THE core of the difference between the American and the British approach to British colonial problems lies in the American belief that the interests of the colonies require that they be given self-government either immediately or in the fairly near future in accordance with a stated schedule. The British answer is an invitation to look more closely at the colonies, to observe the obstacles in the way of their acquiring full nationhood, to estimate the various distances they have already advanced toward self-government, and to study the active processes of education for further responsibilities that are now being pursued. Thus, I tried in a former article [i] to state some of the reasons why complete self-government could not be given tomorrow to the African colonies. I also stressed the perplexing constitutional problems that arise where European colonies have been planted among primitive African tribes, and pointed out that some British colonial problems have analogies with the situation of the Negroes in the American South. I do not wish to repeat any of these points in this article but rather to carry a little further the attempt to bring about a meeting of minds, to ask what self-government for colonies means and to give some examples both of the achievements and of the difficulties of the British in the sphere of colonial government.

Let us first consider the misconceptions which, in British eyes, seem to lead some critics of British policy onto the wrong road from the very start. The great majority of human beings have two standards in such matters, one highly indulgent, by which they judge the acts of their own nation, and the other an exacting perfectionism by which they judge the deeds of other nations. Nor is even this perfectionism wholly rational; it is often colored by subconscious prejudice and jealousy. The British are, of course, as prone to this dualism of judgment as other peoples, but criticism of America by Britain is small and intermittent in volume compared with the stream that flows in the opposite direction.

A thoughtful American writer has bidden us consider the contrast between moral man and immoral society, and it is well to ask ourselves at the outset of our discussion, "What is national virtue in international affairs?" In the absence of a comprehensive and generally accepted law of nations and an effective machinery for its enforcement, each nation has pursued and will pursue its own interests according to its own point of view. Can any nation afford to take a purely unselfish action that damages its own position in order to forward the interests of another country? If not, then the relative virtue of nations must depend upon the degree of restraint with which each promotes its own objectives; and this in turn depends upon its own social and political character. A mature, educated and democratic nation is likely to take long views and, to the utmost extent that is consistent with its own interests, to understand and allow for the interests of other nations: the frankness, tolerance and habit of compromise practised within the borders of a nation will be reflected in dealings with a neighbor. By the same token, an ill-adjusted dictatorial state will perhaps take short views and use violent methods.

But this conception of degree of restraint, or of the difference between an enlightened and an unenlightened self-interest, is not sufficiently flattering to nationalist sentiment which, when passing judgment, demands that the particular line of self-interest which the accidents of history and geography have marked out for its own nation should be accepted as the universal ideal. It is scarcely a rational standard. Let us, for example, imagine that the Alleghenies were an impenetrable range and that the vast tribal hinterland upon which the American people expended their energy and built up their power had to be reached not by horse and wagon and railroad but by ship. Would this have changed their expansion into an act of questionable morality and rendered vulnerable their tenure of this territory? Was the overrunning of the Matabele by British colonists in Central Africa in an entirely different category from the destruction of the tribes which stood in the path of American colonists? And when Americans reached their marine frontiers and overleaped them to seize colonies and strategic bases in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, was there then something more sacred in the idea of American security than in the idea of British security which dictated similar annexations? The main difference, suggested by British self-righteousness, is that a small trading island needed more overseas bases than a vast, almost self-sufficient continental nation. And when it comes to domination short of annexation, is there not a reasonably close parallel between the motives and methods by which one Power gained control over the Suez Canal and the other over the Panama Canal?

One effective American reply to this might run as follows: "Yes, we agree with this in the main as regards the past. But it so happens that American self-interest, unlike that of Britain, does not now prompt her to hold any large, populous, and civilized or semi-civilized countries against their will. She is, even in the uncertainties of war, carrying out her promise to give the Philippines independence, and it is possible that Puerto Rico may be allowed a referendum to decide between independence and some form of connection with the United States." It is true that the United States has shown the greatest political generosity toward her two main colonies. But she has not and could not give the same treatment to the Samoan or Virgin Islands. In other words, the necessary complement to the liberalism of the imperial Power is the strength and political maturity of the dependency.

In the British Empire, of course, India stands alone in size and importance. The Indian question has been canvassed from both sides in these pages and this article is not about India. We must consider the British colonies and ask wh[ILLEGIBLE WORDS]her any of them are ready for self-government and even full independence -- in so far as any but the greatest Powers can be independent today. Again, it is not easy to get the comparison between the United States and Britain on all fours. Outside the small strategic Mediterranean colonies, there are not any states in the British Empire closely comparable with the Philippines and Puerto Rico, both of which knew centuries of European government and were endowed with Christianity, Spanish culture and a very large measure of European blood before the United States took possession. The Puerto Rican political leader, Muñoz Marín, recently stated before a Senate Committee that his country was "part of western civilization and of Christendom." To visit Puerto Rico, to meet the Spanish professors and officials and to visit the farms and plantations is to realize that dependencies of this type are more comparable with South American states than with any British colonies of similar size, with the possible exception of Ceylon. And Ceylon has made very substantial progress toward self-government, with further extensions of self-rule in view.

From a constitutional point of view, perhaps the nearest rough approximations to the American dependencies -- in spite of striking cultural dissimilarities -- would be 'Iraq and Egypt; and, except for certain security privileges granted by treaty, both of these, after a period of protection, were recognized by Britain as independent some years before the war. The emancipation of these two nations, in regions of the highest strategic and political interest to the British Commonwealth, is too often forgotten.

It might be noted at this point that Ethiopia is another state which has a very strong physical and moral claim to independence. Her ancient culture and sovereignty and the intelligence and high spirit of her ruling class may be held to outweigh her great economic backwardness and the treatment which she accords some of her many subject peoples. Twice, in 1867 and again 74 years later, Britain had Ethiopia in her military power, and both times, though it would have been arguable that a period of sympathetic European protection and development might be in the interests of the mass of the people, the British armies marched away after a brief occupation. It thus appears that where the situation warrants it, Britain, like America, is capable of renouncing imperial rule.

These situations warranted such renunciation because, however possible and desirable the subordination of weak territories of this kind may seem to so[ILLEGIBLE WORDS]e Great Power, the territories themselves can gain only temporary and limited advantages from the status of protectorate or colony. If they have fallen into a state of disorder, or like 'Iraq and the Philippines had been freed from an unconstructive domination, a period during which order and economic development are supplied from outside may have a steadying and unifying effect. It did, for example, in Egypt. But in so far as such territories, in spite of many weaknesses, possess at least some of the elements upon which an ordered state can be built or rebuilt -- a measure of unity in tradition or in constitution, an educated class, a historic culture and religion and a lingua franca -- then their peoples will be able to absorb only a measure of direct help from alien rulers and will quickly develop a resentment against subordination that may seal their minds against further influence of this kind. Peoples in this category can best be helped through treaty relationships, through the services of an international organization, or through the formation of regional groups like that of the League of Arab States. The most suitable methods for this purpose must be developed by experiment in the next two or three decades.

II

But it does not seem to most of the British that this kind of independence is the only goal. There are peoples unready for anything approaching independence, and a tutelary power has much to give them: they need it and will accept it. In the course of a prolonged connection, such a dependency partakes deeply of the culture of the ruling power, including its language and political traditions, and develops close ties of interest and sentiment. The two may thus become so fully integrated that as the dependency approaches maturity it may see that its best and most secure destiny lies in free partnership with its former rulers. Dominion status in the British Commonwealth offers a terminal point of equality and dignity which is not inferior to, but merely different from, independence. "Commonwealth status," as Mr. Amery defined it, "is not one of independence minus certain rights and privileges but of independence plus the rights and privileges and the practical advantages accruing from a world-wide free partnership. It is, in fact, the status of this country."

The practical -- and, admittedly, interested -- British mind is not convinced that any good purpose would be served by wrenching even the more advanced colonies from their setting in an Empire which in the last six years has proved its moral and physical value not only to its constituent parts but to the world. Were they thus cut loose, they would presumably be set up as very weak units under an experimental world organization. As colonies within the Empire, or -- as they make the grade -- dominions, they can have all the certain advantages of the imperial connection, without forfeiting any of the still uncertain benefits to be conferred by the international organization. It is worth remarking that, as Britain is never likely to continue to hold a territory by force, her hope and interest that colonies will wish to become dominions give her a far more positive impulse to serve them than could be imparted by the knowledge that her actions were being supervised by an international agency. The publicity and general stimulus such supervision could provide have a marginal value even to a humane and liberal Power, however.

But Americans who are still convinced that complete independence must be the ultimate destiny of colonies may be comforted by an investigation of British colonial policy as regards training in self-government, since this training will be equally valuable whether it eventuates in independence or dominion status. We may therefore now consider some of the achievements and discuss some of the problems of the widest, most variegated and most conscious experiment in political education that the world has known.

Britain's greatest achievement in this field has undoubtedly been her success in laying a strong foundation of local government, upon which central government can be built. This British method of teaching self-government -- one might almost say this habit -- sprang from many causes. The use of such political machinery as existed in dependencies was, first of all, an obvious convenience and economy, where staff and revenue were short. But to the British, the harnessing of existing societies to the purposes of modern government became much more than an initial convenience. Especially in Nigeria, under the inspiration of Lord Lugard, new principles of government and education were woven into accumulating experience to make a philosophy of "indirect" government. It included the new respect for primitive institutions taught by anthropologists and the findings of modern psychology on the superiority of evocative as against repressive influences. The policy also drew upon the two main streams of British political thought. On the conservative side was the surviving aristocratic tradition with its sense of the necessity of organic growth, and, on the other, the liberal abhorrence for arbitrary interference with or intolerance toward the rights of groups or individuals. The result of this approach was that "native administrations," as they were called, were given real powers, with an almost unbroken upward curve of increase in responsibility.

Let us take some concrete examples. The delegation of responsibility has, perhaps, been most complete and successful in matters of justice. The vast mass of litigation -- and tribal people are highly litigious -- is settled by native judges in their own courts according to their own laws. Only barbarous laws, procedure and punishments have been interfered with. Powers of local courts vary according to the experience and advancement of the different communities. Some of the Moslem courts in Nigeria have power of life and death, and from this summit the powers range downward through authority to imprison and fine to the petty powers of a clan or village court. Appeal, generally through one or two grades of native court, go to the British magistrate or administrator, but the number of appeals is generally a minute fraction of the tens of thousands of cases that pass through the native courts of any sizable colony. Inspection and review provide an additional check. I have myself listened, with the help of interpreters, to scores of cases in native courts, and have nearly everywhere been impressed by the independent bearing of the accused and other principals in criminal cases, and also with the way in which public opinion in these always-crowded court rooms plays openly and often very vocally upon the process of adjudication.

The native administrations have executive, financial and legislative as well as judicial powers. If authority is in the hands of a hereditary chief, he exercises it nearly always in conjunction with ministers or assistants, or with a council, though much still needs to be done to "democratize" some native governments. Councils are formed in various ways. In some places they are partly elected and partly nominated; in others, constituent tribes or clans or even "extended families" select their own representatives according to their own custom. Often, where custom tends to create a gerontocracy, the government has persuaded the authorities to add members of the younger, educated group, which is often organized into a "progressive union." The form of selection, the procedures and the powers of those in authority are everywhere in process of active development.

There cannot be any easy way of measuring the success of a policy which shows all the varieties of form both within and between dependencies which the indigenous realities demand. Finance, however, which, in British eyes, is the essential element in local government, offers a fairly solid yardstick. In nearly all colonies the figures show a rapid rise in the proportion of taxes levied by local authorities or in the amount retained by them as a rebate from the general tax. Thus in Nigeria, out of a total revenue in 1938-1939 of 5,811,000 pounds, 1,580,000 pounds are retained and expended by native local governments, many of which have very wide powers. At the top of the list of Nigerian local governments comes Kano, an ancient Moslem emirate with a highly organized system of ministers and district heads, and a revenue of more than 250,000 pounds. In the Sudan, where local governments were launched only a few years ago, nearly 500,000 pounds are spent by the local governments, out of a total revenue of about 5,000,000 pounds and out of the 1,000,000 pounds spent on the provinces.

III

It might be illuminating to look a little more closely into the administration of one of the most politically backward and primitive groups. (To use such terms of description, incidentally, does not mean that the individuals composing the group are not highly educable and vigorous.) We shall take a district in the pagan bush country of the southeast of Nigeria. Here direct taxation was introduced only about 1930, because the political system -- or lack of it -- was so atomic, and because British officers found the tonal language almost impossible to learn. At that time, the fear that women might be taxed led to widespread and serious disorders, and the system of local government could be begun only about ten years ago. In 1944 a report upon one of these districts containing about 200,000 people showed that adult males paid the modest sum of four shillings sixpence a head in direct taxation. Of the total, 40 percent (13,178 pounds) was retained by a council which represented a large number of small clans which had never coöperated for any purpose before. With this sum the local government maintained 207 miles of local roads (trunk roads are a central responsibility), five medical dispensaries with their native staffs, five leprosy inspectors and 19 leprosy clinics. It had built and maintained 124 buildings, courts, rest houses, treasuries and staff quarters, and had on its payroll 146 salaried employees and an average of 167 employees paid by the day. Moreover, in its enthusiasm for progress it had refused to allow the African clan-heads to keep the 10 percent allowed them by the central government for their services in collecting the tax. Stimulated by the organized Christian and educated groups, the council insisted upon paying this money into a special fund to finance scholarships to the secondary schools.

In this district, especially among the "progressives," resistance to taxation has given way to the desire for an increase in the present low rate, while the keenness to make the money go as far as possible caused many of the public works to be carried out at about a quarter the cost that the central government expected. So intense is the local patriotism that all posts under local government are kept for local men and are shared out in elaborate equity among every village and clan. When we note that the older generation can remember the days when almost every group of a few hundred families was ready to fight its neighbors, and that ritual murder and cannibalism are even yet not completely stamped out, it is proper to conclude that an astonishing apprenticeship to self-government is being served in this part of Nigeria.

The foregoing describes in barest outline the achievements of a federation of native local governments in a single district which represents only one-three-hundredth part of the total population of the British colonies. Many other widely differing instances could be given. Their common features are that government is molded as far as possible upon the tribal institutions, but with progressively more modern procedure and functions. I think it may justly be said that the powers conferred, however limited in some cases, are real. Local government is probably weakest in the West Indies. Among other reasons, this is because most of the Islands were so small that central government tended to fill the whole stage, and partly because slavery was a far less promising foundation for local government than a vigorous tribalism.

Municipal developments in the colonies have not, on the whole, kept pace with progress in the rural areas. In most dependencies, towns are the mushroom results of European intrusion. Municipal administration demands high standards and a grasp of new techniques, yet the shifting and heterogeneous crowds attracted to the urban centers have least solidarity and political tradition. Even in this sphere, however, and even in Africa, there have been important recent advances as the educated and professional groups in the towns begin to show increasing interest and ambition. Those who charge Britain with following a dilatory policy may note that in some places the opportunities offered appear to have run beyond the capacity of the people to make use of them. The Governor of the Gold Coast, for example, recently chided the people of Accra and Kumasi for not making use of their franchise, pointing out that in the latter city at the recent municipal elections only 828 out of 14,000 voters came to the polls.

IV

The control of central government, which seems to raise a clear-cut issue between independence and subjection, inevitably attracts more attention from America than the essential, multiform foundations upon which central government must be built. Unfortunately a closer view shows that there is nothing clear-cut even about the central machinery. True, in every colony the ultimate control of affairs is reserved by Britain, and that control is expressed in the strong, formal and discretionary powers of the governor. But, as with local government, there are all degrees of delegation of authority, not only in the forms of the constitutions but still more in the spirit in which, under the varying conditions, they are worked.

The institution most relevant to our inquiry, the legislative council, comes down (with much metamorphosis) in direct descent from the first colonies in America. There is almost every conceivable variety of legislative council, from the type which is wholly an official body to the type which is almost wholly elected and unofficial. The composition of the councils is in a state of constant revision and, except in very rare cases, the development is in the direction of including a greater proportion of "unofficial" members, and of electing rather than appointing them. In practice, the legislative council almost always operates more liberally than the form itself seems to imply. This is because, though the governor and his officials must have in reserve the power to put through the policy of His Majesty's Government even against opposition, the precondition of a happy and effective tenure of office for a governor is the fullest harmony between him and the community under his charge.

Only by reading the debates of these councils, which are published in full, is it possible to realize how completely all the business and finance of government pass under the public criticism of representatives of the people and how large a measure of influence and even of control they exert over the affairs of the colony. Wherever an active public opinion exists, it never ceases to play continuously upon the governor and his staff through a dozen different channels. The House of Commons institution of questions has spread to the colonies; and all colonial governments are open, during sessions, to a rain of interrogations. There was, for example, an African elected member in the Nigerian Chamber whose questions, arraigning the conduct of government departments, used to run into hundreds during the brief sessions of council. And he got his answers, which fill many pages of the records.

Most of the councils have finance committees with heavily unofficial representation, and these examine every item of the budget and summon heads of departments to defend their estimates. Select committees are appointed, again with strong and sometimes predominant unofficial representation, to work over all important bills put forward by the government. These bills, in turn, are often the outcome of earlier discussions with unofficial groups, such as chambers of commerce or professional associations, which may originally have proposed them. Nor is the committee system confined to the limited circle of legislative councillors: there is an ever-increasing tendency to set up standing or special boards and committees, some advisory and some with executive powers, which are largely staffed by other unofficial members and which do an immense amount of work. This development has been much accelerated by the war; colonial governments could not have carried through the heavy tasks of production of food and other supplies without the unqualified support of the leaders of the peoples. No official staff was available to administer all these tasks and the solution was to entrust an important part of them to unofficial administrators. The plans for postwar development, which are to be financed largely from imperial funds, are being built up with the advice of central and provincial planning boards with strong unofficial representation.

The true picture of a colonial government does not, therefore, show an autocratic governor and his henchmen standing in lofty detachment above his resentful subjects, but rather a wide diffusion of political functions and an intricate dovetailing of official and unofficial activities. Even when, from the far distance, the ear catches nothing but the clamor of one of those constitutional clashes which inevitably break out from time to time where complete self-government is withheld, the actual situation may be very different from that evoked by the echo. The same man, white or black, who makes a resounding speech that will please his constituents and attract attention in Westminster, quoting, it may be, fiery tags from the days of the American Revolution, may very well be an influential member of the councils of the colony, working all other days of the week in effective partnership with the official side. It would, of course, be a great mistake to assume that his speech has, therefore, no reason or significance: it may indeed be a kind of formal announcement, like a notice put up to prevent the formation of a legal right of way across private property, to make plain that a working partnership for the present does not mean renunciation of the demand for self-government in the future. However valuable the training given by membership in the legislative council, however large a measure of coöperation may be attained, there must be a point, so long as a territory remains a colony, at which full responsibility is denied, and since man is a political animal, that will always be a potential point of friction.

The existence of this point does not turn the legislative council into the "farce" that angry colonial officials sometimes call it. I have had the opportunity of attending sessions of councils in a number of colonies and of discussing their affairs with councillors; and, during the last few years, as editor of a series of studies of the working of colonial councils, it has been my task to read many volumes of their debates. In all of these debates, and especially, of course, where there are politically apt and virile British groups, as in Kenya and Northern Rhodesia, there is a fairly constant pressure upon the government to advance the pace of constitutional development. Similar ambitions and pressures are found among the non-European groups, especially in Jamaica, Ceylon and the Gold Coast. It would indeed be a sad comment on the political vitality of the colonial peoples and of their constitutional training at the hands of Britain if this were not so. But to assume that because, when a certain stage is reached, good government is no alternative to self-government, is not -- as I read the evidence -- to say that until that stage is reached, there are not many effective and educational compromises on the way.

V

"On the way." That is the keynote today in the Empire. Colonial policy is being continuously woven from many strands: the warp is drawn from the ideas and experiences of the colonies overseas and the woof from the varied interests and opinions in Britain -- commercial, strategic, humanitarian, religious. Who is to pronounce whether in each case these most difficult decisions which determine the pace of the journey and its direction are just? When the United States conquered the Philippine Islands was it right to refuse the Filipinos the independence for which they were then struggling, and to keep repeating that refusal until a few years ago? The United States refused because it thought that it had not yet trained the Filipino people sufficiently in self-government. Is it right to give them full self-government now, at the moment of liberation from the Japanese? Americans would reply, "Who has the right, the knowledge or the power to decide these issues except ourselves?" So Britain has made her own decisions for her Empire, delegating responsibility stage by stage. There are no precedents to guide; each dependency is a case by itself. Every large delegation is an act of faith, and to go too fast may be more harmful for the people and for Britain than to go too slowly, since it is almost impossible to retrace a step.

Much more could be said of this process of political training. I have considered here mainly the local government and the central legislative side. There is also the question of the infiltration of the colonial peoples into the executive ranks of the central government in replacement of metropolitan officials, a process which has gone very far in Ceylon and the West Indies. This in turn leads on to the question of higher education, which is closely bound up with training for self-government and upon which three important reports are now due from commissions of inquiry. But that is a subject which would demand an article to itself.

For all that could be written of Britain's colonial achievements, as much or more could be written, by those with first-hand knowledge, of mistakes due to lack of knowledge or sympathy, to bad timing by this governor or a repressive action by that. But these criticisms would be directed to the working of the system and would be made with the hope of improving it. There are now very few in Britain, even on the left wing, who do not recognize that the best way in which certain parts of the world can come to unity and civilization and release their latent powers is through a period of tutelage by a mature and democratic nation. When, for example, we in Britain contrast Liberia with the Gold Coast, or Haiti with Jamaica, we believe that the peoples of the two states which have been under steady tutelage are nearer the goal of a civilized and sound self-government than those who never knew such tutelage or who lost it too soon.

When attempts are made by Britishers like myself to answer American criticism of the colonial Empire it is because we so deeply regret a misunderstanding which impairs the coöperation essential to the interests of both Powers, not because we feel that the existence of this colonial relationship needs any excuse. If Americans are to understand us they should ask themselves what it is in their own national life that calls up a sense at once of pride and energy. Is it that expansion across a great continent and the exploitation of its natural riches into the world's greatest industrial system? The British feel much the same about their own expansion and their founding of dominions and colonies all over the world. Do Americans feel proud of having drawn men from so many foreign and often unhappy countries, of having assimilated them and given them freedom and unity in their melting-pot? So do the British feel pride in having carried all over the world a flag that stands for the rule of law and constitutional government. Britain is proud that men of very diverse races have received these liberties, proud that they eagerly demand more; and she is proud that they have shown themselves ready to fight beside the mother country from which those ideas of freedom are derived. We do not know yet if these people will always wish to remain with us. We have made many mistakes and may make a good many more. But Britain is not in doubt or in retreat about this question. She is resolute to show that the imperial bond can be made of equal service to herself and to the dependent peoples.

[i] Margery Perham, "African Facts and American Criticisms," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, April 1944.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • MARGERY PERHAM, Reader in Colonial Administration, Oxford University; member of the Advisory Committee on Education in the Colonies; author of "Africans and British Rule" and other works
  • More By Margery Perham