Smith, Sir Reginald Hugh Dorman- (18991977), politician and colonial governor, was born on 10 March 1899 in Bellamont Forest, co. Cavan, Ireland, the second son of an established farmer, Major Edward Patrick Dorman-Smith (b. 1870), and his wife, Amy, née Patterson. His elder brother, Eric, was born in 1895. Educated at Harrow School and at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, Reginald Dorman-Smith served briefly in the Indian army before being invalided out at the age of twenty-one. He married Doreen Agnes Edith Watson (b. 1896), the only daughter of Sir John Watson of Earnock, second baronet, on 2 March 1921; they had two daughters.
For twenty years Dorman-Smith devoted his life to agriculture, becoming vice-president of the National Farmers' Union (NFU) at the age of thirty-two, and Conservative MP for Petersfield in 1935. Elected president of the NFU the next year, he was the spokesman for farmers in parliament and a natural choice for minister of agriculture when Neville Chamberlain formed a government in 1939. With the fall of the Chamberlain ministry in May 1940 Dorman-Smith left ministerial office and became a colonel in the home defence executive. During his sixteen months as a minister much of the groundwork was laid for putting British agriculture on a more productive wartime footing, including the ploughing of 1.5 million acres of pasture land and the creation of a reserve of 3000 tractors. His appointment as governor of Burma was a means of rewarding, and deliberately sidetracking, an ambitious younger politician still in the prime of political life.
Sir Reginald (he was knighted in 1937) arrived in Rangoon as governor in 1941, and found a city throbbing with political ferment as nationalist youth pushed the elected Burmese politicians to demand from the British authorities an early transfer of power to a fully indigenous government. (Under the 1935 Government of Burma Act, a form of parliamentary government had come into existence in 1937.) The governor's role was to preside over the European-dominated civil service and military forces in conjunction with a Burmese cabinet formed from a highly factionalized legislature composed of various indigenous and immigrant ethnic groups and British economic interests. The Burmese premier, U Saw, was a wily politician who had created a significant political patronage machine behind him. The two men immediately hit it off. Dorman-Smith, unlike his stiff predecessor, Sir Archibald Cochrane, was open to the arguments of co-operative Burmese nationalist politicians that the best way to defend British interests from both the impending possibility of a Japanese invasion and the leftist rhetoric of young Burmese nationalists was a speeding up of the process of granting Burma a fuller degree of internal self-government within the British empire and Commonwealth.
Before Dorman-Smith and the premier could solidify their political and personal relationship, however, the Japanese invaded early in 1942 and forced the governor and the rest of the British administration to go into exile in India. There Dorman-Smith remained, planning for the economic and political reconstruction of Burma after the devastation of war, until the allies retook Burma in 1945. But U Saw was not with him, having been intercepted on a round-the-world journey and detained by the British in Uganda for the duration of the war, for allegedly treasonous contacts with the Japanese after the start of the war in the Pacific.
Sir Reginald returned to re-establish a civilian government in Rangoon in mid-October 1945. There he found a very different political situation from that which he had left three years earlier. The young nationalists of the 1930s were now experienced soldiers of the Japanese-sponsored Burma Independence Army and its various successors. Led by General Aung San, the eventually martyred hero of Burma's independence struggle, the disorganized but highly popular indigenous forces of Burmese nationalism, which had co-operated with Lord Mountbatten's forces in driving out the Japanese, now claimed their right to establish Burma's independence outside the British empire. Sympathetic to Asian nationalist voices as he was, Dorman-Smith remained loyal to the pre-war politicians with whom he had previously worked. Moreover, his room for manoeuvre was severely constrained by official British government policy toward the post-war reconstruction of Burma. Rather than speeding Burma's independence, the war cabinet had agreed that the country would come under seven years of direct rule by the governor to allow for economic reconstruction. Only after that had been achieved would the country's politics be allowed to return to the semi-parliamentary forms of the 1930s. This was clearly unacceptable to the nationalist forces.
While official Burma policy remained frozen in the mindset of the 1930s, men such as Dorman-Smith were more aware of the strength of nationalist aspirations. Mountbatten appreciated the virtues of young nationalists such as Aung San, and was even more willing to make concessions to internal forces on the left. The governor quickly found himself isolated. He was out of sympathy with the young men who had helped drive him from Burma in 1942, and equally out of sympathy with the initial unwillingness of the new Labour government in London to consider changing the now totally unworkable policy of direct rule he was expected to implement. Only Mountbatten had sufficient influence in London to effect a change in policy, and by the time he did, Dorman-Smith's credibility in Rangoon and London had been destroyed by his inconsistent attempts to put together a political base from the now discredited pre-war moderate Burmese politicians such as U Saw, who had returned to Burma.
Dorman-Smith sailed for London on 14 June 1946 while convalescing from a severe bout of amoebic dysentery. By the time he arrived in Britain on 13 July his role in Burma had ended. In the interim, government policy had changed: an accommodation was being sought with Aung San and his nationalist forces, and Sir Hubert Rance, who had been military governor of Burma at the end of the war under Mountbatten, was appointed in Dorman-Smith's place. The ignominy of his departure was compounded by the insult of not being received in the formal style of a colonial governor when he arrived in London.
Sir Reginald continued his interest in Burmese affairs after the war, but never regained public influence. He became high sheriff of Hampshire in 1952. However, after attempting to write his own account of his time in Burma, he turned to a popular and prodigious author of books on Burma to provide a sympathetic account of what he had tried to do. But the liberal Maurice Collis in his Last and First in Burma (19411948) (1956) sympathized more with the Burmese nationalists and the liberal Mountbatten than with the engaging, but ultimately embittered and betrayed tory politician turned colonial governor. To the end Dorman-Smith felt wronged by history and was confident that had he been able to govern without the interference of London, he would have saved Burma for the Commonwealth, which it left at the time of independence on 4 January 1948. He died on 20 March 1977 at the King Edward VII Hospital, Easebourne, Midhurst, Sussex.
R. H. Taylor
M. Collis, Last and first in Burma (19411948) (1956) · WWW · d. cert. · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1977)
BL OIOC, papers as governor of Burma, MS Eur. E 215
IWM, telegrams | BL OIOC, corresp. with Sir D. T. Monteath, MS Eur. D 714
BL OIOC, corresp. with Sir John Walton, MS Eur. D 545
BFINA, current affairs footage
BFINA, news footage
IWM FVA, news footage
BL NSA, oral history interview
Wealth at death
£41,301: probate, 10 May 1977, CGPLA Eng. & Wales