Clement Attlee, David Cameron and the Special Relationship With India

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By Prof. Inderjeet Parmar | 13 August 2010

British Prime Minister David Cameron recently declared his wish to build – or rather renew – Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with India. The likelihood of that, I suspect, is strong mainly because of the character of India’s elite, and the evolution of that society since 1947 when India won its freedom from British rule. But what kind of independent Indian elite did Britain leave behind? How independent was it?


As Indian independence day approached – August 15 1947 – an Indian ‘nationalist’, one M.R. Jayarkar, wrote to the-then British prime minister, Clement Attlee, that Attlee had “enabled Macaulay’s hope to be fulfilled”. Attlee himself regarded Indian independence “probably” to be his greatest achievement – ahead of the formation of NATO, sending British troops in support of the American war in Korea, building the welfare state and socialising large sectors of the British economy. That the transition to Indian rule occurred relatively peacefully (that is, British forces withdrew rather than being driven into the sea) and into the ‘right’ hands was central to Attlee’s evaluation.

But what sort of ‘independence’ did Attlee have in mind and negotiate with Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders of the ‘freedom’ struggle? There is an interesting clue in Attlee’s private papers which I have had the privilege of reading over the past few weeks.

Among those papers, held at Oxford’s Bodleian library, there is an interesting item dated 8 July 1947, just a few weeks ahead of India’s ‘tryst with destiny’. One entry of special interest contains quotations from two nineteenth-century imperial administrators – Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence and Mountstuart Elphinstone – both of whom foresaw the ‘end of empire’. Rather than despairing of what they both believed to be an historical inevitability, Lawrence and Elphinstone, among others, urged British rulers to prepare the way for a peaceful, negotiated settlement with the sort of people that could be trusted to govern India in an ‘enlightened’ and noble manner, i.e., ensure the security of British interests. Which brings us to Lord Macaulay, according to whom Britain needed to foster a class of Indian middlemen “who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect.”
Henry Lawrence argued the same: “We cannot expect to hold India for ever,” he noted in his Essays, Military and Political. “[W] hen the connection ceases [let us hope] that it may do so, not with convulsions….”, presumably because ‘convulsions’ might bring ‘disorder’ and ‘chaos’ and a movement for revolutionary change as well as political independence. Lawrence hoped for an India that would be “a noble ally, enlightened and brought into the scale of nations under her guidance and fostering care.” This was in the 1850s, before the Indian ‘mutiny’ or, rather, the first war of independence.
Montstuart Elphinstone, before he rose to become Governor of Bombay in the 1850s, noted in his journal that, “The moral is that we must not dream of perpetual possession, but must apply ourselves to bring the natives into a state… beneficial to our interest as well as their own, and that of the rest of the world.” Twenty years earlier, Elphinstone wrote in his diary that “The most desirable course for events in that country to take is that European opinions and knowledge should spread until the nation becomes capable of founding a government of its own, on principles of which Europe has long had exclusive possession.”
India today is a ‘rising power’ and has come a long way since 1947 and all that. No point blaming the British now. Yet, its self-conscious Anglophile and English-speaking elite is open for business, eager for a place at the world’s top table, while over half its one billion+ people live and die in shameful poverty. Did India merely exchange one set of elites for another to preside over a subcontinent, making a mockery of the term ‘independence’? I suspect that this is the vision Attlee had for India. Certainly he appreciated Nehru’s role at the UN and as Britain’s virtual shadow during the Korean war, boosting Attlee’s stance in ‘moderating’ the more aggressive President Truman, and in his jockeying for position – another special relationship – with the United States. India’s elite may very well believe that their time has come and Lawrence, Elphinstone, Macaulay, and Attlee, having laid the foundations, may well have got what they hoped for: the Indian elite is ready to serve its own interests, Britain’s interests, and probably America’s broader strategy towards China. But they all forget one thing: all those people who don’t figure in the Indian dream – the bulk of the country’s population who, it now seems, are not even worthy of Britain’s foreign aid.



Inderjeet Parmar is Professor of Government. He studied Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Sociology at the University of London. He obtained his doctorate at the University of Manchester. He joined the Department of Government as a lecturer in 1996. From 1991, he was lecturer in American Studies.



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