Thank You, Mr Johnson

Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago

By Somduth Bhuckory

An interesting debate took place at the request of the Labour Party on British colonial territories, which do not hit the headlines usually and the South African Protectorates in the House of Commons, on the 6th of this month. It started at 3.44 p.m. and ended at one minute to ten in the night. Sixteen members took part in the debate – eight from the Labour side and eight from the Conservative side.

James Johnson, second from right, with the Headscarf Revolutionaries (four Hull fishwives whose heroism in taking on the fishing industry
has saved countless lives at sea) at the House of Commons in 1968.
Photo – Daily Mirror

We have read avidly the Hansard containing an account of the debate. We were eager to know how much Mauritius came into the picture. Our curiosity was particularly heightened because we had been told that the London Agreement was elaborated in consultation with members of the British Labour Party. We wanted to know what those members or anyone of them had to say on the Agreement. We may say at once that we have been disappointed: our curiosity is still unsatisfied. Only Mr James Johnson, the official member for Rugby and the unofficial member for Mauritius, spoke of us in some detail from the Labour side. We are disappointed because while Mr Johnson reflected more or less the views of the Mauritius Times, nobody stood up for the Agreement.

This particular debate took place at a very convenient time for us Mauritians. It reflects what little interest members of Parliament take in our little island at a time when our constitution is in the making. It should prompt us to make Mauritius known to leading members of Parliament so that at material times they may be in a good position to appraise our progress and make sensible suggestions for our further development. We should not wait until a delegation goes to London to brief them. One has an irresistible feeling that Mauritius is too much associated with the continent of Africa. The sooner it is regarded as an isolated island in the Indian Ocean with its own peculiar problems, the better.

The debate has also given students of colonial affairs an excellent opportunity of comparing notes. Just as the Commonwealth, the British Colonial Empire is a big family. We cannot be indifferent to what is happening elsewhere. We can always profit from the experience of others and learn from their mistakes. The progress of other territories should act as an incentive to better efforts. The way and means adopted elsewhere to achieve self-government should inspire us to work for our own salvation.

* * *

Let us now consider the highlights of the debate, keeping Mauritius in view. Mr James Callaghan (Labour) opened the debate. He started off with Tanganyika. He explained Mr Nyerere’s policy tersely in these terms: “His case is that minorities should not have more influence than majorities.” From Tanganyika he passed on to West Africa and he dealt with Nigeria and Sierra Leone. He then added a word about Singapore and rounded off with British Guiana. Mr Callaghan mentioned Mauritius only in passing while speaking on the Constitution of British Guiana. He said: “I also understand that in the agreement which has been reached for the forthcoming elections in Mauritius it has been promised that the Governor will not use his powers of nomination to frustrate the will of the electorate.”

To end his speech, Mr Callaghan made some general remarks on colonial administration. First, he spoke on the relationship between the Colonial Office and the Commonwealth Relations Office. He said that the Colonial Secretary was “in a declining office”. Secondly, he dealt with Parliamentary Questions. He revealed that the Colonial Office receives 800 Questions a year, and how unsatisfactorily they are dealt with. Thirdly, he expressed his views on the committee system and said: “I am no lover of the committee system as such.” He pleaded for a better system of tackling colonial problems and reminded members: “We have responsibilities for about 80 million people in 47 different territories.” Fourthly, Mr Callaghan spoke on a very interesting topic: the visit of members to colonial territories. He said: “I would add a comment on what I regard as an absolutely ridiculous situation, which is the infinitesimal sum we spend every year on Hon. Members of this House visiting our colonial territories and our Commonwealth Territories’. And he made a very striking comparison : “At present, if I may put it in this way, we spent on these visits, in 12 months, one tenth of the sum which an Italian football club was prepared to pay to secure a footballer a fortnight ago.” Very pointedly Mr Callaghan remarked: “I think that a visit of three members of Parliament today is worth many companies of British soldiers in four or five years’ time.” Lastly, Mr Callaghan concluded with a reference to the scientific research of the Commonwealth when he said: “the great problems that confront the Colonial Territories today are the pressure of populations and food supplies.”

* * *

Mr John Profumo, the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, followed Mr Callaghan. It will be remembered that it was Mr Profumo who discussed with our delegation on behalf of the Government.

Mr Profumo struck a sublime note at the very start when he said: “I shall hope to show that in British colonial policy today we have one of the most inspiring endeavours which have ever been undertaken in the whole history of humanity.” He then proceeded to consider “some of the more recent achievements and some of the developments which are now in progress in various colonies.” In this context he dealt briefly with Ghana, the Federation of Malaya, Nigeria, Tanganyika, Zanzibar and in some detail with Mauritius, Singapore, Sierra Leone, the West Indies, British Guiana, Aden and Somaliland Protectorates, Miss Jennie Lee (Labour) interrupted Mr Profumo while he was speaking on British Guiana to know the effect of nomination, “whether the wishes of the electorate will be respected.” Mr Profumo made this striking declaration: “It would be wholly wrong for us to say anything by way of committing the Governor or Her Majesty’s Government as to how the nominations will be made.” Even when Mr Callaghan referred to the guarantee given to Mauritius that “the nominations procedure will not be used in such a way as to frustrate the will of the electorate,” Mr Profumo remained adamant. As regards Mauritius, Mr Profumo outlined the main features of the London Agreement.

After dealing with specific colonies, Mr Profumo went on to deal “with one of two other aspects of general colonial development”. “There has been a really remarkable development of education in the Colonies,” remarked Mr Profumo. Continuing, he touched upon colonial students who go to the United Kingdom to study. At the end of 1956, there were 12,622 such students. Finally, Mr Profumo said something about recent economic developments in the colonies and hinted at the menace of Communism.

It’s worthwhile recording that Mr Profumo expected to be criticised. Said he towards the end of his speech: “I have no doubt that Hon. Members will have criticisms to make. That is right and proper and my Right Hon. Friend would not have it otherwise, for such criticisms can certainly be most helpful to us in the discharge of our responsibilities.” Sans commentaires.

* * *

What the other Members said was not as comprehensive as what Mr Callaghan and Mr Profumo had said. Most of them chose one or two specific territories and dealt with them. In the end Mr Creech Jones (Labour) wound up for the Opposition and Mr Lennox-Boyd for the Government.

We, in Mauritius, are particularly interested in what Mr James Johnson and Mr Fenner Brockway say at the House of Commons. As was to be expected, Mr Johnson spoke with knowledge and conviction on Mauritius. In a nutshell, he described Mauritius thus: “The colonial shoe is pinching here and there, but in one Colony it does not pinch, and that is Mauritius. It has given the Foreign Secretary a lovely pair of carpet slippers.” Referring to the proposal of dividing Mauritius into 40-single member constituencies, Mr Johnson said: “I think that the task is almost impossible. I say that advisedly.” And he had this to say about the list system of voting: “I am not altogether happy about what is the suggested alternative.” About the ministerial system, Mr Johnson said: “There are to be nine Ministers. Are they to be a loose, inchoate coalition of nine in a ministerial set-up and not those pale shades – the former Liaison Members?”

In the course of his speech, Mr Johnson paid a glowing tribute to Mauritians, for which we should be grateful to him: “The Mauritians are not unfit to look after their own affairs, as some people alleged Africans are. They have a high standard of culture and are a society of people who can talk and debate.”

After dealing with the constitutional proposals, Mr Johnson said: “When the elections are over, two things should be looked at.” And he referred to unemployment and overpopulation.

In conclusion, Mr Johnson sounded this note of warning: “As I said earlier, the Colonial Secretary has a pair of Mauritius carpet slippers to walk in today, and not a pair of shoes that pinch him; but the shoes may pinch him in the years to come if he does not take steps in the near future for the welfare and development of this beautiful island in the Indian Ocean.”

Mr Fenner Brockway spoke exclusively on the South African protectorates – Bechuanaland, Swaziland and Basutoland. Do we take it that he was in perfect agreement with Mr Johnson?

One other member, Mr R.T. Paget (Labour) deserves to be quoted. Speaking of the Kenya constitution, he remarked: “I think that in any multi-racial society we will never get a satisfactory constitution by consent. I do not think that that will ever happen, because a Constitution by consent will have built into it so many bargains that it will be unworkable.” Watch the miracle in Mauritius, Mr Paget.

* * *

Winding up the debate for the Opposition Mr Creech Jones said: “I feel that this ventilation of problems is helpful and that it reveals the very genuine interest of Members and their strong feeling for the future of the dependent Commonwealth. That is true even if the attendance has not been what some of us would have liked.” Mr Creech Jones did not speak on any colony in particular but on colonial policy in general.

And winding up for the Government, Mr Lennox-Boyd dealt with a number of specific territories. He took in Mauritius when he saw that he had still two minutes unexpectedly available! He referred briefly to the London Agreement to fill up part of the time. So, it was only by accident that Mr Lennox-Boyd thought of us. Is the magic of the slippers wearing off?

When we reached the end of the debate, our heart was full of gratitude for Mr James Johnson. And so we say to him: Thank you, Mr Johnson, for all you have done for us in that memorable debate.

4th Year No 146 – Friday 24th May 1957

* Published in print edition on 11 September 2020

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