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Meeting Of Commonwealth Prime Ministers
28 April 1949
Volume 162

3.40 p.m.

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My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, and in the absence of my noble friend the Leader of the House, I should like to make a statement about the meeting of Commonwealth Prime Ministers which has just been concluded. Your Lordships will already have seen the announcement in to-day's newspapers. It will, of course, be realised that it was necessary to make the results of the Conference known in this way in order to facilitate simultaneous announcements in all the self-governing countries of the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, I think this House would wish to hear the terms of this Statement so that a decision which will, I feel sure, be regarded as a historic one in the evolution of the Commonwealth may with the least possible delay take its place in the records of the proceedings of the House.

During the past week the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan and Ceylon, and the Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs have met in London to exchange views upon the important constitutional issues arising from India's decision to adopt a republican form of Constitution and her desire to continue her membership of the Commonwealth. The discussions have been concerned with the effects of such a development upon the existing structure of the Commonwealth and the constitutional relations between its members. They have been conducted in an atmosphere of good will and mutual understanding, and have had as their historical background the traditional capacity of the Commonwealth to strengthen its unity of purpose, while adapting its organisation and procedures to changing circumstances.

After full discussion, the representatives of the Governments of all the Commonwealth countries have agreed that the conclusions reached should be placed on record in the following declaration:

"The Governments of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan and Ceylon, whose countries are united as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations and owe a common allegiance to the Crown, which is also the symbol of their free association, have considered the impending constitutional changes in India.

"The Government of India have informed the other Governments of the Commonwealth of the intention of the Indian people that under the new Constitution which is about to be adopted India shall become a sovereign independent republic. The Government of India have however declared and affirmed India's desire to continue her full membership of the Commonwealth of Nations and her acceptance of The King as the symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such the Head of the Commonwealth.

"The Governments of the other countries of the Commonwealth, the basis of whose membership of the Commonwealth is not hereby changed, accept and recognise India's continuing membership in accordance with the terms of this declaration.

"Accordingly the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan and Ceylon hereby declare that they remain united as free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress."

These constitutional questions have been the sole subject of discussion at the full meetings of the Prime Ministers.

That, my Lords, is the Statement which I have to make. I hope your Lordships will allow me to suggest that any full discussion of this matter, if it is the wish of the House that this should take place, should be deferred until a later occasion. I say this having regard particularly to the fact that the leaders of delegations from the other countries of the Commonwealth are naturally not yet in a position to report personally to their own Governments and Parliaments.

3.46 p.m.

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My Lords, my noble friend Lord Swinton is unavoidably absent to-day and he has asked me to say a few words from this Bench in reference to the momentous Statement which has just been read. We shall all agree, I think and hope, that full discussion should be deferred. No private Member of this House—indeed, no Member of the other House except members of the Government—was informed of the terms of this announcement until it appeared in this morning's newspapers. It would therefore be quite out of keeping with the grave importance of the occasion to attempt now to formulate impromptu questions or anything of that kind. As we all realise, the issues involved are far too vast for that mode of treatment, and I feel that the only right course now is to take time to consider dispassionately and sympathetically the implications. That the conclusions just announced may lead to the reality of unity and co-operation must be the deep desire of us all.

There are just two brief observations which I would venture to make, which will not transgress this rule of prudence, for I believe they will be universally approved. First, we must note and keep in the front of our minds the great fact that this historic declaration represents agreement. How much that means may be measured by asking ourselves what our anxieties would have been if, after this important Conference, the announcement to-day had been of breakdown and of disagreement. In the power of adjustment to developing circumstances, and in the ability to use that power wisely, lies the secret of the continued life of many institutions, most of all, perhaps, of this association of sister-nations.

My only other observation, if I may be permitted briefly to make it, has to do with the Crown. All who have studied and sought to promote the development of the Commonwealth realise that the value of the contribution made by the almost mystical position of the Crown depends largely on this: that although in every one of the countries concerned there are contending political parties and views fiercely presented and entertained, the Crown stands above all that, and in discharging its constant and silent service is always an emblem of unity and never the cause of dispute. It would indeed be deplorable, it would be tragic, if the position of the Sovereign, who serves all his people so faithfully, were ever to become a matter of controversy. This agreement, as; we have just heard, whatever may be its outcome, avoids that, and we can all, without hesitation and at once, rejoice that this should be so.

What will emerge is for the future. Many important questions, constitutional and legislative, may suggest themselves, about the Statute of Westminster, for example, and many other matters, but I think we should be wise if, for to-day, we contented ourselves with the hope that the agreement now reached will lead to a firm reality by which, as the Statement just made by the noble Viscount the First Lord of the Admiralty ends by declaring, there may be "free co-operation in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress."

3.52 p.m.

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My Lords, viewed from any angle, the Statement which we have heard to-day records a most pregnant and far-reaching decision. Manifestly, it would be impolitic that we should, at this stage, attempt to express any concluded, before we have had any opportunity of formulating any considered, opinion upon the whole field concerned. Yet we must take note with deep and confident satisfaction that this settlement was arrived at by the common accord of all those present at the Conference, drawn, as they were, from many nations and from various Parties. That concord so promptly put into effect should have been a feature of this Conference, must give to us all a sense not only of an immense gain for the present, but of a potent promise for the future. I would add no more than this: a fervent hope that this settlement may always promote the happiness and prosperity of the people of India.

3.54 p.m.

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My Lords, I desire to ask my noble friend the First Lord of the Admiralty a question on procedure. Before doing so, however, I would like to say something that has not fallen from the lips of either of the two noble Lords who have so eloquently expressed the views of their Parties. I believe that, whatever the final outcome may be, the general public here, and particularly our friends abroad—in this connection I refer especially to the United States—will feel great gratitude to His Majesty's Government for dealing with a most delicate and pregnant situation in the way in which they have done. My question on procedure is this. If my noble friend is in a position to deal with this matter, can he tell the House whether any Bill or Instrument will be required to be placed before Parliament in connection with this settlement?

3.55 p.m.

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My Lords, with your leave, I would like, in a very few words, to say how much I am sure His Majesty's Government will appreciate the wise approach to this declaration which has been made by the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simon. Lord Simon has great knowledge of the vast and important problem to which he has referred, for he was Chairman of a very important Commission which inquired into these problems some time ago, a Commission of which the Prime Minister was himself one of the members. It must, I feel sure, give the noble and learned Viscount some satisfaction to know that the Prime Minister, who sat upon the Commission with him, has been the instrument for accomplishing a great deal towards bringing about this settlement. The weighty words of the noble and learned Viscount concerning the Crown should be broadcast throughout this country and throughout the Commonwealth, and I am sure they would be received with very ready acceptance. They were timely, and they will be greatly appreciated. May I also refer to the very appropriate acceptance which was expressed by the noble Marquess, Lord Reading? "Reading" is a name which has been, and will long be, revered in India by reason of the distinguished service which was rendered by the father of the present noble Marquess. Indeed, it is very fitting that the acceptance of this Declaration by the two Opposition Parties in this House should be voiced by the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simon, and by the noble Marquess, Lord Reading.

With regard to the question which was put to me by my noble friend Lord Strabolgi, may I say that he has raised a very important point? It is a matter which has not been lost sight of by His Majesty's Government, and at the present time consideration is being given to the question whether it will be necessary for any statutory changes to be made. I have no doubt that if such changes are necessary, an announcement will be made concerning them. I will conclude by thanking your Lordships, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, for your acceptance of this Declaration.

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed by the Lord Chancellor.