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The Colonial Office and Nigeria, 1898-1914
By John M. Carland
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 1985 The Macmillan Press, Ltd
All rights reserved.
The Colonial Office and Nigeria, 1898-1914
To fully explain what the Colonial Office did for Nigeria it is necessary to know both the workers and the context of their work. Therefore this chapter describes and explains the Colonial Office its organisation, its purpose, and its procedures - and its personnel. This chapter also points out the similarity of the Colonial Office to other Whitehall departments, and emphasises the fact that the Upper Division clerks at the Colonial Office who handled Nigerian business were typical of Upper Division clerks throughout the Civil Service. Once this is made clear, it is equally clear that Colonial Office officials operated essentially according to an administrative ethos, though their work was on imperial affairs.
OFFICE ORGANISATION AND WORK PROCEDURES AT THE COLONIAL OFFICE
The work of the Colonial Office was based on the written word - correspondence to and from colonial governors, other government offices, non-governmental organisations, and individuals. Thus the bulk of the work came from 'a despatch, a petition, a complaint, a request for instructions, or a communication'. In as much as the Colonial Office's clerks, i.e. permanent officials, had any contact with the public, it was with those belonging to their natural constituencies financial, commercial, scientific, and humanitarian organisations that had a specific interest in some part of the Empire. Members of these groups formed deputations that frequently met with the Secretary of State to make representations on some aspect of colonial policy. On a more informal basis, representatives of these groups might regularly visit and confer with permanent officials or the responsible Assistant Under Secretary. But outside of these occasions the permanent officials saw more paper in the Colonial Office than people.
The basic administrative unit in the Colonial Office was the Department, composed of four Upper Division clerks: the Head of the Department, a Senior and two Junior Clerks. The Department head was always a Principal Clerk. Senior and Junior Clerks were also known as, respectively, First Class and Second Class Clerks. With the exception of a General Department, the departments were organised geographically. Thus the business of the colonies and protectorates of Lagos, Southern Nigeria, and Northern Nigeria was handled by the Nigeria Department. It was set up in 1898 in anticipation of the Colonial Office taking over from the Foreign Office the Niger Coast Protectorate and the Royal Niger Company's territory. These territories would become Southern Nigeria and Northern Nigeria in 1900. (Lagos had been under the Colonial Office since 1861.) The Colonial Office Permanent Under Secretary and the Assistant Under Secretary in charge of West African business supervised the Nigeria Department. These officials, as a group, were charged with the 'consultative and deliberative' (i.e. the policy-advising and intellectual) work of the Office. Above them was the political head of the Colonial Office, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and his Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (who existed outside the functional administrative chain). The mechanical work of the Office filing, registering, copying, and typing - were done by Lower, or Second, Division clerks who were separated from the first division by an 'impassable gulf.
What was expected of the members of a Department? Junior Clerks were required to ensure that all relevant papers were attached to a file under consideration. They were also permitted - and this was the intellectual attraction of the job - to read, research, and minute despatches and letters, and to draft replies. However, this aspect of the system did not meet with universal approbation. In 1888 Sir Robert Herbert, Permanent Under Secretary at the Colonial Office, suggested that Junior Clerks had abused this privilege by minuting 'too much'. He reluctantly admitted, however, that they did good work even though it was 'excessively laboured, as in India'. In 1912 a member of the Royal Commission on the Civil Service asked Sir John Anderson, then Permanent Under Secretary at the Colonial Office: 'Is a young man of 23 who comes fresh from the university, who has never had any work to do, and no business experience whatever, competent at once to advise the secretary of state on matters of policy?' Anderson: 'He is allowed to try.' The questioner followed this up by asking, 'That may account then for some of the official answers which we get in the House of Commons sometimes?' Anderson: 'Possibly.' In fact, Junior Clerks substantively minuted only two sorts of files: those which could be disposed of departmentally and those which were in their area of expertise.
All work done by Junior Clerks was seen by the Senior or Principal Clerk. The Senior Clerk in a Department was more experienced, but his routine duties might differ little from those of the Junior Clerks he supervised. He could, however, dispose of certain matters without reference to the Principal Clerk, in whose absence he acted as Head of Department. The Principal Clerk, as Head of the Department, had absolute discretion. It was of course understood that he would send on to his superiors files that involved important questions of principle or policy, as well as any files he thought the Assistant Under Secretary ought to see.
The Assistant Under Secretary and Permanent Under Secretary, both appointed by the Secretary of State, were officials who, in the Treasury's words:
must always be present as responsible advisers and executive officers of the parliamentary chiefs, and ... become more and more necessary as the growth of the country and the increasing demands of legislation add to the duties of the Ministers.
In 1898 there were four Assistant Under Secretaries - after 1911, two. Individual Assistant Under Secretaries minuted files concerning matters beyond the official competence of Department Heads, and were responsible for securing 'uniformity of policy and continuity of procedure'. Their experience enabled them to form 'an intimate knowledge of the secretary of state's policy' and to 'anticipate' his decisions. They were crucial to the decision-making process, in part because they were the highest administrative officials who still had intimate knowledge of a specific geographical area.
The Permanent Under Secretary was the highest non-political official at the Colonial Office. His special function, said Lord Crewe, was to 'advise and inform' the Secretary of State on matters of policy. As administrative head of the Office he was also responsible for the smooth running of the Colonial Office. Personal conferences were important adjuncts to his work. For example, in 1906 Lord Elgin noted that Permanent Under Secretary Sir Montagu Ommanney could come freely and frequently into his office; Elgin was convinced that this helped the work get done. Although personalities, outside events, and other factors influenced the Secretary of State in his decision-making, the Permanent Under Secretary's institutional position dictated that the Secretary of State turn to him for advice on colonial policy. The Permanent Under Secretary was also expected to negotiate for his department in government circles, and, within the Colonial Office, to 'compose matters of difference which naturally arise between co-equal heads of departments' as well as between the Secretary of State and his Assistant Under Secretaries.
A typical work-day at the Colonial Office in the late nineteenth century would start at 11 a.m. At that time at least one Upper Division Junior Clerk was expected to be in attendance in each department. He usually had nothing to do in the morning, but business picked up later in the day and generally he stayed to 7 or 7.30 p.m. In the years immediately preceding the First World War the routine had not changed greatly; however, Junior Clerks were expected to come in before 11 a.m. and they did have work to do.
All communications received at the Colonial Office were registered and sent to the appropriate department. In most cases the method used to handle the problem posed was to allow clerks at each level to minute the file - that is, to develop a precise and analysis of the problem and a prescription for its resolution. The file would be examined and taken care of - depending on the matter's complexity and importance - by a Junior, Senior, or Principal Clerk, Assistant Under Secretary, the Permanent Under Secretary, or the Secretary of State. In theory, no matter would rise higher than its own importance. Thus relatively unimportant matters could be disposed of by a Junior Clerk, while very important matters were decided by the Secretary of State. Matters that fell between these extremes would be handled by Senior Clerks and their superiors who, it should be emphasised, had substantial latitude in deciding matters on their own.
In 1905 Sir Augustus Hemming wrote to the Spectator decrying the system of administration in British Government which gave a Junior Clerk authority to substantively minute documents. He asked, 'what can be the value ... of the views of a clerk of perhaps six months' standing on matters of, it may be, high imperial policy?' and signed himself 'Ex-CO'. In 1912 the same Royal Commission that had doubted the ability of young clerks to 'advise the secretary of state' also had doubts about the Colonial Office's decision-making process. For example, the Bishop of Southwark, a member of the Commission, complained that 'a document had to go through a very large number of different hands' before a decision was made on it. He asked if this was essential and wondered if there was 'any waste of time or energy or material in that process?'. Sir John Anderson assured the Bishop that a matter of importance received all the Office expertise necessary to solve the problem. Nevertheless, R. B. Pugh, a modern critic, has suggested that as the Colonial Office's business and responsibility grew, this process did impede the efficient dispatch of business. But it did have the advantage of ensuring that all Colonial Office expertise was utilised on a given piece of business. Despite the occasional criticism, officials at the Colonial Office, and their masters, thought it a good system that functioned well.
POLITICAL MASTERS: THE SECRETARIES OF STATE, 1898-1914
Joseph Chamberlain was the dramatic exception in social, religious, and educational background, as well as political achievement, to the other four men who were Secretary of State for the Colonies during the period. Chamberlain's family had been in business since the early eighteenth century. His formal education ended when he left the University College School at Birmingham at the age of 14. After amassing a fortune in his uncle's firm, he retired from business at 38 to devote his time to politics. After three terms as Mayor of Birmingham he was elected to Parliament in 1876. From that point, he began to move from the position of an ambitous domestic radical to that of an ambitious imperialist radical. The transformation was completed when in 1895 he became Secretary of State for the Colonies.
Chamberlain's background, experience, and business acumen were as unique at the Colonial Office as his evangelical rhetoric. Treasury Permanent Secretary Sir Edward Hamilton thought that Chamberlain was 'not born, bred or educated in the way which alone secures the necessary tact and behaviour of a real gentleman'. Attitudes like this may have made many of Chamberlain's goals difficult to achieve. He felt that British possessions in West Africa were undeveloped estates valuable for Britain's future as well as for the indigenous inhabitants. This assessment dictated the necessity for development. Believing that substantial responsibility for such development belonged with the state, Chamberlain focused Colonial Office attention on West African affairs and 'inspired the beginnings of ... modern administration and development' there. Those who worked under Chamberlain noted two qualities that raised him well above the average head of office: the ability to seize the essentials of a complicated subject and the ability to delegate authority with confidence. He wrote 'concise' minutes and 'commonly accepted the advice of his under secretaries'. When he did not follow staff recommendations he felt it important to explain personally why he had 'upset their conclusions'. Chamberlain's description of the Anglo-Saxon race - 'proud, persistent, self-asserting, and resolute' - was no mean description of himself. He left the Colonial Office in 1903 to pursue his Tariff Reform campaign, and the Colonial Office would never see the likes of him again. His successors over the period of this study were neither exceptional men nor exceptional in their interest in the Empire.
The social background of the four Secretaries of State who followed Chamberlain was aristocratic and upper class. Three went to Eton (Alfred Lyttelton, the Earl of Elgin, and Lewis Harcourt) and one to Harrow (the Earl of Crewe). Lyttelton and Crewe went on to Cambridge, while Harcourt was prevented from going there on account of illness. Elgin went to Balliol College, Oxford. Of the four, only one, Crewe, was a politician of the first rank, but none was of Chamberlain's calibre. Alfred Lyttelton, appointed Secretary of State in 1903, was a successful lawyer, the son of Lord Lyttelton, and a nephew of Gladstone. He was said to possess a 'personal charm which all sorts of men found irresistible'. Lyttelton was elected to Parliament in 1885. His appointment as Secretary of State may have been inspired by his personal friendship with Balfour, as well as his political innocuousness. However, Balfour's first choice, Lord Milner, had also recommended Lyttelton for the post. Judging from his private papers and biography, Lyttelton was not particularly interested in West Africa or Nigeria. However, he accepted the initiatives set in train by Chamberlain, endeavouring to work in partnership with his staff and allowing them considerable latitude. But he could be firm and even independent, as when he accepted Sir Frederick Lugard's scheme of continuous administration in the face of almost unanimous disapproval from his staff.
In December 1905, when the Liberals took over, the Earl of Elgin became Colonial Secretary. He had been, like his father, Viceroy of India. Imperial service was a family tradition; his maternal grandfather had written the Durham Report; and his father had also been Governor of Jamaica and Governor-General of Canada. Lord Elgin's imperial service was taken up more from duty than ambition, and Nigeria did not particularly interest him. He thought the Colonial Office staff first-rate. His contemporaries did not hold him in high regard. Chamberlain said, 'I do not know him personally, but he appears to be weak and he had that character in India.' In spite of such remarks, Ronald Hyam, in a revisionist examination of Elgin at the Colonial Office, has concluded that Elgin had 'wide experience, unwavering administrative courage, unimpeachable honourableness. ... Sometimes he was pedestrian, sometimes unduly cautious, sometimes unimaginative, but he was never weak, never lethargic and never slavishly dependent on his officials.'
When Asquith became Prime Minister, Elgin was rather unceremoniously dumped from the Liberal Government. He was succeeded by the Earl of Crewe. Crewe's maternal grandfather was Lord Crewe, and his father the first Lord Houghton. Crewe counted for more in his party than did any of the others - with the exception of Chamberlain. He excelled in the art of muting political differences while enlarging areas of agreement. In doing this he combined 'calm judgment with strong conviction and ... discouraged extreme views ... and exercised a healing influence among his colleagues. Nicholas Mansergh suggests Crewe had no particular interest in imperial affairs. Although he remained incurious about the Office machinery as long as it operated efficiently, he was a stickler for conventions regulating the relationship between political masters and civil servants. His Private Secretary called him 'a capable and charming chief.
Excerpted from The Colonial Office and Nigeria, 1898-1914 by John M. Carland. Copyright © 1985 The Macmillan Press, Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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