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57 Glasgow to Evatt Dispatch M3/44 (extracts)

OTTAWA, 26 February 1944

I have the honour to report that the question of Imperial Relations, always a tender spot in Canadian political life, has been front page news almost continually for the last six months.

The discussion, which was first provoked by Mr. Curtin's proposals for an Empire Council [1], was further stimulated by his address to the Triennial Federal Conference of the Australian Labor Party on December 14th [2], the statement by Field Marshal Smuts, and the recent speech of Lord Halifax in Toronto. On 31st January, the attitude of the Canadian Government was redefined in the, House of Commons by Mr. Mackenzie King.

[matter omitted]

3. There still seems to have been considerable confusion, both as to the reason for and the purpose of Mr. Curtin's proposals. Some observers did not hesitate to regard them as inspired by the British Government. Le Droit' in Ottawa on November 4th for example said 'The present war has made the people of Great Britain think seriously. The British Isles nearly collapsed under the attack of the Axis powers . . . The English have learned their lesson well. They will take all possible precautions to prevent the recurrence of this danger. That is why it may be expected that they will attempt to strengthen as much as possible the military, economic and political ties between Great Britain and the Dominions, so as to be in a better position in future to encounter such a situation.' 'La Patrie' on the other hand interpreted Mr.

Curtin's scheme as simply an attempt by Australia to obtain a voice in the determination of imperial policy.

4. Canadian political leaders remained non-committal. Mr. M. J.

Coldwell, the Dominion leader of the C.C.F. [3], went furthest when he said 'anything that can be done to bring about co- operation is desirable', but that 'it would not be a good thing to set up any body which would tend to build a wall around the Empire'. Mr. Blackmore, the New Democracy (Social Credit) leader, commented 'We need to know what this Council would imply before making any pronouncement whatever'.

5. The Prime Minister held his hand, but no one had much doubt as to what his attitude would be. An interesting forecast was made by Bruce Hutchison, feature writer in the Winnipeg 'Free Press', on 23rd November in an article entitled 'Remarkable Conversion of Mr.

Curtin'. (Annex 1.) [4] Mr. Curtin he said 'seems to be leading a movement to solidify the Commonwealth for the difficult post-war era . . . his plan is a new and powerful British Empire Council which, with a permanent secretariat, would keep all the British nations in constant touch with one another and would tend, though it would not compel, them to act together in foreign affairs . . .

This tough labour leader was associated in Australia most of his life with the forces which were sceptical of the British Commonwealth, suspicious of Britain, isolationist, pacifist and socialist . . . Mr. Curtin suddenly discovered that Australia could have no security except as a member of a world-wide league of British nations'. He went on to examine Canada's position and continued: 'If it (the Curtin plan) should involve anything like a British Commonwealth Cabinet to direct Commonwealth foreign policy it would not be accepted by Canada, which regards such a plan as unworkable, the interests of the British nations being so diverse.

Mr. Curtin . . . may rather have in mind a consultative body only, each of the British nations being free to follow its advice or not, in times of crisis. Such a plan . . . might appeal to Canada . . . Mr. Hull . . . has denounced the whole theory of alliances and international blocs and in favour of a league including all peace-loving nations, each with its sovereignty unimpaired, regardless of its size. This is precisely the hope of Canada, which desires a world system of collective security larger than the Commonwealth'. The 'Free Press' drove the same arguments home in an editorial the following day which concluded: 'If it involves in the slightest degree provisions by which common action in international matters-whether of finance, trade, world government, or war-can be compelled by machinery designed for the purpose of overcoming minority views, they seek to destroy the Commonwealth as it has been developed over forty years by the statesmanship of Laurier [5], Borden [6] and King'. (Annex 2.)

[matter omitted]

9. Mr. Curtin's speech to the Federal Labor Conference in December, which was fully reported, produced a further crop of comment. The Toronto 'Globe and Mail', which had always been sympathetic to his proposals, now made a definite pronouncement in favour of them. 'The proposals of Mr. Curtin', it said on December 15th, 'suggest no impairment of the fundamental autonomy of the Dominions, and therefore they seem to us to merit careful and sympathetic examination by the Canadian people and their Government. They appear to provide a method for the more effective co-operation of the policies of the Commonwealth which we believe to be highly desirable both in its own interest and that of the whole world. Field Marshal Smuts feared an unequal partnership in which the British Commonwealth would carry inferior weight in a trinity of Powers, including the United States and Russia. The great merit of Mr. Curtin's proposals is that they offer a plan for that closer integration of the Commonwealth's policies which can make it an equal partner with its two mighty allies'. (Annex 4.) 10. The Winnipeg 'Free Press' reproduced Mr. Curtin's speech almost verbatim, noting in a rather puzzled manner that 'Mr.

Curtin was prepared to go very far toward the creating of a centralized Empire with the acceptance by all parts of it of permanent commitments to a common policy', while at the same time 'Mr. Curtin's final phrase contains a firm affirmation of the absolute sovereignty of Australia in dealing with international policies'.

11. Mr. Curtin's speech happened to coincide with the announcement by Mr. Mackenzie King that he was prepared to attend a Conference in London as soon as other Dominion Prime Ministers were able to be present. This led to a number of suggestions that the question of Imperial Relations, which would obviously be discussed at a Conference in London, should be thoroughly thrashed out in Canada in advance, so that the Prime Minister would know the views of the people. The Toronto 'Globe and Mail', for example, on December 18th said that 'The Canadian people do not want their accredited spokesman to go to this Council table with his mind unformed about certain vital issues, such as those raised by the Australian Prime Minister, due to be faced, and with a disposition to reserve full freedom about decisions and commitments until the time is ripe for a general peace-making'. (Annex 5.) 12. The more the 'Globe' supported Mr. Curtin's proposals, the more skeptical became the Winnipeg 'Free Press'. In a leading article entitled 'Thrashing Old Straw' on December 20th, commenting on Mr. Curtin's speech, the 'Free Press' drew attention to 'the strong resurgence suggesting a common origin in a movement to give the British Commonwealth-or the Empire to those who prefer that title-a single voice in the determination of policies arising out of the war, or out of the problems of the post-war world'. The article repeated the view that Mr. Curtin was of two minds when he made his speech. On the one hand he had stated that 'Consultations must be consistent with the sovereign control of policy by each Government', and on the other hand he had referred to 'a common policy in matters that concern the Empire as a whole'. The 'Free Press' doubted whether, in view of the reservations with which his speech was 'plentifully besprinkled', Mr. Curtin really did belong to the 'common policy' school. The article then proceeded to state what is, I believe, one of the most important considerations governing Canadian opinion. It quoted a Round Table report of the Hot Springs Conference which said that 'Foreign nations are inclined to regard with jealousy the claim of the Dominions to send separate delegations and to exercise separate votes at an international conference. They feel that the arrangement is unfair as giving a plural vote to what they think is fundamentally a single interest'. 'As a consequence of this ill-considered movement', the 'Free Press' continued 'Canada may in future international conferences dealing with post-war matters, face a revival of the opposition to Canadian representation which appeared in Paris in 1919; and . . . it may be a weapon into the hands of the United States isolationists with which they can repeat the sabotage of 1919. Canada has been quietly taking steps- e.g., the elevation of her Canadian Legations to the status of Embassies-to give public notice to the world of Canada's full sovereignty, and when the question of closer Empire organization arises it is always examined from this point of view'. (Annex 6.) 13. The 'Globe and Mail' scouted the suggestion that there was any sinister conspiracy to create a centralized imperialist structure and said that 'the core of the problem was that Britain, acting by herself, could not, in a partnership with Russia and the United States, hope to exercise the same power and influence as these countries . . . We want', it continued, 'a common international policy for the Commonwealth, but a termination of Britain's monopolistic control of it'. (Annex 7.) 14. The Toronto 'Saturday Night' under the heading of 'The Common Voice Fantasy' attacked those urging that the Commonwealth should speak with a single voice. It argued that there were two objections, one the effect on the nations of the Commonwealth themselves if an attempt were made to adopt common policies upon questions where the interests of the Dominions were widely different, which might involve repudiation by the public, and two, the effect upon other nations who would be unlikely to accept the Dominions as separate sovereignties if they acted on common policies. (Annex 8.) 15. The apparently divergent views of the supporters and opponents had thus narrowed down to an interpretation of Mr. Curtin's plans.

Those who understood him to intend that the Dominions and the United Kingdom should be automatically committed to policies by the decisions of a central council were almost unanimously in opposition. Those who regarded his plan as a means for closer consultation were equally strongly in favour. The Canadian press delegates after their return to this country were called upon to expound Australian policy, and there is some evidence that Richardson [7] of the 'Free Press' has been able to explain Mr.

Curtin's attitude to his paper in a rather different light. Before the effect of this influence could be fully assessed, however, events were given a new turn by the address of Lord Halifax in Toronto.

[matter omitted] [8]


1 See Documents on Australian Foreign Policy 1937-49, vol. VI, Document 272, note 1.

2 In his conference address Curtin advocated a secretariat and standing committee which, between imperial conferences, would allow 'full and continuous consultation' consistent with the sovereignty of each government (Sydney Morning Herald, 15 December 1943).

3 Co-operative Commonwealth Federation.

4 The annexes to this dispatch are not published.

5 Canadian Prime Minister 1896-1911.

6 Canadian Prime Minister 1911-20.

7 B. T. Richardson.

8 Matter omitted refers to the critical response in Canada to Halifax's address at the Centennial Dinner of the Toronto Board of Trade on 24 January.

[AA:A4231, OTTAWA,1944]
Last Updated: 11 September 2013

Category: International relations

Topic: History