HL Deb 07 April 1964 vol 257 cc22-37

LORD GLADWYN rose to call attention to the Plowden Report; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in introducing the Motion that stands in my name, I hope I shall be in order in making a few remarks about the Commonwealth as a whole, for obviously one's views on the Plowden Report are coloured by what one thinks about this great but, it must be admitted, very singular association of peoples. Besides, I rather hope that some noble Lords, with far greater knowledge than mine may take this opportunity of telling us what exactly they think about the Commonwealth and its future. All this, I suggest, might enable us to get the Plowden Report into its proper perspective.

I myself have no special knowledge of the Commonwealth, though, like most of your Lordships, I suppose, I have been to some Commonwealth countries and have quite a few old and valued friends in most of them. In the days when this was still possible I presided, when I was in New York, over periodic meetings of Commonwealth delegations. So I imagine that I have at least as much knowledge of the Commonwealth as the average informed citizen of this country.

With this admittedly limited background, may I say at once that, though I am sincerely convinced, as I think your Lordships are all aware, of the desirability of our eventually joining some Western European Political and Economic Union, I am equally convinced, I assure your Lordships, for reasons which I shall give, of the necessity of our doing our level best to maintain and develop the important Commonwealth connection. There is no contradiction here, as I see it—none at all. I have always thought that the alleged choice between Europe and the Commonwealth was quite false, for it is not a choice between like and like. There was and there is no inherent reason why, as a member of a European Union, we should not go on having close and intimate relations with Commonwealth countries. As part of a United Europe we should not, after all, cease to speak the same language, or lingua franca, if you like, as they do. Our institutions would, I believe, be no less democratic. Our aid, if planned in relationship to that of the present members of the European Economic Community, would be no smaller and might well, indeed, be larger.

In so far as we were able, as a result of entering Europe, to induce the Community to be more "outward-looking", as it is called, than it at present is—and it is a calumny to assert that the Community is at present very inward-looking, though of course it is possible that it may become so—trade with Commonwealth countries might in the long run not be diminished; it might very well be increased. Our trade with the Commonwealth is now 31 per cent. of our total trade. Our trade with Western Europe is 34 per cent. But we shall not increase our total trade with the Commonwealth by an act of will; we shall increase it only as part of an increase in world trade generally. That I am sure is true. Our hopes of achieving an increase in world trade generally would be greater, I am sure, if we could solve the European equation.

We must also consider that if the Commonwealth, as such, by some ill chance were to disappear to-morrow, there is no particular reason to suppose that our actual trade with Commonwealth countries would be seriously damaged. Even Preferences do not depend on the actual existence of the Commonwealth, for I suppose you could argue that a Preferential area would still exist even if a rather nebulous Commonwealth juridical nexus had ceased altogether to apply. Anyhow, my Lords, Preferences are of diminishing importance. The Sterling Area, for its part, is not co-incidental, as we all know, with the Commonwealth, and it could also in theory go on. There is no reason to suppose it could not go on, even if the Commonwealth actually disappeared.

But, my Lords, apart from all this if we do manage, and I hope we eventually shall, to construct a working relationship on an "outward-looking" basis between a United Europe and Commonwealth countries, we might well find it much easier to shake off the stigma, for it is a stigma now, of "neocolonialism", and be accepted rather as the chief friend and ally of the so-called emergent countries. I repeat, my Lords, that a United Europe and the Commonwealth are in no way comparable entities; you do not necessarily harm the one by joining the other. However, if we are to be regarded as the friend of the "emergent" countries one thing is absolutely necessary. In some way our aid must really be related to the terms of trade. The relation of aid to terms of trade is really an infinitely greater point than whether, for instance, some particular interest in some particular Commonwealth country might be rather unfavourably affected if we ever joined the E.E.C.

It is worse than useless for us in effect to recover, to get back, all the aid we give to Commonwealth countries by paying less and less for the goods which they send us. Whatever the sentiment, the multiracial Commonwealth simply cannot stand up to a trend like that, if it goes on. Good planning in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris (which would, I assure your Lordships, be greatly facilitated if the Western Alliance were based on two partners, one in Europe and one in America) might do wonders to reverse this trend, which seems to me at any rate to be largely responsible for the deplorable but, I am afraid, undeniable fact that as the world goes on to-day the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

I know we cannot cure all this absolutely on our own. We cannot just pay more for our raw materials when others are paying less for theirs—obviously not. But we could put up a reasonable plan for relating aid to the terms of trade, and do our best to push it. Mr. Heath's new plan announced in the papers this morning does not do this directly—it does not directly relate aid to the terms of trade—but it has many admirable features. At first glance there are certainly many admirable features, and in general it seems to be a most forward-looking scheme. But it should be obvious that if it is generally accepted—and this is the point—by all our friends in Geneva, the Commonwealth will have taken a pretty long step in the direction of being merged, economically speaking, into a greater whole.

Then again, it is no good thinking that the goodwill which holds the Commonwealth together at the present time—and it is only goodwill which holds it together at the present time as a multiracial society—may not be endangered by developments in the South of the African continent. Here, I am not myself so pessimistic as some, for nobody could pretend, I think, that, even if it refused to go beyond certain limits in trying to suppress it, this country was actually in favour of race discrimination. Nobody could really suggest that. I suggest it is even possible that some countries, as a result of something that might happen in South Africa, or of our doing or not doing something they want us to do, might officially leave the Commonwealth, and yet the Commonwealth connection, such as it is, might still endure. Even if, like the Cheshire cat, a part of it were, in its present form, to disappear almost entirely to the outside view, the smile could still remain.

What I do think is absolutely wrong—and I beg your Lordships to agree with me on this—is to conceive of the Commonwealth as a sort of inflatable raft on which we keep ourselves afloat in the absence of some European settlement. The Commonwealth is no longer something which we can exploit in our own interests: nor is it any longer something which can be run from London. If we continue to entertain these delusions we shall find, to our dismay, that the Commonwealth is indeed, as was said long ago of an even more ancient institution, nothing more than the ghost of the British Empire sitting crowned upon the grave thereof. As I see it, the Commonwealth is both something more and something less than is commonly thought—and I am talking about the popular imagination. Nobody who has looked through the proceedings of the 1962 and 1963 Commonwealth Parliamentary Conferences, held respectively in Lagos and Kuala Lumpur, can fail to be impressed by the general goodwill and, indeed, by the general pride at belonging to a civilised and, as it were, a first-class club.

Vigorous attacks are, of course, made by one Commonwealth country on another; and, in particular, the old United Kingdom often comes in for pretty general condemnation. In a way, one has the curious impression that the thing is rather like the United Nations in miniature without the cold war. But the atmosphere, so far at any rate, is fundamentally good, and there is a real desire, as I understand it, to explain and to try to understand. There is, as it were, a common humanity, which, in this age of ideological passions, may be of inestimable value. All this must be conserved, it must be got on with; and if and when we can shake off the reproach of "neo-colonialism" that still attaches to us, I am afraid, for so long as, rightly or wrongly, we appear to be running the old Empire less expensively and with even more profit to ourselves, we shall all, I think, find it possible gradually to construct some new kind of association.

But, my Lords, having said that, when we ask ourselves, "What does all this add up to in terms of political and economic power?", the answer is necessarily more qualified. The point was made in Lagos in an impressive speech by my friend Mr. Paul Hasluck, then Minister of Territories and now, I believe, Minister of Defence of Australia. He said, in substance, that the Commonwealth to-day "means little or nothing so far as the division of power is concerned". It "is not a defence unit". In the future it "will be to a less extent an association which exists for the purpose of trade". For good or ill, "it is no longer a commercial unit". Many of the "other principles" which are sometimes alleged to hold the Commonwealth together, he thinks, are "very tenuous", and statements of them are apt to be "rather platitudinous".

According to Mr. Hasluck, three things only bind the Commonwealth together. These are the traditional relationships (which, of course, are history); the similarity of institutions, which may or may not be very similar in five or ten years from now; and—this I quote— the fact that we can still talk to each other ". Of these, the last, I think, according to him, is the only one to which he attaches any real importance. In any case, the Commonwealth would be doomed, as he says, if it ever tried to formulate its relationship, and doubly doomed if it ever tried to divide itself up into blocs, whether voting, fighting or trading. What was wanted, he thought, was not some new alliance, but what he called a "greater area of understanding" which might spread—and the last three are the operative words.

This wise analysis did not appear to be seriously contested, either in Lagos or in Kuala Lumpur; but, after listening to it and to subsequent speeches, it was perhaps not unnatural that Sir John Vaughan-Morgan, summing up the debate, should have observed—and I quote: I am somewhat confused as to what the rôle of the Commonwealth is. But surely we are all agreed, that even though we do not know what that rôle is, we are all certain that it has got a great rôle to play in the modern world"— a robust statement which, we read, was greeted with loud applause. My Lords, the last thing I want to be, or appear to be, is cynical; and, rightly understood, I think Sir John's remark was more profound than might appear on the surface. It is what the Commonwealth is in process of becoming, rather than what it is now, that is important. It is evident, for instance, that the system in which we place our faith is absolutely flexible. I note that the annual Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference is attended now by ex-members of the club, such as the United States of America and the Republic of Ireland; so I suppose it is not inconceivable that we may one day welcome Burma back into the fold, and that one day even South Africa, abandoning apartheid, might return. Who knows, if we even join the European Economic Community, it could, from this point of view, be represented, not as some of the wicked French might insidiously assert, as a sort of second Norman Conquest, so much as a return to the fold of Hanover, Normandy, Anjou and Acquitaine.

Anyhow, if we do ever join the European Economic Community I do not think there is any doubt that French Africa will be part of the group—that is certain; and if a new democratic Spain and Portugal ever joined (and why should they not?), we should be on the way to some close association with Latin America—that is obvious. In other words—and here I become entirely serious, my Lords—if the true function of the Commonwealth is, as Mr. Hasluck said it was, to "extend the area of agreement," it might eventually end up as the core of some as yet inconceivable association which would marry the whole industrialised West to the emergent nations of the East and South. By that time—fairly far in the future, no doubt—it would probably have ceased to exist; but if we ask, "Quousque tendimus?"—" Where are we going?"—the answer is, I am sure, "In this general direction."

After all, my Lords, the goal which I have just described, though distant, is a noble one; and one that should appeal to all our young men and women. One of the best ways to attain it would, in my view, be to form a large British Peace Corps, as the Americans call it—all volunteers, putting whatever techniques they possess free at the disposal of some Commonwealth Government in need of them for, say, a year, journeys and necessary expenses only to be met by the United Kingdom. At the moment the Americans have, I believe, 10,000 devoted young men and women doing this kind of work, of whom I think nearly 1,000 are in the Commonwealth. Our own strictly comparable effort is pretty modest at present, although I believe that we shall have about 1,000 graduates and from 3,000 to 4,000 non-graduates in the field in 1965; and the fact that a Council for Volunteers Overseas, presided aver by His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, is now being formed will give a splendid lead.

It is also true that, quite apart from the voluntary schemes, we have over 18,000 people working in the Commonwealth countries alone, mostly ex-Colonial officials, now employees of the Commonwealth Governments whose salaries are made up by the Department of Technical Co-operation to the not inconsiderable tune of £13½ million a year. That includes about 1,600 technicians furnished by the Department of Technical Co-operation itself. Whilst all this is very good, I feel that we should not rely entirely on the non-voluntary side, as it were; otherwise we may even be overtaken by the Germans who in 1964, I am told (though I cannot guarantee these figures), will be sending between 3,000 and 4,000 partially trained young people to underdeveloped countries, at a cost to the German State of no less than £2½ million. If, as I believe, the future of the Commonwealth largely depends on the encouragement of the idea of voluntary service, I think those of us who favour the Commonwealth idea should do all we can to foster further efforts in this direction—and mobilise a bit of enthusiasm, too! This is the sort of thing to encourage people to believe that there is something positive in the Commonwealth idea. And, indeed, my Lords, there is.

But the Commonwealth can no longer be either defended by physical force or harnessed to an economic policy favouring a metropolis which no longer exists as such. In drawing attention to this fundamental truth, the article in The Times of last Thursday—and from internal evidence I deduce that these three articles were by three separate pens—by "A Conservative", though it was much too pessimistic and unimaginative and too "Little Englander", did, I think, render a valuable public service.


My Lords, I suppose we may assume that the noble Lord wrote the middle one on the Commonwealth.


My Lords, unlike Mr. Enoch Powell I can give a positive and absolute denial of that suggestion. All the talk about "independent fire brigades", which were mentioned there, designed possibly to defend the indefensible, or, worse still, those who may perhaps not want to be defended, seems to me to be in the nature of a dangerous error. We have, as a result of history, inherited obligations all over the world most of which, since the war, have, happily, been liquidated. The liquidation of the remainder should be our objective now; and not their conservation. This does not mean that we must simply tell our remaining protégés that they must sink or swim (and here I think The Times article was rather unrealistic); but it must indicate—and I hope your Lordships will agree with me in this—that the various successor States should in the fairly near future not look only to the United Kingdom for their protection. The Cyprus lesson may soon be repeated. This is not just defeatism; I think it is common sense. If the Western World is to retain its influence it must, in the first place, employ the right ideas—whatever the right ideas may be thought to be—which are more important than guns; and, in the second place, it must assume a common policy in all the underdeveloped lands. The out-of-date, Anglocentric Commonwealth conception is a sacred cow; and the sooner it is killed the better for all of us.

My Lords, it is with this background that I personally approach the Plowden Report. It is an excellent Report in many ways; but I maintain that in one major instance it does not do justice to the Commonwealth, because, if the Commonwealth cannot, as we have seen, be a political, a defensive or even an economic entity, how can we have in London a separate Department of State based on the assumption that this is precisely what it is? Indeed, as I said in a letter to The Times, it contains one major blemish designed to appease those in this country who still believe that the Commonwealth is a huge area of red on the map which, in some mysterious way, can still he run from London. In other words, as we all know, it suggests for an indefinite—though not, it is to be hoped, a permanent—period, an amalgamated "Diplomatic Service" and two Ministries for running that Service, both with separate and co-equal representation at Cabinet level. The disadvantages, and indeed the dangers, of such a proposal have, of course, not escaped the distinguished Chairman of the Committee on Representational Services Overseas, whom I am delighted to see in his place and who will no doubt rise to defend his recommendations as will also the noble Lord, Lord Inchyra, whose maiden speech we are all now awaiting with the greatest possible interest.

The Report of the noble Lord, Lord Plowden, starts by admitting that the present system is in many ways inconvenient and at times wasteful and inefficient". It then goes on to discuss the possibility that the Commonwealth Service now existing should not be part of the home Civil Service as at present (a strange arrangement, if ever there was one), but rather should be reconstituted, together with the existing Trade Commission Service, drawn from the Board of Trade, as a separate overseas service, parallel to the Foreign Service. This possibility is then discarded for various very good reasons, but more especially because it would not touch other shortcomings of the present system". The Report then proceeds to lay down—and here I must quote and at some little length—that the most serious of these"— the shorcomings— is that the division of the world for representational purposes into Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth countries impedes the development and execution of a coherent foreign policy. It cuts across every other kind of international grouping and association. Membership of the Commonwealth is only one of the factors which helps to shape the policy of any Commonwealth country and it is rarely the decisive one. We need a system which recognises that individual Commonwealth countries have developed regional interests and relationships of their own, and cannot regard their relationships with Britain as paramount. This point is forcefully illustrated by reference to the situation in the United Nations; to Malaysia in its South-East Asia context; to Australia; to Canada; and, to West Africa, where what is essentially one field is arbitrarily divided up between our two separate services. And the conclusion reached is that the present system does not make it easy to work out a coherent foreign policy and that with two Ministries, two overseas services, and two communications services, the process of trying to hammer out a sensible worldwide policy is, with the best goodwill, a wasteful and time-consuming business. At times of crisis these shortcomings can prove disastrous. The division of responsibility is becoming an anachronism. The logic of events points towards the amalgamation of the Commonwealth Relations Office and the Foreign Office. The unified control and execution of our external policy as a whole which would result would be a rational and helpful development. I must say that I should have thought that, after such a tremendous indictment of our present system, we could hardly have escaped a recommendation that it should simply be scrapped, whatever else might be said on the other side.

Take the Cyprus crisis, for instance, the acute phase of which flared up, I think I am right in saying, after the Report had actually been submitted. Cyprus, for better or for worse, is a member of the Commonwealth, though I imagine that few bitter tears would be shed, by our Army at any rate, if she should cease to be so. It fell to the Commonwealth Relations Secretary to take the decision whether or not to send in troops at the behest of Archbishop Makarios. I know that this was a Cabinet decision, of course; nevertheless, the initiative and the responsibility for the immediate consequences lay firmly with Mr. Duncan Sandys. But it was obvious from the start that this move might have the gravest international repercussions, which were, under the Prime Minister, the responsibility of the Foreign Secretary. There are rather ominous signs that the same sort of situation may perhaps be developing in Aden. However admirable the two Secretaries of State and however great their capacity for co-operation, this is clearly a system involving the gravest dangers, not only for us, but for the whole Commonwealth, too. I doubt whether, as such, this proposition can be challenged. Certainly it cannot be challenged by the authors of the Plowden Report.

But are such dangers recognised by the Committee as overriding? Not at all. To take such a fundamental step now "— we read— could be interpreted as implying a loss of interest in the Commonwealth partnership". Thus, even though it is specifically acknowledged that a single Department of External Affairs is the practice in all other Commonwealth countries except this, the Committee hesitated to recommend its establishment"— in London— at the present time ". Your Lordships will observe that only one reason was given against a course which, from every other point of view, was seen to be desirable, if not essential. Some people, it would appear, might suggest that by conforming to general Commonwealth practice we were "losing interest" in the Commonwealth. Why should this be so? And where exactly would such foolish criticism be likely to arise? Not in Commonwealth countries, certainly. At any rate, no evidence has been produced to that effect, while in the Press I have read considerable evidence to the contrary. Nor, one would have thought, would it have arisen in any informed circle in this country. One has only to read the Report to see that the Commonwealth as a whole would be strengthened, rather than weakened, by the immediate application of a salutary reform.

What is surely wanted is a Department of External Affairs, with a Commonwealth section dealing with all matters common to the Commonwealth—organisation of meetings of all kinds (I believe that there are no fewer than 23 unofficial and non-Governmental organisations which occupy themselves with the Commonwealth in some shape or form); consideration, in conjunction with the Board of Trade, of the political aspects of inter-Commonwealth trade relations; the encouragement of the strong ties which happily bind the Commonwealth nations, or most of them, together, and notably the teaching of English, the training of students, and the whole field of cultural relations. Personally, I should have thought that the vastly important matter of technical co-operation could be taken in by this section as well. This section should, I suggest, be headed by a Minister of Cabinet rank—I do not think he should be a member of the Inner Cabinet, perhaps, but certainly a man capable of standing up to his colleagues in all the spheres to which I have alluded.

When it comes to the question of international politics and of the dangers that arise out of them—say, the danger arising out of Australia's relations with Indonesia or Nigeria's attitude towards the Union of South Africa, or Aden or Kashmir, or something like that—then the High Commissioner concerned and his subordinates would deal with the section of the Department of External Affairs which had responsibility for the area, and ultimately, of course, if necessary, with the Foreign Secretary (or rather, I suppose, he would then be the Secretary of State for External Relations) himself. In this way, the division of responsibilities would be entirely clear. There would no longer be intertribal jealousies. The High Commissioners here would have their business dealt with more expeditiously than now and there would naturally be no question of Commonwealth nations being less favourably treated than under the present dispensation.

I think that what I have said also disposes of the argument, which may be deployed against this theory, that a tremendous new burden will be thrust on the Foreign Secretary, who is already overburdened as it is. That fact is that, under the present system, wherever there is a row involving a member of the Commonwealth, the Foreign Secretary has just as much work to do as if he had sole responsibility, under the Prime Minister, for dealing with that row. Indeed, one would have thought that the elimination of the tiresome process of arguing with a powerful co-equal inside and outside the Cabinet about how best the row should be coped with would actually relieve, rather than add to, the Foreign Secretary's burden. And if the Report is right in believing that one day there will be one Secretary of State for External Relations, why should the work be held to be killing now and not in two or three years' time? After all, work can always be delegated, if the Minister is prepared is accept responsibility for what is done by his subordinates. That is what a Minister is for, and no doubt the Minister of External Relations who knew how to delegate would not be killed by overwork.


My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves the Ministerial position, may I point out that he mentioned that the Minister would not be in the Inner Cabinet but would be of Cabinet rank. Would he explain exactly what his rôle would be? I was not sure whether the noble Lord was referring to Commonwealth relations or only to technical co-operation.


No, my Lords, my suggestion was that there should be a special section of the new Department of External Affairs which would deal with specific Commonwealth affairs, which I ennumerated, including technical co-operation, which is a very important and large section. It would be, in my view, rather like what happened when Sir Anthony Eden was made Minister of League of Nations Affairs. He had the right to go into the Cabinet with his chief, Sir John Simon, and ultimately, I understand, he came under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Secretary. He was therefore not quite in the same position as the Foreign Secretary but he was a Cabinet Minister with the right to explain his views to the Cabinet. That is my view of the position.

However, as we know, the Committee was so impressed by the possible criticism of the uninstructed, to the effect that a rational streamlining of Commonwealth procedure would result, not in strengthening, but actually in weakening the Commonwealth connections, that it fell back on a compromise. I suppose that compromises are inherent in the British character, and often, it is true, they are politically desirable, but I feel that there have been altogether too many compromises in the foreign field since the war. Our whole labyrinthine system of inter-departmental committees, efficient though it is, often, I think, seems to favour compromises unduly. All have their say, of course, but very often nothing positive emerges. The motto seems to be: Never take one bite at the cherry when two bites will do. That, I am afraid, is a rather dangerous motto.

For instance, I humbly suggest that it would have been better, if a Department of External Affairs really cannot be created now because of the indignation of nameless people in certain quarters in this country, simply to abolish a few outstanding anomalies, like the use of separate cyphers, and to encourage the already existing practice of freely exchanging officials between the two Services. After all, Sir Paul Gore-Booth, our admirable High Commissioner in India, is a member of the Foreign Service, and quite a few members of the Foreign Service are already seconded for duty with the C.R.O. as it is, just as quite a few members of the C.R.O. are already seconded for duty with the Foreign Office. To form an amalgamated Service while retaining two distinct Ministries in London seems to me, with great respect, to make the worst of all worlds.

So long as there are two Ministries, and two Ministers, quite possibly pursuing different policies at the centre, two systems of communication, two information and news departments and so on, you will get confusion in the ranks of the amalgamated staff. And not only that, but you will get into difficulties with the Treasury, who are, I think I am right in saying, still insisting on separate accounting officers. Even the Joint Promotions Board would not seem to me to be particularly easy to work. The whole thing, indeed, will be a bicephalous in-congruity, a two-headed monster. The body will have to take its orders from two heads—one, it is true, three times as large as the other—and it is pretty clear that only confusion can result.

I know that one must not push this kind of analogy too far. In real life, of course, a two-headed calf has hardly any expectation of life, so that if the analogy were absolutely just there would be little reason for worry. But, unfortunately, in public life it is often the provisional that does last, and it is even conceivable that our two-headed monster may go galloping along for years and years, always discovering some new reason for its perpetuation. Rien ne dure que le provisoire, as the French say.

So, my Lords, this brings me to the only concrete suggestion which I have to make, and it is this. Could not the Government at least consider the possibility, before committing themselves indefinitely to a reform which, though salutary in some respects, is highly dangerous in others, of saying that within a period of, say, six months from the date of the inauguration of the new system they will announce the date on which it will have to give way to a more far-reaching reform? In other words, that they should cause it to be regarded from the start as a provisional arrangement with a terminus ad quem? If this were done, there is no doubt, to my mind, that whatever the Government apparently regard as an inevitable transition, in the long run would be much more easily and painlessly accomplished, and probably, too, accomplished much sooner than it otherwise would be, which is really the point.

My Lords, I have spoken for too long. My only excuse must be that for us as a nation the Commonwealth is now a besetting problem on which straight thinking is essential. I am not so foolish as to imagine that my own analysis, the fruit no doubt of inadequate knowledge, is necessarily correct. But I feel strongly that the problem is one on which the collective wisdom of your Lordships should shortly be brought to bear. This House could certainly, if it chose, play a great part in the educative process which now appears to me, at any rate, to be necessary. And, as a start, I suggest that considerable progress might be made if the Government faced the issue to the extent of at least accepting, so far as the Plowden Report is concerned, my own very modest but, I think, realistic Proposals. I beg to move for Papers.