"A Call to Action": The Committee on British Communities Abroad, 1919-20

By Fisher, John | Canadian Journal of History, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

"A Call to Action": The Committee on British Communities Abroad, 1919-20


Fisher, John, Canadian Journal of History


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.

I. Origins

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. …

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