HL Deb 25 July 1923 vol 54 cc1368-80

VISCOUNT BURNHAM rose to ask His Majesty's Government what provision will be made for the special representation of the West Indian Colonies at the Imperial Economic Conference; and whether the question of maritime and telegraphic communication with that part of the Empire will be considered.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I am free to confess that I am putting this Question about the West Indies to the noble Duke the Secretary for the Colonies because I fear—although I hope my fear may be unfounded—that His Majesty's Government may feel itself so tied and bound by the precedents and practices of former years that perhaps, for want of vision. they may not be able to take full advantage of the Imperial Economic Conference which is summoned to meet in London in October. I am bound to say that I regard the refusal to invite special representation of the Crown Colonies, as they are culled, or miscalled, is a profound mistake in Imperial policy. These Possessions of the British Crown contain States at every stage of political and Parliamentary development, and I think they ought to have had at an Imperial Economic Conference, which may mean so much to the future development of the British Empire, something more than an official and perfunctory representation.

As the noble Duke knows, an answer was given in another place which intimated that the whole of the Crown Colonies and Protectorates would be represented by the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, Major Ormsby-Gore. It is certainly not my wish to put the slightest slur on his representation, because we recognise him as one of the more promising of our younger statesmen. But if he had the omniscience of the first Lord Brougham, or of some others who have followed him on the Woolsack, it would be utterly impossible for Major Ormsby-Gore to do justice to the different, and often competitive, claims of this great series of enormous territories, with all their resources, developed, half-developed, and undeveloped. We have the curious paradox that the Colony of Newfoundland, merely because of the accidental circumstance which raised it to the rank of a Dominion, has separate and responsible representation, whereas there is no special representation to be given to the West Indies, to East Africa, to West Africa, to Malaya, or to the Colonies of the Far East.

It is not quite certain that it will be possible to raise questions that affect the welfare of these parts of the British Empire—and, after all, they counted for a great deal in the past—except at the request of one of the self-governing Dominions. The Dominion of Canada has done a very great deal for the West Indies under the trade agreement. It has given a preference of 50 per cent. on the general goods which are brought from there, besides a special preference on sugar. At the same time, I do not think opinion in the West Indies is at all united as to the value of the Canadian connection at this moment, and I do know that many amendments and improvements are suggested which, so far as I have read, will not even come before the Economic Conference, except at the instance of the Canadian Dominion. I do not think I need make any apology to your Lordships' House if I bring before you the case of the West Indies, which are among the most famous and luxuriant of British Colonies, though I do not suppose that they have ever been mentioned, or, at any rate, rarely, in this House for the last quarter of a century. It has been said that the Caribbean Sea was the nursery of the British Navy, but I am not putting my plea on sentimental grounds; I am putting it on the urgent and public importance of the case of the West Indies. There is no doubt that for many years the West Indies have been undergoing a process of Americanisation. I do not throw the smallest doubt on the loyalty or fidelity of the West Indian Colonies, for I have heard cases of coloured people who come back from the United States once a year only to look at the Union Jack in their home Colony. As a matter of fact, if it had not been for the United States, the West Indies would have been plunged almost into bankruptcy without anything being done by us to rescue them, or to provide for their necessities.

Those Colonies are, to a large degree, in their commercial relations, under the predominance of American influence. I do not say that that should have been avoided. It is probably better that they should have had American enterprise, and should have been fostered and exploited by American capital, than that they should have been allowed to be fallow, as we should have allowed them, for all these years. It has, however, led to political developments of a serious kind, for there is at this moment in the United States a, powerful movement, backed by an important part of the American Press, for annexation of these Islands, or, let us say, for their acquirement by purchase or by barter from this country. It is quite evident that as free communities they could not, be dealt with in this way. On the other hand, this movement is closely allied with the great Prohibition movement which says that the facilities given by the West Indies militates against the liquor policy which is now the Statutory law of the United States. Moreover, it has been alleged that the construction of the Panama Canal has altered the whole relation of the various States interested in that part of the world, and that it is a necessity of American policy that the West Indian Colonies should pass under the Stare and Stripes.

I do not think we have had reason to be proud of the record of this country during the last half century in regard to the West Indies. There are blank pages in British history which I think most of us would have liked to have seen filled with the account of how, through all these years, this country had done its best to develop West Indian resources, and to take advantage of West Indian fruitful-ness. But there are no steps backward, and we cannot repair the neglect of the last half century at this stage. What we can do, however, is to face the facts as they are now.

I did not intend, in putting the Question, to make a statement on West Indian claims and grievances, but I desired to draw your Lordships' attention to two vital questions that affect the West Indies and our relations with them. Those matters I have embodied in the Notice on the Paper. Our communications with the West Indies, on the sea and under the sea and in the air, are pitiful and deplorable at the present moment. There is no independent service for goods or passengers plying between this country and the West Indies, except, of course, in the tramp ships of the merchant service which are available from time to time. His Majesty's Government has not even taken the trouble, so far, to carry out in any particular the recommendations of the Departmental Committee which examined the question of communications and reported in 1919, and of which my noble friend Lord Kylsant, Chairman of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co., was a member.

The Transatlantic and inter-Colonial services, which had been going on for many years, cost £88,000 a year, of which the mother country paid about £52,000. The communication between Southampton and Trinidad was terminated in 1916, and has not been renewed. From 1901 to 1911 Jamaica had a fortnightly mail and passenger service, called the Imperial Direct West Indian Mail Service, which cost £40,000 a year under a subsidy equally divided between that island and the mother country. It is true that boats ply at this moment under the British flag, but they are really under American ownership and they do not give to the people of Jamaica what they require, which is a service to carry freight as well as passengers and bananas—and may I say that the bananas belong to the great combine which owns the service, the United Fruit Company, which is not open to independent competition? It is not showing much interest or concern in the, oldest and not the least glorious of British Possessions that we should not have a service of any sort, subsidised, of course, as it must be, because it cannot run otherwise, between us and that part of the British Empire.

The Report of the Committee had appendices which showed that the Royal Mail Steamship Company had lost £1,100,000 on that service during the currency of the contract, and I am violating no secret when I say that the late Sir Alfred Jones, who was a great pioneer in these matters and a great patriot in his policies, himself lost £250,000 in trying to promote facilities of intercourse between Great Britain and the West Indian Colonies. I want to know whether a subject of this sort is going to be examined thoroughly and afresh by the Economic Conference; and, if so, whether there ought not to be present those who are entitled to speak for the principal Colonies in the West Indies, not merely a Government official, capable no doubt of stating the case most admirably, but still not having the authority of a representative, in the same way as will be the case of those who speak for the self-governing Dominions.

Bad as it has been in regard to shipping, it has been equally bad in regard to telegraphic and news services. The whole of the news service, roughly speaking, which appears in the West Indian newspapers is furnished by America, and is, necessarily, of an American colour. I do not say that to discredit the news, because in many respects it is full and accurate. But everything has, and must have, something of the nature of propaganda about it, and the very fact that our fellow citizens there are reading nothing but news that is handled and shaped by American hands makes the process I have described as Americanisation far easier and far speedier. It is true that at this moment a good deal is to be done to improve the telegraphic connection and that sanction has been given for cables from Turks Island to Barbados, Trinidad and British Guiana. I believe that what is contemplated will be of great value for strategic and commercial purposes, but the Bahamas, for example, will be left without any cable communication at all with the outside world and will derive all their news and all the ordinary intelligence of daily life from the United States.

What I fear is that this will not be much remedied if the rules suggested by the answer given a few weeks ago in the House of Commons are to apply. It was stated there that the question of Imperial wireless communication generally is coming before the Imperial Conference, but in regard to the West Indies only, as I understand, if it comes into the general question apropos of Canada and any of the other Dominions whose interests are concerned. There is no part of the British Empire in which you would imagine wireless telegraphy was more needed or would work to better effect. The official answer all along has been that the atmospherics are such as practically to prevent it acting effectively, and although, as I learned also from a statement in another place, there is no intention of doing away with any of the wireless stations now existing there does not seem to be any intention of increasing them except in one instance. I understand on good authority that Signor Marconi ridicules the story of atmospheric disturbance as mere official bunkum, and that it would be perfectly feasible, with his new appliances and inventions, to work wireless on the widest and most beneficial scale to the West Indian Colonies.

I have ventured to draw your Lordships' attention to these points because they are of supreme importance if this country wishes to retain the West Indian Colonies, and I refuse to believe that there is any thought of getting rid of them in return for any advantages that the United States can offer. That is impossible. On the other hand, I hope that in the Imperial Conference, which is summoned for economic purposes and which may shape the economic policy of this Empire for years to come and mean a great deal in the laying of the lines of our Imperial development, that the interests of the West Indian Colonies, and the other Crown Colonies, will be specially and directly represented by those who are qualified and authorised to speak on behalf of these far flung communities.

It is sorry reading in British history as we turn its pages from the times of the Protector to the present day, to read in the Despatches of the captains and Governors of the West Indian Colonies the repeated refrain: "Pray do not forget us." I am asking your Lordships to express your opinion, not of course by Division but in debate, to the effect that on this occasion, when so much is at stake and when the opportunities are so easy and could be so magnificently employed, the whole of those Possessions of the Crown—which I think are termed in most misleading language Crown Colonies—should have that representation at the coming Conference to which their importance, their interests and their loyalty so fully entitle them.


My Lords, I am anxious to support the view expressed by my noble friend opposite, and I base my support not only upon the particular ease which the noble Viscount has advanced in relation to the West Indian Colonies but upon the experience which I gained when, as Secretary of State for the Colonies, it was my duty to arrange for and preside over two Imperial Conferences. I desire to reinforce with all the strength I can command the view expressed by the noble Viscount. He made a reference, to one of the greatest of our Lord Chancellors. I hope that it will not be thought that I am guilty of any disrespect to Lord Chancellors if I say that if you were successful in bringing down from Heaven the Archangel Gabriel himself and charged him with the care of all the Crown Colony cases he could not possibly discharge the duty. It is an impossible task for any one individual to perform. I do not care how able Major Ormsby-Gore may be—I agree with everything that my noble friend has said with reference to him, and I hope and believe that he has a most brilliant future before him—we have tried this method and it has failed.

So far as I know—it was certainly so in my time—it has been the practice to charge the Under-Secretary of State for the time being with the special care of Grown Colony work, and at the Imperial Conference he was expected to pay special attention to the interests of those Colonies. During my time we had two Under-Secretaries at the Colonial Office between whom the duties connected with our different Crown Colonies were divided on a geographical basis, and I was fortunately able to secure more direct representation than this, not at the Conference itself, but at the Committees which were appointed to consider these very economic questions which I hope are not only going to receive consideration at the approaching Conference, but are destined to receive a solution. I hope we are going to have results which, if the Conference proceeds upon the lines which I trust it will follow, will mean great development for the British Empire. But although we had the advantage of the services of two very capable Under-Secretaries and of extremely capable and experienced permanent officials, with a long knowledge of the Crown Colonies, in which some of them had actually served, we were faced with the practical difficulty, to which my noble friend has referred, that no individual was made personally responsible in regard to the questions which pressed most hardly upon these great parts of His Majesty's Dominions.

How can this difficulty be remedied? I venture with the very greatest respect to make a suggestion to the noble Duke, the Secretary of State. I believe there is only one way in which you can satisfactorily deal with the claims of the Crown Colonies, and that is by dividing them into groups. I do not mean that they should necessarily be geographical groups. It is obvious that the different-African Colonies must be in one group if it be possible—I doubt if it is—but the other Colonies will not necessarily lend themselves to division into groups, but rather to a division based on similar interests and opportunities for development. I was able to secure the attendance on the Committees, though not at the Conference, of ex-Governors who happened to be in this country. This was during the war when we had some ex-Governors and Governors with us who were unable, owing to the difficulties of the time, to return to their seats of Government and we took full advantage on these Committees of their knowledge and experience. I am glad to know that, partly as a result of the information which they gave, there is now in the possession of the Government and of others an immense amount of information, fully tabulated, scheduled and prepared, which will form a full and satisfactory basis for the future developments which I hope are shortly to follow.

If it be possible for the Secretary of State to secure this representation, if not upon the lines which I have indicated then on some other basis, he will get rid of what is regarded, as my noble friend opposite has said, as a very serious injustice in the present method of conducting the Colonies. As your Lordships know, it is open to the various members of the Conference, members of His Majesty's Government and representatives of the Dominions, to give notice of any question they like to raise for discussion, and then it is the practice of the Conference to have the list of these questions before it, so that the Conference itself may decide what are to be the subjects for discussion and what shall be the order in which they are taken. It surely follows, therefore, that if at this Conference the only representative of the Crown Colonies is a member of His Majesty's Government, an Under-Secretary or a permanent official, you are placing the Crown Colonies at a very serious disadvantage.

I am no pessimist. I believe I am an optimist. I am a supreme believer in this Empire and in all its different parts, and I am the last person to suggest that any part of the Empire, however distant it may be or however unfairly it may have been treated in the past, should try to revenge itself upon the Mother Country by threatening separation or anything of that kind. But my noble friend Lord Burnham said, at the beginning of his speech, that this is not merely a question of sentiment or of drawing closer and closer the bonds of Imperialism, but also a practical question. Lord Burnham told your Lordships something of the Americanisation of the West Indies. The story is far too long to be narrated in the course of an ordinary speech in your Lordships' House, but there is real danger in a policy of that kind being allowed to develop without any competition. You cannot everlastingly offer temptation of the most solid character to a people who are struggling to live without being prepared for what some may call weakness on their part.

But is it weakness? Is it not, after all, merely human nature? Men and women see before them opportunities for a prosperity which they have never before enjoyed. They find that when they come to the British Government—and I am not speaking of this Government but of every Government in succession,, going back as far as you like—the answer is: "We cannot do this for you." These Crown Colonies, and especially the West Indies, have a special claim upon the Government and people of this country. During the war they suffered bitterly because they could not get rid of their produce, although it was produce grown in British Dominions and was wanted by the British people for their consumption at home. These people had to undergo grievous privations because they could not trade as they had been accustomed to trade.

I support both the suggestions of my noble friend opposite, but I desire to give particularly strong endorsement to one of them. The noble Viscount referred to the question of transport, and he told the House something which, I do not doubt, is known to many of your Lordships—that the connections between this country and the West Indies are, I will not say deplorable, but practically non-existent. I believe that this is one of the directions in which you may be able to do something solid, something real, in order to help your Crown Colonies and your more distant possessions. I know that I must not venture to refer again now to that question of preferential treatment, in which I so firmly believe. I will only say this of it, that I am satisfied that in that policy, and that alone, is to be found the real remedy for the want of entire unison between the different parts of the British Empire. If, however, the objections to that are insuperable, then it cannot be said that to a policy of subsidising transport there is anything approaching the same objection; so far as I know, there is no objection at all. Have we not been accustomed for ages past to subsidise vessels carrying our mails? If that is so, why not adopt a policy which will bring the further parts of this Empire in closer communion with the centre in London, and offer to them opportunities for the development of their trade?

I do not say that this is a reproach to this country. I do not say that it has not been due to difficulties which could not at the time have been overcome, but I do say that you will find that the great Republic of America is far more ready to offer opportunities to places like the West Indies than we have ever been. And if you go from the West Indies to our African Colonies you will there find what was the history of Germany's development of her Colonies. You will find that Germany succeeded in doing a great deal more for the development of the territories which she possessed than we had ever been able to do. I hope that the first serious step will be taken in dealing with this question of the position of our non-self-governing Colonies at this coming Economic Conference. It is a tremendous opportunity. I am not a pessimist, but I believe that you can wait too long. I believe you can go on trusting to the good will and generosity of all these peoples, until you wake up to find that it is too late to take any fresh steps.

I know—and what I am saying is based upon the most recent information—that in our Dominions and Crown Colonies public opinion has undergone an immense change since the war. Within the last few days I have seen the strongest expression of opinion from one of our greatest Dominions—from a man of high responsibility in that Dominion. Whether they be Crown Colonies or Dominions I say they are asking: "How long are we to wait before you will give us something solid, to enable us to tell other applicants for our favours that we are content with the development going on within the British Empire?" These are questions which have to be answered. I believe the answers can be found, but the questions can only be answered on the lines that have been suggested. It is in the hope that His Majesty's Government will give a reality to these discussions which they have never enjoyed before that I support the Question of my noble friend.


My Lords, I think the speech delivered by my noble friend who brought this Question to the attention of your Lordships contained a suggestion that we on our side were lukewarm, or at any rate not interested, in the development of the West Indian Colonies. I hope to show that that statement is wholly unjustified.


I made no such suggestion. I was talking of the policy of this country for fifty years. I made no suggestion applicable to this Government or to any Government specially. All I asked was that an active interest should be shown.


I thought the suggestion was that we were not showing that active interest. I hope to dispel any such idea. We certainly are anxious and interested, and when our wishes are investigated and known I think we can claim that we are endeavouring to do everything which lies in our power to bring forward and assist the development not merely of the West Indian Colonies but of our Colonies throughout the Empire. Many of your Lordships are aware that with the close proximity of the United States, and possibly the many attractions which the West Indian Colonies may possess for the inhabitants of the United States, especially at this immediate moment, no doubt considerable American influence is being exercised in those Colonies; but I am confident that the loyalty and the close association which has existed for so long between the West Indies and ourselves is not going to be broken by any commercial or industrial influence of that character.

As was stated, I think, in another place, the representation of the West Indies at the Economic Conference will be in the hands of the Under-Secretary of State. Mr. Ormsby-Gore will, at the Economic Conference, represent the Crown Colonies and Protectorates. In the case of the West Indies he has the additional advantage of having, during the time of his predecessor, made a long and interesting journey through those Colonies, and he is therefore able to speak with first-hand knowledge and information on those points. With my hon. friend there will be associated representatives of the Colonial Office, namely, Sir Gilbert Grindle, who has taken an active part in these Conferences, and Sir James Stephenson, who has rendered conspicuous services in connection with our Colonies. It is obvious that in addition to the actual representation at the Conference itself, the Colonial Office, working through the Under-Secretary, will be in close touch with official and unofficial representation.

During the past few months my hon. friend and I have had the opportunity of meeting many of the Governors of Colonies, and many of the high officials also. We have had the advantage, knowing that the Conference was to assemble in the autumn, of being able to gather their views and to take note of their representations, with a view to bringing them before the Conference. With regard to the two special points raised by the Question, it is, I think, obvious that maritime communication and wireless communication are bound to receive, and will receive, the fullest attention of the Conference. One of the objects for which we are having the Conference is to consider these communications. But I am a little doubtful whether this question of maritime communications with the West Indies could be suitably discussed at such a Conference. We are in close communication now with the Governments of the various Colonies concerned, and I think, at any rate in the first instance, it is far better that we should continue to conduct those communications, rather than make them the subject of a special reference to the Conference.

With regard to the improvement of telegraphic communication, I trust it will not be necessary to wait for the meeting of the Economic Conference. Proposals have now been placed before the overseas Governments, and I trust that before the Conference itself assembles we shall be able to point to considerable progress. Undoubtedly, if further representations are needed, we can confidently assert that they will be brought before the Conference, and I am quite sure they will receive effective and full consideration.