84 Minutes of meeting of Prime Ministers

PMM(48) 7th Meeting (extracts) LONDON, 18 October 1948


3. Commonwealth Consultation MR. ATTLEE said that there appeared to be a general desire to examine the existing methods of consultation between Commonwealth Governments, in order to see whether they met the requirements of the present situation or whether they could be improved. The situation had been changed by the increased tempo of affairs and the need for rapid action. There had also been some change in the degree of common interest between Commonwealth countries. Although there was still much of common interest to all, there were now many questions which concerned certain Commonwealth countries or groups of countries much more directly than others. Thus, members of the sterling area had common financial interests which were not shared in the same degree by Canada. There were questions of security in the South Pacific in which Australia and New Zealand had a closer interest than other Commonwealth countries. The economic development of South-East Asia was of particular interest to Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan and Ceylon. Atlantic security affected Canada and the United Kingdom more closely than other Commonwealth countries. And African questions were of special concern to South Africa. It would be wrong, therefore, to apply a rigid and uniform pattern of consultation to all subjects.

Future arrangements must be more flexible, and it was natural that on certain matters there should be fuller consultation between some Commonwealth countries than between others. it followed that there was not always a 'Commonwealth view' on every subject: it might often be a matter rather of ascertaining the Canadian view or the Australian view or the Indian view. It also followed that there would be increasingly frequent need for regional discussions between the Commonwealth countries specially concerned with a given problem. The composition of these groups would naturally vary according to the nature of the subject.

Mr. Attlee next emphasised the need for supplementing written communications by more frequent personal contacts. Meetings of Commonwealth Prime Ministers were of great value in providing opportunities for the free exchange of views and promoting greater understanding of common purposes, and he suggested that such meetings should be held more frequently, possibly at intervals of two or three years. He appreciated the practical difficulties of gathering Prime Ministers together, particularly now that nine countries were involved, but he again emphasised the value of these meetings and suggested that the aim should be more frequent informal meetings rather than the old-style formal meetings, with elaborate agenda and many committees, held at infrequent intervals.

In the intervals between the meetings of Prime Ministers, there might be meetings of Commonwealth Ministers responsible for foreign affairs, economic affairs, and defence. Ministers attending such meetings would not be expected to commit their Governments to decisions, and here again regional conferences of the countries most directly concerned might often be the right way of dealing with particular points. These meetings need not always be held in London. For the secretarial services at such meetings he would be glad to place the experience of the United Kingdom Cabinet Secretariat at the disposal of any Commonwealth Government which might desire to use it.

These meetings could be held only at relatively long intervals and the need remained for arrangements to enable Commonwealth representatives in London to establish even more regular personal contacts with Ministers and officials concerned in the formulation of policy. This also applied, of course, to capitals other than London.

Turning to the three main subjects on which closer consultation was required, Mr. Attlee dealt first with foreign affairs. There could be no question of trying to frame a uniform foreign policy for the Commonwealth as a whole. Each member country must continue to form its independent judgment on matters of foreign policy. At the same time members of the Commonwealth had many common interests, and it was most desirable that they should be able to form their judgments with a full knowledge of the views and interests of other members. The United Kingdom Government were particularly anxious to be seized of the views of Commonwealth countries at an early stage, so that when a crisis arose they should not be deprived of the advantages of those views for want of time to obtain them.

In reply to a question by Mr. Louw, Mr. Attlee said that he had particularly in mind closer and more regular personal contacts between Commonwealth High Commissioners in London and the Foreign Secretary. Mr. Bevin had recently invited High Commissioners to approach him directly on matters of foreign policy, and he hoped that they would take full advantage of this. The Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations would be kept informed of such meetings and would normally be present at them. In addition to these continuing contacts in London, Mr. Attlee suggested that there should be frequent meetings of Ministers of External Affairs, perhaps once or twice a year. Here again, all Commonwealth countries need not necessarily be represented at every meeting, and the meetings need not always be held in London.

It would perhaps be convenient if some of them could be timed to be held just before or after a meeting of the United Nations Assembly.

The Political Secretaries of the Commonwealth High Commissioners also had a right of direct access to the Foreign Office, mainly for the purpose of collecting factual information, and he hoped that fuller use would be made of this facility.

As regards economic affairs, discussion at meetings in the previous week had shown a general desire for more regular consultation. There was need for more regular exchange of information about the future intentions of Commonwealth Governments in the economic field, though here again it was important to bear in mind that final decisions could only be taken by Governments. Much the same procedure might be followed as for foreign affairs, eg., there should be meetings of Ministers or senior officials, not necessarily in London, and not necessarily including all members of the Commonwealth. For example, problems of economic development in South-East Asia might well be discussed by representatives of the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan and Ceylon. It was also important that there should be closer contact between the central organisations dealing with economic planning in London and the senior economic advisers of the other Commonwealth Governments. But meetings, which at best could only be periodical, must be supplemented by a regular flow of information, week by week, on economic subjects, and it might be useful for this purpose if some central focus could be established in London for the exchange of information between Commonwealth Governments on all economic subjects. There might be a Standing Committee for this purpose, through which the economic advisers attached to the Commonwealth High Commissioners in London could maintain direct and regular contact with the appropriate officials of United Kingdom Departments. There were already in existence two such official committees: first, the Sterling Area Statistical Committee, which met at regular intervals to review dollar expenditure and, second, the Commonwealth Liaison Committee for the European Recovery Programme, which was designed to keep Commonwealth countries in close touch with the development of the European Recovery Programme. Neither of these Committees was, however, designed to provide regular information on subjects such as bilateral trade agreements and the supply of capital goods, which had been mentioned in the discussions in the previous week.

It might, therefore, be advisable to reconstitute these two Committees as one Committee with broader terms of reference, which should serve as a focus for the exchange of information between Commonwealth countries on all economic questions of common interest. Such a Committee would work, in a wider field, on the same model as the two existing Committees, which had proved their value in practice. It would comprise official representatives of all the Commonwealth High Commissioners in London and representatives of all the economic Departments of the United Kingdom Government. It might also be possible to set up parallel Committees in some of the other Commonwealth capitals.

Mr. Attlee emphasised that no such Committee could be a medium for formulating Commonwealth policy on economic questions, still less for reaching decisions, which must remain in the hands of Governments. It would, however, provide a forum for the exchange of information, a general background of knowledge and common understanding, and advance information of probable future developments, which would give Commonwealth Governments a chance of making their views known early enough to enable them to be taken into account in the formulation of economic policy.

In conclusion, Mr. Attlee said that he did not wish to put forward any specific proposals for closer consultation on defence until the general problems of defence had been discussed at the meeting arranged for 20th October.

[matter omitted]

DR. EVATT welcomed the proposals put forward by Mr. Attlee, and suggested that they might with advantage be examined in detail by a committee of the Conference. During the war, consultation between the United Kingdom Government and the other Commonwealth Governments had on occasion been seriously inadequate; indeed, important decisions had from time to time been taken, as at Yalta, on which no information at all had been given to Commonwealth Governments at the time. Mr. Curtin had been deeply concerned at this situation and had for this reason put forward, at the Prime Ministers' meeting in 1944, a suggestion that machinery should be devised which would avoid the recurrence of such incidents. Since the war, consultation between the United Kingdom Government and other Commonwealth Governments had markedly improved; and the flow of information provided by despatch and telegram was much appreciated. But the need still remained for improving the existing machinery, or devising new machinery, which would ensure that, before important decisions were taken there was proper consultation between the United Kingdom Government and other Commonwealth Governments. To be effective, consultation must be timely: it was not enough for Commonwealth Governments merely to be kept informed of developments as they occurred. In view of the rapid tempo of events, effective consultation in foreign affairs might not always be easy; but decisions in this field often involved issues of vital importance to the Commonwealth. In particular, all Commonwealth countries were interested in European problems, since these might raise fundamental issues of peace or war. As regards the specific proposals put forward by the Prime Minister, he supported the idea of regular meetings of Prime Ministers, though he thought that the suggested interval of two or three years was rather too long. He strongly supported the suggestion that the contacts between Commonwealth High Commissioners in London and various United Kingdom Departments should be developed: it was particularly important that Commonwealth High Commissioners should be in close touch with the Foreign Office. In his view, these regular contacts ought to be supplemented by meetings of Commonwealth Foreign Ministers, or their deputies, which should be held twice a year. Such meetings, which might take place in the different Commonwealth capitals according to convenience, would afford an opportunity for the Ministers concerned to acquaint themselves with the trends of opinion in the Commonwealth and to ascertain the extent to which there was agreement between the views of Commonwealth Governments on important international issues. He thought that the success of the Canberra Conference in 1947 indicated the benefit which was likely to be obtained from such meetings. In the financial and economic field, however, he was not sure whether there would be any great advantage in the establishment of a new committee, on the lines suggested by Mr. Attlee, merely for the exchange of information. This limited function could be adequately fulfilled by the High Commissioners themselves, who would in any event be in a better position than officials to discuss issues of policy.

Final decisions could only be taken by Governments; but in this field there appeared to be no reason why there should not be adequate Commonwealth consultation before final decisions were made.

[AA: A1838/283, TS899/6]