Philip S. Ziegler, April 24, 1988

President Saunders, Professor Davis, Ladies and Gentlemen, I feel profoundly honoured to have been invited to give the Seventh Crosby Kemper Churchill Memorial Lecture. When I consider the eminence of those who have preceded me, I feel not merely honoured but alarmed. My alarm is not alleviated by the fact that the subject which I have chosen, 'The Transfer of Power in India' is not one in which the presiding genius of this assembly, Sir Winston Churchill, appears to greatest advantage. It would indeed not be an exaggeration to say that India as an element in Churchill's career is mercifully unique; as being a theme on which he was invariably consistent, and almost equally invariably wrong.

It is now a little over 40 years since that moment in August 1947 when power was transferred in the Indian subcontinent and two new nations, some 450 million human beings, found their independence (the word 'some' is used advisedly; statistics in India have an awe-inspiring imprecision - no one would argue if one were to put the figure 20 or 30 million less or more.) Two generations of Indians and Pakistanis have not known what it was to live under the British raj, only the most elderly of surviving elder statesmen exercised any authority before their countries took charge of their own affairs. It is a moot point when if ever one is able to survey the past with anything approaching objectivity, but by now it should at least be possible to look back on those years immediately following the Second World War without being swayed too markedly by those passions and prejudices which are bred by personal participation. The Transfer of Power in India is ripe for reassessment; and Indian historians being no less enterprising, ingenious and energetic than those of their nations, there has been no shortage of real or self-styled 'authorities' from the subcontinent as well as from Britain and the United States, who are ready and eager to contribute to the task.

The 15th of August 1947 was a day of ecstatic euphoria for the citizens of the two new nations and was hardly less acclaimed in the former imperial power itself. The sternest critics were temporarily muted, the doubters hoped for the best, the optimists anticipated something even better. For the Indians and Pakistanis it was a day of rejoicing at a great victory won; there might be storms ahead but during that day at least there was no need to contemplate them. For the British the triumph was more equivocal, yet they comforted themselves with the reflection that they had made the greatest act of enlightened self-sacrifice in recorded history and by so doing had won the loyalty and affection of those who otherwise might have been expected to become their enemies. A deluge of congratulations descended on Nehru and Jinnah, the leaders of the two new nations; on Mountbatten, the former Viceroy, in New Delhi; on Attlee, the Labour prime minister, in London. The British congratulated the Indians; the Indians the British; and above the welter of self-satisfaction, rang the trumpet call of that guru of Washington's political commentators, Ms. Walter Lippmann: "Perhaps Britain's finest hour is not in the past. Certainly this performance is not the work of decadent people. This on the contrary is the work of political genius requiring the ripest wisdom and the freshest vigour, and it is done with an elegance and a style that will compel and will receive an instinctive respect throughout the civilized world. Attlee and Mountbatten have done a service to all mankind by showing what statesmen can do, not with force and money, but with lucidity, resolution and sincerity."

“Leave the past to history especially as I propose to write that history myself.”

Winston S. Churchill