28 Minutes of Fourth Meeting of Principal Delegates to Imperial Conference

E (PD) (37) 4 (extract) LONDON, 22 May 1937

At the third meeting of principal delegates on 21 May 1937, New Zealand and South African leaders were critical of aspects of British foreign policy, as indeed was R. G. Casey in regard to Central European policy (see Document 27). As a result Anthony Eden the following day made a speech answering these criticisms and strongly defending British policy. General Hertzog of South Africa thanked Eden for the additional information and said that his words had not been intended as a reflection on the conduct of Britain's foreign policy; he merely wished a 'more cordial, friendly and humane attitude towards Germany' could be adopted.J.

A. Lyons then addressed the meeting.

MR LYONS said that at the previous meeting, Mr Casey had spoken on behalf of the Australian delegation in regard to certain specific matters. He, himself, would like to make a few remarks of a more general character.

He was very grateful indeed to Mr Eden for the very frank and lucid statement which he had made. The Commonwealth Government, with the help of information supplied directly and indirectly by the Foreign Office, had been able to follow the main essentials of British foreign policy in relation to the European situation, but the admirable and concise summary of Mr Eden had brought home to the Australian delegation the extreme difficulties of recent years. It was a staggering story of difficulties and perplexities, in which the only sane, responsible and disinterested element had been Great Britain.

One could have nothing but admiration for the calm and balanced handling of an exceedingly difficult situation, which, had it been handled otherwise, might well have had tragic results.

It was easy to be wise after the event. It was easy to criticise in the light of subsequent knowledge.

Great Britain in the years since the war, by her disarmament policy, had provided the world with a high moral example which he, for one, did not believe had been lost on the world. By her efforts and example in pursuit of the humane ideal of limitation of armaments, and by the tragic failure of those efforts for reasons which were beyond her control, and by her recent reversal of that policy, Great Britain had provided a moral lesson for the world which, he believed, had sunk in. British re-armament was no menace to the world. It was an attempt to recapture the benevolent authority that Britain alone could wield for the peace of the world.

Australia had no complaint to make about the conduct of British foreign policy. Far from complaining Australia believed that Britain had exerted the maximum of restraint and good sense in Europe in the years since the war. If at times Australia had been inclined to criticise, she had always remembered that Great Britain had been alone in her efforts. She had had no consistent collaborator or partner, no support and no help. In the view of the Australian delegation, she had done wonders in keeping the peace, because it must be realised that it had been Great Britain that had kept the peace in Europe for nearly 20 years.

Australia believed that it was wrong to say that Britain had pursued a pro-French policy. It had been essentially a pro-British policy. It had, it was true, been, generally speaking, along lines with which France had been in agreement, except in the disastrous French adventure in the Ruhr, but Australia's reading of the many situations of past years had been that Britain had influenced France towards moderation on many more occasions than France could be said to have influenced Britain.

He admitted that in the circumstances that now existed, he inclined to the views expressed by General Hertzog and Mr Casey, viz., that the lesser of two evils might yet be in the direction of lessening the degree of restraint that Britain has hitherto exercised on Germany, particularly with reference to Austria. He hoped that on Mr Eden's return from Geneva, there might be a further opportunity of discussing this important aspect.

In his opening address he spoke of his hope that some common and helpful expression of Empire policy might emerge from this Imperial Conference. If this Empire meant anything it meant co- operative effort. If the heart of the Empire was threatened, all the members were threatened. Those who were tempted to put their faith in friends outside the Empire might be acting in what they considered to be their own immediate interests, but they could not be described as the common interests of the great co-operative society called the British Commonwealth of Nations. He believed that the safety and security and prosperity of all the members of the Commonwealth depended on their sticking together. The voice and authority of Britain was very great and was daily becoming greater. The combined voice and authority of the British Commonwealth was greater still. Could we not add the voice and strength and authority of each and every one of the members and each and every one of the Dominions to that of Britain and so help her in her great task in the world and at the same time help ourselves. The Australian delegation felt that they could wholeheartedly rely on Britain to preserve peace. To a very large extent the rest of the Commonwealth had for years been content to shelter behind the strong arm of Britain and to reap the benefits and advantages of that secure position. There could be no possible doubt that if some great disaster happened to Britain, there could be no hope or future for any of the other members of the Commonwealth and it was, therefore, in the supreme interests of every one of them, as well as in the interests of the whole, and of Britain herself, that the component parts of the Commonwealth should stand firmly and solidly together. As he had said, Australia was in complete agreement with Britain's foreign policy and he only ventured to express the hope that it might be possible for something to be done on the lines which General Hertzog had suggested.

[FA : IMP. CONF. 1937, MEETINGS]