AT a time when world politics are dogged by the issue of "colonialism," it is well to remember that empires--in other words, colonial systems--must be counted among the most potent forces of civilization in world history. There have been, it is true, purely destructive empires. The Assyrians, the Mongol imperium, the brief and horrible Nazi experiment were deadly to others and finally to themselves. But the expansion of Chinese imperial power coincided with the civilizing of the primitive tribes. India flourished in peace and art and letters under its imperial dynasties. The Western world still draws many of its laws, ideals and master institutions from the memory of Rome. And today, when the British Empire is all but transformed from a formal imperial system into a loose association of independent states, it is possible to look back upon its three hundred years of colonial history and pronounce it one of the creative imperialisms experienced by mankind.

Or is it too soon to pass such a judgment? Naturally no historical assessments are final, but there are special reasons for attempting one in this case. Most empires in history have ended in a welter of war and collapse. Many others are obscured in myth and legend. The British Empire not only stands in the open light of modern mass information and massive documentation. It is ending peacefully in a unique direct transfer of power to successor states which have suffered no external interruption between colonial and independent status. It is thus possible to see with unusual clarity what British colonial policy intended to achieve and what it did and did not in fact accomplish. The passing of few imperial systems have been so well publicized and so little interfered with from outside.

An imperial Power may set out with a deliberate plan of exploitation, in which local inhabitants and territories are totally subordinated to imperial aims of aggression, expansion and enrichment. In Korea, for instance, and then in Manchuria, the Japanese deliberately created an economy from which the local Koreans and Manchurians were virtually excluded save as working "hands." British imperial policy was never formulated in such terms. It was the by-product of exploration, settlement and trade. Since there was no conscious plan, the inevitable consequence was to repeat the pattern of the mother country. In North America and Australasia where British imperial power entered into what was, broadly speaking, a vacuum, new communities were created which mirrored much of "the British way of life."

In politics, the concept of government serving, not commanding, its people and submitting to their electoral verdict coupled with the rule of law, an independent judiciary and a non-political civil service created the framework of civil liberty. In social outlook, religious tolerance, the steady securalization of life, rationalism and concern for standards of living combined to direct the community towards material pursuits. An expanding industrial system grew up to satisfy them.

At the same time, the identification of the community with the people's will strengthened the sense of state sovereignty. The right to national independence followed logically from the right of people to govern themselves.

This type of modern industrial democracy, which Britain has endowed with so many of its master institutions, is the dominant imperial pattern projected by the British people. It has its critics, from the Marxists who attack its economic base to the philosophers and artists who doubt its spiritual cohesion and cultural creativeness. Yet it represents a type of society which the Hungarian people at least are ready to die to achieve and it has become, in broad terms, the ideal of all modernizing societies. The Communists themselves pay it lip service in their jargon of "peoples' democracies." Even if there were no more in the record of British imperialism than laying the keel of the great American ship of state and fostering in Canada, Australia and New Zealand young modern expanding communities, the achievement would still be considerable. But in fact this has been only half the task. The far more testing exercise in empire has lain not in creating states where none existed but in modifying crowded communities of totally different race, culture and history.

The British impact on Asia and Africa cannot be understood without noticing two facts about the projection of British influence and institutions. The first is that virtually the whole political framework of free government in Britain was evolved in a uniquely homogeneous community. In any vote, for instance, the majority would tend to consist of the same kind of people, with the same tastes, traditions and outlook as the minority. It is significant that the British parliamentary system has only once showed signs of serious deadlock and that was during the presence in Westminster of a cohesive voting block of Irish M. P.s. The Civil Service can recruit by competitive examination and not fear that the success of too many men from Worcestershire would drive Northumbrians to revolt. No one would challenge a judge on the ground that he represented a particular clan.

The second point is that the British community has tended to grow and change as the result of non-governmental initiatives and decisions. Enclosing landlords started the agricultural revolution which scientific innovators like Coke and Townsend carried on. Thousands of small masters worked at the origins of industry; individual inventors created the tools; banks, firms, City companies provided the finance. The coral reef rose through myriad unplanned labors. Government, too, was and still is carried by the initiative of individual citizens in political parties, in local government, in voluntary activities beyond number. Every social service of the Welfare State was preceded by private experiment.

Even the grand design of imperialism itself was the work of unplanned individual effort. The settlers and merchants paved the way. Government followed, often with the utmost reluctance. It is a symbol of this sequence that, until the second half of the nineteenth century, the government of India was--nominally--in the hands of a private trading corporation.

These two factors--the homogeneous community and the predominance of private initiative--were little hindrance to the extension of British institutions to North America or Australasia. In the United States, the original framework proved sufficiently strong and flexible to create a recognizable "way of life" for immigrants of every European stock and in the second half of the twentieth century is meeting the far more formidable challenge of integrating citizens of African descent. In Canada, democratic institutions have made possible the coexistence of French and Anglo-Saxon communities. In New Zealand, the indigenous Maoris have, alone among primitive peoples, found a place beside British settlers. At the same time, the dominance of the British--and European--tradition has meant the transplanting to the new communities of the methods of self-help, responsibility and private initiative by individuals and groups.

When, however, the imperial scene is no longer the virgin lands beyond the oceans but the ancient civilizations of the East or the primitive communities of Africa, the extension of what one may call, shortly, "the British way of life" has proved a much more complicated and hazardous process. To reproduce British attitudes and institutions in Asia and Africa may not have been the earliest objective of British imperial policy. At first, in both continents commercial interests had primacy. It was only when local administration collapsed and other European traders threatened to encroach on Britain's markets that the British took over local political responsibility. If the Indian Mogul Empire had shown even the vestigial staying power of the Manchus, India, like China, would never have been a full Western colony. Similarly, it is doubtful whether such colonies as the Gold Coast would have come into existence if tribal warfare had not threatened the peace and commercial utility of the coastal areas.

The British, obliged to develop political dominion from a haphazard, largely commercial start, had no pattern to impose except their own. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, men who must be counted among Britain's ablest administrators in India--Munro, Elphinstone--were already stating that Britain's imperial task was "to fit India for self-government" and by self-government they meant representative, legal, domestic government and unqualified nation-state sovereignty. Even where, as in parts of Africa, the policy of indirect rule through tribal chiefs was adopted, there was no suggestion that it represented a final political framework. It was rather an expedient of political education in primitive communities and at the same time a method of administering large areas with a minimum number of British colonial officials. Beyond remained the ultimate aim of elective representative government. Today wherever the British imperium has peaceably ended, the forms of parliamentary rule have in fact taken its place. The Indian Member interjecting "Mr. Speaker, Sir" in a Lok Sabha debate or a distinguished Gold Coast lawyer presiding in wig and gown over the Assembly in Accra symbolizes the attempted projection of modern democracy set largely in a British mold.

But in Asia and Africa, this new form of political and social order faces formidable difficulties because the two presuppositions of British society--a homogeneous community and the spirit of voluntary, self-governing, enterprising, individual activity--are largely absent. Few British colonial territories were homogeneous when they passed under British rule. Even the small island of Cyprus has a large Turkish enclave in a predominantly Greek population. Some colonies which were more or less racially unified--such as Malaya or Fiji--have since been settled by Indians or Chinese. In India, two major language groups, a score of languages and hundreds of dialects divide the country.

The idea of nationalism, the ideal of the fully sovereign, independent, self-governing state, could be learnt from Britain. The British who "never, never would be slaves" could hardly teach any other lesson and it was the very strength of their example that guided Indian nationalism to be directed primarily against them, the foreign rulers. By a paradox, a British member of the Indian Civil Service, Allan Hume, founded in 1885 the Indian National Congress with the precise purpose of arousing Indian nationalism.

But the anti-Western spirit which is the emotional driving force of so much Asian nationalism today is no guarantee that internal differences will be overcome. In the event, Hindu and Moslem, however anti-British, could not settle in the same house. Once parliamentary democracy established the rule of the majority by counting heads, the Moslems saw themselves as a perpetual, out-voted minority. Common allegiance to a united India was not sufficiently felt to outweigh this fear. Since partition, within India itself, the creation of federal states based upon language has led to violence and bloodshed, particularly in Bombay where Gujarati and Marathi dispute for dominance.

Subsequent transfers of power in other territories have further underlined the difficulty. When in the 1930s self-governing institutions were formulated for Ceylon, an ingenious franchise had to be worked out to ensure that the Tamil-speaking areas were not swamped by Sinhalese voters. Today, a decade after independence, the Tamil-Sinhalese division is a perpetual note of discord in the politics of an otherwise singularly prosperous and stable Asian land. In Africa, the primitive peoples of Southern Sudan, within a year of independence, revolted violently in their fear of Sudanese rule from the North. Nigeria is split between the powerful Yoruba and Ibo tribes of the South and the Moslem desert peoples of the Northern Region. In the Gold Coast, the ancient kingdom of Ashanti talks of claiming the right to secede rather than accept government from the Coast.

Should the British be blamed for the persistence and sometimes the aggravation of these internal divisions after independence? Many Asian and African nationalists have talked of a sinister policy of "divide and rule" whereby the British stirred up local hostilities in order to delay the transfer of power. But since self-government has, in virtually all cases, been granted, the accusation of conspiracy can hardly be sustained. The critics forget two factors--the degree to which the institutions introduced by contact with Britain require a certain measure of communal unity and the time it takes to overcome religious, linguistic and racial diversity by broader loyalties.

The best illustration of these facts is to be found in the contrasted expansion of the Chinese Empire. It took about a thousand years for Chinese civilization to extend from the Yellow River to the frontiers of Annam, and long after the ruling groups were Chinese in culture and allegiance the peasants retained local dialects and customs. But no one offered them a vote. They had no right either to education or advancement. No one suggested that language and nationhood had some organic link.

The British could not avoid inciting, almost from the first days of their empire, a desire for the local self-government and parliamentary franchise which they enjoyed at home. Once the desire existed, nothing could check an accelerated transfer of power except to abandon the principle--and the British could hardly abandon the central fact of their own system of government. They had no time to build new local loyalties in the face of the rising demand for local independence. In Nigeria, for instance, from colonization to independence, the span will not be much more than 50 years.

Could they, in spite of these limitations, have done more to create greater unity and homogeneity? There are a number of ways in which, in theory at least, local differences can be transcended in a relatively short time. Forcible conversion to a new religion established the Moslem communities of northern India. The imposition of Communism as a system of thought may have inhibited the development of local nationalism in Soviet Asia. An industrial revolution, creating new classes which cut across old tribal or caste distinctions, is a potent force for unification. The question, therefore, should be rephrased. Could the British have done more to change in depth, intellectually, socially and economically, the communities into which they were importing new ideals and institutions? And here, the answer must surely be that more could have been done--provided always one remembers that the judgment is the fruit of hindsight and also of the great extension of historical knowledge and sociological analysis of the last 50 years.

The inhibiting factor in British policy has sprung from the second characteristic of the British political genius--its reliance upon individual and group initiative, its tendency to keep government guidance and intervention to a minimum. In three crucial spheres--religion, education and economic development--the growing points in British imperial policy were largely private. Religion and education are, indeed, inseparable, for most of the Westernizing education in Asia and Africa in the colonial period was provided by missionaries. The first government-established school in West Africa--Achimota--dates only from the 1920s. By that time, four generations of Africans had been educated by devoted missionaries.

In India, government support for education was delayed at first by controversy whether education should be in English or the vernacular. Even after the principle of Western forms of instruction had been officially decided--under the influence of Macaulay--missionary societies and devoted individuals were prime movers in extending the school system. And even with government backing, the new universities and schools developed after 1850 provided in the main for Indian families who could afford the cost.

Perhaps the clearest indication of the official attitude can be drawn from the Indian Civil Service. From 1833, the service was open in principle to Indians and British on a basis of equality--but the Indians, to enter, needed to learn English, study in England, take their examinations there in strict competition with men using English as their mother tongue. As early as the 1860s, three Indians, in the teeth of family opposition and social ostracism, got themselves to England, passed the examinations and were duly admitted. But it was not until 1922 that examinations were held in both London and India. The result tells its own story. In 1919, the Indian Civil Service contained 1,177 Europeans and 78 Indians. By 1939, the figures were nearing equality--759 Europeans and 540 Indians.

The lesson is obvious. If an Indian cared to overcome all the natural obstacles and if his family had sufficient means, he could enter fully into a responsible life. But he would receive no special assistance. Equally, an Englishman would have received none in England. But the Indian Government failed to use its power to give the Indian the extra backing without which, competitively, he stood at a disadvantage. It was, in fact, laisser faire applied to education and administration. One has only to compare the attitude with the Japanese Government's systematic determination, after 1870, to train managers, administrators and technicians and to produce the essential cadres of a modern state.

The pattern has been similar in other dependencies. The sons of chiefs and other men of substance could secure education for their children. In the Gold Coast, for instance, there are a few families with a second and third generation of sons sent to English public schools and universities. But local universities in Malaya, West Africa and the West Indies were established only in the last decade. In other words, higher education and self-government are arriving together. The effect of this is particularly apparent in administration. India, at least, had a group of first-class officials--the "steel frame." But Malaya, the Sudan and West Africa, all pressing forward with the nationalization of their own services, find that local trained men are simply not available. Self-government has raced ahead of self-education.

The economic pattern bears the same stamp. The British came to India to trade and to find markets. Local anarchy led to imperial intervention. Responsibility was then accepted for restoring economic as well as political stability. The peasant's land and taxes were surveyed and organized. Famine became a government responsibility and the need to expand food production led the authorities to conduct vast works of irrigation. Law and order required transport. So did famine relief. So, above all, did trade. Roads and railways, ports and harbors were expanded.

If, in the teeth of competition from British manufactures, an Indian could establish a cloth mill, there was no obstacle from the administration, but he was not encouraged. When the visionary Tata family wished to build India's first iron and steel works, no support or capital came from London. Once again it was the laisser-faire approach. It is fair to say that only on one major point could the British be convicted of "selfish exploitation." In deference to Lancashire, they denied the indigenous Indian cotton industry the defense of a tariff between 1879 and 1920. But the indirect effects of opening India to British manufactures must also be laid at Britain's door. Cheap imported goods ruined Indian village industries but nothing was put in their place.

Under this régime, the foundations of Indian industry were, however, laid by enterprising Indians. British and foreign firms also began the training of Indian executives and technicians. But the pace was modest and once again the comparison must be made with Japan which in the same decades 1870 to 1920 transformed itself into a modern industrial community.

In Malaya and Burma, the framework of British order permitted economic growth, but it was accomplished almost entirely by foreign settlers. Chinese pioneered the rubber and tin industry, Indians the expansion of rice in lower Burma. In East and Central Africa, the development of resources by British settlers has reached a point at which there are virtually two communities--one modernized, prosperous and European, the other primitive, local and African. This vast gap--in education and resources--not only expresses the weakness of laisser-faire economics and social policy as a sole means of general development. It is also the extreme instance of a lack of homogeneity sufficient to defeat the functioning of British political institutions. The Belgians who extend the franchise to neither European nor African in the Congo face fewer immediate problems than, say, the Central African Federation which gives adult suffrage and confines it largely to the white settlers.

If one can risk a generalization on the basic strength and weakness of British colonial policy, it appears that in aim and in political direction, the intention has been genuine to create self-governing communities and to endow them with liberal institutions evolved in Britain. But this central purpose has not been sufficiently reflected in educational, social and economic policy to enable the new societies to keep pace with their own aspirations.

The method of leaving these spheres to develop at their own speed, without official encouragement, might perhaps have worked if Britain had had at its disposal the millennium China enjoyed in the days before political consciousness. There is certainly impressive evidence to suggest that India, where British power was most pervasive and lasting, may possess the nascent middle class, the growing educational resources, the economic framework and the liberal temper on a scale sufficient to make its vast democratic experiment a success. But in other parts of Asia and in Africa, the slow methods of individual and voluntary evolution have not served so well and in territory after territory political forms of state sovereignty and a mass electorate are being adopted without the middle class, the administrators, the education and the evolved economy necessary to sustain them securely. The experiments may succeed, but no one can deny that they are precarious.

It is not, however, too late to counter some of the weaknesses evident in British colonial policy. The task is not--as in Hungary or Soviet Asia--the despairing one of freeing peoples from political despotism. It is the hopeful and constructive possibility of assisting peoples to manage and develop a freedom which they already enjoy. They still lack the education, the trained manpower and the economic momentum needed to sustain modern political liberty. But all are spheres in which the Western Powers can offer effective assistance. A great increase in the availability of scholarships and training schemes for Asian and African students in Europe and America, a systematic training program for local technicians and executives by all Western firms operating in ex-colonial territories, Western economic aid for basic development--all these are immediate policies already practised to some extent which need only to be followed with greater forethought and energy. The crucial problem created by the shortage of competent administrators in some communities could be met in part by providing trained men from a strengthened United Nations and from Britain's proposed overseas service, provided it is developed with sufficient imagination. Western universities could tighten their links with the new academic institutions overseas and possibly go further in exchanging instructors and students.

At present, such policies resemble the rather dilatory methods of social and economic advances practised formerly by the British Raj. Much excellent pioneer work is done, but it lacks a galvanizing direction and is conceived on too small a scale. Something of the energy and concentration which Japan put into its early development--or the Communists devote to theirs--is needed to insure that no discouragement over the complexity of free institutions established without a sufficient economic and social base drives Britain's colonies to abandon the hopeful road opened for them by their imperial past. Since today they make up the overwhelming majority of the uncommitted world, it would be a tragedy for human freedom if the opportunity were left to go by default.

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  • BARBARA WARD JACKSON, member of the editorial staff of The Economist, London; recently living in West Africa; author of "The West at Bay," "Policy for the West" and other works
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