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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

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

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

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

[AA: A1838/283, TS899/6]
Last Updated: 11 September 2013
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