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Commonwealth Relations

Volume 477: debated on Tuesday 4 July 1950

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Royle.]

12.17 a.m.

I do not think that any apology is needed from me, even at this late hour of the night—or rather, early hour of the morning—for taking one of the very few opportunities which Private Members now have left to them to raise matters of grave importance. Mr. Speaker has stated first, as I remember it, on taking the Chair in 1945 and again in 1950, that he would personally safeguard the rights of Private Members; and I feel that, particularly in this Parliament, where Private Members are less and less finding the opportunity to make their views felt and known, there is a grave danger that this Parliament, because of its peculiar relationship, is going to develop into a Parliament in which we shall not have the opportunity of putting our points of view that we have had in the past.

In raising the subject of the strengthening of Commonwealth relations, I am not asking the Minister to make any statement which will commit the Government in a manner likely to cause embarrassment. I recognise that there are grave difficulties in the way of this country in giving a lead to the Commonwealth because, after all, we are the centre of that Commonwealth and it is perhaps more appropriate for other members of it to take the initiative; but I hope that the Minister will agree with me that we should accept this proposition in principle—that permanent machinery should be set up, as soon as possible, for the purpose of establishing, first, a Commonwealth defence policy, secondly, a Commonwealth foreign policy, and thirdly, a Commonwealth economic policy. I feel that it is far more important for us to get Commonwealth foreign defence, and economic policies than it is for us to take the lead in any other sphere in foreign affairs.

We have lately heard a great deal said on the subject of Commonwealth relations and European relations. Mr. Menzies, the Prime Minister of Australia, has made a suggestion that there should be a permanent Foreign Commonwealth Committee. I do not want to go into that suggestion in any detail, but, nevertheless. I hope that the Minister will indicate whether, in his view, that proposal is correct or not. We have got to be prepared to take some risks, at any rate. After all, this country has reached the tremendous position which it now occupies in the world precisely because we took risks in the past. We have to be prepared to take risks now for peace, and to establish peace, as we took risks to win the war; and we must be prepared to take risks if the British Commonwealth and Empire are to become an even greater force in future than in the past.

That must necessarily mean that we should be willing to establish certain machinery, even though every single member of the Commonwealth is not prepared to take full advantage of that machinery from the moment it is established. I do not want to go into an embarrassing subject which may be in hon. Member's minds, but I feel that in substance we could accept Mr. Menzies' proposals without necessarily going to the length of saying that the Foreign Secretary personally should be present on every occasion that the Committee in question meets. Nevertheless, I say this in relation to a remark the Minister himself made yesterday. The Minister said that the Korean crisis brought home the need for Commonwealth collaboration in relation to science; but surely it brings home the need for Commonwealth collaboration in regard to foreign policy as well.

I do not believe for one moment that this crisis in Korea would have developed if the British Commonwealth had played in the Far East the part which it should have played. I do not believe that if we had been associated with the policy in relation to Japan, as we should have been, troops would have been withdrawn from Korea 18 months ago. Therefore, I do not believe that this situation would have occurred. I am not trying to make any sensational remarks and I am not trying to make any remarks against our friends the Americans, whom I personally support as fully as I can support anybody in relation to the Korean affair.

Nevertheless, I am bound to say that it appears to me that the interests of the Commonwealth and the Empire have been disastrously neglected in the Far East, precisely because we have not had that full Commonwealth policy backed by the whole Commonwealth which, I believe, could be so potent a factor for good in the world. We must no longer think that, if Australia desires some point of view to be put forward in the councils of the nations, it is merely Australia that is advancing that point of view. So far as possible, it must be the point of view of the British Commonwealth and Empire, backed by the tremendous force of the Commonwealth and Empire, which still remains the only world Power left in the world.

So far as defence policy is concerned, I think that matter has been explored a great deal already. I believe there is no doubt that the Minister is with us in the view that a Commonwealth defence policy is vital and that as soon as we can get the Commonwealth as a whole to agree to a defence policy, the defence policy being worked out in greater detail and with better machinery being established, we should do so.

I want to concentrate upon one subject which is the most vital of all, namely, economic policy. What a fantastic thing it is that we should have an Organisation for European Economic Co-operation before we have got an organisation in being for British Commonwealth and Empire economic co-operation. On the face of it, that is fantastic. I am not trying to make a party speech but, I may be allowed to throw a slight spear at the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd). I cannot for the life of me understand how one could vote against the Government, upon an issue like the Schuman Plan before we even had in being that organisation for British Commonwealth planning which would enable us to realise what we had to plan with when we came to the conference.

The hon. Gentleman is very eloquent, but, when the Government were elected in 1945 with a large majority and the British Empire had emerged successfully from the war, should not their first action have been to call an Imperial Conference precisely to face up to problems of this kind?

We called a Prime Ministers' Conference.

The Minister has replied for me. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will realise that I am not trying to make a party point, but am saying sincerely that in my view the Schuman Plan, with the commitment which His Majesty's Government had to accept before they went into the conversations, is a plan which one could not possibly consider carefully without having in advance the fullest understanding of the way in which one ought to plan the British Commonwealth.

I thought the hon. Gentleman agreed with me when I said it was essential to have an organisation for British Commonwealth planning. If that is so, I hope he will accept this point, that it would be stupid to go into a conference in which we might commit ourselves in relation to Western Europe unless we already knew where we stood in relation to the Commonwealth. That is a simple and limited proposition and I should have thought it was fairly obvious.

May I say here that I agree entirely with the document which has been criticised a great deal, namely, the document on foreign policy which has recently been produced by the Labour Party and which I believe many people have not read. In this document it is clearly stated—and I agree—that the economy of the Commonwealth is complementary to our economy, whereas the economies of Western Europe are not. Therefore, if we wish to plan with anybody it is with the Commonwealth and Empire that we should wish to plan.

Here I may say I was rather shattered to read in "The Times" today a state- -ment by the Prime Minister of Pakistan to the effect that the only scientific and technical co-operation which Pakistan has had since the end of the war came from a mission of the U.S.A. It may be that that is untrue, and I agree that the Prime Minister did not appear to be quite definite in his pronouncement; but it seems to me vital that, in view of the fact that this very month America is sending all over the world under President Truman's Fourth Point, hundreds of technicians, free, for the purpose of advising governments in the backward areas of the world how to develop their own territories, we should throughout the British Commonwealth and Empire send as many technicians as we can, free, to advise the Commonwealth on the development of the backward areas throughout our own Commonwealth and Empire—because our justification for this tremendous responsibility is that we develop to the full that one-fourth of the world's surface which lies within the ambit of the Crown.

I know one or two other hon. Members wish to speak and for that reason I will conclude on this note. I am not here trying to embarrass the Government by making any immediate suggestion in relation to machinery. I am asking them, in effect, to accept a principle, and that principle is that the existing machinery is inadequate for Commonwealth and Empire co-operation in relation to foreign policy, defence and economics; that we are in favour of that machinery being improved at the earliest possible moment, and that we recognise the fact that we need no longer be apologetic in our attitude towards the great Powers, the Soviet Union and the United States of America.

There used to be a lot of talk about the so-called "Third Force" as if there were only two big Powers in the world. I have not the slightest doubt that the British Commonwealth and Empire remains a Power as great in the world as either the Soviet Union or the United States of America. Indeed, as has been pointed out recently by many scientists, the British Commonwealth and Empire, because it is so widely dispersed, in the unfortunate and tragic event of another world war would survive that world war better than either the United States or the Soviet Union. We are still more powerful than either the United States or the Soviet Union, and I believe that by a greater degree of concentration of Commonwealth planning in the directions I have mentioned we can once again establish ourselves in the world, as I think on the whole we have been establishing ourselves since the war, pre-eminently as a country which can once again give the hope of peace to the peoples who now live in the valley of the shadow of death.

12.31 a.m.

I am sure that all of us who have sat up to this late hour are grateful to the hon. Member for Northfield (Mr. Blackburn) for raising the important subject of Commonwealth relations, and I think he carried those of us on this side of the House with him when he called for an Empire foreign policy, an Empire defence policy and an Empire economic policy. When he became involved in controversies about the Schuman Plan, I think we lost touch with him at that point. Perhaps I may legitimately remind the hon. Member that we on this side of the House have consistently pressed, on the one hand, for an Empire Economic Conference and, on the other, for closer consultations on defence and, in regard to foreign policy, we have continually and repeatedly protested that the countries of the Commonwealth were not sufficiently consulted in those important matters.

This evening for a few moments I want to mention another matter affecting Commonwealth relations; that is, the position of the Colonies. I very much regret that there is no one here from the Colonial Office when Commonwealth relations are being discussed.

Did the hon. Member give the Secretary of State for the Colonies notice that he was going to raise this matter? Otherwise it would not be expected.

With respect I did not initiate the Debate and I did not feel that I ought to give notice on that subject, and of course I shall not ask the right hon. Gentleman to concern himself with the internal affairs of the Colonies; but I think he must be interested in the relationship of the Colonies with other members of the Commonwealth with whom he is very largely concerned. It seems to me that there is a weakness in our Commonwealth relations in so far as the Dominions are represented by their own representatives whereas the Colonies are represented by the Colonial Office, and the important difference is that when there is some conference and when there is some negotiation in which the economic interests both of the Dominions and of the Colonies are concerned, the Colonies are represented by people who have to bear in mind the domestic political considerations and policies of this country as well as the political and economic considerations of the Colonial Territories. The Dominions, on the other hand, are hampered by no such consideration.

I suggest, therefore, that when any Empire Economic Conference is ultimately held—as we hope it will be—it will be most important that the Colonies shall be adequately represented at it. The Minister will perhaps remember that when this matter was mentioned at Question time some time ago, he indicated that the Colonies would not be there. I should like to make it quite clear that most of us on this side of the House who envisage an Empire Economic Conference envisage such a conference at which the Colonies will be very actively represented indeed.

The second point in this matter of Commonwealth relations is the position of the Colonies in regard to treaties negotiated by this country. Unlike the Dominions, the Colonies, under treaties negotiated by this country, are very often grouped under the United Kingdom umbrella, which means that in trade and commercial agreements they have to pass through the United Kingdom channel. I am informed that this makes trading more expensive and difficult in the Colonies as against the Dominions, which can negotiate their own agreements.

Thirdly, I should like to raise a major issue. It is that at a time when the Government of this country are taking decisions that quite frequently have a major effect upon the standard of life, and indeed the way of life, of the people of the Colonies, such as, for example, the decision to devalue the British Honduras dollar, the decision is taken without hearing any real representations or views from the peoples concerned. I hope that those views will be more adequately expressed in future, and that the Minister will keep his eye on this matter, and see that the Colonies are given a proper voice in the affairs of the Commonwealth.

12.37 a.m.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield (Mr. Blackburn) for raising this question, which is not often enough discussed and not altogether understood. I should like, first, to turn to the point made by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Peter Smithers), who said that the Colonies and the Commonwealth nations are differently represented and that treaties are negotiated for each in different ways. That is, of course, true, for they are entirely different things. As the Colonies are different from the Commonwealth, they cannot behave in ways like the Commonwealth nations, and that seems to dispose of the points which he was making, unless he wants them all, without discrimination, to be like Australia and Canada.

On the main point which my hon. Friend raised, he said he realised that this was not a question for the United.Kingdom alone It is often regarded and represented as if we could create the machinery in the Commonwealth. That is not so, because all the countries of the Commonwealth have views on this matter, and there are, quite frankly, divergent views on this very point of permanent machinery. There are certain lines of development, which I think would be unwise and impracticable and we should rule them out. They would be against the nature of the Commonwealth. Anything that would lead towards the creation of a super-state or federation would be quite against the nature of the Commonwealth, and would be bitterly resisted by the members of the Commonwealth. It is also most important that we should not think in terms of ganging-up in a tight community of nations that agrees on every point of policy and always speaks with exactly the same voice.

From the point of view of machinery, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend, it sounds attractive to talk about better and more permanent machinery, but we have to be very careful not to have too much formalism in the Commonwealth. If an attempt is made to get everything written down and agreed to, and to understand exactly what every nation is to be committed to, the result will be to drive us further apart rather than to unify us. It would force the nations of the Commonwealth to emphasise their differences and to Make provisos to protect their sovereignty. The result would be that we would get further apart.

It seems to me that what is needed—and I am glad it has been raised tonight and I hope it will be discussed more often, because it is a continuous problem —is that there should be new ways continuously found of getting the earliest possible consultation and exchange of views between the free countries of the Commonwealth, quite freely knit into a pattern, though not always exactly in step, but in the main agreed on important things. We have to find new and more flexible methods of consultation, and there is a general feeling in the Commonwealth at the moment that the present methods which we have evolved are better and more suitable than the more formal and elaborate system of the Imperial Conferences of the past. That view may, of course, change again.

There has been an amazing development in the method and range of consultation since the end of the war. The range is extended because all Governments do many more things than they did before the war, and there is a far wider range of things upon which we have to have consultations. We have also greatly extended the methods and technique of discussion, and much thought has been given to that. It was one of the big matters discussed at the Prime Ministers' meetings in 1944 and 1946. It will not have escaped the attention of my hon. Friend that we have held Prime Ministers' meetings at much more frequent intervals. There have been three since the war. We have also started meetings of other Ministers—the Foreign Ministers at Colombo, the Finance Ministers in London, and other Ministerial meetings, since the war.

My hon. Friend mentioned the technical assistance America was sending out, but, of course, at the recent Sydney Conference a similar arrangement was made to provide technical assistance for the countries of South-East Asia.

The vital thing is to get together the scientists and technicians of the countries concerned, and I am afraid that is not occurring sufficiently.

It is also important that they should be wanted. One can rush these things and be in a worse posi- tion in the end than at the beginning. There will be a further conference in London, following the Sydney Conference, at which these things can be followed up. There is also constant and regular contact between Commonwealth Offices in London and the Foreign Office and other Departments of State. In defence we have the military liaison staffs, exchanges between all the countries of the Commonwealth, and the Advisory Committee on Defence Science.

On economic matters official representatives of each of the Commonwealth countries and this country meet regularly in London for the exchange of information over the whole economic field. This is a new thing. It is not a policy-making body, but it contributes to knowledge of the efforts of each country, and has helped us and the Commonwealth to tackle such common problems as the balance of trade. It is a fine example of Commonwealth co-operation voluntarily achieved.

The Prime Ministers met and discussed this very matter as late as 1946, and they came unanimously to the conclusion, which was published, that the existing methods of consultation have proved their worth, and that it would be a mistake to substitute centralised machinery which, they said, might even hamper the continuation of the autonomy and unity which are characteristic of the Commonwealth, and which are also one of its great achievements. We can continuously improve on these methods and must do so, but we must not be diverted into means leading to super-states. federations, or things of that sort.

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman when he implies that the British Commonwealth's apparent failure to act is responsible for what is happening in Korea.

All I said was that if the influence of the British Commonwealth had been more clearly expressed and known, and more effective in relation to Japan and Korea, I did not think this situation would have occurred.

It is not only influences and machinery that count. It is a question of power in various parts of the world. The way in which the Governments of the Commonwealth have very quickly and unanimously adopted the same policy towards Korea is an example of the success of our methods of consultation. But we must never rest in this problem. We are on the right track; we must continuously improve, and we hope to take the initiative as in the past.

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, may I ask whether he does not agree that, although the Colonies and Dominions are admittedly in different positions, it should be possible for the Colonial Office to take a stronger line than it is doing at present in representing the interests of the Colonies?

12.45 a.m.

This Debate was started on a high level. I thought the Minister adopted a defeatist attitude in his reply, in the sense that he did not offer much enthusiasm for high level contact throughout the Commonwealth and Empire, and paid tribute to some humdrum arrangement which is going on today.

In regard to the Minister's contact, I feel that whenever they do take action to get such contact, it is on that level that they are likely to fail. For instance, when a party was fighting an election on the abolition of petrol rationing in Australia, it was felt that there was intervention by this country which amounted to interference with domestic arrangements. Then, in New Zealand, there was a general election in which the abolition of petrol rationing was not an issue. There they said they would accept the advice of the Mother Country. They said they would maintain petrol rationing. Yet, when we in this country decided to release petrol from rationing, we did not forewarn them of the move we were making. It is on these administrative levels that I believe—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock upon Tuesday evening and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Thirteen Minutes to One o'Clock a.m.