Did Imperial Conference Fail?

“Seen in perspective, the conference will be found to be a turning point in the constitutional history of the Empire,” says Mr. Dafoe.

JOHN W. DAFOE January 15 1924

Did Imperial Conference Fail?

“Seen in perspective, the conference will be found to be a turning point in the constitutional history of the Empire,” says Mr. Dafoe.

JOHN W. DAFOE January 15 1924

Did Imperial Conference Fail?

“Seen in perspective, the conference will be found to be a turning point in the constitutional history of the Empire,” says Mr. Dafoe.


JOHN W. DAFOE is an outstanding figure in Canadian daily journalism. His is one of the all-too-few instances of a daily paper with a personality. Mr. Dafoe, as the arbiter of the editorial destinies of the Manitoba Free Press, went to England recently and mixed freely with the delegates to the Imperial and Economic Conferences. As one of Canada's strongest p oponents of the fullest nationhood compatible with membership in the British Commonwealth of Nations, Mr. Dafoe's illuminating discussion is of special and timely interest.

PERHAPS as significant as anything that took place at the Imperial Conference which was held in London in October and November was the absence, in the formal resolutions and declarations made public up-on the conclusion of the gathering, of any statement about the functions of the conference system or any forecast as to its future.

This was in marked contrast to the procedure in 1921, when a resolution was adopted suggesting annual meetings if this were found possible. It was believed by participants in the 1921 conference—at least by some of them— that they had discovered in the conference an instrument for Empire government. Mr. Hughes of Australia, in a statement to the parliament of the Commonwealth, set out his understanding of what had been accomplished in the way of supplying the Empire with a government. There was, he explained, in continuous existence an Imperial Cabinet of which the Prime Minister of Australia was always a member though, owing to absence, he might not be able to attend. “The only instrument of government (for the Empire) is the Imperial Cabinet.... The representatives of the Dominions and of Great Britain are to meet annually, and the Dominions are to be kept regularly informed of what is passing in foreign affairs.”

That is to say the Imperial Cabinet was to act for the whole Empire between these annual conferences, subject to the ri^ht of the Dominions to be consulted. Then once a year the Imperial Cabinet was to be enlarged by the attendance of Prime Ministers from overseas who were always members of it even though absent; and at this gathering developments of the preceding year would be reviewed and new policies for the coming year laid down.

Did Anything Happen?

npHIS exposition by Mr. Hughes is probably an authentic statement of what the directing minds of the 1921 conference aimed at accomplishing and thought they had accomplished. The agenda of the Conference for 1923 in itself supports Mr. Hughes’ theory. It submitted as the first subjects for consideration: “1. Statement as to the general position on main issues of Imperial policy. 2. Review of foreign affairs since the last Conference and consideration of present problems and future policy.”

One sees in various Canadian newspapers claims that nothing happened at the late Conference which marked it as different in any respect from its immediate predecessor —that it merely carried on, so to speak. It is true that the published records show no definite reversal of the policies of the 1921 conference, just as the records of that conference are silent about the profoundly important innovations in policy which it sought to institute. It is the method of the conference, borrowed from British constitutional procedure, not to record changes but to let them reveai themselves by their manifestations. One can as frequently find clues in what is left out of the record as in what is stated; and a study of the carefully edited report of the conference, noting both its admissions and its reticences, in the light of information which was available to one who watched it. at fairly close range gives an idea of the actual results which time, it may be predicted, will confirm.

No Empire Cabinet

TN THE light of that reading and his accompanying •*knowledge the writer has no hesitation in saying that the conception of the conference as a body governing the Empire—the idea plainly indicated by Mr. Hughes in his statement to the Australian parliament has been either destroyed by the proceedings of the late Conference or put in abeyance until conditions are favorable for its revival. There is nothing in the report to suggest that either annual or biennial meetings of the Conference ought to be held. There is in the final paragraph of the report, a statement that “the members of the Conference are unanimous that the hours spent in consultation have been of the greatest value and will do much to facilitate the work of achieving unity of thought and action on matters of common concern to all parts of the Empire.”

This is a recognition of the worth of the gathering at a conference; and as a conference meeting at infrequent intervals, every four or five years perhaps, it will continue to play its part in working out the problems of relationship and co-operation between the various nations belonging to the British Commonwealth. But the bright dream of turning the Conference into a super-government of the Empire, meeting annually, and in the recess making the Imperial Cabinet (an imaginary body comprising the British cabinet plus the Dominion prime ministers in absentia) its executive agent has faded.

To prevent misunderstanding, it might be said that is was never hoped, by anyone, that the decisions and policies of the Imperial Conference or the shadowy Imperial Cabinet which took over its powers between times, would become automatically effective throughout the Empire. The governments represented in the Conference and jointly responsible for these policies weie expected to see that they were carried out in their own countries by political action. This was the rock upon which the scheme foundered. It is one thing for a Dominion premier to consent in Downing street, under the intangible but very real pressure there exerted, to a policy, and quite another to get him up to the point of making it effective at home by the tedious and sometimes dangerous process of first convincing his colleagues, then bis party caucus, then parliament. Besides it has happened mere than once both in Canada and'in other Dominions that prime ministers have come home only to pass into opposition before the next meeting of parliament; in such cases the former opposition leader upon becoming Premier is not disposed to accept any legacies in the form of Imperial commitments.

If the inner history of the late Conference is ever told in full, it will doubtless be found that a good many plans or suggestions which under encouragement would have become plans, did not get very far because there were always caveats being entered now by this prime minister, now by that. If the Prime Minister of any Dominion had some particular macter close to his heart what more natural than an attempt to line up'behind it the moral backing of so imposing a body as the Imperial Conference? But in most cases there was some other Prime Minister—or perhaps several of them— unsympathetic and unwilling to take the risk of supporting the proposed policy; and in the absence of unanimous consent it went overboard. *

One could hear in London rumors and reports of issues which were to be brought up in the Imperial Conference. Doubtless they were brought up; but they never emerged; they fell victims to the exercise of the liberum veto. Thus it was pretty generally understood that there was a combination by the First Lord of the Admiralty naval advisers, and the representatives of Australia and New Zealand to get a Conference declaration in favor of the Singapore scheme; but all that appears in the report is a statement that the conference “takes note” of the inteiest taken by India, Australia and New Zealand in “the provision of a naval base at Singapore.” The inference is reasonable that objection was taken by some of the governments to committing themselves to an enterprise about which there is great diversity of opinion in Great Britain; and which is not likely to be gone on with if there is a change of government.

Keep Out of Europe?

/TANE heard that the Conference was to be asked to take a strong line on the European s.tuation with special reference to French obduracy; to consider the advisability of requesting each Dominion to indicate the extent and character of the expeditionary force it could supply in the event of war; to map out some general scheme of naval defence with fairly definite suggestions as to the establishment which each country should accept; to formulate a Near East policy to include approval of the Lausanne treaty and definite declarations as to the extent and nature of the reservations to be made to Egyptian sovereignty; and in particular formally and definitely to affirm what had been suggested in 1921, that the British Foreign Minister in all his dealings with foreign nations should speak for all the British nations with the assurance that they stood behind him. It was understood that the Foreign Secretary was to put forward the view that he wished in international negotiations to be able to make it plain that he spoke for all the nations of the Empire; the effect, it was held, would be to make his voice and influence more powerful.

Most of these questions never emerged from the conference, or if they did the conclusions set out in the report are expressed in such very general terms as to be not much more than a vague expression of opinion.

The method followed by the Conference in dealing with issues was thrown open to public inspection with respect to only one question—that of preferential tariffs. This matter came before the Economic and not the Imperial conference but as it was one of the chief questions and moreover one essentially political there was a full attendance of Prime Ministers; the Economic Conference, became, so far as this issue was concerned, the Imperial Conference in fact. Mr. Bruce put forward a definite proposal for a preferential arrangement of some kind by Great Britain in favor of Dominion products. He offered the choice of five separate courses: 1. A tariff on foodstuffs and raw materials with a preference to the Dominions. 2. This tariff and preference to operate on a sliding scale, coming into effect whenever prices fell below a certain point. 3. Subsidies to Dominion producers. 4. Control of imports from non-British countries by a system of licenses. 5. The purchasing of all foreign supplies by a national purchasing board which would buy only for the shortage that might exist after all available Dominion products had found a market.

Bowled Over Like Nine-Pins

XTOW take note of what happened to this elaborate ’ proposal. The British representatives at once bowled out the first two suggestions, proposing as an alternative the comparatively small list of preferences which they said could be offered without going outside the limits of Britain’s existing system. These limited preferences were, it was understood by the Conference, to be ratified by the British parliament at the November session; but the unexpected dissolution and the defeat of the Baldwin government leaves these engagements of the Baldwin government at the mercy of a new and hostile parliament. The fruits of the economic conference, so far as they relate to preference may thus be entirely lost.

South Africa, by the speeches both of General Smuts and Mr. Burton, his colleague, while accepting the proffered preferences with thanks, dissociated itself from any attempt to induce Great Britain to change her fiscal policy along the lines suggested by Mr. Bruce. Mr. King and Mr. Graham took the same position on behalf of Canada.

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Mr. Bruce’s three remaining suggestions were referred to a committee which found against them on the ground that they were impracticable. There was a debate upon the finding of this committee. Mr. Bruce voiced his disappointment quite plainly, and at the end of his speech asked the Conference to adopt a resolution calling for an extension of the policy of Imperial preference “inaugurated by Canada in 1897 as the most effective means of developing the resources of the British Empire as a whole.” This was ardently supported by one of the British ministers, but the conference thought it unwise and inexpedient to adopt it. Mr. Burton of South Africa in this debate made a notable declaration: “We claim,” said Mr. Burton, “the right in our Dominion to settle our own fiscal policy, and therefore we do not claim any right whether by actual motion or even by ‘methods of education’ to interfere with the right of the British people here to settle their own fiscal policy for themselves.” The upshot was that the Conference merely reaffirmed the preference declaration of 1917.

Steered Clear of Resolutions

THIS ILLUMINATION of the Conference in action shows its limitations and makes clear the reason why it can never function as a cabinet or government. It can only be what it termed itself in the last paragraph of its statement on foreign policy “a conference of representatives of the several governments of the Empire,” and its conclusions which in themselves are only suggestions to the governments represented, can only deal with matters upon which there is complete agreement. The unhappy consequences of adoption by the preceding Conference under pressure from Mr. Sastri of a resolution outlining policy with respect to the franchise for Hindus in Dominions and Crown Colonies were regarded as a warning to be careful not to make engagements which might later give rise to grievances based upon a charge that they had not been kept. There was here too a warning against the adoption by the Conference of resolutions with one or more of the Dominions standing out. South Africa’s refusal to accept the Sastri resolution in 1921 gave rise to a bitter debate both in the Conference and in the London press between General Smuts and Sir Tej Sapru, who represented the Indian government. The latter worked himself up to the point of declaring that this issue might destroy the Empire. “I tell him,” he said to General Smuts “that if the Indian problem in South Africa is allowed to fester much longer it will become a question of such gravity that on it the unity of the Empire may founder irretrievably.” The import of these developments was not lost upon the members of the Conference, most of then experienced public men. They realized that the plan to make the Conference an Imperial government of sorts meeting at brief intervals to get reports and give instructions as to policy had definitely broken down; and without advertising the fact to the world or even perhaps admitting it to themselves, they reverted to the earlier conception of these gatherings as conferences in the proper meaning of the term. When the Conference broke up there was no suggestion that the Dominion premiers should hurry home, mend their fences and hasten back to London to have another spell at policy making for the Empire. The next Conference lies some distance in the future and when it meets ;t will probably be to consider constitutional developments within the Empire and for the purpose of permitting a free and informal interchange of views between the public men of the British nations, the value of which no one is likely to disparage. Nor is the experiment of the Economie Conference likely to be repeated. The matters brought before it were mostly of two classes: Questions which were too big for it or questions that were too small for it. Many of the things that were solemnly discussed by Prime Ministers assembled from the four corners of the earth were administrative questions that could have been dealt with adequately and quietly by much less pretentious bodies.

Stuck to General Principles

THE virtual failure of both conferences to function as expected by those who saw in them an instrument of government revives problems which they expected to see dealt with by these means. The questioñ of foreign policy for instance. The findings of the Conference on this point are hardly more than declarations of general principles. The theory put forward by Mr. Lloyd George, when Premier, and by Lord Curzon, that the Dominions are responsible for the actions and decisions of the British Foreign Minister by virtue of “consultation” which consists chiefly of getting diplomatic news by mail long subsequent to its appearance in the public prints was, it is an open secret, expressly repudiated by the Canadian government. It is, however, obvious that there is need for some machinery for consultation and action which will remain latent when it is not required but will be available when the need arises. This need the Conference doubtless recognized, but it did not feel itself equal to attacking the problem. This will go over to the next conference which will be of necessity a constitutional conference unless, as may happen, some Dominion solves it for itself and presents the Empire with an accomplished fact.

There was an adumbration of the solution in the one actual achievement of the Conference—the memorandum setting forth the treaty-making powers of the Dominions. It is a definite recognition that they have the right and the power to look after their own treaties, which implies looking after their own foreign affairs. There is the proviso that each nation shall keep the other British nations advised so that when questions arise in which one or more of them are interested there can be joint or common action. This clearly calls for an internal diplomatic organization of the Empire enabling each nation to consult directly with every other nation; and it involves the scrapping of the present obsolete system by which the Colonial Office and the GovernorsGeneral constitute the only agency for co-ordination.

Governor-General’s Authority

THERE was some discussion in the Conference as to the status of the governor-general, arising over a controversy between the present Canadian government and the governor-general’s office as to where the control of state papers relating to external affairs rests. There was no support for the view that these papers are under the control of the governor-general as an official of the British government; the Prime Minister of one of the other Dominions characterized it as mediaeval. The governorsgeneral are thus becoming simply representatives of the King; not of the British government; and the work which they have been doing as agents of the British government will have to be taken over by other agencies. Part of this problem, too, is the question of the status of the Dominion High Commissioners in Great Britain; at present they seem to be regarded simply as expatriated civil servants. The Conference side-stepped this question too; it simply showed some concern over the undefined social position of these High Commissioners.

When the internal diplomatic organization of the Empire, thus faintly outlined, comes into existence, nine-tenths of the questions which are now allowed to accumulate to clutter up the agenda of Imperial Conferences will be settled as they arise quietly, and expeditiously. There will still be a place for Imperial Conferences—to be held upon opportune occasions when it is desirable to signify to the world the moral solidarity of the British peoples.

By a paradox the Imperial Conference may be accounted a success by virtue of the things it declined to do. And further it has one substantial achievement to its credit: the formal documentary recognition of the right of the Dominions to look after their own external affairs.