HC Deb 24 November 1931 vol 260 cc362-8
Lieut.-Colonel MOORE

I beg to move, in page 1, line 14, after the word "British," to insert the words "Empire or."

I think possibly this is the second Amendment to-day which the Government may see their way to accept. If the right hon. Gentleman has really studied the meaning of the Amendment, he will be one of the first to see how reasonable it is and how much it would appeal to members of the component parts of the British Empire. It is only designed to provide the alternative and better known title of "Empire" to this comparatively new-fangled growth, the British Commonwealth of Nations. I have thought to myself, I will find out exactly what this word commonwealth means. I looked it up in the dictionary, and I found it was a form of government in which the power rests with the people. If that is accepted, surely it cannot apply to the British Commonwealth. In the British Commonwealth the form of government does not lie with the British people but lies with the will of the people of each individual component part of the Empire.

It seems to me that, while Commonwealth would be a proper term to apply to any one of the Dominions, it is a singularly improper term to apply to the Dominions as a whole. The word "Empire," although, according to the dictionary, it has a meaning which is perhaps not in consonance with our modern development of thought, means a tremendous lot to every person throughout the country, and throughout the Empire as well. After all, what does it matter what is in a name? It is what that name signifies to the people who use it that matters. Our Friend Lord Beaver-brook believes that Empire economic unity means Empire Free Trade. It is simply a question how you look at the phraseology that you are using and with what meaning you clothe it. I remember when Mr. Forbes was addressing a meeting of Members of the House he said, "I have no use for this new-fangled term "British Commonwealth." I am very happy and satisfied with the old term "British Empire." If we go further, I have an extract from a speech by the ex-Minister of Education in Ontario in the Empire Rooms when he said: I think in Canada we have come fully to realise what, after all, is the distinct and proper use of the term 'Empire' in relation to the British Empire. The wore 'Empire' has come down with perhaps rather a tradition and flavour of tyranny. It has usually meant a central power that has maintained its sway over out-lying, regions and compelled them to pay a tribute to it. Now the British use of the term 'Empire' has never been of that kind. … It does hot mean that we are an organisation out to dominate the world, to restrain the development of others, but it is a declaration that within our own Dominion we claim freedom and independence from outside interference. And that in my humble opinion justifies abundantly the use of the fine old term that stirs our very hearts, 'the British Empire'. The British Commonwealth of Nations has its place and use and meaning, but it is not as big, and not as ancient, and it is not as heart-stirring as that term 'The British Empire'". That is the declaration of one of our most distinguished Canadian Ministers, and represents the feeling held by every man and woman throughout the Empire, I cannot see what harm it would do to the phraseology of the Bill. I cannot see that it would alter it in any way, but it would give that alternative term, which has a far greater meaning to us all, and which is a term which is enshrined and honoured in the heart of every individual in the British Empire.


My hon. and gallant Friend is under a misconception about this matter, if he will allow me to say so. He wants to call, what is rightly described as the British Commonwealth of Nations, the British Empire. The British Commonwealth of Nations is not the British Empire. If he will turn to the report of the Imperial Conference of 1926 he will find, in language most carefully chosen and as accurate as it is inspiring, that the position of the Dominions is described in this way: Their position of mutual relation may be readily defined. They are autonomous communities within the British Empire"— —I am sure the hon. and gallant Member will be gratified to find the word "Empire" in the report of the Imperial Conference— equal in status and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations. The British Empire is a great and magnificent community, but it is not the same thing as the British Commonwealth of Nations, which is the accurate description of the autonomous Dominions which are generally included within that term. I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend will see that we intend no disrespect for and wish for no forgetfulness of the British Empire, and that this Bill wishes to emphasise or describe accurately what is a part of the British Empire, namely, the Commonwealth of the self-governing Dominions.


I should like to draw the attention of the Solicitor-General to the first paragraph of the Irish Free State Agreement where it is appropriately set out that Ireland shall have the same constitutional status in the unity of nations known as the British Empire, which means Canada, the Commonwealth of Australia, the Dominion of New Zealand and so on.


It was in 1926 that this status was defined, and the Treaty from which my hon. Friend was reading was the Irish Treaty made long before the Balfour Declaration.

Lieut.-Colonel MOORE

After the courteous explanation which has been given by the Solicitor-General, I beg to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Preamble agreed to.

Bill reported: as amended, considered.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

This is, as everyone recognises, a Measure of the greatest importance in our Imperial history. It deserved the most careful attention, the most scrupulous examination and the most thorough discussion during the Committee stage. Be- cause of its importance, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, during the Second Reading, promised that the Government would not attempt in any way to dragoon the House during the Committee discussion. They promised that any Amendment which was put down would be examined on its merits and that adequate time would be given for discussion. This afternoon and evening the Bill has been suffering that scrupulous examination. It has come through the trial with practically no alteration and has survived almost unscathed. The fact is, and I think the Debate has proved it, that the House is practically unanimous in accepting the general principle of this legislation. The House would have been untrue to itself if it had taken up any other attitude. It has often been proclaimed from this Box and from these benches that liberty is the aim of the British Empire, and this Bill, so far as the Dominions are concerned dots the "i" and crosses the "t" in liberty.

As the Bill, after the most careful examination, has passed the House with practically no alteration, very few additional words are required from this bench in order to persuade the House to give it a unanimous Third Reading. During the discussion only one major point of controversy has arisen—the question connected with the Irish Free State Constitution. Both on Friday and again this afternoon that issue was thrashed out and made quite plain. The legal position of the Irish Constitution may be altered. There is some dispute as to that, but there is very little dispute—only one Member disputed the fact—that the moral position of the Irish Constitution remains as it was, and will remain the same if the Statute of Westminster Bill is passed. The Treaty between the Irish Free State and this country still stands. The Articles of Agreement still stand, and the representatives of the Southern Irish people have repeated again and again their determination to abide faithfully by their obligations under that Treaty and under those Articles of Agreement.

We trust the word of the representatives of the Southern Irish. The Irish Free State, like the other great countries whose affairs we have been discussing to-day, is a Dominion. It is therefore a partner in the British Commonwealth of Nations. One of the essential links between partners in any great undertaking like this is trust and mutual confidence. It is in that spirit that I would ask the House, after the very thorough discussion we have had of this Bill, to give the Bill a unanimous Third Reading to speed it on its way through this Mother of Parliaments.


After having been an active opponent and critic of this Bill, I cannot help thanking the Government for the way in which they have allowed these Amendments to be considered, but I must protest again against the mode in which this Bill has been introduced. It is a Bill of immense importance to the Empire, probably the most important Bill I shall ever see passed through Parliament. It has been introduced in a period of enormous national crisis, after a General Election in which it was never mentioned, on a Friday afternoon without practically any introduction to the House of Commons at all. Certainly, under protest, we have been given time to consider these Amendments, but, after all, one Friday afternoon and the following Tuesday is very little time to give to the British House of Commons to consider a Measure which is going to regulate the whole arangements of the Empire, as I hope, for centuries. I protest against it and hope it will not occur again.


I have great pleasure in following the speech of my Cambridge colleague to bear out the fact that there is not complete unanimity in this House for the pasisng of the Bill. The first point I make is, as I said before, that the Bill is wrongly named. We have been hearing it called again and again the Statute of Westminster. It is not the Statute of Westminster because that term can only apply accurately to the Statute of Edward I, 1275. The Soliictor-General rather laughed at my petition to him to see that it is registered as the Statute of Westminster, 1931, but to talk about the Statute of Westminster means that old law about the Law Officers and officials of the Crown who extorted so much money and about the arrears of rent of the monks, and so on.

Secondly, I protest against the assumption of the Mover of the Third Reading that a large majority means unanimity and carries with it moral strength. I, myself, am at one with that ancient hero of Plutarch who was accustomed to say when he found himself in a majority, "Have I been doing anything base?" On several times I found myself in that position in the last few days and I cannot say how it restored my right-mindedness to find, as when I opposed the Montagu Bill 12 years ago and other Bills since which have turned out badly, that I am in an honourable minority with some of the men whom I respect most in the House of Commons. Unanimity with them is better than the unanimity I should get with the mosaic of Members of all creeds and political views in which the Prime Minister is once again followed by his ancient gang and by the Liberals mixed up with their reconciled enemies. To a majority of that kind, I pay no attention. I am proud to have voted against the Bill.


I only want to add one word to what we have had from the distinguished representatives of the two universities. We congratulate the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs on having brought this Bill safely through, in spite of the reaction from within his own party. We also desire to congratulate the Law Officers of the Crown on having succeeded in steering a difficult constitutional Bill, and in having got this degree of unanimity. It is a remarkable degree of unanimity upon so difficult a controversy. We are delighted to see that the Empire is launched upon a new era, we hope a new era of great prosperity.