Winston Churchill in Politics: 1900–1939 - Political Isolation - Indian Independence

Indian Independence

See also: Simon Commission and Government of India Act 1935

During the first half of the 1930s, outspoken opposition towards the granting of Dominion status to India became one of Churchill's major political focuses. Churchill was one of the founders of the India Defence League, a group dedicated to the preservation of British power in India. In speeches and press articles in this period he forecast widespread British unemployment and civil strife in India should independence be granted. The Viceroy Lord Irwin who had been appointed by the prior Conservative Government engaged in the Round Table Conference in early 1931 and then announced the Government's policy that India should be granted Dominion Status. In this the Government was supported by the Liberal Party and, officially at least, by the Conservative Party.

Churchill denounced the Round Table Conference. He spoke at public meetings in Manchester and Liverpool in January and February 1931, respectively. At both he forecast widespread unemployment into the millions and other social and economic problems in the United Kingdom if India became self-governing. Though he would come to respect Mohandas Gandhi, especially after Gandhi "stood up for the untouchables", at a meeting of the West Essex Conservative Association specially convened so Churchill could explain his position he said, "It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle-Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well-known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal palace... to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor." He called the Indian Congress leaders "Brahmins who mouth and patter principles of Western Liberalism."

In Parliament on 26 January 1931 he attacked the Government's policy saying that the Round Table Conference "was a frightful prospect" and that he would support "effective and real organisms of provisional and local government in the provinces." He returned to the Parliamentary attack on 13 March. Baldwin answered him by quoting Churchill's own speech in winding up the debate for the Lloyd George Coalition government on Amritsar massacre in which Churchill defended the cashiering of General Reginald Dyer. Baldwin continued by challenging Churchill and his other critics to depose him as leader of the Conservative Party.

There were two incidents which damaged Churchill's reputation greatly within the Conservative Party in the period. Both were seen at the time as attacks on the Conservative leadership and as an attempt to undermine those conservatives - and Baldwin in particular - who supported granting Dominion status to India.

The first was his speech on the eve of the St George by-election in April 1931. In a secure Conservative seat, the official Conservative candidate Duff Cooper was opposed by an independent Conservative. The independent was supported by Lord Rothermere, Lord Beaverbrook and their respective newspapers. Both press barons had tried to urge specific policies on the Conservative Party—Rothermere opposed Indian home rule, Beaverbrook pressed for Tariff Reform under the slogan Empire Free Trade. Churchill's speech at the Albert Hall had been arranged before the date of the by election had been set. But he made no attempt to change the date and his speech was seen as a part of the Press Baron's campaign against Baldwin. This was reinforced by Churchill's personal friendship with both but especially with Beaverbrook who wrote "The primary issue of the by-election will be the leadership of the Conservative Party. If..(the independent candidate wins) Baldwin must go". Baldwin's position was strengthened when Duff Cooper won and when the civil disobedience campaign in India ceased with the Gandhi-Irwin Pact.

The second issue also affected Churchill's reputation. On 16 April 1934 Churchill claimed in Parliament that Sir Samuel Hoare and Lord Derby had pressured the Manchester Chamber of Commerce to change evidence it had given to the Joint Select Committee considering the Government of India Bill in June 1933. On 18 April he successfully moved the matter be referred to the House of Commons Privilege Committee. He tried to cross-examine witnesses before the Committee, contrary to normal procedure. Churchill himself gave evidence and Austen Chamberlain criticised the manner in which he gave it. Churchill's evidence was little and the inquiry reported to the House that there had been no breach. The report was debated on 13 June. Churchill was unable to find a single supporter in the House and the debate ended without a division. Leo Amery accused him of pressing the matter to bring the government down stating "at all costs he had to be faithful to his chosen motto: 'Fiat justicia, ruat caelum". Churchill responded saying "translate it" at which point Amery remarked "I will translate it into the vernacular if I can trip up Sam the government's bust".

Churchill permanently broke with Stanley Baldwin over Indian independence and never held any office while Baldwin was Prime Minister. In the index to the Gathering Storm, Churchill's first volume of his history of World War II, he records Baldwin "admitting to putting party before country" for his alleged admission that he would not have won the 1935 Election if he had pursued a more aggressive policy of rearmament. Churchill selectively quotes a speech in the Commons by Baldwin and gives the false impression that Baldwin is speaking of the general election when he was speaking of a by election in 1933 and omits altogether Baldwin's actual comments about the 1935 election "we got from the country, a mandate for doing a thing that no one, twelve months before, would have believed possible” This canard had been first put forward in the first edition of Guilty Men but in subsequent editions (including those before Churchill wrote the Gathering Storm) had been corrected.

Churchill continued his campaign against any further transfer of power to Indian nationalists. He continued to predict conflict in India and mass unemployment at home. His speeches often quoted nineteenth-century politicians and his own policy was to maintain the existing Raj. In pursuing this campaign Churchill cut himself off from the mainstream of Conservative politics as much as from the rest of the political world. Younger Conservatives such as Duff Cooper, who later described Churchill's campaign as the most unfortunate event that occurred between the two wars and Harold McMillan saw Churchill as a reactionary, as someone who was completely out of touch and at base, undemocratic- leaning towards the totalitarian regimes. Churchill's public comments often seemed that way

Elections, even in the most educated democracies are regarded as a misfortune and as a disturbance, of social, moral and economic progress, even as a danger to international peace. Why at this moment should we force upon the untutored races of India that very system the inconveniences of which are now felt even in the most highly developed nations: the United States, Germany, France and England herself

Some historians see his basic attitude to India as being set out in his book My Early Life (1930) and as being unchanged since his military service before he entered parliament. In so saying they note his references in his speeches on India to late Victorian politicians such as John Morley. Historians also dispute his motives in maintaining his opposition. Some see him as trying to destabilise the National Government. In this they follow Amery (see above) and Lloyd George who believed that with MacDonald ill and Churchill leading the Conservative right-wing Baldwin would have had to form a new Coalition in which both he and Churchill would have had key ministries.

Some historians also draw a parallel between Churchill's attitudes to India and those towards the Nazis. For example Manfred Weidhorn in the introduction to the American edition of India (a collection of Churchill’s speeches on the topic) writes.

"... Machiavelli sheds light on Churchill. The Italian notes that virtues and vices are often symbiotic rather than antithetical. Thus people say, 'Hannibal was a great general – too bad he was cruel', when the likelihood is that Hannibal was great in part because he was cruel. So here we have to consider the probability that Churchill was great in 1940 in part because he was too pugnacious, stubborn, deluded, and conservative (in the deepest sense) to be able to adjust to the New Order in Europe – traits he had shown in the matter of India" .

Read more about this topic:  Winston Churchill In Politics: 1900–1939, Political Isolation

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