HC Deb 31 July 1923 vol 167 cc1423-31

11.0 P.M

Major Viscount SANDON:

It is rather an anti-climax after some of the subjects we have been discussing, such as the rival merits and demerits of the Stoke Bill, to come down to such pettifogging matters as the coming Imperial Conference! Here we are at 11 o'clock, and the Dominions, which will all be meeting together in October, have been thrashing out these complicated questions for days, and in some cases even weeks. I feel that it is not unjustifiable to call attention to the sense of proportion that that indicates. One might go a little further and notice that a whole day was allowed for the discussion of a subject which, anyhow at present, is hypothetical, that of Socialism, but still we are unable to have any information as to what is likely to take place in October. We see in the Press that the agenda of the Imperial Conference has been published in Australia. As far as I can make out, we are still entirely un-informed on that subject in this country. Before dealing further with that matter, I should like to express the hope that the Government may see fit to give rather more publicity to the results of the Conference than has been the practice in the past. I realise the importance of confidential communications, and the way that liberty of expression is cramped if everything has to be published; but I do feel that something on a rather more generous scale might be put before the public after the next Conference than we have had previously. The first intimation we had of the Conference was that it would be purely an economic Conference. Although I do not wish to dwell upon that aspect of the case, I should like to say that I hope most sincerely that any proposals which representatives of the Dominions may see fit to put forward in regard to trade relations and the improvement of trade between this country and the Dominions should not be ruled out of order, and that if any of the Dominions wish to discuss the question of Preference it should be allowed the freest and most ample discussion at the Conference. I hope at the same time that due consideration will be given to one of the most pressing Imperial problems of the moment, that of communications as far as wireless, air and shipping is concerned, because one of the chief difficulties with which we have to contend from the point of view of getting a unified policy in the Empire is the difficulty of communications. Times are moving very quickly in that direction, and there is no reason why in the next 10 years we should not see Imperial communications absolutely revolutionised.

What I chiefly wanted to receive information about was as to what would appear on the agenda of the Imperial Conference. I feel sure that the question of emigration will not be overlooked, and I hope that His Majesty's Government will take a bold line in this connection, and say—I believe this has support from several of my hon. Friends in the Labour party—that we believe this country is carrying at the present moment 15,000,000 too many people. We are over-industrialised, and we ought to put it to the Dominions as to whether they feel that they can make any contribution towards a solution of that question. I hope particularly that we shall approach the Canadian Prime Minister and find out how it is that if the economic position of Canada at the present time is so bad, that we cannot have a big migration scheme, they are able to go in for a wholesale recruiting campaign in South Eastern Europe. I do feel that in that connection we are striking bedrock in Imperial relations, and I hope that it may be possible for the Conference to reach a degree of unanimity on that general question.

I assume the Conference will not be able to avoid the question of Empire defence.

I have seen from a number of Dominion writers representing various views that they still, in reference to the matter of Imperial defence, conjure up a vision of one organisation for offence, which would mean that any part of the Empire can be launched into a big military campaign in support of the other. I do not think that that is the least bit necessary from the point of view of acceptance of the idea that we may have further co-ordination in the matter of Imperial general defence. I am convinced that we should not allow the matter of our Imperial defence to remain in the same sort of casual happy-go-lucky position as that in which it was at the beginning of the late War. I do believe that it is of the utmost importance that we should have some sort of co-ordinated general staff on which all the Dominions should be represented; so that we could have some good idea of the operations should they ever be necessary, making it clear at the same time that no one Dominion should undertake military activity in any other part of the Empire where it had a very indirect concern. As a necessary part of that we shall, I hope, seethe three services unified, atleast from the political and general staff point of view, and I am convinced this House will never rest while Defence is treated as three problems and not one. I think that that in itself is a question that might very well be considered by the Conference. I think that it ought to be made clear that no action can be taken by any one staff or any one Parliament binding any other Dominion without mandate from the Parliament of that other Dominion.

I imagine also that the Conference will consider the question of the League of Nations. I think that the League of Nations, which is really the child of the Dominions and ourselves, is so far established that it will not present the same difficulty as some other problems. At the time of the Peace Conference mandates were given to Dominions with the utmost success, and I feel confident that on the report of the Dominions as mandatories presented to the League of Nations, they will be more than satisfied with the administration by these Dominions. And we have only to look at the position in the Saar to realise how much the world owes to the Dominions on account of the way in which they have helped to guide that unfortunate bit of territory on right lines, by the work of Mr. Waugh, the Canadian, member of that Commission. We have read in the papers telegrams reporting the attitude of Mr. Bruce, the Prime Minister of Australia, and we know that Mr. Massey, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, holds very similar views, on the subject of Imperial foreign policy, but although I thoroughly agree with all they have said on this question, and I believe it to be a vital part of the security of the Empire, I am convinced that it is impossible for any solution to be found so long as we have the present arrangement for conducting Dominion and Imperial affairs.

At present we have the Dominions, so far as we are concerned at this end, under the aegis of the Colonial Office. I was at the Colonial Office for the best part of two years following the War, and I have seen myself what that actually means in real life. Those at the Colonial Office responsible for the Dominions spend their time mostly in these ways. They keep a very close eye on the speeches made by leading personalities in the Dominions. They, further, keep a close eye on all their Acts of Parliament, to make quite sure they are within their original Constitution, and that the rights as between the States and the Federal Authority have not been abused. Then, they have a certain amount of controversy always over personal questions affecting the Governors. They are also used very largely as a "Post Office" for negotiations between the Dominion and the State Governments and the Departments in this country, such as the Treasury, War Office, the Admiralty, the Colonial Office, and so on. Also, they have an incredible amount of social work with the Dominion people in this country. We are spending money on the Colonial Office, and I submit that it is not right that we should spend it in doing donkey work for the Dominions in this manner. It is work that it is absolutely unnecessary for the Colonial Office to do. It occupies an enormous amount of the time of very hard-worked and overworked officials, and it is work which should not be within the proper province of the Colonial Office at all. In the first place, as far as the affairs of the Governors and the social work in England are concerned, that is purely clerical work, and as to keeping a watchful eye on the Australian and Canadian Acts of Parliament, that is absolutely immaterial, because, even if they found that they conflicted with the original law, it would not matter a bit, because, if Australia wished to do it she would do it, and it would not make one halfpenny worth of difference if we said it was not within the Constitution. Therefore, though it is very interesting to see whether these things are within the original law, it would not have any bearing on the Colonial Office action.

The proper field of the Colonial Office is the administration of the Colonies. It is an enormous field and is, in itself, ample enough to entitle the Colonial Office to rank quite as high as any other Department in the State. I am convinced that until we take the Dominions entirely away from the Colonial Office we shall never progress from the point of view of any settled Imperial policy. At the present moment, things are, as they have been for a long time, just anyhow. We have a theory that we are still consulting the Dominions on anything which can possibly be said to have any bearing on Imperial affairs, but it is not systematic, and they do not really know what is going on. It depends very largely on someone having a brain wave and saying, "Of course, we must not forget to consult the Dominions on this." Then, perhaps, something has to be put off in the House for three or four days while this formality is being gone through. I need only instance the case of the airship scheme of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Lieut.-Commander Burney), which is essentially an Imperial question. To my mind it is not a question of informing the Dominions what decisions we have come to. The Dominions ought to be a party to matters of that sort, together with the five or six Departments which deal with external affairs. The Dominions ought necessarily to be a party to all the discussion, and should not merely be informed of the result and asked if they agree.

I am convinced that it will be absolutely necessary to have some permanent machinery whereby representatives from the Dominions can meet our inner Cabinet on an equal footing as by right.

I do not think a mere extension of the Committee of Imperial Defence will be adequate to meet the needs of Imperial policy. I do not suggest that we should have an Australian or Canadian representative to sit in the Cabinet and discuss, for example, the Workmen's Compensation Bill, but I feel the Dominions should have a share not only in decisions, but also in consultation and everyday discussion on all external affairs, as a matter of routine.

Mr. Bruce gave a strong hint that he might favour some scheme of having a resident Minister in this country, and, I believe, as soon as we can wipe away all suspicion that that would involve dictatorial action by the Imperial Government, in forcing policies upon their Parliaments—as soon as that fear can be overcome, the inevitable result will be, we shall require to have some system of resident Ministers from the Dominions in this country, so long as we are going to regard London as the capital, and with it will go the secretariat which Mr. Bruce also supports. I do not know what General Smuts would have to say on a matter of that sort, and how far he would feel that it would be advisable, from the point of view of maintaining the independence of action of all States in the Empire. General Smuts originally was one of those who held what I might call the extreme laissez faire view and he was very much in favour of the undefined position, which certainly has many things in favour of it, but in 1921, when the Washington Conference was on the tapis, in a speech at Pretoria he complained that the Dominions were not having adequate representation on the Washington Conference, and he used these words: I want the Paris precedent to be followed at Washington and at every subsequent international conference. I want the British Empire represented through its constituent equal States. There is no other way to give it representation. The United Kingdom is not the British Empire and a United Kingdom delegation does not become an Empire delegation merely by slipping in some Dominion statesmen through a back door. Unity of action in the Empire means that a group of equal States, recognised and represented as equals, freely consult together and co-operate in their external relations. That shows that General Smuts realised that the undefined position could be carried a bit too far. It would be instructive to know what view Mr. Mackenzie King takes. Canada in the past has always been for that laissez faire policy. At the same time. I notice they are equally keen on the question of a unified foreign policy. "Le Devoir" of Mons. Bourassa, which represents extreme Radical opinion in Canada, just before the last Imperial Conference, investigated the question of the Dominion's relations with the Mother Country. They only raised the point as to what must be the ultimate development of these relations, and they did not quarrel with the relations within the Empire at the present time, but I think even they would agree that the procedure which they believe desirable should be made easier of practice at the present time, in that as all the Dominion Ministers have been complaining, whereas the theory is that His Majesty is advised by his Canadian Prime Minister or his New Zealand Prime Minister, as the case may be, yet in actual fact that is practically impossible. That is a very serious difficulty from the point of view of getting that independence to which they rightly attach so much importance. The fact is, just as General Smuts says, in the quotation I read, that all these Ministers hark back to the Peace Conference and to the War Cabinet as the ideal of inter-Imperial relations, and I feel absolutely convinced that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) would agree that this was right. He saw far more of the working of inter-Imperial relations than anyone in this House. He saw what the British Empire delegation accomplished in Paris, and I am convinced that he would agree that we should get nearer than we are at present towards maintaining the extent of the liaison and of the unification of foreign policy that existed under the regime of the Peace Conference and the War Cabinet.

I hope, furthermore, that not only will these subjects be discussed at the coming Conference, but that the question of Ambassadors will be further considered. We have conferred the right on Canada to have her own Ambassador, if she so wished, at Washington. Personally, I should attach far greater importance to Canada having an Ambassador at, say, Vienna, or some place where her interests were not so obviously personal, if I may put it in that way. If we could secure' our Dominions to represent the Imperial interests in different foreign capitals, we should go a long way towards meeting the difficulties that arise at the present time, and I cannot help thinking that, although we have reason to be grateful for a certain measure of success over the solution of the difficulty in Kenya, it is to be regretted that a matter of that kind, which touched so largely the interests of the whole Empire, should not have been brought up before the Imperial Conference for them to help shoulder the burden of Empire. We have had a wonderful example of unanimity between the Mother Country and the Dominions in the British Empire Services League ex-service men, who came over the other day, and it will be a great pity if we are not able to make a big fight to get an equal degree of Imperial unanimity at the coming Imperial Conference.

The late Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Central Glasgow (Mr. Bonar Law), about two and a half years ago said that any one Dominion could vote itself out of the British Empire at any moment it liked, without any formality. That is true, and that is a very important fact to emphasise. It is the slenderest possible thread that joins this Empire together. It is perfectly easy for any Dominion to clear out at any moment it likes, and, to my mind, that is where the strength of our whole commonwealth lies. We have, as I believe, one common ideal, through blood and through all the sacrifices we have made together, apart from the lesser consideration of interest, and we have the hall mark of our stock throughout the whole world, that they are free and independent, and I believe that we can translate that into more definite practice if we face these issues and establish the precedent of the War Cabinet and of the Peace Conference than if we allow these things to lapse, simply because they are a bit difficult to approach and to secure unanimity upon.


I regret very much I did not know that my Noble Friend was going to make so interesting a speech, dealing in such great detail with the proceedings of the Imperial Conference, and if I confine my remarks within a very short compass, I hope he will excuse me. There are only two things I should like to say. In the first place, with regard to the agenda of the Imperial Conference, I am quite certain the Government will be only too happy to indicate to the House before the Adjournment the nature of the subjects which are to be discussed at the Conference; and, in the second place, I am sure that—I do not say all, because my Noble Friend travelled over the ground so very widely—but I think I am safe in saying a great many of the subjects to which he referred will form proper subjects of discussion by the Imperial Conference. I do not think I can say more than that, and I hope my Noble Friend will be satisfied with that short explanation.


I shall be greatly surprised if the Noble Viscount or any other hon. Member is satisfied with the very courteous but extremely empty remarks of the hon. Gentleman. I cannot cover the whole ground that was covered in the very interesting speech—if he will allow me to say so—of the Noble Viscount. What I particularly want to know has reference to a question which to the working classes of this country is of very vital interest. Mr. Bruce telegraphed to Lord Long the other day that Australia intended to demand wider preference, and when Canada and New Zealand have discussed what their Governments are going to put forward at the Conference, we are entitled to know what our Government propose. It is no use our offering a preference on cinematograph films and musical boxes. You cannot give an effective preference to the Dominions without putting a tax on food and raw materials, and what we want to know is the Government's policy with regard to this undoubted demand. We cannot get a reply to that question, and I suggest, even in the interest of the Government, it is not wise to pursue this reticence, because at the Conference it would be of assistance to them to know that definitely and finally all the working-classes of this country, including those who, for the moment, may support hon. Members opposite, are determined that no further tax shall be put either on the food of the people or on the raw material on which our industries depend.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Committee of the whole House for To-morrow.