January 24, 2021
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The British PM Who Oversaw India's Independence

C.R. Attlee's instructions to Mountbatten were crisp and clear: "Keep India united if you can. If not, save something from the wreck. In any case, get Britain out".

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The British PM Who Oversaw India's Independence
The British PM Who Oversaw India's Independence

When 'the little man', as fondly named by Ernest Bevin or, 'a modest man much to be modest about' derisively described by Churchill, was travelling by the London Underground, a fellow passenger asked him whether people tell him that he was the spitting image of Clement Attlee. The reply was "frequently".

That laconic reply was by none other than Clement Richard Attlee (1883-1967), former Labour Prime Minister of England (1945-51). He succeeded Churchill, the larger than life figure who was credited with winning the Second World War. The contrast was stark. Churchill was voluble and volatile. Attlee was shy, uncommunicative and unresponsive. On learning that Attlee was known as Clem, King George VI thought 'Clam' would be more appropriate after hearing his monosyllabic replies.

Attlee came from an upper middle class background and was educated in Hailebury and Oxford. To please his father, he studied Law in Lincoln's Inn and passed the Bar examination. He soon discovered that he had no talent to be a successful lawyer.

He joined the Army in 1914, took part in the Gallipoli misadventure and was injured in the Mesopotamian campaign. He was shipped to Bombay and was hospitalised for three weeks. It was his first introduction to India. He visited India a second time in 1927-28 as a member of the Simon Commission and developed some understanding of Indian nationalism and the Hindu-Muslim problem. Not including an Indian in the Commission was a mistake, he thought. He also thought that the differences between Hindus and Muslims were trivial. How wrong!

Major Attlee was demobbed when the War ended. He was convinced that only a World Government can ensure peace and prevent future wars. Back in London, he became aware of poverty and deprivation in his neighbourhood. He talked to a little girl one evening while he was going home; when she found that Attlee was going home for his tea, she told him she too was going home to see if there was any tea. Attlee became a Socialist and was convinced that inequality was immoral. Labour party was his natural choice.

His integrity, humility and ability to build consensus was valued by the Labour Party which was riven by factions and infighting. He rose steadily in the Labour hierarchy and was an automatic choice as Deputy Prime Minister of the National Government headed by Churchill during World War II.

Many underrated him and labelled him a 'mechanical toy' under Churchill's control. But he was no pushover. When Churchill failed to consult the Cabinet on an important issue, Attlee would not take it. And, Mrs. Churchill (Clementine coincidentally) told her husband that 'the little man' was right. Attlee did not lack self-confidence.

Volumes have been written about Churchill's conduct of the War. Attlee candidly admitted that he was the right man to lead the nation in the darkest hour in spite of his failings. Field Marshal Alan Brooke wondered where Britain would be without him. For Attlee who valued speed and efficient dispatch of business, Churchill's habit of wandering off on unconnected subjects was a sufferance.

Cricket interested Attlee. He reluctantly agreed to have a Ticker Tape machine installed in 10 Downing Street only after he was told that he would be able to keep track of cricket scores. He called it his 'Cricket Machine'. He likened selecting his ministerial team to selecting a Test Team – Morrison an all-rounder, Bevan a fast bowler, Cripps a century-maker on a favourable day.

Attlee became Prime Minister on 26 July 1945 after Labour Party won a land slide victory. As grateful as they were to Churchill for victory in the War, the British voter knew that a different type of man was needed to rebuild the ravaged economy, deal with rehabilitation of thousands of retrenched soldiers and growing unrest in India.  Attlee assembled a formidable team – Ernest Bevin (Foreign Affairs), Morrison (Home), Sir Stafford Cripps, Aneurin Bevan (Health), Dalton (Finance)...By some accounts, the most talented Cabinet in recent times.

Attlee's style of functioning was minimalist. He trusted his ministers; he left foreign affairs except India to Bevin who was the personification of loyalty. 'Why bark yourself when you have a good dog' was his policy. Once when there was a plot to replace Attlee with Bevin, Bevin wouldn't have it saying "why should I do him out of his job". Bevin had a cut and thrust rustic humour. On hearing someone say that Bevan (Minister of Health) was his own worst enemy, Bevin said "not when I am alive, he ain't".

Attlee's monosyllabic responses led to some piquant situations. When Gaitskell and Bevan were at odds, Gaitskell offered to resign. With pipe clenched between his teeth, Attlee muttered, "have to go". Realising that Gaitskell misunderstood him, Attlee said, "No, Bevan must go".

Attlee's ability to sense the majority view amid differences and implement it enabled him to achieve a great deal during his tenure. He did not hesitate to silence any windbag minister and get on to the next item on the agenda. He was ruthless in getting what he wanted. He was sparse with praise; just an acknowledgment that the job has been done well.

Attlee set about carrying out Labour's promises to the electorate with a slew of Nationalisations: Bank of England, Coal, Steel, Railways, etc. After much debate about financial affordability, he introduced National Health Scheme – an enduring legacy which even Margaret Thatcher did not dare tinker with. He was pragmatic: he insisted that Directors of Nationalised Industries should be paid on par with the Private sector; not relevant if a Cabinet Minister got less. His record of legislation was unmatched.

On the international front he had mixed success. The chemistry between Attlee and Truman (to err is Truman), the American President, was not the same as between Churchill and Roosevelt. Labour's socialism was equated with Communism and Truman was unduly worried about domestic opinion. Attlee was disappointed when America refused to share nuclear technology with Britain although there was an understanding to that effect before the Atom Bomb was developed. Attlee then decided that Britain should have its own Atom Bomb regardless of the cost.

On Palestine, Attlee unsuccessfully tried to limit Jewish migration and protect Arab interests. Truman, facing an election, succumbed to the influential Jewish lobby.

Independence for India could not be delayed, Attlee felt. The question, however, was to whom would Britain transfer power. Wavell, the Viceroy, was called to London for consultation in August 1945. Wavell minced no words in appraising the Cabinet of the unbridgeable difference between Congress and the Muslim League and doubted Britain's ability to maintain law and order. The Royal Indian Navy mutinied in February 1946. The famed Indian Army was getting increasingly polarised. And Britain was in no position to send more British troops. Civil war loomed. The alarming picture presented by Wavell was considered too defeatist in Attlee's opinion.

A common ground between Jinnah, the 'sole spokesman' for Muslims, and Congress claiming to speak for all communities was becoming more and more elusive. As a last ditch effort, Attlee sent a Cabinet Mission comprising Cripps, Pethick-Lawrence and Alexander to India in March 1946. Their recommendation to divide India into three autonomous groups of provinces with a weak Centre was rejected by Congress as it rightly feared that India would get 'balkanised'. Jinnah accepted it with some qualifications as the scheme in principle conceded Pakistan.

Attlee decided that a more charismatic figure than Wavell was needed to get Congress and the Muslim League serious about transfer of power. Lord Mountbatten was his choice. It was a master stroke; an inspiration, Attlee later thought. After demanding and obtaining more authority than his predecessors as Viceroys ever enjoyed, and forcing the announcement that British rule will end not later than July 1948, Mountbatten accepted the offer. It must be admitted that Attlee emerges with little credit for the shabby treatment of Wavell, a poet, thinker and a man of impeccable character.

Attlee's instructions to Mountbatten were crisp and clear: "Keep India united if you can. If not, save something from the wreck. In any case, get Britain out".

Mountbatten arrived in India on 22 March 1947 and went into action with remarkable speed – some say with undue haste. He manoeuvred Congress into accepting the Partition of India along communal lines while giving Muslim League less than what it demanded. And, he brought forward the date of British withdrawal to 15 August 1947.  The rest is history.

Attlee considered Indian Independence his 'finest achievement'.

When Attlee succeeded Churchill, many thought he was the 'improbable' Prime Minister. In the end he proved to be the 'inevitable' Prime Minister.

Based on a biography of Attlee by Michael Jago and the author's memory.

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