M. S. DONNELLY SAYS WE SHOULD Revive the commonwealth — or admit it’s dead
M. S. DONNELLYApril231960
For the sake of argument
M. S. DONNELLY SAYS WE SHOULD Revive the commonwealth — or admit it’s dead
M. S. DONNELLY
The British commonwealth prime ministers are meeting in London in May—their sixth gathering in ten years. Unless this meeting accomplishes more than its predecessors it could turn out to be the last, for there arc many indications today that the commonwealth, with its lack of raison d’être, will soon be forgotten.
What do the prime ministers discuss when they get together? What results from the discussions? The answer to both questions seems to be. “Very little.” The commonwealth's leaders will convene, as usual, in secret. If it runs true to form the communiqué they issue afterwards will ring with eloquent, high - flown phrases but will say nothing. It could hardly do otherwise, since resolutions are not allowed at these meetings for fear that something controversial might be proposed. Indeed, even the word "conference” is officially prohibited because of its implication that decisions are being considered. The meetings are devoted not to arriving at decisions but to piety and platitude—to discreet chitchat interspersed with impressive receptions.
A “do-nothing” organization
The tragic fact is that this accurately reflects the emptiness of the commonwealth and its lack of influence and achievement. The only real sign of life it has shown in the postwar period was the recently announced and totally inadequate scholarship scheme. This provides for an exchange of one thousand students, with most of them coming from underdeveloped commonwealth countries, to attend universities in such countries as the United Kingdom and Canada.
The continuing logic of the commonwealth is that, to exist as an association, it must not do anything or even discuss anything that might be divisive or contentious. As an "organization” it has always been more in the realm of metaphysics than of political science—a crea-
tion of “marvellous potential” but of slight reality.
Politicians are fond of referring to its flexibility rather than its function. Apparently there is no limit to its flexibility. Ghana recently suggested some form of loose union betvVeen itself and Guinea—a territory that has just obtained a divorce from France and alimony from the United Nations— but no one said that this would create a problem about membership. Now Prime Minister Kwarne Nkrumah has an idea that he may want to take his country into a wider African federation, which is equivalent to saying that Canada could become the fifty-first state of the U. S. and still stay in the commonwealth. Cyprus, when it becomes independent, may become “associated” which apparently means something less than full membership.
After-dinner speakers often refer to the commonwealth as a prototype of a future world state, presumably because membership in it carries no commitments, duties or responsibilities. It is a kind of club without rules or dues but with an assumption that members have or wish to have parliamentary government and arc devoted to such small-“b” British political virtues as the rule of law, individual rights, freedom of the press, a non-political civil service and an independent judiciary.
Members subscribe to an unstated agreement to “co-operate” and “consult” but there is no convincing evidence that these processes are more meaningful among commonwealth countries than they normally are between two friendly states with common interests.
There is also a tacit agreement that if any conflicts develop between national interests and membership the former may prevail without endangering the latter. The continuing adherence of South Africa demonstrates this with respect to political virtue; and the British action at Suez in 1956 demonstrates CONTINUED ON FACE 58
PROF. DONNELLY, OF THE UNIVERSITY OF MANITOBA, IS NOW TEACHING POLITICAL SCIENCE IN ENGLAND.
CONTINUED ON FACE 58
For the sake of argument continued from page 10
“Canada, the one nation that can save the Commonwealth, has the moral responsibility to do so”
it with respect to consultation before taking actions of major international significance.
Sir Anthony Eden is quite candid about the lack of consultation prior to the invasion of Egypt. He writes in his memoirs: “Nor was there any chance that all concerned would take precisely the same view of what action should follow consultation. As a result there would have been attempts to modify our proposals, to reach some sort of compromise . . . This was the last thing in the world we wanted, because we knew quite well that once the palavers began, no effective action would be possible.”
This means that consultation is recommended only when vital interests are not affected or when unanimity can be guaranteed in advance.
Many of the countries involved have —because there was no other alternative —made defense pacts with the United States and others look to that country for capital funds, technical assistance and encouragement, ft is sad to find that the British press, with the exception of the Times and the Guardian, pays almost no attention to the commonwealth as an association but plays up news from Washington, New' York and Hollywood.
All things to ail nations
Canada is the one country that can save the situation and has, more than any other member, the moral responsibility to do so. We have the moral responsibility because we have by past actions produced the present meaningless abstraction we choose to call the commonwealth. We have always paid lip service to an ideal while doing little or nothing to make it a reality. The foundation on which the commonwealth was to have been built was outlined in 1926 when Britain and the associated dominions were described as "autonomous communities . . . equal in status and in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”
For Canada this was a neat solution to an internal political problem and not a foundation on which to build. Sentiment and nationalism were both satisfied. Those who had an affection for the United Kingdom and a fear of the United States could point to the crown. I he government could and did refuse to join the Pan American Union on the grounds that we already belonged to one highly satisfactory club. Those who were nationalist-minded could be reassured: there
wotdd be no central machinery, no obligations, no reason to do anything that we would not do without membership. Unspecified economic advantages were possible and there could be no disadvantages because Canada would see to it that the commonwealth remained in the realm of the imagination.
Several attempts have been made to give meaning to the association set up in 1926. Canada vetoed them all and, what is worse, made not a single constructive suggestion. In the 1920s Britain, Australia and New Zealand favored a joint foreign policy — a common and hence, so it was argued, stronger voice in world affairs.
Canada refused to look at this proposal, maintaining that the League of Nations was the proper vehicle for collective security while at the same time admitting that it was virtually impotent because the United States had refused to join. The
real reasons were that the forces of isolationism and nationalism were strong, and our leaders thought that our geographical position made us immune from international balance-of-power politics. As our representative at Geneva later said: “We
five in a fireproof house far from inflammable materials.”
There was, of course, a genuine difficulty in supporting a joint foreign policy, as its implications could not be defined or foreseen. However, this was not the
only proposal Canada killed. As the first volume of the Mackenzie King biography shows, any form of central machinery to tighten the relationship among the dominions was out. Canada axed a proposal that the British Board of Trade gather and publish trade statistics for the whole group, that an advisory economic committee be set up, that the Imperial Shipping Committee'be put on a statutory basis and that a scheme for empire copyrights and patents be adopted.
All these ideas were guillotined when Canada was still only a few years out of
colonial knee pants and hence, it might be argued, unduly sensitive about parental control. Yet the same attitude is evident twenty years later. In 1943 John Curtin, Australia’s prime minister, proposed a commonwealth council to coordinate defense policy and war effort among the members. Mackenzie King turned thumbs down. In 1946 Australia. New Zealand and Britain were full of plans to make the commonwealth a “third force” with the United States and the Soviet Union in the balance of world power. Once again the idea withered
under King’s cold gaze. Our government would never go beyond the common crown, “intimate co-operation” and devotion to parliamentary government.
Even this basis disappeared with the admission of India in 1947. followed by Ceylon. Pakistan, Malaya and Ghana. Of these only Ceylon and Ghana pay allegiance to the crown and Ghana plans to become a republic next summer. The others recognize the Queen “as a symbol of commonwealth”—a fine example of having one’s cake and eating it too. It is no longer possible even to talk about
parliamentary government and political virtue as a unifying force. Before Pakistan went over to strong-man rule the speaker of one of the regional assemblies was killed by a flying ink well; and just recently the prime minister of Ceylon was shot.
The commonwealth does not exist; but it should and can if Canada will give a lead. Not only have we the moral responsibility but we are ideally situated. We never have been a colonial power and obviously never will be. and hence our views will not he suspect. We have the resources now and if defense costs fall, as seems at least possible, we will be even more capable financially. The opportunity to begin was never so clear or so urgent. Two projects suggest themselves immediately. First there is a real chance to build a bridge of understanding and goodwill between Asian. African and Western members. We can start the process as soon as we decide to do all in our power to help these new nations because they need it. and for no ulterior motive.
In education and technical assistance we could propose, for a start, that a commonwealth university, a commonwealth technical training centre, a commonwealth medical college and a commonwealth agricultural college be built in suitable locations and to which students from all member countries could go free of charge. Canada could train ten times as many teachers as she does and encourage them to work in the new countries.
The war proved that such emergency programs can be carried out if survival is at stake. It is at stake now, if not in such a sudden or dramatic way. The first foundation stone of the commonwealth will be laid when the central machinery necessary to co-ordinate the help of the richer members and tabulate the needs of the poorer has been created.
There is also a real possibility of making some aspects of foreign policy joint and more effective. For example, why not a commonwealth plan for disarmament, for the use of outer space, for the control of nuclear weapons? If substantial agreement could be obtained among countries of such diverse circumstances, beliefs and attitudes it w'ould certainly carry great weight. Member governments can find out if it can—by the simple process of trying. ★
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