HL Deb 16 October 1940 vol 117 cc505-10

LORD DAVIES rose to ask His Majesty's Government if, with the object of facilitating the closest co-operation in the prosecution of the war between the members of the British Commonwealth, they will consider the formation of a Supreme War Council upon which the Governments of the Dominions and India would be represented; and whether these Governments have been consulted regarding the creation and composition of such a Council; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name. Early in August I ventured to ask the noble Viscount the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs whether it was proposed to invite Dominion Ministers to participate more directly in the conduct of the war. The answer I received on that occasion was an extremely nebulous one, because the noble Viscount said: The Government do not regard the present moment as opportune for inviting Dominion Ministers to visit London for an Imperial War Conference or other discussions, but they will certainly welcome such discussion if occasion offers. Your Lordships will remember that in the debate last week the noble Viscount, Lord Elibank, raised the question again and he received very much the same reply. I cannot help feeling that it was a most unsatisfactory reply, and that is the reason why I have ventured to put this Motion on the Order Paper to-day.

We are told that something is going to be done when occasion offers, but that in the opinion of the Government the present time is inopportune. That can only mean that the present arrangements are to continue until something happens, and the creation of the Imperial War Council is to be left to chance. Who is going to decide when the time is opportune? One would have imagined that in a time like this, when the very existence of our Empire is threatened as it has never been before, one of the first steps would be the creation of machinery for the closest collaboration and co-operation between the Mother Country and the Dominions. Before the collapse of France there was the Supreme Allied War Council directing the Allied war effort, but when the Vichy Government capitulated these proceedings of course came to an end and the British Commonwealth was left to carry on the struggle alone. One would have thought that at that moment, or at any rate immediately afterwards, the time was opportune, and that our self-governing Dominions and India would be invited to participate directly in the prosecution of the war and in formulating our policy and strategy. If we are incapable of devising machinery at this critical juncture how can we ever bring about the growth and the consolidation of the British Commonwealth so that in future it may always speak with one voice and always pursue a common policy?

I do not propose to travel over the ground covered by the noble Viscount, Lord Elibank, in his speech last week. There is no need to remind the House of the wonderful response of the Dominions, the magnificent assistance in men and resources which they have already contributed to our war effort. But whilst we express to them our gratitude and appreciation for all they have done and are doing for the common cause, I am sure we also want them to feel that in this great enterprise they are regarded by us as partners who not only contribute men and money, but actively assist our leaders in this country in formulating the strategy and policy which are essential to the winning of the war. We want them to feel that they are just as much responsible as the Mother Country and the members of our own Government for the momentous decisions which must be taken from time to time. I submit that the present arrangements are totally inadequate and that the haphazard and unbusinesslike methods described by the noble Lord, Lord Snell, last week do not suffice to ensure that close collaboration which is imperative for the avoidance of misunderstanding and for the successful prosecution of the war.

I also believe that public opinion, both in this country and in the Dominions, is apprehensive in regard to this matter. People cannot understand why it is that representatives of our Dominions do not sit alongside representatives of this country in the Supreme Council or War Cabinet, which is responsible, not only to the people of Britain but also to the democracies in our Dominions, for the efficient conduct of this great struggle. As an example of the present unsatisfactory way of dealing with matters of common concern, may I refer to one instance—namely, the closing of the Burma Road, a decision which has now happily been reversed? I read an account the other day of a debate in the Canadian Parliament at Ottawa in which a Canadian Member of Parliament asked a question of the Prime Minister, Mr. Mackenzie King. This is taken from the Canadian Official Report. Mr. Coldwell said: A few days ago I asked the Prime Minister whether we had been consulted with regard to the closing of the Burma Road. He replied that he had not been asked for advice, had given no advice, and had made no comment. That is exactly the answer which was given in this House a year ago in April when the right honourable gentleman was asked if he had been consulted in connection with the Polish guarantee, the giving of which resulted in our being involved in war a few months later.

This is the question that was asked by the same Member, Mr. Coldwell, on July 19: I should like to direct a question to the Prime Minister, notice of which I sent this morning. According to to-day's papers, Lord Halifax, replying yesterday to a question in the House of Lords, said that Canada had been kept fully informed of what His Majesty's Government had in mind when considering the closing of the Burma Road. Are we to infer from this statement that the advice of the Government of Canada was sought and given with regard to this situation, which may profoundly affect future relations in the Pacific? If so, what advice was given to His Majesty's Government on behalf of the Dominion?

The answer of the Prime Minister, Mr. Mackenzie King, was as follows: The Government was informed of the views of the British Government with respect to the closing of the Burma Road, but no advice was tendered by the Canadian Government to the Government of the United Kingdom.

Mr. HANSON: Was any asked for? That is part of the question. Mr. MACKENZIE KING: No. There is usually opportunity for comment on any communications that come from the United Kingdom Government and there was in this case. If the Government of Canada had felt at the time that it was advisable to comment, it could have been done, but no comment was needed.

It appears from these questions and answers which I have just read to the House, that the Canadian Government was kept informed of the action that the British Government proposed to take; but surely this was a decision which should not only have been communicated to our Dominions, but which should have been taken by a Supreme War Council after the fullest discussion and investigation of the whole problem. I only mention this as one instance of the necessity for such a Council which is able to assume full and undivided responsibility for these decisions. There are, of course, many other questions which deserve to be treated in the same way so as to avoid misapprehensions, misunderstandings and delays.

Lastly, may I point out that in the Great War it was found necessary to create some machinery of this kind? If it were necessary then, surely it is much more necessary now. May I read to your Lordships an official statement which was issued by the Government at that time, on August 18, 1918? This is what the statement said: During the past two and a half months, the Imperial War Cabinet have been in continuous session. Every aspect of policy affecting the conduct of the war and the question of peace has been examined by the Prime Ministers of the Empire and other members representative of all its parts. These meetings have proved of such value that the Imperial War Cabinet have thought it essential that certain modifications should be made in the existing channels of communications so as to make consultation between the various Governments of the Empire in regard to Imperial policy as continuous and intimate as possible. It has therefore been decided that for the future the Prime Ministers of the Dominions, as members of the Imperial War Cabinet, shall have the right to communicate on matters of Cabinet importance direct with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom whenever they see fit to do so. It has also been decided that each Dominion shall have the right to nominate a visiting or a resident Minister in London to be a member of the Imperial War Cabinet at meetings other than those attended by the Prime Ministers. These meetings will be held at regular intervals. Arrangements will also be made for the representation of India at these meetings.

One realises, of course, that it may be inopportune that the Dominion Prime Ministers should always be present in London, but there is no reason why there should not be what is described in this document as a resident Minister here who would take his seat on the Supreme War Council and be able to express there the views of his Government. It should not surpass the wit of man to devise some means of securing a much closer collaboration than there is under our present haphazard system. The British Empire cannot stand still. Either it must grow into a political organism capable of expressing the common policy and united effort of its peoples or it runs the danger of disintegration. I submit that the Statute of Westminster was not the last word in this development, and despite any obstacles there may be, I implore His Majesty's Government to suggest to the Dominions the creation of a Supreme War Council which the present critical situation so urgently demands. I beg to move.


My Lords, you will remember that last Tuesday the question which the noble Lord has brought before your Lordships to-day was raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Elibank, in the course of a general debate on the Government's statement. While I have no quarrel with the noble Lord, Lord Davies, for raising this question again, especially considering that he was good enough to postpone a Motion on the subject at the Government's request a fortnight or so ago, neither he nor the House will expect me to give any other reply than that which I gave last Tuesday on this very important subject. The only answer that I can give to the noble Lord is to refer him to the terms of that reply. I can, however, assure the noble Lord that the points which he has raised so ably this morning will be fully considered by His Majesty's Government, and I have no doubt also by the Dominion Governments. The question is one of surpassing importance. Hasty remarks concerning it are inadvisable, and I think we had better wait for the Government to consider the matter in more detail.


My Lords, I am sorry the noble Lord opposite has not been able to give your Lordships a more reassuring reply. Of course we all realise the importance of not doing anything in a hurry, but I venture once again to draw the noble Lord's attention to the fact that I first brought forward this question as long ago as last August. Everything that has occurred since suggests that it is a matter of such vital importance that no time should be lost in exploring the whole position and endeavouring to find some means whereby the policy and the strategy of this country and the Dominions can be focussed, and some machinery devised whereby the Dominions may be able to express their views much more effectively than they are able to do at present. I beg to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.