HL Deb 17 June 1920 vol 40 cc675-88

LORD CHARNWOOD had the following Notice on the Paper— To call attention to the statement made by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons on the 17th May, 1917, in regard to "the whole question of perfecting the mechanism for 'continuous consultation' about Imperial and Foreign Affairs between the 'autonomous nations of an Imperial Commonwealth'" (together with India), and to the Resolution passed by the Imperial War Cabinet on the 30th July, 1918, in regard to the same matter; and to ask His Majesty's Government whether they can assure the House that the object in question will continue to engage their full and earnest consideration, and be pursued by every active step upon their part which may from time to time seem appropriate. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I need hardly say that I did not put down this Question with the slightest anxiety as to the interest which the Government take in this matter, nor from any undue curiosity about the details of what very likely may be somewhat delicate negotiations, but no doubt it is of importance from time to time to call the attention of public opinion, both in this country and overseas, to the matter of Imperial relations.

Before I put my Question perhaps your Lordships will bear with me if I make one or two remarks of a very general character. Our whole attitude in regard to the British Empire has been—I will not say changed, but greatly developed by the striking occurrences of the war, above all things in this respect. It may be realised here and overseas, as it never was before, as an object of supreme importance that the different countries of the Empire should between them steadily pursue, so far as possible, a common policy in regard to foreign affairs. No one will question the importance of that. But in the working out of such a foreign policy there are all sorts of differences in detail which bulk large in relatively quiet times like these, and which must not be allowed, as possibly some people may be inclined to let them, to overshadow the supreme importance of the object that we pursue. In this connection I think there is a real danger. There is a danger that the people of this country may seem, even if they really are not, indifferent to the problems of the Empire, or may not readily take the leading part in the affairs of that Empire which from time to time becomes the duty of the oldest, and for the time being the greatest, country in the Empire.

There is also a danger on the other side that we may seem to some section or other of opinion in the Dominions to be guided by the desire of bringing them into a new kind of subjection, or what might amount to a new kind of subjection, either to ourselves or to the Empire at large. That, I am quite sure, is not the aim of any British citizen who has seriously considered this matter. But we ought to make it plain, I think, that we encourage this principle—almost paradoxical as it sounds—that a matter of supreme importance in relation to the unity and strength of the Empire as a whole is that each of the younger nations within that Empire should develop its own independence, and vigorous and alert sense of nationhood. In that lurks no thought of danger to the Empire. If the whole of Canada, for example, became alive to the fact that Canada is a young nation, with an immense future before it, standing in the same sort of position in the world now which was occupied by the United States a hundred years ago, from that sense of Canadian patriotism would inevitable result, not what might be called a separatist tendency, but a Canadian public opinion which would become alive to the affairs of the world, to the position in which Canada stands, and to the common interests which, once realised, will inevitably keep the Empire together.

The consequence that follows from that is that in all our movements and strivings and suggestions towards the unification of the Empire we ought to be extremely reluctant to seem to be pressing anything upon the Dominions which might be embarrassing to the people of those Dominions themselves or to the Governments of the Dominions in dealing even with any minority of its people. That leads to a consequence which I think ought now to be frankly recognised. I speak with the greatest reluctance in any apparent disparagement of the ideals or of the real services rendered by the zealous advocates of Imperial Federation. But I am sure that we must put out of our minds for a long while to come any idea of the present and immediate practicability of any ambitious formal scheme of federation as, for instance, by the creation of a real Parliament of the Empire. It is perfectly certain that some at any rate—and I should think all—of the Dominions will have nothing to do with any such proposal—and that for the good reason that, where Imperial affairs arise which closely interest them to-day, they stand in a very strong position, from the moral influence which they inevitably exercise on the Government of the United Kingdom, and they might stand in a very much weaker position if their constitutional way of making themselves felt in Imperial affairs was through the voice of a minority in some new Imperial Parliament, representing this country and all the Dominions.

If one thinks that out it is clear that this is a sound consideration, and, at any rate, it is one that has immense weight with large sections of opinion in the Dominions overseas. So we are brought back practically to this—that the continued and growing unity of the Empire depends upon our being able to revive, and make permanent in some form or other, that kind of close mutual consultation and co-operation between the different Governments of the Empires which appears to have been so signally successful during the war and during the peace negotiations. I am aware of the difficulties in relatively quiet times of reviving that sort of organisation. There may at one time seem a difficulty in the Prime Minister of a Dominion coming over here, or, on the other hand, there may be an objection to his being represented by some other member of his own Cabinet. Still greater objections may be felt to his being represented by a High Commissioner—somebody not a member of the Government but discharging functions analogous to ambassadorial functions.

There is, I know, that sort of questions of detail to be considered by the Governments concerned. I am not going to enter into them at all. I am perfectly certain that they are difficulties of the order of which a solution must be found, and will be found, in view of the importance of the object; and I would limit the main part—the only practically important part —of the inquiry that I am going to make of my noble friend Lord Milner simply to this—Will he tell us, with as much or as little detail as may seem good to him, whether communications are passing, or have passed, with a view to the effective revival and permanence in the future, in some form, of the Imperial War Cabinet which existed during the later stages of the war?

There are one or two minor points that I might for a moment glance at. I take it that the Secretariat which was brought into being for the service of that Imperial War Cabinet is still actually in being, standing in some sort of relation to the Prime Minister. That is a minor point, but one that may be of some practical importance. Then I should like to ask this. In discussions of these questions in those periodicals which pay attention to them, I have noticed a tendency to lay a stress on a class of difficulty which I believe to be imaginary, of which I will take a single instance. It is suggested that there is some difficulty about that representation which we should all desire of India in any Imperial Cabinet that is reconstituted, on the ground that India is subordinate to the Government of this country, and that, therefore, the representation of India gives this member of the Empire a double voting strength. That is the sort of point that one occasionally sees raised in these discussions. I take it that, not only that small point, but a host of other difficulties of a like order present themselves to people's minds from the wholly false analogy, in regard to this Imperial Conference or Cabinet which we are contemplating, of a Legislative Assembly or an Executive Committee, which is to take constantly large numbers of immediate, detailed decisions, and in which, therefore, a majority must prevail and be continually prevailing.

As I humbly conceive the work of these more august bodies, a question of vote or of settling things by the power of a majority is a thing that very seldom arises at all, and we should do well to keep before our minds in these matters the analogy of conference between a small number of individual neighbours who, from time to time, meet together because they are men on the whole of like mind, who have certain broad, important interests in common, and who are actuated by a strong desire to come to an agreement on those important interests wherever they can, and who, therefore, can take counsel and, when necessary, action together in a comparatively elastic, informal and, as one may say, free-and-easy way. I should like to know how far in my noble friend's opinion that is really a true sort of pattern and type that we ought to have in mind in contemplating the body through which the action of this Empire as one family, one real fellowship, of independent nations is going to take place.

I desire to congratulate His Majesty's Government on the bold but, as it seems to me, necessary and important step which has been taken in inviting the Canadian Government to send their own representative to Washington, who will there act in concert with, and occasionally, I understand, as the actual representative of, the British Ambassador in Washington. To my mind it is a very significant development, on which I should respectfully like to congratulate His Majesty's Government.

Lastly, the existence of the League of Nations—a body on the vitality of which it appears to me at the moment the fashion to pour a certain amount of doubt—which is, in my opinion, wholly unfounded—has an important relation to this question of Imperial organisation. Obviously it might conceivably create certain difficulties in the working of imperial affairs. For example, under the League of Nations' Covenant any one of the Dominion Governments, without consulting the rest or consulting His Majesty's Government in London, might go directly to the League of Nations. It is a thing which is unlikely to happen, but, obviously, on the surface it is a way in which the working together of the League of Nations and the British Empire as a single organisation may present certain difficulties. I do not believe for one moment that the existence of that League is going to prove in practice a cause of any real friction whatever in the internal councils of the British Empire. On the other hand, should like, in conclusion, to express my emphatic conviction that the vitality and efficacy in the future of that League of Nations, to which so many of us look with so much expectation and hope, depends, above all, upon the maintenance for all time of the real, effective unity of that group of nations within it called the British Empire, which has already during the war carried to such a high point the habit and practice of co-operation for common ends. My Lords, I beg leave to put the Question which stands on the Paper in my name.


My Lords, I hope that the degree of interest felt by members of your Lordships' House with regard to the importance of the Question on the Paper may not he measured by the numbers present at this moment. I would rather hope that the paucity of the attendance is due to the fact that the majority of your Lordships agree with the mover in thinking—and I thank him for the expression of the thought—that His Majesty's Government is not indifferent to the importance of the Question he raises, and that it can be relied upon to do all that is possible for the time being to promote the objects which he has in view. I think I may fairly say that is the case.

In an early part of his speech the noble Lord seemed to harbour the fear that it might still be possible for the people of the Dominions to feel a certain nervousness test, in any proposals made in this country to bring about more harmonious co-operation between the different Governments of the Empire, there might be some idea of bringing the Dominions into a new form of subjection. I really think that the time is now long past when any impression of that kind can reasonably be entertained by even the most nervous of Dominion statesmen or Dominion citizens. It is now common ground I take it—I have said it so often that I am almost ashamed to repeat it—that we gladly accept the position, and look upon it as a step in the progress of the Empire and of humanity, that we are all under the King and under the Crown, and there is no kind of authority which, in practice, whatever may be the theory of the Constitution, the Parliament and people of the United Kingdom claim any longer to exercise over the Parliaments and peoples of the self-governing Dominions. We frankly accept the position that we are partner-nations of equal status, though obviously the oldest, still by far the wealthiest, of all these States and the one with the most world-wide possessions, relations and interests has, by common consent—it is merely by consent—a certain position of leadership as head of the family. That is the ground on which we frankly take our stand.

That being admitted, some very important consequences follow. I entirely agree with the noble Lord—I suppose we all do—that we regard it as a matter of supreme importance for the Empire and for the world that the self-governing Dominions of the Crown and the United Kingdom should continue to pursue a common policy, I will not say on every matter, or in everything outside their own borders, but on what one might call all great questions of foreign affairs, all great international questions. It is of supreme importance that they should pursue a common policy, and that, as Mr. Watt said the other day, in the councils of the world the Empire should speak with a single voice. If that is to be accomplished under present constitutional conditions, it can only be because the self-governing nations are agreed upon a particular policy. There is no power, as I think, in the Constitution as it exists to impose the will of the majority upon one dissentient or recalcitrant member. If they are not agreed common action is not possible.

Fortunately, in the one great test in the experience of recent. years—I mean the test of our policy with regard to the war—we were all continuously agreed about the policy as a whole and every main chapter of it. But, of course, it would be too sanguine to presume, because that fortunate result occurred in one particular important instance, that we could always count upon equally good fortune. We cannot always count upon it. We must frankly accept the position, and freely recognise that circumstances may arise in the future in which, even in a great international crisis, the action of the Empire will be paralysed or greatly weakened owing to the fact that there will not be agreement between all its self-governing parts, and that consequently, either nothing will be done or very much less effective action than would have been possible with agreement will be taken by some portion of the Empire. That would be a disaster. But it is a disaster winch, in my opinion, is only likely to occur if we lose during peace time that close touch with one another which we, fortunately, managed to establish during the war.

I do not believe that on any great world question, different views will be taken by the different parts of the British Empire so long as they remain in intimate touch with one another and are able to consult steadily before any crisis arises. What I dread is the possibility of a clash because action has been taken, for instance, by one member of the family—it naturally would be by the United Kingdom—or because some course has been pursued in foreign policy by our own Foreign Office over, perhaps, a number of years—perhaps it is a right course, but one of which the Dominions were not aware—which brings us up to a certain difficulty, a criticial position, when we should not find ourselves supported by other members of the family, simply because they did not know enough of the previous circumstances which had put us in the position when that decision had to be taken. Therefore, what seems a vital importance in this matter is to keep up continuous knowledge, on the part of all the self-governing members of the Empire, of the course which any one of them is pursuing (and in the main that means which the United Kingdom is pursuing) in matters of foreign policy.

What provision actually exists at present for common consultation, for exchange of views, and for framing, by deliberation with one another, a common policy of the Empire? I think what exists and what is being done in that direction is the main point of the Question of my noble friend. At the risk of being rather tedious I should like to explain what the present system actually is, because there is a good deal of misunderstanding about it. On the one hand, we have had now for a number of years an institution which was known in the first instance as the Colonial Conference and subsequently as the Imperial Conference—a meeting of representatives from all parts of the Empire and from India, presided over generally by the Secretary of State for the Colonies but sometimes by the Prime Minister, at which broad questions of what you might call permanent Imperial interest were discussed and resolutions arrived at, which were merely in the nature of recommendations to the several Governments.

The Imperial Conference was frankly a Conference which had no authority to impose its decisions upon any one, but at the same time it was a gathering of very great influence. All the leading statesmen of the Empire were present, its deliberations have been very serious and important, and the resolutions of a body of that kind could not but have a considerable effect upon the conduct of affairs in the different countries there represented. As a matter of fact, a good deal of very useful work in pulling the Empire together has been the result of the quinquennial meetings of this body.

Moreover, we must look upon this Conference—the Imperial Conference proper—as a regular and permanent organ of our Empire Constitution, inasmuch as it has a Secretariat which is a branch of the Colonial Office and which exists in order to pursue, in the intervals between the meetings of this Imperial Conference, the various questions which have been discussed at the Conferences, to collect the material for future Conferences, and, so far as possible by addressing the various Governments, to see that the resolutions of past Conferences are carried out. That is a permanent, important, and very valuable instrument, and one which I believe will have growing effect. An institution of that kind, meeting at long intervals, even if it is to some extent kept alive by the existence of the Secretariat I have described, is very far from being able to ensure that the strength of the Empire is continuously brought to bear upon the direction of the affairs of the world in the way in which the powers of any unified Government can be so exercised.

I mean to say that the Government of France, for instance, the Government of the United States, the Government of the United Kingdom, through their Foreign Offices and their representatives abroad, can exercise from day to day a continuous influence upon the course of world affairs. They are units continuously active. But the Empire—using that word to include all the self-governing Dominions as well as the United. Kingdom—has no means of exercising such a continuous influence except in so far as the United Kingdom Government may exercise it. No Ambassador anywhere represents the Empire as effectively as he represents the United Kingdom. Therefore, the question arises whether it is not up to us to devise some means of making the influence of the Empire as a whole—as distinct from the United Kingdom; something greater than the United Kingdom—continuously effective in the councils of the world.

Temporarily this has been achieved. A body was in existence which was known during the war as the Imperial War Cabinet, and during the Peace negotiations at Paris as the British Empire Delegation, which did exactly this thing. I mean that it brought the whole force of the Empire to bear from day to day upon the course of world events. This is a thing entirely distinct from the Imperial Conference, totally different in its nature—a powerful executive engine of government. But of course it was necessarily temporary in its constitution. At that time there was in existence the Imperial War Cabinet, a body of five persons. It invited the Prime Ministers of the self-governing Dominions and the Secretary of State for India, as representing India, to take part in its councils, practically to become members of it. That body directed the war and was continuously active. It represented the whole force of the Empire; because not only was what is commonly described as the Imperial Government constantly represented on it by its principal members, but there were the heads of all the self-governing States of the Empire there; and it was as complete an Executive of the Empire as a whole as it is possible to conceive.

But, as I have said, it was by its nature a temporary institution. It was created for war purposes; and for various reasons it was bound—I will not say to come to an end, but, at any rate to fall into abeyance at the end of the war, because for one thing, the Prime Ministers of the self-governing Dominions could not continually be here, as they had to go back to their own countries. Then, again, the British Cabinet changed its character and ceased to consist only of five people. It now consists of twenty or thereabouts, and the conditions which permitted of the introduction of the Prime Ministers of the Dominions into the heart and centre of the British Cabinet no longer exist to the same extent. Though it is, of course, nothing like so important in times of peace as it was during the crisis of the war to make sure of being able to concentrate the whole power of the Empire and of having an Empire engine to direct it, yet it is still very important, even in times of peace, that it should be possible, perhaps not continuously but at any rate occasionally, to set up and have an instrument of government not only able to discuss and talk about Imperial affairs but able to take action as representing the whole Empire.

This, I think, is generally recognised, and I cannot conceal from your Lordships that my own experience during the short time I have been at the Colonial Office has absolutely convinced me that something more is necessary than we have got in the Constitution of the Empire, something which does not exist at present, if the splendid harmony which prevailed between all parts of it in the war is not to be frittered away in peace, and if we are not to separate from one another and go different roads even without knowing it.

I am convinced that we shall be able to hold together on all matters of world importance only if we keep touch more closely than it is possible to do merely by means of Imperial Conferences held every four or five years. I am sure that something which brings the people in the different self-governing States of the Empire, who are actually responsible at the moment for the conduct of their affairs, into constant and close touch with one another is essential if the Empire is to play the great role it ought to play in the world.

Something of this kind must be done, and something of this kind is in the minds of statesmen not only here but in all the self-governing countries under the Crown, They are alive to the necessity of some more perfect organisation to keep the Empire on the same lines of policy and, if necessary, to ensure its whole strength being thrown into the right scales at the critical moment. I quite agree with the noble Lord that the success of the League of Nations depends, above all, on the British nations (a League already by nature) being able to speak with one voice. I believe, if they do, that they will hardly ever differ on matters of supreme importance with the United States, and the two great Anglo-Saxon Powers could make the League a success and secure the peace of the world.

I have been perhaps diverted from my main point. The point I want to make is this There is a general recognition in the self-governing Dominions of the Empire, as in this country, of the necessity for a more complete and constant touch in order to ensure common influence and common action. That the necessity is felt in the Dominions is proved by the fact that the Imperial Government has been pressed strongly by all of them to hold a meeting as soon as possible in order that the constitutional question may be discussed in all its details with a view of seeing how harmonious co-operation can be secured in the future. It was at one time hoped that this meeting would take place this year. As a matter of fact, we are all now agreed that it must be put off until next year. The Governments of every part of the Empire have their hands so full at this moment with domestic questions, the aftermath of the war, that their leading men cannot be spared to meet at one spot during the present year, and, unless the leading men are there, it is of no use.

This meeting if it is to be a success and put the future constitutional relations of the Empire on a good footing, must be a meeting practically of Prime Ministers—not exclusively of Prime Ministers, but they would have to be there. Therefore, this meeting, which has been described as a Constitutional Conference because it will be a conference to decide on the future constitutional relations of the different parts of the Empire, must not be confused with the periodical Imperial Conference which, as I have said, is already a fixed and permanent feature of our Constitution. It may take the place of the Imperial Conference for a particular year, but it is, in its nature, distinct from it. It is in the nature of a Constituent Assembly which is to try to arrive. at the basis upon which our relations with the Dominions are in future to be conducted.

This Constituent Conference is contemplated for next year. It will be a meeting of extraordinary importance, but, in view of it and pending its constitution, I do not know that it would be desirable or wise to put forward any particular schemes—certainly I do not feel disposed myself to put forward any particular scheme—for bringing about that harmonious action of the different part of the Empire which, as I have pointed out, it is the object of the endeavours of all of us to ensure. All I can say about it—and it is the only answer I can give to-day to the Question of the noble Lord—is that, unless I have been wholly unsuccessful in explaining myself to your Lordships, the House will appreciate both the bigness and the difficulty of the question and the fact that every aspect of it is, I believe, constantly present to the minds of statesmen in the self-governing Dominions as well as those of some statesmen in this country too.

I have tried to point out what already exists in the way of Imperial organisation; what temporarily existed for a short time in the past and has now disappeared; and what is required to take its place and the object at which we have to aim; but I think it would not be possible, neither would it be prudent, for me (I might defeat my own object) to lay down that this and that sort of body is to be created, or this kind of arrangement is to be made, in order to ensure the object which we all have at heart. I look forward with intense interest and with great hope to the meeting of the Constitutional Conference next year, and I hope it will not separate without having provided the British Empire with some organ of Government, based upon the recognition of the complete independence and equality of its different parts, which will nevertheless enable them to act promptly and effectively when they are all agreed, and to exercise in peace, at least to some extent, the beneficent, harmonious cooperation which was so brilliantly illustrated in the war.

House adjourned at half-past five o'clock.