Labour and Britain’s Empire from Attlee to Gaitskell

Adam Peggs
10 min readMay 26, 2020

Histories of the ‘Bevanites’, the grouping at the centre of the Labour Left in the late 1940s and 1950s, have typically focussed on a few aspects. The personal journey of Nye Bevan and his unsuccessful bid for the Labour leadership, the Bevanites role in campaigning for nuclear disarmament and their resistance toward Labour’s social democratic trajectory under Hugh Gaitskell. Often neglected is the relationships between the Bevanites— perhaps more properly called the ‘Keep Left Group’ — and the wave of anti-colonial campaigning in the 1950s and the early stages of British decolonisation. These events may hold significant lessons for the Labour left of today, including on the relatively substantial shortcomings of many of our ideological forebears.

The Bevanite line on international affairs very much grew out of the events of the immediate postwar years in which Labour was propelled into government by a landslide in 1945, becoming the great reforming government of the 20th century but failing to meaningfully shift British foreign policy. American historian Randy Rowan argues that the Attlee government, with Ernest Bevin as its Foreign Secretary, accepted ‘the traditional assumptions of British foreign policy’ in contrast to the left which hoped for a government which would ‘abandon the traditional approach to foreign affairs and adopt policies and goals based on socialist principles’. These policies and goals could be described as follows: adopting a ‘collective international security’ system, a rejection of empire and support for independence movements in the Global South. This would also involve efforts to eliminate global poverty and opposition to an arms race, which would later be a key point of intention. These differences had been overcome in the manifesto by something of a fudge. On the one hand, Labour promised ‘advancement’ for India to self-government, on the other a gradualist tone was adopted — speaking instead of ‘planned progress’ for the lands Britain had colonised.

In Malaya, British authorities had declared a State of Emergency in June 1948 and rounded up roughly 4500 people by the end of August, predominantly trade unionists. By September the events had led to the halving of the membership of the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions. These actions led to an open revolt against British rule.

In December 1948, the Labour government ‘covered up’ the massacre of a group of 24 unarmed Chinese civilians. In 1950, British authorities implemented the Briggs Plan, forcibly transferring half a million of the Malayan peasantry, one-tenth of the total population, into internment camps in stark contravention to the Geneva Conventions. This was followed by policies of collective punishment, including restricting food supply, against the camp’s populations. While some have sought to downplay these events as ‘limited’ collective punishment, they represent a major atrocity.

This seems less out of line with the fact that the 1942 crackdown on the Indian independence movement, which led to 10,000 deaths and 90,000 arrests, was enacted on the orders of then Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee. Half a decade later relatively little had changed, after British withdrawal from India had taken place the Attlee government’s intention was to remain in control of the remainder of Britain’s empire. Crucially, the Attlee government did ultimately grant independence to India, which some have claimed Churchill would have resisted with force.

Into the 1950s

The changing situation in Malaya, in which Labour accused the new Conservative administration of ‘strong arm methods’ led to a shift in the party’s approach, led primarily from the left. Woodrow Wyatt, then a left-winger, and Tom Driberg were both among those to issue loud condemnations of the government, with Driberg noting that the government’s approach appeared to sought to starve Malayan’s and Wyatt comparing British actions to fascism. This led to a more understated condemnation of the Conservative’s policy in Malaya, led by the left and signed by over 130 MPs, which accused the government of using tactics ‘contrary to civilised practice’. It is worth noting the extent to which condemnations avoided criticising the Conservative’s objectives, focussing instead on the means. Nor did this necessarily lead to a repudiation of the Briggs Plan, which one frontbencher praised and defended in parliament in 1952.

By this time the party was largely split on Malaya. Rowan argues that this was between two perspectives. One perspective, which included numerous former ministers under Attlee, the bulk of the trade union leaderships and much of the Labour-backing press, favoured self-determination in Malaya, but opposed left-wing calls for a quick timetable for independence and decried ‘simple anti-imperialism’ and left-wing ‘catch phrases’. The other, formed around the Bevanites and a minority of the trade unions, called for a dramatic break with British foreign policy and denounced the British Empire,. A vocal section of the left called for complete British withdrawal and gave unconditional support for Malayan independence, grounding both in a socialist and decolonial framework.

In 1953, Socialist Union — a moderate group founded to oppose Bevanism, set out its perspective in detail in ‘Socialism and Foreign Policy’. Here, they endorsed the goal of independence for colonised peoples and emphasised support for human rights and egalitarian goals, whilst warning against ‘idealism’ and calling for greater caution and a more ‘realist’ approach to foreign policy. In 1952, Socialist Unions publication Socialist Commentary argued against Bevanite demands for economic aid to be given to the Malayan population. In 1953, these divisions appear to have led to a unity motion from the NEC at Labour Party conference calling for decolonisation when ‘the development of each territory makes it practicable’. The following year a similar motion was challenged with amendments by the left, who called for a more substantive commitment to decolonisation.

When Mohammad Mossadegh nationalised Iran’s oil supply in 1951, in a bid to gain popular sovereignty over the countries’ natural resources, Attlee imposed a blockade but rebuffed the idea of a full-scale coup against the Iranian government. Britain’s Chiefs of Staff argued for a full military intervention against Iran. The Conservative-supporting press at the time railed against Mossadegh’s actions, emphasising a view that Iran’s oil was British property. In the Labour government, the Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morrison had argued in favour of intervention, while Attlee, Hugh Gaitskell and Hugh Dalton had demanded caution going forward. Two years later, with Labour out of office, Britain’s Conservative government and the United States did just that, removing Mossadegh and leading to the ascendency of a dictatorship. There were some sympathies with Mossadegh’s actions on the British left, including in the pages of the New Statesman. Nonetheless, the Attlee government’s policies in Iran appeared to receive little noteworthy opposition from inside the party and little changed when their Conservative successors deposed the Iranian government in August 1953. Whether the economic significance of British oil interests in Iran, and the value this represented to the exchequer, helped to mute criticism is unclear — though Attlee’s Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin had emphasised the prime importance of Iran’s oil supply to Britain’s strategic interests.

Throughout the 1950s a budding anti-colonialism began to appear on the British left. Organisations such as the Movement for Colonial Freedom and War on Want sprang up and found support and participation from members of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The Movement for Colonial Freedom (MCF) was founded in 1954, as an amalgamation of existing anti-imperialist groups including the Congress of People’s Against Imperialism. Among its founding members were Fenner Brockway, an MP and former General Secretary of the Independent Labour Party, and Tony Benn, who became the MCF’s treasurer. Among the group of MPs to advance its causes in Westminster were Barbara Castle, Harold Wilson. African National Congress leader Oliver Tambo, anti-apartheid activist Ruth First and George Padmore all played important roles in the organisation. The group would go on to be fundamental in the foundation of the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

The MCF were pivotal toward the Labour Party’s coming out in opposition to the Suez War. Gaitskell had initially, during June 1956, favoured the use of force against Gamal Abdel Nasser in what would soon become the Suez conflict and decried Egypt’s seizure of the Suez Canal as ‘totally unjustifiable’. But over the summer Gaitskell had shifted toward favouring United Nations backing before any British assault on Egypt went ahead. This was in distinction between the position set out by the likes of Konni Zilliacus, Tony Benn and Richard Crossman — with Zilliacus accusing Tory MPs of only paying ‘lip service’ to the UN Charter and engaging in imperialistic ‘power politics’.

When Britain attacked Egypt without UN approval and without the support of Commonwealth nations or the United States, Gaitskell attacked Eden in strong terms accusing him of ‘disastrous folly’ and stating that Labour would oppose the war by any constitutional means. Nonetheless, Gaitskell’s statements had a notable focus on the extent to which the war would damage Britain’s reputation, potentially undermine British influence and damage the Anglo-American alliance. Elsewhere in the party, the denouncement of the government was even fiercer. On a televised debate Michael Foot accused a Tory Member of Parliament of being a ‘criminal’, for his support for the war — allegedly almost coming to blows. Two days later, Labour and Tory MPs nearly brawled in Westminster after Eden was compared to Hitler and denounced as a ‘murderer’ and Gaitskell accused of betrayal.

The MCF, having already been vital in fostering anti-colonial sentiment in British politics, became the key player in organising the anti-Suez War protests which the Labour Party and TUC would later take over. While US pressure on the Conservative government is generally perceived to be the primary cause of British withdrawal from the war, the popularity of the Labour-led protests was also a not insignificant factor.

British Repression in Kenya

The struggle for Kenyan independence proved to be a significant driver of changing political attitudes at home. From 1952 onward, British colonial authorities had been fighting the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, in an effort to crush Kenya’s independence movement.

British repression in Kenya has also left a long and disturbing legacy, influenced by the repressive Brigg’s Plan used in Malaya and involving forced labour camps and widespread and extreme use of torture — the crimes have since been compared to the gulag.

In the early 1950s British actions in Kenya, purported to be in opposition to the ‘Mau Mau’ rebels, were routinely denounced by Barbara Castle, Richard Crossman, Tom Driberg and Labour’s former Colonial Secretary Arthur Creech-Jones. Harold Wilson, who had been noted by some for his keen interest in anti-colonial politics, would go on to cover up British crimes during his tenure as Prime Minister.

Castle, for her vocal denunciations of British action, found herself widely denounced by both Conservative MPs and the British press for her position, in particular for her series of articles covering the subject for the Daily Mirror in 1958. In the era’s moral panic about “Mau Mau” rebels (a term invented by British colonial authorities), dubbed the ’face of international terrorism’ by one scholar, figures like Castle were perceived to be on the wrong side and ultimately undermining the national interest. Even outside of the Conservative right, Castle’s anti-colonial campaigning was perceived to be flawed and perhaps even wrong-headed, with the future cabinet minister dubbed ‘obsessive’ and ‘doctrinaire’ for her views and actions.

Anti-Kenyan sentiment on the political right was particularly pronounced, with orientalist depictions of Kenyans as cannibals prominent in the British press. In a return of classic colonial narratives demands for Kenyan self-determination were deemed to be illegitimate as Kenyans were portrayed as not ‘considered civilised’ and as lacking a ‘legitimate political center’. Many of the documents relating to the camps were destroyed in 1963 when Britain withdrew from Kenya (four years later the Wilson government would deny the existence of another batch of papers).

By some accounts, the Labour Party’s pressure at home, spearheaded by the likes of Castle, no doubt alongside the conflict abroad, pressured the Conservative government to announce its intention to end British rule over Kenya. Nonetheless, it is crucial to emphasise British colonial rule in Kenya was not simply ended by parliamentarians.

During this period the internationalism of left parliamentarians rarely strayed past the limits of liberal rule-of-law approaches, for instance failing to fully grasp the vast disparity in economic power between the ‘advanced’ industrialised countries on the one hand and the countries of the Global South on the other. This is crucial for understanding the political thought in the PLP during the period, frequently seeing the priority of international foreign policy as upholding the rules-based system rather than pursuing an ethical and anti-racist foreign policy for its own sake.

Toward a new internationalism

In 1985, Ralph Miliband and Marcel Liebman, lamented the long history of British social democratic leaders in the 1940s and 1950s failing to show solidarity with those colonised by the British Empire. On examination, it is hard not to come to similar conclusions.

The Gaitskellites and the many of the veterans of the Attlee government focussed on a ‘realist’ approach to foreign policy and went very much with the grain of British foreign policy, albeit with a medium or longer-term objective for decolonisation. This may have, in part, related to the extent which the postwar welfare state was perceived to be dependent on the economic power guaranteed by Britain’s Empire. The Bevanites and the left-wing trade unions cultivated an anti-colonialism of sorts, refusing ‘to accept the whole substructure of British foreign policy’ as Anne Perkins has put it, though it often fell short from what might be required.

The left today has a role to play in opposing a foreign policy which overwhelmingly focuses on shoring up Britain’s status as a major military power, and maintaining British state and economic power, and ensuring that the Labour Party is not sucked into defending those interests in the name of ‘credibility’, patriotism and so on. This means thinking critically about the real role of British foreign policy, strengthening links with anti-war, human rights and decolonial movements, and learning from them. The Corbyn era has shown the sheer pressure which can be brought to bear upon the party when Labour attempts to challenge Britain’s foreign policy orthodoxies, counteracting these pressures will only be more of a challenge in the 2020s. Much has changed over the last sixty years, but Britain remains one of the wealthiest nation-states in the world and an influential power, as such there is still much to learn from the successes and failures of Labour’s postwar foreign policy.



Adam Peggs

Southerner. Half-Gujarati. Socialist. Internationalist. I write about economics, housing policy, Labour Party history and British politics.