25 September 1970

The Ditchley Foundation Annual Lecture IX

The Evolving Commonwealth

Delivered by:

The Rt Hon Malcolm MacDonald OM.

Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs (1935-9) and for Colonies (1935, and 1938-40), and subsequently High Commissioner, Governor, Governor General, Commissioner General or Special Representative of HM Government in Canada, Malaya, Singapore and British Borneo, South East Asia, India, Kenya and Africa.

It is a great honour to be invited to deliver this lecture in this glorious house to this very distinguished audience. I have been asked to speak about “The Evolving Commonwealth” in the past and present, and to describe that remarkable phenomenon not in a detached, objective way, but with intimate touches arising from my own personal experiences of it throughout the last few decades. My contacts with the Commonwealth show how stupendously and dramatically it has developed within the short space of one man’s lifetime. It has grown from a bud to a flower, and then burst into a whole spray of blossoms. One question that arises in these days is: will it now wither?

My first acquaintance with a conference of the Prime Ministers of Great Britain and the overseas Dominions occurred in the year 1923. The term “Commonwealth” was not then used; those periodic gatherings were still called imperial Conferences.” The group of Premiers involved numbered about half-a-dozen; and they were all white men. Moreover, the exact extent of the independence of Canada, Australia and the other Dominions was rather uncertain; it had never been clearly defined, and could hardly be said to amount to complete national sovereignty. For example, they all owed allegiance to the King of Britain, n foreign countries their interests were represented by the local British Ambassador; they had no diplomatic services of their own. In some other ways, too, their constitutional powers were limited, or at least in doubt.

In those early 1920s many people not only in Britain but also in some of the Dominions were averse to them becoming absolutely fully independent nations. The advocates of this view urged that their historic association with Britain should be maintained by some sort of arrangement which made them in effect junior partners of Britain, acquiescent in the British government’s formulation of one foreign policy conducted on their as well as its own behalf. The most important critic, and indeed opponent, of that notion was Mackenzie King, the Canadian statesman whose extraordinary political shrewdness, cunning and wisdom enabled him to continue as Prime Minister of his fellow-countrymen for even longer than the record of 21 years previously set by Robert Walpole in England. I remember discussing the problem of the status of the Dominions with him in Ottawa in 1924. I was a young nonentity then; but my father happened to be the Prime Minister of Great Britain, and so other Heads of Government were very graciously genial towards me. Mackenzie King argued that the historic, brotherly association between the Dominions and Britain should of course be maintained, but that this could only be on the basis of those other peoples’ unqualified national independence in the conduct of all their own affairs, both at home and abroad. Otherwise, he said, they would feel offended and frustrated, become increasingly discontented, and eventually assert their independence by revolt against any special association with their old Imperial master. His unyielding insistence on this was decisive in establishing the Commonwealth on foundations which have enabled it to grow in the remarkable way we have witnessed during the subsequent half century.

As a result of his and some other Dominion leaders’ firm stand on the issue, at the Imperial Conference of 1926 Arthur Balfour, as Foreign Secretary, made his historic announcement that the Dominions and Britain “are autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs.” And five years later, in 1931, this position became legally confirmed by the passage of the Statute of Westminster through the Mother of Parliaments in London. The occasion was marked by a very dull speech delivered by the introducer of its third, final reading — a young, inexperienced, prematurely appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Dominions called Malcolm MacDonald.

After that the Commonwealth began to expand in depth and width in fascinating ways. I could recount numerous significant events which at successive periods marked its growth, in many of which I was personally involved. But if I am not to continue haranguing you for several hours, I must ignore most of them, and select for mention only some of the most important.

The first was the famous abdication crisis in 1936. I was then the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs. I remember the meeting at the very start of the episode when the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, confided to a few of us Cabinet colleagues the substance of the first conversation he had just held with the King in Buckingham Palace about his intention to marry Mrs. Simpson. He held us of certain informal advice he had ventured to offer to His Majesty. When he finished speaking I remarked that he was not the only personage who should offer advice to our Royal Master on this delicate matter. Baldwin was surprised, and asked me who else was concerned. I answered that all the Prime Ministers of the Dominions had an equal right and indeed duty to counsel the King. In the new Commonwealth which had now emerged from our old Empire King Edward was the constitutional monarch not of one, but of several independent nations, and on a matter of such vital concern to each and every one of them he could only act on the advice of all his Prime Ministers.

I think that was the first occasion in the story of the Commonwealth when a situation requiring such collective advice arose. For the next many days and nights I had the very interesting though rather sad task of acting in effect as liaison between the King and all his Prime Ministers scattered round the world. Those statesmen happened to be a very “mixed bag” of diverse personalities — some of them Conservatives, others Liberals and one a Socialist, who belonged to various different Christian sects, and two of whom — Hertzog in South Africa and De Valera in Eire — were in sentiment anti-monarchist Republicans. I wondered whether the King’s dilemma would become chaotically confused by conflicting advice from that heterogeneous team of official servants of the Crown. That could have cracked the adolescent Commonwealth very badly. However, with the exception of one difference of opinion by one Prime Minister on one point in the first 24 hours — which was swiftly resolved by agreement — the opinions expressed by them were consistently unanimous on every major aspect of the problem at every stage of its development.

At its climax, when the King resolved to abdicate, a situation arose which incidentally smoothed the path for the later wide expansion of the Commonwealth. To make the replacement of one King by another on the throne legal, an Act of Parliament was required; but the Parliament at Westminster could no longer legislate for any of the Dominions except in rare cases if and when one of them asked it to do so. Otherwise they had to pass their own Acts. Naturally we assumed that all the Dominions would make their relevant laws come into effect at the same moment on one agreed day. However, to establish beyond dispute the sovereign independence of their nations, the governments in South Africa and Eire decided not to pass their legislation on the same date as that in Great Britain and the other Dominions. As a result King George VI became the ruler of one of those nations on one day, of Britain and three Dominions on the following day, and in the remaining Dominion 24 hours later.

That was a development of considerable constitutional significance. Previously many lawyers had argued that in spite of the fact that each member of the Commonwealth was an independent nation, they were in effect one united monarchy whose peoples owed allegiance to the same single Crown. Those legal pundits asserted that the crown was as indivisible as the head of the individual who wore it. But, whatever might previously have been said for that theory, the action of the Parliaments in Cape Town and Dublin of course knocked it into a cocked hat — or rather, into six crowns.

I personally was not worried by that rather odd development. On the contrary, I welcomed it, for I felt that the future evolution of the Commonwealth made such a definition desirable. I looked forward to a time when the independent members of our partnership ceased to be confined to a few nations of white peoples, and would be expanded to include nations with populations of many different coloured skins. It seemed to me that such a multi-racial Commonwealth could perform immense services to the human race as a whole. I therefore hoped that before many years passed India would become a fully sovereign member, and that afterwards various other dependent peoples in the British Empire would graduate to independent status within the Commonwealth. But I reckoned that if this was to become possible, we should have to concede that some of them could be Republics, for I did not think that certain of them in Asia and Africa, for instance, would consent to acknowledge an alien monarch of a totally different race as the ruler to whom their countrymen must owe allegiance.

To prepare for that day, after the abdication I began to advocate in private conversations with my Cabinet colleagues that if - as seemed likely - Mr De Valera’s government decided in due course that it must “throw off the yoke” of the British monarchy completely and become a Republic, this should not result in Southern Ireland’s automatic expulsion from the Commonwealth. I urged that if the Irish would like to continue as loyal members of the association, we should agree to them doing so. In fact the crucial test for continuing membership should not be allegiance to a crown, but allegiance to certain political principles in which the British and their Commonwealth partners all jointly believed. And I argued that, if we refused to allow a Republic of Eire to stay in the partnership with us, this would be an unfortunate precedent which could make it impossible for us to agree to Commonwealth membership for a Republic of India or a Republic of Nigeria if and when those states emerged.

However, when I ventured to suggest this rather radical notion in the mid-1930s, it was frowned upon by some of my colleagues in the then National Government. I remember their abrupt, contemptuous rejection of it when I mentioned it. Other Ministers were more non-committal. They felt very sceptical about the idea, and indeed disliked it, but were ready to keep open minds on the subject, so that they could consider it in the light of all the relevant current circumstances if and when the issue did arise.

Incidentally, one day whilst I was Secretary of State for the Colonies in the late 1930s — presiding over the destinies of more than 50 dependent countries in those antiquated, rather grand times! — I made a speech in which I stated that the British government’s ultimate aim in all the African colonies was Independence with majority rule. I was surprised when that scholarly authority, Professor Reginald Coupland, came to me gratefully afterwards and asserted that I was the first British Minister to make an unqualified statement to that effect. I must admit that, when I made it, I hardly guessed that the transition to Independence on the so-called “Dark Continent” would later become so speeded-up that I myself would attend as Governor General the Independence celebrations in Kenya of all places — where a great majority of the white settlers were then uncompromisingly opposed to any such policy, and declared that, if necessary, they would die in the last ditch fighting against it.

Perhaps I should add as another personal reminiscence that in those same years my Cabinet colleagues and I came under strong, persistent pressure from the government in South Africa to hand-over the three Protectorates of Bechuanaland, Basutoland and Swaziland to its rule — a demand which we with equal and more effective stubbornness refused. So today those three lands are independent nations in the Commonwealth instead of being Bantustans in the Republic.

In the late 1930s another situation arose which could have broken the Commonwealth at that early stage of its growth. This was at the time of the Munich talks between Chamberlain and Hitler. The issue at stake was crucial: would peace prevail or war break out in Europe? And that question raised another important issue: if Britain became involved in war, would her Commonwealth partners join her as allies, or would they stay neutral? I need not describe in detail the non-stop communications which I had with all their governments throughout the crisis, and will only say that they were as emphatic as they were unanimous in urging us in London to avoid war. And my reckoning was that if Britain did go to war on the European question then involved, only New Zealand would readily have joined us as an ally, for although its government was strongly averse to war, its leaders and people were so sentimentally attached to their old “Mother-Country” that they would have supported us in any circumstances, “right or wrong”. The position in the other Dominions was very different. I judged that the Australians would on balance join us in the war — but with their public opinion very divided on the issue — whilst the Canadians would possibly, and perhaps even probably, on balance, refuse to do so. In South Africa and Eire there was no uncertainty: both those countries would have stayed neutral. So, if that judgement was correct, Great Britain would possibly have received the support of only two out of five Dominions. The Commonwealth could scarcely have survived such a split. When war did break out a year later opinion in most of the Dominions  — as in Britain —  had shifted, and only Eire remained neutral.

In 1941 I became our High Commissioner in Canada, and ever since then, until just the other day, I have been virtually exiled from the British Isles. Of course, it has been very comfortable, first class exile! I got pushed around the world, filling various jobs in numerous lands scattered across four different continents. Most of my posts were in Commonwealth countries in North America, much of Asia, and all across Africa, whilst my duties also took me occasionally to the Antipodes. I was intimately involved in the progress of more than half-a-dozen different peoples in South East Asia and East and Southern Africa towards their national independence. So I have enjoyed particularly good opportunities to watch the evolution of the Commonwealth.

I had nothing to do with the most crucial event which stimulated the Commonwealth’s vast growth after the war — India’s gaining of Independence in 1947. But almost twenty years earlier I was a witness of a vital opening move in the Indian people’s progress to national freedom. During the Indian Round Table Conference in 1930 I acted as the most junior private secretary to Lord Sankey, who as Lord Chancellor presided over the all-important constitutional committee of the conference. I had two duties to perform: first, to see that his drinking glass was always filled with water so that he could quench his thirst during his long and sometimes rather dry labours; and second, to act as a personal liaison between him and the chairman of the conference, my father the Prime Minister. The Labour Government of the day was very anxious that the conference would decide that Dominion status should be gained by India in the reasonably early future. But it was a minority government, and depended on the support of either the Liberal or the Conservative party for the attainment of that aim. And the delegations of both those parties at the conference were extremely reluctant to concede the point. The arguments on Sankey’s committee were long and difficult. One day towards their close Lord Reading, an ex-Viceroy who led the Liberal delegation, made a speech defining his party’s attitude. Whilst he spoke you could have heard a pin drop. Everyone listened in hushed, expectant, apprehensive, uncertain silence. Suddenly he uttered a sentence supporting Dominion status. I saw Sankey scribble a note on a sheet of paper, turn, and hand it to me. It read, “Go and tell your father that at 12.35 p.m.” (or whatever the exact hour was — I forget) “this day Lord Reading crossed the Rubicon”.

In the resumed session of that conference twelve months afterwards, in 1931, I had the fascinating task of acting as liaison between my father and the very remarkable individual whom Winston Churchill irreverently described as “the naked fakir”, Mahatma Gandhi. As I say, I had nothing to do with the actual realisation of Indian and Pakistani Independence sixteen years later. But I watched the event as a keen observer from fairly near by Singapore, where I then lived. It was the first occasion when a non-white people emerged from British Imperial rule to full sovereign independence, and one great question that this rather revolutionary event prompted was: will the new government in Delhi uphold India’s continuing membership of the Commonwealth, or will it break away from any such special association with their old Imperial overlords? To many people’s surprise, it decided to stay in the Commonwealth. This was a characteristically sagacious decision by Nehru and his principal colleagues. And it was a historic act, for if India had left the Commonwealth, that association would have remained a small group of white nations. Few, if any, of the score of other Asian, Caribbean, African and additional ex-colonies which later gained Independence would have opted for membership. As it was, Burma declined to join when it became free a few months later. But Pakistan took the same line as India — a decision that has no doubt helped in the cases of other Muslim nations since.

From that moment the Commonwealth grew steadily in size and variety, until now its members number 28 nations — shortly to be 29 when Fiji becomes independent a few days hence. They represent many of the most influential peoples of different colours, cultures and creeds distributed round the Earth. And when India did become a republic a constitutional arrangement was devised which enabled it to remain in the partnership. The Queen became “the Head of the Commonwealth”, which is now a variegated mixture of monarchies and republics. So allegiance to the crown ceased to be one of the links binding the nations of the Commonwealth together. Their shared history remained a strong bond, but the most important is the belief which they all share in certain international political principles, and especially the principle that all men are equal, all men are brothers, regardless of the colour of their skins. That is the fundamental belief on which the Commonwealth is now founded, and for which it stands.

It explained a later significant development in the evolution of the Commonwealth — South Africa’s departure from it. The policy of “apartheid” pursued by the government in Cape Town is in flagrant conflict with the principle of racial equality, and so other members of the Commonwealth decided that the Republic could no longer continue as a partner in it.

It would be impossible to exaggerate the importance of that principle of racial equality in the present-day world, where many of the most difficult, delicate and indeed dangerous problems now afflicting mankind concern inter-racial relations between populations of different coloured skins. None of these is more threatening of ultimate disaster than the situation developing in southern Africa, where the policies of the regimes in Rhodesia, the Portuguese Territories and South Africa are provoking a rising hostility between the white minorities and the black majorities in their countries which may well lead over the next period of years to inter-racial violence on an appalling scale, in which many other peoples round the Earth may get unavoidably involved on one side or the other. In this connection it is relevant to note that the governments of many nations in the Commonwealth are demonstrating their sincere belief in racial equality not only in their international but also in their national policies. In Malaysia, for instance, equality of status exists between the Malays, Chinese, Indians and other citizens — a truly admirable example of multi-racial partnership which nearly crashed one day last year, but is still being carefully preserved. Similar policies are being practised in other Commonwealth countries with mixed populations, the latest of which will be Fiji, where the Fijians and Indians will co-operate as equals in the government of their common homeland. And it is particularly important to recognise that the black majority governments in the African countries in the Commonwealth have zealously adopted the same policy. Again let me conform to your instruction to speak from my personal experience, by describing something remarkable which I observed from close quarters in Kenya in the early 1960s. I watched Jomo Kenyatta and his colleagues doing their utmost to create not merely a multi-tribal but a multi-racial new Kenyan nation, in spite of the old, deep political bitterness between its black and white populations which various earlier episodes had engendered. Some of the great credit for the success that has so far attended their efforts belongs to the white settlers, who adapted themselves in a friendly, constructive way to the famous “winds of change” blowing across Africa. So in the cabinet formed on Independence a white Minister sat beside his black colleagues — and he has continued to hold his important office ever since. Other white settlers were given other eminent positions. One of the most impressive developments was the appointment to highly important posts of some white politicians who had earlier been among the bitterest, most uncompromising opponents of majority rule. For example, one became the Speaker of the National Assembly, another was confirmed in his office as the chairman of governors of the National Museum; and I could mention other such cases.

In the same way brown Asians who took out Kenya citizenship were given influential posts in the administration and other national institutions — and they still hold them. It is true that in more recent times numerous Asians have received rather harsh treatment, of which we can only feel critical. But this is partly some of those Asians’ own fault; in one way or another they showed dubious loyalty to their adopted country. There is a longish history attached to the problem that I must not take time to probe into here.

Several other African governments in the Commonwealth are showing a similar multi-racial enlightenment. In Tanzania, Botswana and Swaziland white Ministers sit beside their black colleagues in the cabinets. A brown Asian also holds an influential cabinet post in Tanzania. In other countries like Zambia and Lesotho white and brown citizens fill important public offices. And in all those lands many white farmers, professional people, businessmen and others continue to live contentedly under black majority rule.

So these members of the Commonwealth show that they stand sincerely for a co-operative, egalitarian partnership between different races in both international and national affairs. I must be frank: I do not know how long, this happy state of affairs will last in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and other black African lands. I think it would continue for a long time — if it were not for the situation that is erupting in southern Africa. The conduct of the racialist white minority regimes there is creating a growing tension which could break it. Extremist black nationalists in those other lands north of the Zambesi are now saying, “Why should we treat our white minorities so well, when the whites in Rhodesia and South Africa treat their black majorities so badly?”

I must not plunge this evening into a discussion of the rights and wrongs of the internal situations in those southern African countries. We are concerned here only with their effect on the evolving Commonwealth. Let us have no illusions: they constitute a grave threat to the Commonwealth’s continued existence. For instance, if our government in Britain (whatever its party) were to reach an agreement with the illegal regime in Rhodesia that recognised national independence under white minority rule, some African and possibly Asian and other members would withdraw from the Commonwealth. The same could happen if we sold arms to South Africa which could be used to protect the policy of “apartheid”. Many people in this country resent this threat of withdrawal. They urge that the members of the Commonwealth should be more tolerant with each other, that honest differences of opinion between them should be allowed, and that threats of withdrawal are a gross attempt at blackmail. Again, I must not expand lengthily on that controversy this evening. I will only say that we should understand the reason for the attitude of the African governments concerned. They wholly agree that differences of opinion and of policy can exist among the partners in the Commonwealth — provided that all those policies, however divergent, are consistent with the principle of equality between the races on which our Commonwealth is founded. I for one agree with them that the policies touching Rhodesia and South Africa that I have mentioned would conflict with that principle. But I do not ncessarily accept that, if by ill chance one or the other of them gets — perhaps only temporarily — adopted, the Commonwealth should be broken up. Its value in wide fields can be so tremendous through the crucial decades ahead that it should be preserved as strongly as possible.

There is another issue in these times that could gravely weaken the Commonwealth. It is the possibility of Britain entering the European Common Market. One of the valuable bonds which has linked the members of the Commonwealth strongly and amicably together is the great economic help that they give to each other in trade and related fields. If we were to enter the Common Market on terms which seriously prejudiced the economic well-being and prospects of some of our Commonwealth partners in the Antipodes, the Caribbean or elsewhere, that could deal a crippling blow at the Commonwealth. I personally am not opposed to entry into the Common Market — provided that, among other things, the conditions on which we do so adequately protect the continuing prosperous and friendly unity of the Commonwealth.

I know that considerable sections of public opinion in this country nowadays feel in a mood of disillusionment, of disenchantment with the Commonwealth. This is partly a result of a sad decline in many British people’s interest in world-wide affairs, and partly also of bitter resentment at public criticisms of Britain which representatives of some of our newer Commonwealth partners have made in recent years. Certain of those criticisms have indeed been extremely rude, and wildly contrary to normal diplomatic courtesies. For instance, we naturally objected to a High Commissioner-designate in London announcing to the world that Britain had become a “toothless bulldog”. And a spate of offensive attacks occurred during the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in 1966, when several spokesmen from Africa and other Dominions indulged in longwinded, over-emotional and often insulting tirades against the British government’s policy concerning Rhodesia. Several other leaders present felt that the conference indicated that the Commonwealth was perhaps coming to the end of its usefulness. However, there was no echo of that too vicious, mostly destructive temper at the next Commonwealth Conference held last year. On the contrary, although its discussions were frank, they were also friendly, reasonable and constructive. Several Prime Ministers who arrived expecting a repetition of the previous harangues, and who therefore came prepared to condemn the Commonwealth, stayed to praise it. They said to me afterwards, “If this is the candid yet cordial multi-racial brotherhood that the Commonwealth has become, it can be one of the most valuable international bodies for helping to find gradual, peaceful, satisfactory solutions to some of the most baffling and dangerous problems that now trouble mankind”.

Another criticism which many people make of some members of the Commonwealth is that they only stay in the association for what they can get out of it. And, although this is an over-statement, there is of course an element of truth in it. Many of the new, developing nations value their membership of the Commonwealth partly because of the generous financial, technical and other aid which they receive from their richer fellow-members. But there is nothing wrong in that! A normal, principal purpose guiding the international policy of every nation round the Earth is the promotion of its own self-interest. This motive guides our own British foreign policy. And we, too, get immense benefits from our membership of the Commonwealth, although they are partly of a different nature from the economic advantages secured by some other states. A good deal of Britain’s prestige and influence in the world in these times springs in fact from our creation and maintenance of the Commonwealth. I know this from countless talks that I have had with many, many, leading statesmen and other important people not only in the Western but also the non-aligned and even the Communist worlds. They tell me that their special respect for the British nation — in spite of its now greatly dwindled military, economic and diplomatic strength — springs from our remarkably wise transformation of the old Colonial Empire into this new Commonwealth of free and equal nations representing many different racial branches of one great family — the human family. They say that its peaceful, friendly evolution shows that we understand other peoples better than any other nation does, and deal more wisely with them. And they add that as a consequence they are more ready to listen to our views, and to be influenced by them, than to those of any other nation round the world.

If the Commonwealth were now to collapse, a lot of our international influence would collapse with it.

So for many reasons it is important that the Commonwealth shall continue, and shall gradually grow in influence. I know how much value the leaders of our fellow-members in Asia, Africa, North America, the Caribbean and elsewhere attach to it. And this is not primarily because of any material advantage that their new nations secure from their membership. It is because they recognise that this multi-racial partnership of many influential nations round the world can perhaps do more than any other international institution that exists to help to solve gradually and wisely some of the most delicate and threatening problems which now face Humanity. In spite of all its own inevitable human weaknesses, it can be of unique service to Mankind. And this is not only in the sphere of official governmental and political affairs such as are discussed in Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conferences and in gatherings of the excellent Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. It can promote more understanding and co-operation in many other fields of human endeavour. One of the most useful recent developments in the growth of the evolving Commonwealth was the establishment of a permanent Commonwealth Secretariat, with an able secretary-general and other officers chosen from various member countries scattered across the continents and the oceans. Among their other activities they arrange Commonwealth and wider international conferences of professional experts in such fields as education, public health, economic development, constitutional law, and so on. There are other areas in which the Commonwealth governments could make similar valuable contributions. For example, they could stimulate much more strenuous efforts to narrow the gap in economic wealth between the mostly white developed nations and the non-white developing nations. Again, they could join in tackling some quite formidable problems concerning contemporary Youth. Indeed, they could help vitally to promote mutually friendly relations between all the different races by organising widespread exchanges of visits among the young, rising generations of the white, black, brown and other peoples — those all-important boys and girls, young men and women who will be the rulers of the world tomorrow . . . But my time is up; I must not plunge into speculation on those fascinating future possibilities.

Long live the Commonwealth!

© The Ditchley Foundation, 1970.  All rights reserved.  Queries concerning permission to translate or reprint should be addressed to the Communications Officer, The Ditchley Foundation, Ditchley Park, Enstone, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire OX7 4ER, England.