The British Empire Library

Alan Lennox Boyd: A Biography

by Philip Murphy

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Bill Kirkman (Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge: former Commonwealth and Africa Correspondent of 'The Times ')
When I began to cover the decolonisation process for The Times, Iain Macleod was Colonial Secretary. He seemed to me - and many others - to be a man with postcolonial vision, and within the limits of scepticism which all journalists should apply in their dealings with politicians, I admired him. I had no direct experience of his predecessor, the subject of this perceptive biography.

What emerges clearly from it is that Alan Lennox-Boyd, too, had a vision, and a passionate interest in Britain's colonial empire. The post of Colonial Secretary was the best prize that could have been offered to him. It was the job he wanted, and he came to it with long experience of the colonies - partly from his earlier time as Minister of State. He admired the Colonial Office and its civil servants, and the members of the Colonial Service. They, for their part, the author tells us: 'appreciated that Lennox-Boyd regarded the post of Colonial Secretary not as a stepping stone to promotion but as his ultimate political ambition.' They recognised that he most certainly knew his stuff.

Lennox-Boyd comes across, too, as a warm and likeable man, with wholly honourable motives. He was ready to listen to the man on the spot - including the quite junior man on the spot. He was non-racist.

These are clearly admirable qualities, and they explain the high regard in which he was held by so many. They leave an important question, however. Was Lennox-Boyd a good Colonial Secretary?

Here I have a problem. His vision, as it unfolds through the pages of this book, was retrospective, and increasingly unrealistic in the world in which he was operating. Ultraconservative, he showed an early distrust of democracy. It was appropriate for Britain but not for her colonial subjects. 'We are neither democrats nor Parliamentarians when we approach the problem of India until the Indian people, by a sense of responsibility, have proved to us that Western institutions of this kind are suitable to the genius of the East.' (House of Commons, 8 February 1935).

When, a quarter of a century later, he became Colonial Secretary, the essential principles that guided his approach to colonial affairs, the author comments, 'had altered little since the 1930s. He continued to believe that the maintenance of British rule was in the best interests of her colonial subjects, and that the "silent majority" of these people gave little thought to the goal of independence.'

He favoured imperial integration for Malta in the United Kingdom, and the time and commitment he put into it was 'all too typical of a number of grand schemes which he sought to nurture during his time at the Colonial Office'. He had something of an obsession with traditional rulers (such as the Kabaka of Buganda) and shared the unrealistic obsession with federations that was so damaging to colonial thinking for much of the early post-war period. The author, commenting on the failure of federations in the West Indies, Central Africa, Nigeria and Southern Arabia, remarks that 'it is difficult to point to any single common flaw in these various federal experiments which could explain their failure'. It is surely not as difficult as all that; they all lacked any homogeneity of interest on the part of their inhabitants. Certainly, in Central Africa it was perfectly clear that a system designed to perpetuate white mle would - and would deserve to - fail.

If trusting the man on the spot was an admirable quality - as it manifestly is - Lennox- Boyd's weakness was sometimes to carry it to unreasonable extremes. His readiness to back Baring, the Governor, over the Hola tragedy in Kenya, was surely a great error of judgement, and coloured the end of his period at the Colonial Office. So, at the same period, was his willingness to collude in the attempt to ridicule the Devlin report on Nyasaland. Equally lacking in judgement was his report, many years after leaving office, on the political situation in Rhodesia in 1979, at the time of the Muzorewa government.

An uncharitable view of this episode, the author suggests, 'would be that it formed an appropriate conclusion to a career in which Boyd had displayed an unenviable gift for backing the wrong horse in African politics; from the doomed Central African Federation to the leaders of the "multi-racial" parties in East Africa.'

It would be uncharitable if one left it at that. There was, after all, something splendid about Boyd's imperial beliefs. The problem was that they were not appropriate to the second half of the 20th century. Philip Murphy has done a good job of setting Lennox- Boyd fairly in context.

British Empire Book
Philip Murphy
I B Tauris