HC Deb 24 November 1931 vol 260 cc295-303

I beg to move, in page 5, line 12, to leave out the word "thirty-one," and to insert instead thereof the word "thirty-two."

The object of the Amendment, which stands in my name and the names of several hon. Friends, is to attempt to provide, upon the coming into operation of this Measure, a kinder reception than it may have on the 1st of next month. If we look round the Empire we find that Australia is half-hearted about it, Tasmania and West Australia have protested, New Zealand does not seem to want it, Canada is lukewarm, but certain persons in South Africa and in Ireland want it for electoral purposes. We come back to this country and find that the Solicitor-General is more apologetic than enthusiastic. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Amery) is fatalistic. A Measure of this importance which affects the whole Empire, and affects it for generations, should be received and adopted with enthusiasm. With regard to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, perhaps I can best illustrate what I believe to be his attitude to the Measure by a humorous remark which I heard him make though not in this Debate. He said, "I wonder when this poor old country will get Dominion status." That illustrates his attitude. As for this House it takes the view that the step is inevitable and accepts it with resignation. That attitude seems to be the result of what has happened in the last 34 years. Thirty-four years ago Canada gave this country a measure of Imperial Preference, generously, and since then the Dominions have been anxiously wishing for a wide extension of that principle, but the response of this country has been meagre. Consequently, there has been discouragement on the part of the Dominions. By this Bill we are trying to imprison the spirit of unity which should exist without this legal phraseology. We are told that we are at the beginning of a new era. The Secretary of State for the Dominions is about to start upon an errand of Imperial economic unity. The omens are favourable and I believe that he will get a warm welcome. I hope that it will start a new epoch in the history of the Empire, but I would suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that instead of his passion for getting this Bill passed, verbatim, it would be well to accept my Amendment. The Bill would then come into operation under new auspices, with a new feeling in the Empire—a feeling of hope and progress. I would respectfully urge the Government to accept the Amendment.


I can only conceive that my hon. Friend moved the Amendment with a view to getting one grouse off his chest, and one hope expressed. He wishes to defer the Bill for 12 months, first of all on the ground that 34 years ago Canada offered us Preference, and that in the interval nothing has been done. I have been a member of a Government for about three years, and I accept my three years share of blame and ask him to apportion the rest of the blame among those responsible for the other 31 years. I share the hon. Member's hope for the future. I say sincerely that I do not think there is one hon. Member who is not dissatisfied with the existing Imperial position. No matter what view they may take on Preference or anything else, no one can be happy with the present state of affairs. Although there have been numerous Imperial conferences it is true to say that far too much time has been taken up with these political issues. I never disguise from the House or the country my view of the terrible difficulty I had at the last Imperial Conference, when nine-tenths of the time was occupied by these political questions and no time was available for economic questions.

Do not let the House make the mistake of assuming that the Dominions are not keen on this matter. I can assure my hon. Friend of the strong feeling that exists. They have pressed that this Bill should become law at the time specified. If things were as bad as my hon. Friend suggests, it would only be putting off the evil day to postpone the operation of the Act. He knows perfectly well that his Amendment will not be carried. He has delivered a charming little speech, not in support of the Amendment, but in support of 101 other things not connected with it. If he is as anxious as I am that we shall seriously and surely get down to these fundamental economic questions that are vital to the British Commonwealth, he must admit that the sooner we get rid of these political differences the better. This Bill is a way of getting rid of them. I believe that the Bill will for a long time get rid of these political differences, and I would ask the Committee whether they would be wise to consider even for a moment the idea of postponing the Bill for 12 months, seeing that we are committed to every one of the Dominions. They have complied with their side of the bargain in having sent in their request in the usual way, and surely it is for us to comply with ours.

Lieut.-Colonel MOORE

My right hon. Friend has complained that the Mover of the Amendment did not endeavour to prove his case. In other words, he suggests that nay hon. Friend did not get close to the Amendment. I think that suggestion was unjustified, and I will try to rectify the position. It is not a case of endeavouring to fulfil something that all the Dominions have asked for. As far as I can find out, and I have made many inquiries, very few of the Dominions are urgently demanding that this Bill should become an Act by 1931. I have here two or three expressions of opinion from the Dominions asking that the Bill should be postponed so that the States of Australia, including Tasmania, should be further consulted before definite action is taken. We in this House owe an obligation to those States to ensure that their views are considered and represented in this House. The Mover of the Amendment suggested that it is 34 years since Canada first raised the question of Imperial Preference. That is not now the issue. We have an Empire or a Commonwealth which started in 1607, when Newfoundland was first acquired. This was followed by Canada coming into the Empire in 1763, and so on through our history we find the various Dominions desiring and seeking to become part and parcel of this great Commonwealth. Now, in two days and against the will and desire of certain constituent parts of the Empire, we are going to reverse the whole structure, and we are doing that, in face of the demand of the States of Australian that the matter should be reconsidered.

It is no great argument for the right hon. Gentleman to say that some of the Dominions want the Bill for political reasons. We know, for instance, that when the elections take place in the Fret State next year the political head of the Free State wants his opponents' arrows to be blunted. It will be entirely unwise for us in this very short; space of time to take a drastic action which affects the whole constitutional situation not only of the Empire and this country but possibly of India. The right hon. Gentleman tells us that the Economic Conference will take place next year. That is an abundant reason for postponing the operation of the Bill for one year. In the atmosphere which we hope the Economic Conference will develop, when, if our hopes materialise, there will he an economic unity established, it will be regarded as the right atmosphere for the bringing about of closer political unity. Therefore, we should find that we have translated this Bill into law at the very time when we should hold our hands for a few months. We desire to make this Bill a real constructive Act which will bring about closer economic and political bonds than we have visualised before. The right hon. Gentleman, while expressing his views fairly and fully, has perhaps forgotten what is at stake. As an Empire lover, I appeal to him for a little delay, and I suggest that he should not reject the Amendment.


I should like to support the Amendment. I think the right hon. Gentleman has dismissed it much too summarily. If this Statute means anything at all, it is a new charter for the British Empire. We know that there is to be a great conference of Dominion representatives at Ottawa which may very well alter the bonds which bind the Empire together. We have some reason to complain of the speed with which this great Charter has been pushed through the House. The Bill has only been in the Vote Office for a few days. Some time ago, when some of us who are interested in the matter heard that the matter was being discussed by experts, we asked for some information as to the provisional form in which the Statute of Westminster was to be drafted, but we were unable to get even a draft of the Statute. The Bill has been suddenly introduced, and after a very short time it is to be passed into law.

If the Bill is of any importance it is of very great importance to the British Empire as a whole, and now we are told that it must be passed into law within a few weeks. Having regard to the fact that the Imperial Conference is about to meet at Ottawa and that the Dominion Secretary has told us that, he is about to go on a tour through the Empire in order to reconstitute the bonds which should bind it together, I think it would be very much better if the Statute were postponed until next year. We have a National Government in power which looks at national and Empire affairs from an entirely new angle, and we hope that they will get a move on in regard to matters which have been put aside at the various Imperial Conferences, so that those matters may become a great Empire reality. We cannot at the moment forecast all that that reality is to be. Therefore, it would be better if we postponed the operation of the Statute of Westminster for a year so that it can be made a reality and not a semblance, as it is at the moment.


I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to say that he will give this matter further consideration or that he will give the Committee certain assurances in regard to the Australian States. There can he no doubt that the Australian States are very much concerned as to their rights in the future under this Act. Within the last two days a resolution has been adopted by the Tasmanian Parliament. The message that reaches us says that: Both Houses of Parliament passed a resolution protesting against the passage of the Statute of Westminster by the Imperial Parliament. The Government urge that the passage of the Statute be deferred with a view to full consultation with the States. The States have never been consulted and they desire full opportunity for the consideration of their views. South Australia telegraphed support of Tasmania's request that the Statute be not proceeded with. I am a supporter of the Statute. It is to be put through in accordance with agreement in various parts of the Empire, but we want to do it with all in the Empire feeling thoroughly satisfied that their position has been met beyond any doubt, and if by a slight delay in the passage of the Bill they could be persuaded that the points in which they are interested have not been overlooked, I cannot help thinking that it would be for the good of the Empire in the future. In view of the strongly expressed doubt which exists in Tasmania and Western Australia I hope the Secretary of State will be able to say something which will give assurance where assurance is certainly wanted.

7.0 p.m.


If there were any justification for pointing out the dangers of a discussion such as that raised by the hon. Gentleman, it would be made manifest should this House begin to differentiate in the internal affairs of the Dominions. It is not for me to comment on the merits of the case, except to state this fact. Every Member who has followed Australian polities during the last two years knows perfectly well the differences existing with regard to the Federal Parliament and the States for reasons disconnected entirely with this Statute. We know the agitation that has taken place in some cases for separation. It would be a profound mistake for this Parliament, which is itself responsible for the Australian Constitution, to take sides. Nothing would be more dangerous to Imperial unity than that. It is not my business to comment on any view, either of Tasmania, New South Wales or anywhere else, because I should then be balancing one State against another. We are concerned with the fact that the Imperial Conference is a conference of Dominion Governments, and it is the Dominion Government representatives who have come to this conclusion. In the same way, look how dangerous it would be if, for instance. Ontario or Quebec had expressed certain opinions on some religious question. You would expect no Secretary of State to get up in this House and take a particular view because of that expression of opinion. The Dominion Parliament would at once say, "This is a domestic matter for which we ourselves are responsible and which we must deal with."

I beg hon. Members to keep in mind that the Statute of Westminster and all involved in it is the request of the Dominions for this legislation. We were under a solemn pledge at their request. Having met them, we had to give effect to it. Is my hon. Friend quite fair when he says that this is being rushed? He was a Member of the House in 1926, and it is not fair of those who have to accept responsibility for 1926 legislation to complain now. All that this Statute of Westminster does is to give legislative effect to what was implied and intended by the 1926 Conference. It is no good for any one to excuse themselves by saying that they had not thought of it, and had not known the implications of it. So far as I am concerned this is a legacy to me. I have never disguised my opinion that I hate a written constitution. In my judgment the value of the British constitution is that it was an unwritten constitution, and I have never disguised that view. My hon. Friend was in the Government of 1926 which left me the legacy, and I had to deal with it. I found that we were committed, and that these obligations were entered into. I found, and the Labour Government found, that this was something which was a fait accompli. What other course was there for any Government than to say, "Certainly, whatever our personal views, we are going to implement it"? That is exactly what happened, and that is the history of the Bill we are now discussing. The Amendment before the House is to defer it for 12 months. My hon. Friend in his speech suggested as the reason for deferring it that we are going to meet at Ottawa. Surely my hon. Friend knows this question is excluded from Ottawa. You must not confuse the next Ottawa Conference with an Imperial Conference. It is adjourned as an Economic Conference, not as an Imperial Conference, and this question would be absolutely ruled out.

Lieut.-Colonel MOORE

I quite appreciate that point of view, but what I was saying was that probably, in view of the reassembly of the Economic Conference, there might be a spirit engendered at that conference which would create a desire for closer political as well as economic union. The right hon. Gentleman says that the Dominions pressed in 1926 for this revised Constitution, but was it not rather owing to the failure of any economic help from us that there had to be something found for the conference to do, and that this point was raised?


The hon. and gallant Gentleman is entirely in error. He knows nothing of the history of the matter if he says that. The 1926 Imperial Conference was responsible for the Balfour declaration, and that was the first declaration which substituted for the British Empire the British Commonwealth of Nations. In 1929 it was necessary to give legal effect to the declaration, and the legal experts of the Dominions met for that purpose. The 1930 Imperial Conference was then called to consider what the legal gentlemen had referred to it. That is the history of the matter. I repeat that the genesis of the whole thing was in 1926. Take the other point about the spirit of the next Ottawa Conference. There is common agreement that we want to start in an atmosphere of good will, but are you not doing the reverse by accepting this Amendment? You may take it that a number of Dominions will say, "Last year you solemnly placed on record a promise that the Statute of Westminster should be law before December of this year." I answer "Yes, it is quite true. I did promise, but we thought von would be better pleased if we did not fulfil our promise." That is not an atmosphere in which to get good will. It is for these reasons, and because I know the Dominions are keen on it, and that many of them would look on the Amendment as a breach of faith, that it is impossible to accept the Amendment.


The right hon. Gentleman has submitted one of the most extraordinary arguments ever submitted to the House of Commons. To what does it amount? Tasmania objects, Western Australia objects, certain other Colonies object. But we are bound because delegates to an Imperial Conference have among themselves come to a certain agreement. I ask the right hon. Gentleman if he has the slightest evidence that members of the public in these Dominions have been fully informed, or that one per cent. of the population of Great Britain know what we are doing? Coming up in the train this morning, I asked everyone I could about it, and I did not find one individual who knew what the Statute of Westminster meant. By what right is this Measure put before us merely because delegates at a conference said, "By 1931 you shall have the Statute of Westminster"? By what right did they enter into that obligation on behalf of the Imperial Parliament? The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that they have no right or authority. I am one of those who resent bitterly that this Measure, which was put before us on Friday, is to be passed within a day or two and become law by the end of this year. There has been no argument submitted to this House to justify such action, and everything the right hon. Gentleman has said strengthens me in that view.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.