Magazine article The Spectator

When Edwina Met Nehru

Magazine article The Spectator

When Edwina Met Nehru

Article excerpt

INDIAN SUMMER : THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE END OF AN EMPIREby Alex von Tunzelmann Simon & Schuster, £20, pp. 464, ISBN 9780743285889 £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

This book falls into two parts.

The first is a brisk account of Britain's involvement with India and of the backgrounds of those people who were principally responsible for unscrambling that relationship.

It contains most of the facts that matter, if rather too much social trivia that does not, and is generally fair. Where it is unfair is in its dismissal of Mountbatten as a trivial playboy. It is permissible to make fun of some of the wilder schemes which he championed during his time at Combined Operations -- notably the iceberg-aircraft carrier Habbakuk -- but unreasonable to dismiss the ingenuity, energy and formidable organising powers which created the machine that made possible the invasion of Europe in 1944.

Mountbatten was, indeed, often preoccupied with trifles, or with his status as a member of the royal family, but to claim that he 'engaged himself almost full time' in arranging the marriage between his nephew Philip and the future Queen is absurdly to underestimate the range of his activities and to exaggerate his role as matchmaker.

By the time that the second part of this book begins -- dealing with the coming of independence and the partition of India -- the reader (or, at any rate this reader) is therefore expecting a hatchet job on the last Viceroy, a reprise of the gospel according to Saint Andrew Roberts.

The contrary proves to be true. Harold Nicolson in his diary remarked how curious it was that 'we should regard as a hero the man who liquidates the empire which other heroes such as Clive, Warren Hastings and Napier won for us'.

But, von Tunzelmann goes on:

Mountbatten was serving his country with as much loyalty, courage and determination as had those other heroes. Mountbatten turned a stagnating mess into perhaps the most successful retreat from empire in history -- from the point of view of the imperialist nation, at least.

She examines the three main charges against him -- that he mishandled the problem of the Sikhs, failed to make proper use of the British army, and transferred power with disastrously reckless speed -- and acquits him on all of them. …

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