Lord Passfield, the secretary of state for the colonies, sent a circular dispatch to urge governors to give trade unions legal rights.19 Malcolm MacDonald (in September 1938) and then George Hall (in August

1946) sent similar circulars as secretaries of state, expressing ‘the view that Colonial Labour Departments are actually or potentially among the most important Departments of Government’.20 By 1940, 27 colonial governments had labour departments, officers, and/or inspectors.21 Hong Kong had a labour officer from 1938; Cyprus joined this list in 1941—although Governor Winster did complain in 1947 that ‘all the King’s horses and all the King’s men in Great Britain cannot provide me with a thoroughly competent labour adviser’.22

Traditional views of colonial people, especially workers, and growing fears of a communist menace meant for Hall, as the parliamentary under-secretary of state for the colonies in 1940, that these new colonial trade unions might ‘be ill-informed, badly organised and badly led and an easy prey to the agitator and the opportunist’. It was therefore imperative, Hall argued, that Britain guide ‘their development on sound and moderate lines’.23

British policy-makers’ concerns about trade unionism and communist infiltration only grew after the Second World War. Domestically, the longstanding tensions between reformist and revolutionary elements within the British labour movement exploded in the immediate post-1945 years. Widespread allegations of communist infiltration in Parliament prompted Labour Prime Minister Attlee in November 1946 to direct Guy Liddell, a senior official of MI5, to complete a list of all crypto-communist and fellow travelling MPs. In March 1948, communists (and even some noncommunists) were purged from the British civil service and from the Trades Union Congress in the following October. Indeed, as Carruthers has observed, the Malayan Emergency was congruent with Attlee’s decision in 1949 to declare a state of emergency and draft servicemen to break a supposedly communist-incited dockworkers’ strike in London.24

Just as the British Trades Union Congress was under pressure from a communist-led challenge, so too were many of Britain’s ‘moderate’ colonial trade unions. The leftist, especially communist, unions, in turn, were met not with increased British guidance but traditional repression. The socialist-led East African Trade Union Congress in Kenya, for example, saw its leaders arrested and replaced. The communist-led unions in Malaya were simply proscribed.25

Trade unionism in Hong Kong and Cyprus fell largely into this pattern. The colonial governments watched with dismay as the communists formed strong trade unions and effective committees. These grew at the expense of those of the right-wing, thereby removing another restraint on the communists’ local power. Both colonial governments passed and reinforced laws regarding trade unions and societies and sought strong legal action against the unions whenever they could. In Cyprus, the left-wing trades union committee was proscribed twice in ten years. Ultimately, the political polarization between nationalist and communist unions, the power advantage of the latter and the absence of any competitive moderates limited Britain’s ability to guide the formation of ‘responsible’ trade unions. Policy-makers thus fought on the labour front of the cultural Cold War with repressive legislation, thereby undermining the projection of its reformed and supposedly progressive colonialism.

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