War, Empire and the Attlee government 1945–1951

By John Newsinger https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0306396818779864

Well I won’t be ever voting Labour again!

In this article, adapted from a speech delivered at a conference on reparative history, the author challenges the dominant view of the progressive radicalism of the postwar Attlee government by exposing the brutality of its imperial adventures. Examining British involvement in Vietnam, Indonesia, Greece, Malaya, Kenya, India, Palestine, Iran and Korea, the piece paints a very different and bloody historical narrative from the dominant one. It argues that the welfare state was accompanied by the creation of the warfare state and that it was the Labour Party which cemented the ‘special relationship’ with the United States, which today the vast majority of the parliamentary Labour Party would still like to see hold sway in terms of foreign policy and questionable foreign interventions.

In his 2013 documentary film, The Spirit of ’45, Ken Loach presented a somewhat nostalgic view of the 1945–1951 Labour governments, celebrating their programme of domestic reform, best described as the putting in place of a system of welfare capitalism.1 Whatever criticisms one might have of the portrayal of Labour’s domestic achievements, more important is the fact that such a film from a leftist film-maker had an altogether absent dimension. What was missing was any serious concern about the Attlee government’s foreign, defence and colonial policies, about what can be usefully described as its imperial strategy. As well as the modern welfare state, the Labour government also established the modern warfare state, a much less celebrated achievement. Not only does this deserve more attention than it generally receives, but it also, as we shall see, seriously impacted on the government’s domestic agenda, and arguably brought about its downfall in 1951. Moreover, the government’s reputation as somehow ‘progressive’ with regard to imperial affairs, a reputation deriving from Indian Independence, was spurious. The Labour government engaged in a number of (now forgotten) colonial wars and only reluctantly conceded independence to India in order to avoid revolt on a scale that the British would not have been able to suppress. And the Attlee government’s involvement in the Korean war was remarkably similar to the Blair government’s later involvement in the Iraq war. The main differences were that the Korean war was an even more bloody and murderous affair than the Iraq war, but that the Cold War provided a much more plausible pretext than the ‘war on terror’. But how did the Labour government itself explain away its embrace of imperialism?

The starting point has to be the nature of imperialism itself. Too many historical accounts reduce discussion of Empire to colonialism, to the occupation and administration of conquered territories. The better studies include some acknowledgement of the ‘informal empire’, that is of those formally independent countries which did what the British government told them to. But there is another dimension to imperialism: the competition – military, political, economic, even cultural – between rival great powers. This imperialist competition has been the great driving force of modern history, consuming millions of lives in two world wars and countless smaller ones, and actually threatening the destruction of human civilisation altogether in the Cold War. After a brief hiatus following the fall of the Soviet Union, this imperialist competition between the great powers has resurfaced with a vengeance today. Any meaningful historical discussion of the British Labour Party and Empire has to embrace these dimensions.

The Statement of War Aims, 1917
One problem with Labour is the gap between what the leadership has said it was committed to and believed in, and what its governments actually did in practice. A good starting place to explore this discrepancy is provided by the Party’s Statement of War Aims, made decades before Attlee’s government, which was adopted at a joint conference with the Trades Union Congress on 28 December 1917. According to Mark Phythian, this was the Labour Party’s first serious consideration of ‘questions of war and peace’ and it showed the party’s ‘instinctive pacifism’.2 The Statement, three-and-a-half years into the Great War, committed the party to ‘so conduct the terrible struggle in which they find themselves engaged as to bring it, as soon as may be possible, to a secure and lasting peace for the world’. It proclaimed that ‘the fundamental purpose of the British Labour movement in supporting the continuance of the struggle is that the world may henceforth be made safe for democracy’. It called for ‘the complete democratisation of all countries; on the frank abandonment of every form of Imperialism; on the suppression of secret diplomacy … and the entire abolition of profit-making armament firms, whose pecuniary interest lies always in war scares and rivalry in preparation for war’. The Statement supported ‘the principle of allowing each people to settle its own destiny’ with ‘the outstanding example being that of the Poles’. It called for the establishment of ‘a free state’ in Palestine ‘to which such of the Jewish people as desire to do so may return and work out their own salvation’. And it called for the European colonies in Tropical Africa to be placed under the control of the League of Nations. There were also a number of statements of opposition to the postwar plans of the ‘Imperialists and capitalists’ of all nations. The Statement was carried by 2,132,000 votes to 1,164,000. Opposition came primarily from those most supportive of the Lloyd George government, which regarded any Statement as undermining the war effort, and were openly pro-imperialist.3

What prompted the Statement was fear of revolutionary contagion from Russia. The Labour leadership recognised that it had to move to the Left, at least rhetorically, to defeat any revolutionary challenge. And, of course, the Bolsheviks had publicly called for a ceasefire and released the text of the Allies’ Secret Treaties (which were published in Britain by the Manchester Guardian on 13 December 1917), revealing for all to see the imperialist ambitions underpinning the Allied war effort.

Rhetoric or reality? When the Statement was passed, there were still Labour ministers participating in the Lloyd George Coalition; Arthur Henderson, the Labour leader, had been a member of the Coalition government at the time of the 1916 Easter Rising, after which Labour MPs had joined in cheering the news of the execution of the rebel leaders. More to the point, over the years since the 1917 Statement was passed, Labour governments have made war, crushed colonial rebellions and embraced the arms industry. It is worth remembering that it was the Attlee government that began the development of British nuclear weapons and Attlee had, as Prime Minister, endorsed the US decision to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Indeed, the only part of the 1917 Statement to which Labour has remained true is its commitment to Zionism and even here, whenever the Zionist cause was felt to conflict with the interests of British imperialism, it was abandoned, even if only temporarily. It is worth noticing, moreover, that the Labour commitment in 1917 actually went further than the Balfour Declaration, which had at least paid lip-service to the rights of the Palestinian people.

Part of the problem with distinguishing between the rhetoric and the practice of British Labourism over the years since the first world war is that many active party members and even some Labour MPs have indeed been ‘instinctive pacifists’. This has been particularly true of those on the Left of the party. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that their concerns have not been the concerns of Labour governments which have always pursued the interests of British imperialism as they have seen them. During the 1945 general election campaign, Winston Churchill accused the Labour Party of having a ‘secret Socialist Foreign Policy’ whereas, as Peter Taylor has pointed out, while many party members hoped this was the case, in reality, the party had ‘what can only be called a secret capitalist and traditional foreign policy’.4 And, under the Attlee government, the pursuit of British imperial interests involved embracing, however reluctantly, a subordinate position to the United States, a subordination that continues today even under President Donald Trump. British politicians of all parties have always insisted on calling this subordination a ‘special relationship’.

Restoring colonial rule
What of the Attlee government’s reputation for being somehow ‘progressive’ in colonial affairs? What we find is a different rhetoric from that of the Conservatives, but a remarkably similar practice. At the end of the second world war, the Labour government found itself involved in three military interventions, in Indo-China, Indonesia and in Greece, all initiated while Labour had been in coalition with the Conservatives, but now enthusiastically continued. In Indo-China, British troops intervened in the south of the country to restore French colonial rule. The first British and Indian troops arrived in Saigon in early September 1945 (by which time Attlee had taken office). They were welcomed as liberators by the Vietnamese, who were under the sadly mistaken impression that the Allies were going to recognise their independence. The British soon came into conflict with the Communist-led Vietminh nationalist opposition. By the beginning of October, there were over 20,000 British and Indian troops in the city, engaged in a running battle with the rebels. Artillery was used against rebel positions inside the city and, according to one contemporary account, the British ‘deliberately burned down great sections of the native quarter in Saigon’.5 The situation became so desperate that the British rearmed surrendered Japanese troops to help suppress the Vietminh. By the time the British handed over to the French, over forty British and Indian soldiers had been killed. The British claimed to have killed over 600 Vietminh fighters, but the death toll, including civilians, was certainly much higher.6 The British were also involved in restoring French control in Cambodia, with a small British force being despatched to Phnom Penh where they once again rearmed Japanese troops to help maintain order.7

This colonial adventure excited little concern back in Britain at the time. The same cannot be said for the much more bloody intervention in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). Once again, British troops began arriving after Labour had taken office, and found themselves confronting a well-armed nationalist movement that had taken control of most of the country. Fighting was so fierce that the British turned to the Japanese prisoners-of-war, rearming thousands of them and deploying them against the rebels. The city of Semarang was taken by Japanese forces, using both tanks and artillery, killing over 2,000 rebel fighters and civilians, and driving the survivors out. According to one account, ‘Truck loads of Indonesian prisoners with their hands tied behind their backs were driven into the countryside and never seen again.’8 When the Japanese handed over to the British on 20 October 1945, the British were so impressed that the Japanese commander, a Major Kido, was recommended for the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). Such an award would, of course, have been political dynamite at a time when British prisoners were being liberated from Japanese camps and would have drawn unwelcome attention to the Labour government’s policy of imperial restoration. Indeed, both Attlee and Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary, lied to the House of Commons about the extent of the use of Japanese troops.9

The heaviest fighting took place in the port-city of Surabaya where some 4,000 British troops came under attack towards the end of October. Over 200 British and Indian soldiers were killed, including their commander, Brigadier Mallaby. Reinforcements were poured into the city and on 9 November a full-scale assault, involving 24,000 troops supported by twenty-four tanks, was launched. Surabaya was shelled by both land and sea and bombed from the air. On the first day of the assault, over 500 bombs were dropped on the city including 1,500 pounders. Two cruisers and three destroyers joined in pounding the city. It was, according to one account, ‘one of the largest single engagements fought by British troops since the end of the Second World War’.10 Only after three weeks of heavy fighting were the nationalist forces driven from the city, suffering some 10,000 casualties in the process. At the end of the fighting, ‘90 percent of the city’s population were now refugees’.11 Even today, this major battle is virtually unknown in Britain, although in Indonesia the first day of the British attack, 10 November, is still celebrated as ‘Heroes Day’, commemorating the Indonesian struggle for independence.

Elsewhere, the British were actually driven out of Magelang and Ambarawa, and in fighting for control of Bandung, much of that city was burned to the ground. The war was waged with considerable brutality and British troops shot prisoners out of hand ‘as a matter of routine’.12 At the height of the fighting, there were 60,000 British troops occupying the country. They only finally handed over to the Dutch in November 1946. By then over 600 British and Indian troops had been killed, more than 1,400 had been wounded and another 300 were missing. There were accusations that Indian troops were deliberately placed in the firing line in order to minimise British casualties which were more politically damaging for the government. The rearmed Japanese had suffered over 1,000 casualties. At the time, there was considerable opposition to this intervention, both in Britain itself, in Australia, but also among many British and Indian soldiers. The ferocity of the Indonesian resistance and the scale of the losses they inflicted were salutary lessons for the British army. The conclusion drawn was that war with mass nationalist movements in heavily populated colonies was something to be avoided at all costs as the British Empire no longer had the military and economic strength to defeat them. This lesson certainly informed the Labour government’s response to Indian nationalism.

The Labour government’s reputation as being ‘progressive’ in its colonial policy is completely dependent on the fact that this brutal war, with the loss of so many lives, has been almost completely forgotten, indeed suppressed. Note the Indonesian intervention was considerably more bloody than the British role in the recent occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. One last point goes some way towards explaining British interest in the Dutch East Indies: ‘In August 1945 a highly secret agreement had been signed by the Dutch granting the British and Americans access to thorium deposits – vital for nuclear processes – on Singkep island.’13

The Labour government inherited military intervention in Greece, although Attlee and co. had been members of the Churchill Coalition when British troops were first sent into Athens to crush the Communist-led resistance. By the time Labour came to power, the resistance had already been driven out of Athens after heavy fighting, but Attlee and Bevin continued the policy of royalist restoration they had supported as members of the Coalition. Sir Orde Sergeant, the Permanent Undersecretary at the Foreign Office, actually wrote reassuringly to Rex Leeper, the British ambassador in Athens, that Labour was wholeheartedly committed to the intervention in Greece, but had ‘to give it all the trappings of anti-Imperialist non-interventionist respectability’.14 As it was, the deteriorating situation, with the country descending into civil war, proved too costly. After the Labour government had provided £200 million in military and £144 million in economic aid for a reactionary Greek government that embraced former collaborators, in February 1947, Foreign Secretary Bevin had to reluctantly acknowledge that the burden was too great. Greece, which had been regarded as part of Britain’s ‘informal empire’, had to be handed over to the Americans. Even so, the last British troops were not withdrawn until 1950. The British surrender of primacy in Greece was, of course, of considerable significance, occasioning the declaration of the Truman Doctrine. It was the first postwar diplomatic acknowledgement of British subordination to the United States. What had been seen as an alliance between great powers was now reluctantly and often bitterly acknowledged as a dependent relationship with Britain very much the junior partner.15

Merdeka!’ – Liberation
One other restoration is worth briefly noticing here: the restoration of British rule in Malaya. Here the British had to fight no battles against armed nationalists; indeed the Malayan Communists were actually allies, with their leaders honoured by the British government. Chin Peng, soon to become Communist Party secretary, was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) no less. Instead of taking advantage of British involvement in Indo-China and Indonesia to launch a war of liberation, the Communists devoted their efforts to building up a strong trade union movement and a constitutional broad Left alliance uniting Malays, Chinese and Indians. The growth of a militant Left in Malaya was not acceptable to the Labour government in London. Malaya’s tin and rubber were vital for British economic recovery. In 1948, Malayan rubber and tin earned more dollars than all Britain’s own exports. Repression by Britain was to drive the Communists down the road to insurrection. Strikes were broken, leftwing newspapers were closed and leftwing activists were imprisoned.

Demonstrations were dispersed by force. On 15 February 1946, Communist-organised demonstrations were banned and, when they went ahead, were attacked by police and troops. In Singapore, two demonstrators were killed and in Labis fifteen were killed. A demonstration in Mersing protesting against this loss of life was dispersed, with another seven demonstrators killed.16 As part of their war on the Left, the British proceeded to strip thousands of non-Malays – Chinese and Indians – of their citizenship. By closing the door to reform, the Labour government effectively precipitated a Communist insurgency in 1948.

The Labour government introduced a State of Emergency on 19 June 1948, in effect imposing a police-state regime on the colony. This was accompanied by mass arrests. By the end of August, 4,500 people had been rounded up, with the brunt of the repression falling on the trade unions. The Pan Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU) had already been banned, but now activists were arrested, sacked and blacklisted, so that by September 1948 union membership had fallen from over 154,000 to only 75,000. And, in May 1949, the former general secretary of the PMFTU, S. A. Ganapathy, a veteran of the anti-Japanese resistance, was hanged, despite international protests, for possession of a pistol.

The Communists launched a guerrilla insurgency which the British initially attempted to crush by means of brutality and intimidation. Villages were burned down, torture was commonplace and prisoners were routinely shot ‘while trying to escape’. This culminated in the Batang Kali massacre of December 1948 in which twenty-four Chinese unarmed civilians were killed, a matter that the Labour government again successfully covered up. This repression failed to crush the revolt and so the British introduced the forcible resettlement of the Chinese population, the backbone of the insurgency, in heavily policed camps in June 1950, the so-called Briggs Plan. This used to be presented as part of a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy, as a sort of welfare state counter-insurgency, but, as Leon Comber has pointed out, ‘although it has not been widely commented on in the published literature, the Briggs resettlement plan bears an extraordinary resemblance to the Japanese Protection Village program introduced by the Japanese when they invaded Manchuria and China in the 1930s … the matter is worthy of further research’.17

‘Moto’ – Fire
There was a similar pattern of development in Kenya, where the Labour government’s refusal to challenge the power of the white settlers precipitated rebellion. Here the Attlee government was once again confronted with a militant trade union movement. This was clearly incompatible with Colonial Office thinking. As an official handbook for Kenyan workers explained, ‘Trade unions are formed so strikes can be avoided.’18 Instead, the militants established the East African Trades Union Congress (EATUC) on May Day 1949 and raised the demand for independence and an end to white settler rule on May Day 1950. The EATUC was the first organisation to call for independence, provoking the arrest of its leaders, Fred Kubai and Makhan Singh. And on 16 May, thousands of workers began walking out on strike in protest. The colony was gripped by a general strike that started in Nairobi but spread throughout the country and, at its height, saw over 100,000 workers out on strike. Throughout the general strike, a great fire was kept burning outside Nairobi and the cry ‘Moto’ (Fire) became the strikers’ slogan. The strike lasted for nine days before it was called off by the unofficial leadership responding both to government repression and to an increase in the minimum wage. Over 350 workers were arrested and thrown into prison and some 2,000 were victimised. The EATUC’s general secretary, Makhan Singh, was interned without trial by a Labour Colonial Secretary, where he remained for eleven years.19 Although the so-called Mau Mau rebellion, which was only put down by the most brutal and murderous methods, began once the Conservatives had been returned to power, it had its origins in Labour’s terms of office.

‘Giving’ freedom to India
The fact that India gained independence under the Labour government is the key to the claim that Labour was ‘progressive’ as far as imperial affairs were concerned. Clement Attlee ‘gave’ independence to India, and, whatever other shortcomings there might have been, this is championed as one of the great achievements of his government. The truth is somewhat different. Let us look briefly at Labour’s record. When Gandhi launched his great campaign of civil disobedience in March 1930, there was a Labour government in power. It presided over the most brutal repression. Unresisting demonstrators were beaten to death, protests were fired on and, according to official figures, more than 60,000 people were arrested, including Gandhi himself. In Sholapur, a general strike was called to protest against Gandhi’s arrest. The workers effectively took control of the city, which was not recaptured by the police until 16 May 1930. Strikers were shot down by the police, brutally beaten and many were sentenced to public floggings. The strike leaders, Mallappa Dhanshetty, Qurban Hussain, Shrikrishna Sarda and Jagannath Shinde, were all subsequently hanged. This repression does not appear on the Labour Party’s record. It has been excised, forgotten.

This sort of amnesia is absolutely vital if the Labour Party’s ‘progressive’ reputation in imperial affairs is to be maintained. And, of course, when the Congress Party was suppressed and Gandhi was once again arrested along with thousands of others in August 1942, Labour was in coalition with the Conservatives and Attlee was Deputy Prime Minister. Indeed, it was Attlee who, in Churchill’s absence, actually ordered the crackdown. This repression provoked a widespread popular insurrection that was only finally suppressed after hundreds had been killed (Nehru’s estimate was some 10,000 dead) and 90,000 people had been imprisoned. Villages were burned, there was widespread rape and looting by police and troops, and prisoners were tortured. The ‘Quit India’ revolt, needless to say, barely features in most British histories of the second world war. And when the great famine of 1943–1944 laid waste to Bengal, Labour was a partner in the Coalition government that stood by while Churchill deliberately sabotaged relief efforts, leaving some five million people to starve to death or die of disease.20 Even so, the Labour leadership did recognise that independence would have to be conceded once the war was over. The question was: what kind of independence?

What the Attlee government intended was to concede independence to a fragmented India that would still be under British domination, in effect part of Britain’s informal empire. As far as possible, Congress’s influence would be minimised by the Muslim League and the princely states. Not only would Britain keep military bases in the country, including air bases from which the Soviet Union could be bombed, but Indian troops would still be available to fight for the Empire. Not only was this unacceptable to Congress, but increasing popular unrest threatened an eventual explosion that was likely to dwarf the Quit India revolt and in which the Indian Army might side with the rebels. As late as January 1947, Ernest Bevin was arguing that Congress should be suppressed and any rebellion put down in order to ensure that India’s resources and territory remain effectively in British hands. Attlee, however, recognised that Britain just did not have either the men or the materiel to remain in occupation of the country. It was only the threat of revolution and war that persuaded the British government to order what was in effect a humiliating withdrawal, successfully dressed up as an act of great liberal statesmanship.21

If Britain had decided to crush Congress and stay on until an acceptable puppet regime could be installed, then the histories of the period would chronicle a colonial war that would have been on a considerably larger scale than either Holland’s war in the Dutch East Indies or France’s wars in Indo-China and Algeria, although with a similar outcome. Certainly, the British army’s experience in the Dutch East Indies helped persuade the generals that such a prospect was best avoided. As it was, British withdrawal was carried out in a way that left behind ‘a million dead, thirteen million displaced, billions of rupees of property destroyed, and the flames of communal hatred blazing hotly across the ravaged land’. As Shashi Tharoor puts it, ‘No greater indictment of the failures of British rule in India can be found than the tragic manner of its ending.’22

The historian, Anita Inder Singh, has, quite understandably, found Labour’s reputation for anti-imperialism rather puzzling because, even after the withdrawal from India, ‘Britain still possessed the rest of her empire and had every intention of holding on to it’.23 Holding what was left without Indian troops, though, was a problem. In December 1950, Attlee asked the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Slim, how long it would take ‘to create from the African colonies an army comparable in size and quality with the Indian Army’.24 But it was not to be. Once started, Britain’s retreat was to be irreversible.

Palestine and Zionism
As we have seen, the Labour Party’s commitment to Zionism dated back to 1917 and had been reiterated on numerous occasions in the years up until 1945. By that year, Labour was actually committed to population transfer in Palestine, with the Palestinian population being encouraged to move out so that Zionist settlers could move in. It was even proposed to ‘re-examine … the possibility of extending the present Palestinian boundaries by agreement with Egypt, Syria or Transjordan’ so as to expand the area available for Zionist settlement.25 This policy was formally adopted at the 1944 Labour Party Conference and the commitment was included in the Speaker’s Handbook issued for the 1945 general election. It is worth making the point here that, while the Labour leadership was quite prepared to see Zionist settlers displace the Palestinian population, they had no intention of allowing European Jewish refugees, the survivors of the Holocaust, into Britain. This had been the policy of the Churchill Coalition government, wholeheartedly supported by Attlee as Deputy Prime Minister and by Herbert Morrison as Home Secretary, during the war. They refused to open Britain up to Jews fleeing the Nazis, setting their faces against any policy of ‘rescue’.26 And this exclusionary policy continued once the war had come to an end, despite a chronic postwar shortage of labour that saw some 200,000 East Europeans welcomed into Britain, including, incredibly, a surrendered Ukrainian SS Division! The Labour government was determined to keep Jewish people out and, as far as possible, to repatriate people from the Caribbean who had either come to Britain as war workers or who had served in the armed forces. The extent to which Labour’s immigration policy was ‘racialised’ could not be more dramatically demonstrated than by the preference for Ukrainians and Balts who had fought in the SS over black men from the Caribbean who had fought in the British armed forces.27

While there were undoubtedly many within the Labour Party, particularly on the Left, who supported Zionism unconditionally, as some sort of socialist colonialism that, they believed, would benefit the Palestinians, for the leadership, support was predicated on Zionism’s usefulness to the British Empire. The Zionist settlement was seen as an outpost of Empire that would strengthen the British position throughout the Middle East. Once Labour took office in 1945, it was quickly made clear to ministers that the party’s Zionist commitment would alienate the Arab people throughout the whole Middle East and that this would seriously threaten Britain’s imperial position. The Zionist commitment was abandoned overnight, precipitating a Zionist revolt (encouraged by both the United States and the Soviet Union) that successfully forced the British out of Palestine at the end of June 1948. This left the Zionists free to forcibly expel an estimated 700,000 Palestinians from their homeland. The Labour Party was, of course, soon to be reconciled with the Zionists, although once again this commitment was to be underpinned by, was indeed dependent upon, the state of Israel’s usefulness to US imperialism.28

Mussadiq and Iran
On 1 May 1951, Mohammad Musaddiq signed legislation nationalising the British-owned Iranian oil industry. At the time, Iran produced some 40 per cent of Middle Eastern oil and the Abadan oil refinery was both the largest in the world and Britain’s single most valuable overseas asset. How did the Labour government respond to this anti-imperialist act by a sovereign government? The idea of any solidarity with Mussadiq’s National Front was, of course, never even considered. Iran was part of Britain’s informal empire and the government had no intention of tolerating such a challenge. The then Foreign Secretary, Herbert Morrison, a former conscientious objector, advocated military intervention to overthrow Mussadiq, telling one official how he wished he was Lord Palmerston and could just resolve the situation in the old-fashioned way, by ‘sending a gunboat’.29 There might not be enough troops available to occupy the oil-fields themselves, but the oil refinery at Abadan could be seized. It was not just the seizure of British-owned assets that outraged the government, but the example it set for other countries and the damage it did to British prestige. The Minister of War, Emanuel Shinwell, himself a former radical trade unionist, insisted that action had to be taken ‘not only because of the direct consequences of the loss of Persian oil’, but because of ‘the effect which a diplomatic defeat would have on our prestige and on our whole position throughout the Middle East’. He presciently warned that ‘the next thing might be an attempt to nationalise the Suez Canal’.

Preparations for the seizure of Abadan were put underway, appropriately named ‘Operation Buccaneer’. If this intervention had gone ahead, the Labour government’s credentials as somehow ‘progressive’ on imperial affairs would have been completely shattered. One of its last acts would have been a crude exercise in ‘gunboat diplomacy’. The reason it did not go ahead was because the opposition in the Cabinet was backed by the Americans, who made it clear that they were opposed to any such intervention. As Attlee told his colleagues, ‘We could not afford to break with the United States on an issue of this kind.’30 Instead, the government began putting in place secret plans for a coup with Attlee and Morrison themselves giving the MI6 asset in charge, Robert Zaehner, ‘his first brief’ and with preparations already underway when the government lost office.31 The coup, restoring the Shah to power, was eventually carried out as a joint US-British covert operation in 1953.

The warfare state
As we have already noticed, while the postwar Labour government is well-known for its creation of the modern welfare state, much less celebrated is its creation of the modern warfare state. This seriously distorts our understanding of the real priorities of the government, because a good case can be made that the warfare state was much more central to its concerns than the welfare state for which it is best remembered. This was obviously not true of the Labour Party’s rank-and-file members, but was certainly true of senior ministers, no matter what they said in public. As David Edgerton has pointed out, ‘the statistical evidence shows that postwar Britain was a low spender on social services by comparison with European nations. By contrast, British defence expenditures … were high by Continental European standards.’32 The warfare state was clearly the Labour government’s primary concern. As Till Geiger puts it, ‘the post-war British state should be regarded as a warfare state which prioritised the development of its military capabilities’ and that this inevitably ‘limited the scope of the Labour government’s domestic reform programme’.33 And the Attlee government was, as we shall see, to lay down its electoral life for increased military expenditure and the ‘special relationship’.

One point worth making here is that while today British subordination to the United States is absolutely taken for granted, unquestioned, regarded almost as some sort of natural phenomenon, in fact it was the product of the second world war and of the immediate postwar years. What is interesting is that Labour embraced this subordination earlier than the Conservatives, but by the late 1950s the relationship was securely in place as far as both parties were concerned. The decision to accept a subordinate relationship to the US was based on a hardnosed calculation of what was in the best interests of the British state and economy. British capitalism still had global interests, but no longer had the military strength and resources to protect them. Only the United States had that capability. This is the reality that underpinned the so-called ‘special relationship’. The romantics were those rightwing Conservatives who thought that Britain could still ‘go it alone’.

Part of the working out of Britain’s subordinate position with the United States was the creation of the new warfare state. Attlee’s decision in January 1947 to develop a British nuclear bomb was an important step in this process. The decision was taken in secret without any reference to the Cabinet, to Parliament or to the Labour Party. Ironically, it was taken in an attempt to lessen reliance on the Americans, but the relationship was already far too one-sided for the mere possession of nuclear weapons to redress it. The supposed need to remain a nuclear power has, over time, actually increased British dependence on the United States. (Britain’s vaunted ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent is, of course, today a ‘dependent’ nuclear deterrent, wholly dependent on American goodwill.)

Later in 1947, the Labour government took the historically momentous decision to allow the Americans to establish bases for their B-29 bombers in Britain. This opened the way for the establishment of permanent foreign, that is American, military bases on British soil for the first time in the modern era. This revolution in British military affairs has attracted nothing like the scrutiny it deserves. (And, of course, that US presence is still there, long after the end of the Cold War, accepted as the natural order of things by both the Labour and Conservative parties.) In October 1947, Stafford Cripps, the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, made the Labour government’s position clear: Britain had to be ‘the main base for the deployment of American power’.34 It is worth noticing that in 1948, US war plans envisaged ‘dropping 50 atomic bombs on 20 Soviet cities’.35 By 1950, the Americans had nuclear weapons based in Britain without the British government having negotiated any say in their use. This took subordination to positively ‘puppet’ status. Even the Americans were astonished.36

The last piece of the modern warfare state was British participation in the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in April 1949, the first permanent military alliance in British history. Indeed, the Labour government can make a serious claim to have been the driving force behind the formation of NATO, with Ernest Bevin as its chief architect.

The Korean bloodbath
British troops were sent to Korea in 1950, to participate in one of the most brutal post-1945 conflicts, in order to sustain the alliance with the United States. There was no other British interest. A failure to have supported the Americans would have done serious, perhaps irreparable, damage to relations between the two countries. The war, though sanctioned by the United Nations, was America’s war. British troops were there not out of any loyalty to the UN but out of loyalty to the US. US bombing was carried out without any concern for the scale of civilian casualties; the results were horrendous. General Curtis LeMay of the US Air Force was frank about the impact of the bombardment: ‘We burned down just about every city in North Korea and South Korea both … during three years of warfare we killed off over a million civilian Koreans and drove several more million from their homes, with the inevitable additional tragedies bound to ensue.’37 During the war, the US dropped 32,357 tonnes of its new ‘wonder weapon’, napalm, on Korean towns and cities. And whereas during the entire second world war, it had dropped 503,000 tonnes of bombs on targets in the Pacific, in Korea it dropped 635,000 tonnes (excluding napalm). The result was ‘Biblical devastation’.38

The Korean war was, and is still, celebrated as a vindication of the ‘special relationship’. British subordination has been successfully ‘spun’ as influence, with Attlee supposedly intervening with President Truman to prevent the Americans using nuclear weapons. (Even Tony Benn, for many years the effective leader of the Labour Left, claimed that Attlee had ‘stopped’ the use of nuclear weapons in Korea.39) On 30 November 1950, Truman had publicly indicated that the US was considering the nuclear option. The US commander in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur later admitted to pushing for the dropping of between twenty and fifty atomic bombs on North Korea and Manchuria at the time. On 4 December, Attlee flew to Washington to inform the President of European concerns regarding such an escalation and extension of the war. He supposedly restrained the Americans from pursuing such a course. This is, as Ralph Miliband pointed out, ‘a legend’.40 The British certainly received no right of veto over the use of nuclear weapons, but were instead assured that if the decision was taken, they would be the first to be informed.

The US government’s decision not to use nuclear weapons had apparently nothing to do with Attlee’s representations. What we can surmise is that if the Americans had used nuclear weapons, the Labour government, with whatever private reservations, would have supported this, just as it had the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Attlee’s concern appeared to be not the loss of Asian lives (there was no objection to the massive scale of conventional bombing in Korea), so much as the potential loss of British lives if the Soviet Union were to retaliate. Of course, the British did not even have a veto over the use of the nuclear weapons that were based in Britain, let alone those in the Far East. The supposed veto episode was invented to reassure ordinary Labour Party members and is still used to serve that purpose today. The reality was quite different. Indeed, on two occasions, in May and September 1951, the Labour government privately assured the Americans that it would support military action against China if necessary.41

The cost of the ‘special relationship’
A good case can be made that it was its devotion to the ‘special relationship’ that led to the Labour Party’s loss of office in 1951. The previous year, the Labour government, under American pressure, introduced a massive rearmament programme, committing itself to doubling the country’s defence expenditure to £3,400 million over three years. At this time, Britain was already spending a higher proportion of GDP on defence than the United States. In January 1951, the government increased this commitment to £4,700 million, with the Americans pressing for more. The economic and political consequences of this rearmament programme were disastrous. In April 1951, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Gaitskell, a fervent pro-American, introduced his rearmament budget, raising income tax and petrol tax, suspending investment allowances to industry and introducing charges on false teeth and spectacles into the NHS. Whereas in 1950, Britain had a trade surplus of £244 million, in 1951 this was transformed into a £521 million deficit. The health charges, which only saved £25 million,were pushed through for ideological reasons, precipitating the resignation from the government of Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman. Labour narrowly lost the October 1951 general election and the Conservatives took office once again and soon cut back the rearmament programme.

America right or wrong
There is a dreadful continuity between the foreign policies of the Attlee and Blair governments. Both willingly subordinated themselves to the United States and both sent British troops to fight in brutal, bloody wars at America’s behest. History has been kinder to Attlee than to Blair, although his American war was far more costly in lives than New Labour’s adventures. Moreover, it was the Attlee government that led the way in paying the blood price required for the US alliance. Attlee took office in 1945, determined to restore the fortunes of the British Empire, but it quickly became apparent that retreat was inevitable. Nevertheless, his government was determined to hold on to as much as possible. Attlee, Bevin, Morrison and co. were all unashamed imperialists. The Attlee government accepted subordination to the United States in order to help save the British Empire and today, even with the Empire gone, the maintenance of that subordination remains one of the central concerns of the British state. The challenge this poses for Jeremy Corbyn, the first Labour Party leader opposed to this subordination, has only just begun.

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John Newsinger is Professor of History at Bath Spa University. This is an edited version of his paper ‘Imperial Silences’, given at the conference ‘Reparative Histories 2: the making, re-making and un-making of “Race”’, Brighton, April 2017.

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