The years immediately after the First World War are commonly seen as a time of instability after chaos. To the conservative press in Britain it was a time of world unrest. At home, Britain faced significant challenges in the form of economic fluctuation, industrial strife, and trouble in Ireland. However, the wider British world that is to say, the British empire and its approaches, as well as those areas where Britain had significant interests--were at the centre of this storm. From Nigeria to India to Ireland, a rash of revolts, tribal unrest, nationalism, and Bolshevik intrigue stretched the resources of an overextended Empire. (1)
On another level too, this postwar period was uniquely formative. Four years of war had placed considerable strain on the machinery of government. Whatever cracks had begun to appear before 1914 had undoubtedly widened by the conclusion of hostilities. The British Foreign Office and Diplomatic and Consular Services were a case in point. For some time before 1914 concern had been expressed at various levels about the need for reform. The war exacerbated these perceived weaknesses but allowed no opportunity to address them. In 1919 reforms were introduced, but they did not entirely assuage previous criticisms. (2)
These various pressures were not necessarily new, but their coincidence over a short space of time was. Collectively, they called into question the ability of the British people, their leaders, and the armed services to ensure continued British predominance. At one level this struggle was conducted at meetings of the British Cabinet and in Whitehall departments. It was also conducted on the ground: in the deserts of Mesopotamia, against Zaghlul in Egypt, and, ingloriously, at Amritsar. On the domestic front it found expression in efforts to reform the compulsory education sector, in debates about the gold standard, and the move towards retrenchment, in attempts to institute long-awaited public housing schemes, and in discussions about imperial efficiency. However, the future of the British world, infused as it was with so many uncertainties, was also being pondered in another, parallel, context.
In December 1919, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon, sanctioned the creation of a committee to consider the future welfare of British expatriate communities. The Committee on British Communities Abroad, which met on nineteen occasions in the winter of 1919-20, is the focus of this article. (3) This curious episode in British administrative history has been overlooked, partly because only a relatively small portion of the material that it generated has survived. (4) Furthermore, as will become apparent, its brief was much too ambitious and illdefined, overlapping with the functions of various government departments. This was, in part, symptomatic of its focus, which straddled foreign and imperial concerns. Above all, however, in view of postwar retrenchment,
it will be shown that, notwithstanding the interest taken in its deliberations by Lord Curzon, among others, its recommendations were destined not to be acted upon. Indeed, although there is a striking resemblance between many of the committee's recommendations and the later activities of the British Council, the latter was not fully aware of these antecedents. (5) After exploring the committee's origins, the first section of the article outlines its membership and the key areas of investigation: educational provision and the inculcation of Britishness and, more briefly, commercial interests. This section also outlines the committee's conclusions. The second section of the article then explores at greater length the extent to which the committee might be said to have failed, as well as the reasons for that failure.
The Committee on British Communities Abroad might be seen as the product of the convergence of several strands in British foreign and imperial policy in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Above all, its discussions echoed concerns about Britishness and national survival that had emerged after the second Boer War and which mutated into constructive imperialism after the First World War. (6) Similarly, it drew upon concerns about relative economic decline, and its discussions resonated with ideas emerging in the late nineteenth century about the unity of the British people, and which were then reiterated after the Boer War, often under the aegis of the Round Table movement and in the context of the national efficiency debate. (7) This genesis from a confluence of imperial ideas, some of them of long standing, is also suggested by the continuing involvement in such debates of several key imperialists: notably, Alfred, Lord Milner, Leopold Amery, and William, Lord Selborne. (8) None was directly involved in the business of the committee, but the wider conception of the British world which their ideas embodied, echoed in the investigations of the Dominions Royal Commission, undoubtedly appealed to those expatriate communities, often on the fringes of formal empire, who felt that their interests had been neglected by government. (9)
In the context of the First World War, the genesis of the committee might also be seen in the varying contributions of expatriate communities to the war effort. In some cases, such as Argentina, those communities organized directly for war and contributed signally. (10) Others did not and, to an extent, spasmodic efforts during the war to investigate their character must be seen to reflect a desire to leave no stones unturned in the struggle for national survival. (11) This urge was also reflected in the establishment, with the initial-support of the Foreign Office, and of the imperial statesman, Lord Selborne, of branches of the Patriotic League of Britons Overseas, from 1914. (12) Similarly, it drew upon efforts that were made in 1917 to obtain information about the nature of educational provision among expatriate British communities. The committee also reflected long standing concerns about the representation of British commercial interests overseas and generally about the Consular and Diplomatic Services. During the war especially, expatriate communities felt that their commercial interests, often undermined by constraints on shipping and overseas markets, were being let down by a lack of official intervention. Consequently, after the war, the commercial attache service was reformed, as were the Foreign Office and Diplomatic and Consular Services. (13)
To these factors was added a belief that reconstruction, besides requiring the efficient use of resources in the British Isles, would also require the recapturing and development of overseas markets. To Milner and Amery, as well as to various patriotic organizations, this might involve expatriate business and financial interests. (14) This, in turn, related to ideas for the more efficient use of empire. To that extent the committee's investigations were confluent with the Dominions Royal Commission, as well as the Imperial Development Board, to which it gave rise. The basic premise of the committee was the existence, at varying levels, among expatriate communities of those cultural assumptions which some writers have identified in the pre-war Empire of settlement. (15) There is indeed, in the language as well as the aims of the committee, much that resonates with various manifestations of Edwardian imperialism and their resurgence during and after the First World War. (16) This was true, among other things, in its promotion of Empire Day and other patriotic celebrations, and in the participation in the committee's deliberations, directly or otherwise, of key figures involved in the promotion of British values, as well as the wider imperial networks to which they belonged. (17) The need to cultivate such ideals, and the need to capitalize upon instances of unity forged among expatriate communities in war time, was also an important element in the emergence of the committee. So too was an appreciation that the Empire, while it had attained its greatest territorial extent, faced many challenges, not least from its traditional rival, France.
II. Membership and Remit
When the Committee on British Communities Abroad began its meetings in December 1919, it did so with the express purpose of considering how best to "foster a greater spirit of solidarity among British communities abroad." Its second aim was to contemplate how to "make British ideals more generally known, and appreciated by foreign nations." (18) As such it was concerned up to a point with propaganda. As Philip Taylor has demonstrated, the organization of foreign propaganda in Britain was in some disarray during and after the war. (19) As the committee met, reform of the Foreign Office was in progress and with rationalization of its News Department, which had previously dominated foreign propaganda.
The Committee met initially under the chairmanship of the senior diplomat Sir Charles Eliot and, then, on his appointment as Ambassador to Tokyo, under Sir John Tilley, an Assistant Secretary of State at the Foreign Office. (20) Besides Foreign Office officials, it was also attended by representatives from the Consular Service, the Department of Overseas Trade, the Foreign Trade Department, and by two prominent businessmen, J. Arthur Aiton and Irvine Geddes. The profile of its members reflected the rather diluted handling of issues bearing on foreign trade and, more generally, of British interests overseas. Another member, Sir Edward Denison Ross, Director of the School of Oriental Studies, London University, had experience and considerable knowledge of eastern affairs, as did Sir Maurice de Bunsen of the Foreign Office. In addition, de Bunsen had detailed knowledge of South America, where he had recently undertaken a fact-finding mission. There he had networked extensively among British expatriate communities, and had also learned of the unsatisfactory handling by officials of British commercial interests. Follett Holt, who attended the committee as a representative of the Foreign Trade Department, had accompanied de Bunsen on this tour. The specific needs of other vocal expatriate communities were reflected in the presence on the committee of Roland Nugent of the Foreign Trade Department and William Codrington of the Foreign Office, both of whom were interested in Moroccan affairs. (21) The committee's discussions were based upon a wide range of oral or written submissions. (22) Some witnesses were drawn from particular expatriate communities, and others had developed knowledge of Britain's overseas interests through educational, commercial, or official activities. Several had been or were still serving in the Foreign Office or Diplomatic or Consular Services and some, such as Lt. General Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the Chief Scout, had other specific expertise which was deemed useful to the committee.
The committee had an extremely broad geographical remit. Having initially proposed to include the formal empire in its deliberations, this idea was abandoned. Nevertheless, the only countries which it did not consider outside the Empire were Russia and the United States of America. Furthermore, it had a very broad agenda, and its members clearly felt unsure precisely what was expected of them and how far they were expected to go in making detailed recommendations. (23) Their activities fell into two main areas. The first area was the inculcation of British values and cohesion among expatriate communities, adults as well as children, and the extension of those values to foreign peoples. Thus, the committee considered at length the issue of establishing or assisting British schools overseas. As the committee's report noted, the purpose was two-fold, firstly, to provide schools for expatriate communities; secondly, to "spread ... a knowledge of the English language and an appreciation of British ideals among foreign peoples." Besides formal education, the committee also discussed the possibility of encouraging local British papers and the usefulness of British libraries in foreign countries. Further, it hoped to capitalize upon patriotic sentiment generated during the war. In 1916, Lord Milner, arguing that the Union Jack should be hoisted on Government buildings on Empire Day, noted that in 1914, Empire Day …