British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


Speech by Lord Gridley
Given in the House of Lords on March 12th, 1979

"My Lords, when following a speaker in your Lordships' House, it is customary to comment on the statements that he has made. I have the greatest respect for the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, but I disagree fundamentally with the statement he made that there has ever been what he has termed a colonial revolution. For some 30 years I served as a colonial overseas officer. I went out from this country about 50 years ago, not in the belief that I and those who served with me were the most superior beings on this earth, but in the belief that we had a duty to serve. When I travelled over that long distance this was borne in upon me by the fact that we had a British Navy in the Mediterranean, in the Far East and in the Atlantic Ocean, and when I arrived it seemed to me that that Navy was keeping the peace of the world, which all peoples of the world enjoyed.

Following on from that, I remember meeting Mr. Ormsby-Gore, as he then was -- a Secretary of State some 50 years ago -- when I, as a young man of 20 years of age, had a conversation with him. He turned to me and said "Do you know why you are here?" Young as I was, I was completely overcome by his words to me. However, he went on to say "You are here to lead these people to self-government" . That was 50 years ago; and that was what we were involved in.

In following up my reasoning behind all this, I know from my personal experience that it is always an anxious time for Her Majesty's Government when deciding at any one moment when a particular country is ready for self-government. We had a responsibility for those people whom we were endeavouring to serve. This country had a responsibility to ensure that when it was handing over government to independent nations, they were fully equipped and able to carry out that task to the benefit of their own people in those territories. That is my answer to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Brockway.

This evening, I am immensely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood of Rossendale, for introducing this debate. It is most timely. When we consider that our former colonial empire -- now devolved to independent nationhood -- extends to over one quarter of the earth's surface, it is of immense importance -- and this underlines the remarks that I have just made -- that what independent nations believe of us and we of them should be accurate and true. It is because I value the continuance of the Commonwealth that it is most important to underline that precept: accurate and true -- for, in the years following victory in the last war, we have come to doubt some of the principles which governed our colonies and to place tradition under the microscope. This tearing up of the roots for minute examination and scrutiny of the fundamental beliefs of our forefathers which gave us a stable society has extended over the whole of our political spectrum, and has not escaped the distortions spoken and written about our colonial policy.

If we want the concept of the Commonwealth to succeed -- and I want it to succeed -- let those in this country who must one day (when we are no longer alive) by the natural progress of affairs succeed to the positions that we hold, know the truth of our past. Otherwise, our young people will lose any interest in the Commonwealth and it will die. Let me quote an example of what I mean. In our British schools where African and British boys study together, among many of the emotive statements in a book on Africa there is this -- and what conceivable good can it do to the fostering of good Commonwealth relations for African boys and British boys to read this about Africa in our schools?:--

"European interests always came before the interests of those people overseas" .

That is entirely false, and that I know from my experience.

I can say to your Lordships that remarks of the kind that I have depicted appear in the books written by some of our academics, whose grey matter is vastly superior to mine, and that in isolated cases statements of this kind fall from the lips of some of our politicians. I cannot believe that in either category these gentlemen have had my experience as a colonial officer in Malaysia for some 30 years when it was my duty to give effect to your colonial policies. That applied to all territories under the administration of the Colonial Office. Therefore, I am in a position categorically to deny that it was ever the policy of the Colonial Office to place the interests of this country before those of any overseas territories, or to carry out a policy to their detriment.

Let me face squarely the charge of exploitation. Yes, this country benefited by its association with our overseas territories, and so did they. That is a fact. Let me illustrate that statement from my own experience. As a former Commissioner of Customs and Excise in Malaysia, I am in a position to state that every dollar and cent of the huge revenues that we collected from the export of rubber and tin, the import duties and the Excise duties was ploughed back into the construction of roads, ports, electrical installations, hospitals, schools, et cetera. All those were handed over by Britain as going concerns at the time of independence and, under an independent government -- I have taken the trouble to research this -- they have, to their eternal credit, greatly extended those facilities. That is the position today.

I believe that there is a dire need for an international public relations officer for the Commonwealth, or a need for an historian, to comment on the Commonwealth's affairs. The part played by Britain in the past has been entirely honourable. In this country our children should know that. So should the children in the independent nations of the Commonwealth. Only then can they look each other straight in the face. We are now removed from close contact with our overseas friends for, by virtue of their independence, we no longer live among them. That makes it more important than ever for us and for future generations, accurately and faithfully to record these overseas people who helped us. I believe that the future of the Commonwealth depends upon this. Given that our record is faithfully kept, the Commonwealth can be strengthened by its young people, for boundaries are coming down and the isolation of distance will be removed by the speed of travel. The truth about our past will fortify them and us in the years ahead in a Commonwealth association with one another which I hope will continue.

It has been my privilege to be a colonial officer in Malaysia when Colonial Secretaries of some standing visited that country. To mention only a few whom one remembers with affection, there were the late Jim Griffths and Oliver Lyttleton. I remember the visit of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. I remember too on this Commonwealth Day the joy of the Malaysian people at the appointment of Sir Hugh Clifford as Governor and High Commissioner for the Malay States. That was many years ago when I was a young cadet in Malaya. At that time, the Malays were thrilled because when Sir Hugh was appointed he had, some years prior to that date, endeared himself to the peoples of Pahang as a young cadet and district officer. There are many books about Sir Hugh, and many books about Malaya which are worth reading and which could possibly be studied in our schools and certainly by the young people of this country.

I remember too Sir Frank Swettenham and also Sir Shenton Thomas, Governor and High Commissioner in 1940, who, when it was obvious that the Japanese attack on Malaysia in December 1941 and February 1942 would succeed, stated that it was the duty of every colonial officer to remain and share the sufferings of the Malaysian people-- those people whom we had endeavoured to serve. So far as I am aware, every colonial officer followed the Governor's advice. This was in the highest traditions of the Service. I am most grateful for the tributes which have been paid to the Colonial Service this evening by noble Lords and particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, who introduced this debate.

It is not my purpose to mention what happened afterwards during imprisonment in Changi Jail, but it is appropriate to remember with gratitude and even affection on this Commonwealth Day those Malayan people who died so that some of us in Changi might live. They were discovered sending in to the jail food and drugs to help us when we were desperately short of both. For this many of them suffered torture; some of them suffered execution. But does not this act underwrite the strong bonds which existed between us and those people who were the recipients of our service?

It is nonsense to say that we were not wanted anywhere. At the granting of independence some of these people expressed regret to me personally at our impending departure. In conclusion, I remember one incident which I think is appropriate to what we are thinking about tonight. As a young officer many years ago when wireless communication first became possible, it was a great thrill for us to listen to England some 12,000 miles away, and I remember the occasion when Her Majesty's grandfather, who seemed to be very tired at that time, went down to receive the congratulations of both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall at the end of a long reign. As we were listening to this many miles from anywhere a young Malay turned to me and said, "You know, having heard him speak, I feel it makes me want to do something better with my own life."

My Lords, that is my feeling about the Commonwealth. I am grateful to the noble Lord for introducing this debate. It is most timely. I believe in the Commonwealth's future. I am most grateful for some of the speeches I have heard this evening. They give me hope, and I hope that they will be of assistance to Her Majesty's Government."

Originally Published
OSPA Journal 37: May 1979


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