34 Minutes of Tenth Meeting of Principal Delegates to Imperial Conference

E (PD) (37) 10 (extract) LONDON, 1 June 1937

MR LYONS thought at the moment by far the most important question was that of the world international situation and the vital necessity for appeasement among nations if civilization was to be preserved. The very full and highly confidential information which had been placed at their disposal by the Government of the United Kingdom made it unnecessary for him to attempt to construct a picture of the present international situation. No one who had read the documents placed before them or who had heard the statements on the subject by Mr Eden [1], Sir Thomas Inskip [2], Mr Runciman [3] and other British Ministers could be under any delusion as to the extreme gravity and danger of the position. He, Mr Lyons, wished to repeat with all the emphasis he could that it was the duty of those assembled at this Imperial Conference, in the interests of the separate parts of the Empire, in the interests of the Empire as a whole, and in the interests of the world at large, to accept wholeheartedly and loyally the general principles in regard to national affairs which had been laid down and followed with so much courage, generosity, and wisdom by the United Kingdom Government, to support without qualification the declarations on the subject which that Government had made, to stand solidly and firmly behind that Government and to co-operate in the fullest possible measure with the efforts of that Government to secure world appeasement and peace. He would like to feel that the other Dominions and India shared to the full the view of the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia that the policies of the United Kingdom Government and of Mr Eden, the spokesman of that Government, in matters of foreign affairs commanded the most complete confidence and approbation. He was sure that this was so in regard to public opinion in Australia and he was confident that it was equally so of the great bulk of public opinion throughout the Empire. On these grounds he hoped that this Imperial Conference would be able to strengthen that courageous and far-sighted lead which the United Kingdom had given to the world. It was impossible to deny that it was Britain, and Britain alone, which had by her example and her efforts preserved the peace and enabled prosperity and confidence to revive. Nothing was so likely to impress public opinion throughout the world as the knowledge that the whole Empire stood solidly behind the policies of Britain in this matter and that the declaration was a declaration of the Empire as a whole. It would enormously strengthen Britain if it was made clear beyond misunderstanding that there was no division of any sort within the Empire ranks.

Australia's feeling of friendship for other countries was not one based on the exclusion of one or two countries, but was one which embraced every country. Two years ago he had listened with great sympathy to an earnest appeal which General Hertzog had made for more sympathetic treatment and understanding of Germany and her difficulties. At that time the representatives of the United Kingdom had been able to indicate certain cogent reasons which then militated against closer relations between Germany and the British Commonwealth. The position in this respect was perhaps not so difficult to-day as it had been two years ago. Might not much the same thing happen in regard to Italy and might it not be possible in a comparatively short time for the old traditional friendship between Italy and the British Empire to be re- established. He had recently seen Signor Mussolini who had told him that there was every possible reason why Italy should be friendly with Great Britain. If the relations between the two countries were strained, Italy could not possibly develop her homeland much less her overseas empire. Signor Mussolini had asked him to inform Great Britain that he wanted peace, and wished to live on the most friendly terms with Britain in the true interests of Italy itself. [4] The objective, therefore, should be friendship with all. If the Conference was to separate without some declaration of unity and support of Great Britain, it would inevitably be said that on this vital and fundamental matter the Empire was divided. If such a declaration could be made, nothing was more calculated to promote peace. On the other hand, if such a declaration could not be made, nothing would be more calculated to bring nearer the breakdown of International relations and the outbreak of war. He would like to see all the Dominions co- operating with Great Britain to the same extent and on the same lines as Australia was prepared to do. The main thing was to inform the world that the whole Empire stood firmly with Britain and believed implicitly in her policies. He had not prepared any draft resolution, but if the attitude he had indicated could be generally accepted, there should be little difficulty in preparing a definite declaration.

In conclusion, he felt bound to say that if it was not found possible for the Conference to adopt a declaration such as he had indicated, he should return to Australia a thoroughly disillusioned man and he could not too strongly emphasise the consideration that any declaration passed by the Conference should be based on the principle of maintaining absolute friendship with all the nations of the world.

MR MACKENZIE KING reminded the Principal Delegates that in 1926 it had been found better for good and adequate reasons to have informal conferences on any resolution before presenting the Conference with a formal declaration which, if not worded to the satisfaction of au, might raise difficulties of many kinds. He entirely agreed with Mr Lyons in the desirability of the Commonwealth presenting a united front, but he was satisfied that it would be very much better to examine and discuss the whole question in advance rather than to attempt in the first instance to agree on the text of some abstract resolution.

MR SAVAGE thought that the suggestion formulated by Mr Lyons was a good one, provided that it had regard to realities and was not concerned merely with the sentimental aspects of the matter. In his view the declaration should indicate what was wrong with the world and what ought to be done to remedy the existing state of affairs. Then each of them could return to his own country and take steps to implement the agreement reached at the Conference.

He thought that if a few of the Delegates could meet together, the drafting of a declaration on the lines indicated by him should not present serious difficulty.

GENERAL HERTZOG said that he always felt shy about resolutions, particularly if they were concerned with abstract conceptions. In 1926 it had been found very difficult indeed to reach agreement on a resolution of this kind. But in many respects the position to- day was much more serious and critical than it had been in 1926;

the whole world was on edge and he feared that any resolution on the lines suggested by Mr Lyons would be regarded by the countries outside the British Commonwealth as a challenge to them. It would be interpreted as dissatisfaction on the part of the Commonwealth with the position in the rest of the world and as a first step towards remedying the supposed evils in ways which the Commonwealth might favour, but which the rest of the world might strongly deprecate. We must be very careful indeed in any action we took in this matter. He firmly believed that the British Commonwealth was in a position to influence world policy to a far greater extent than any other individual nation or indeed than the League of Nations itself.

It was for this among other reasons that he attached so great importance to the conclusion of a United Kingdom-United States Trade Agreement. It was on these lines that we ought to proceed.

Let us make every effort to secure the fullest measure of American co-operation and other countries would then be only too anxious to join in so powerful a co-operative union. Such a policy would in his view be very much more effective than any abstract resolution adopted by the Conference which might have very embarrassing consequences and highly troublesome reactions.

MR MACKENZIE KING said that he yielded to nobody in the importance he attached to maintaining a united front. If, however, some resolution were to be passed at the Imperial Conference which would afterwards become the subject of heated debate in the Dominion Parliaments, that would be the course of events most likely of all to impair that united front.

There was always, of course, the method of avoiding these dangers by producing a completely anodyne resolution. The value of a resolution which would contain nothing but platitudes was doubtful.

They should always bear in mind that discussion in an Imperial Conference was not the same thing as discussion in a Cabinet. The former kind of discussion aimed only at coordinating various policies.

MR LYONS entirely agreed with Mr Mackenzie King regarding the dangers of an Imperial Conference resolution, but this would not apply to the kind of declaration which he (Mr Lyons) had in mind.

He would be the last willingly to infringe the liberties of the Dominion Parliaments.

It ought not to be impossible, however, for some lead to come out of the Conference which would be acceptable to them all.

He was afraid that his position had been greatly misunderstood by General Hertzog. He had never suggested the formulation of a threat. On the contrary he had suggested that they should declare their desire for peace towards all the peoples of the world, excluding none. How could it be possible to regard that as a threat? He knew that all those present were equally desirous of peace and it ought not to be impossible to produce an agreed form of words.

Probably this could best be done by a discussion with smaller numbers present.

MR CHAMBERLAIN said that it seemed to him that all the Delegations were very much in accord in their attitude towards the international position at the present moment.

They were all desirous of peace. There were various ways in which that desire could be expressed. The question raised by Mr Lyons was whether the Conference could not help in the establishment and maintenance of peace by giving some joint public expression to their desires.

It would certainly be a very impressive thing if it could be shown that this assembly of great self-governing countries was at one in its views on international questions.

Was it possible then to find words to express what they wished to say and to avoid saying what they did not wish to say? They would also, as Mr Mackenzie King had pointed out, have to avoid the opposite dangers of too great precision and too great vagueness.

The United Kingdom Delegation would very gladly try their hands at a draft, if the Meeting was willing, and would send copies of that draft in the first place to individual Dominion Delegates. When these had had time to consider the draft, it might be examined by a small meeting.

If this procedure were adopted, the Conference would remain completely uncommitted by the present morning's proceedings.

MR MACKENZIE KING said that he entirely agreed. He had no objection whatever to informing the world in a suitable way of their unity of thought in international affairs. His previous fears had been lest divisions of opinion should be disclosed.

GENERAL HERTZOG said that he also was willing to agree to Mr Chamberlain's suggestion.

MR LYONS also agreed.

MR SAVAGE thought that it would be very useful to give a public indication of the aspects of foreign affairs on which the Conference was united. If no indication were given, awkward questions might be asked.

MR EDEN thought that the difficulties of drafting an expression of unity of thought on international questions ought not to be exaggerated. They were not going to challenge the world, but only to attempt to give it a lead.

The Meeting approved Mr Chamberlain's suggestion that the United Kingdom Delegation should circulate a draft to individual Dominion Delegates.

1 U.K. Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.

2 U.K. Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence.

3 Walter Runciman, U.K. President of the Board of Trade.

4 No other documentation of the Lyons-Mussolini discussions has been found.

[FA : IMP. CONF. 1937, MEETINGS]