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47 Letter from Bruce to Spender

London, 4 April 1950


I am venturing to write you a line with regard to the follow-up Conference on your proposals at Colombo for economic aid to South East Asia.

I was most interested in your proposals and delighted that you had taken the initiative. From the newspaper reports, however, I was a little apprehensive that in framing them you had not been kept fully posted as to what is happening in the realm of the United Nations and its Specialised Agencies as a follow-up to President Truman's Point IV in his Inaugural Address.2 Subsequently I have discovered that the press reports gave a somewhat false impression and that you had these International activities more in your mind than I had imagined from them. I feel, however, that with your many preoccupations you may not have got the whole position as clearly in your mind as it is desirable that you should have.

Following on President Truman's pronouncement, in which he stressed the desirability of action being on an International rather than a bilateral basis, the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations took for it somewhat expeditious action. The representatives of all the Specialised Agencies were brought together and as a result of their deliberations a quite good paper on the whole situation was prepared. The individual Specialised Agencies also got busy and prepared detailed proposals which were submitted to a meeting of the Economic and Social Council. At this meeting the Economic and Social Council approved the proposals and agreed to a percentage allocation of any funds that might be forthcoming, the percentage of the organisation with which I am primarily concerned–the Food and Agricultural Organisation–being the highest.

Since the allocation was made, the F.A.O. has got on with the job and will have to submit a report to the meeting of the Council, at which as the independent Chairman I will preside, in May next. I am enclosing herewith a copy of the draft report which the organisation is now preparing for the Council.3 I think you will find this interesting as it sets out some of the problems and difficulties that have to be faced. I would ask you to treat this draft report as confidential. Australia, as a member of the Council, will be receiving the report prior to the meeting in May but as it may be somewhat revised before the final draft is reached you must treat what I am sending as only tentative.

I am also venturing to inflict upon you some observations I made in the House of Lords last week.4 I regret to have to admit that I am not very attentive to my Parliamentary duties and it was only on the day that the Motion with regard to the Colombo Conference was to be discussed that I discovered it was on the notice paper. As I had a fairly full day I had to make my observations on the basis of what is described as 'off the cuff'. Consequently they are somewhat scrappy but they at least give an idea of the preoccupations that are in my mind.

What I feel is that your follow-up meeting in Australia can be quite invaluable if at it you can get agreement between the British nations as to the lines which technical assistance should follow. If you can get such agreement and all the Governments concerned would pursue the matter actively at the meetings of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations and of the Specialised Agencies, there is a possibility that we really may get somewhere. I am doing all I can with the U.K. Government to stress the importance of this question of economic assistance to South East Asia, particularly with the two new Ministers in key positions–Gordon-Walker at Commonwealth Relations and Maurice Webb5 at the Ministry of Food.

As I said in my observations in the House of Lords, the fundamental to getting anywhere is that law, order and security should be established. Britain, even so far as British Possessions is concerned, cannot do this alone. Britain, the Commonwealth and the U.S.A. united could effectively deal with the problem. I believe Australia can give a great lead towards bringing this about and I hope she will afford it.

I am sending a copy of this letter and the enclosures to the Prime Minister and Dick Casey. It is anything but satisfactory to deal with these important matters by correspondence and I very much hope in the not too distant future we will have an opportunity of discussing them personally.

With kind regards and all good wishes to you in your difficult job.6



[Viscount Addison7]

It is true that we had no particular affection for that system of government, any more than the noble Lord had; but that has never been a reason for not recognising other Governments. I can well remember–as no doubt the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, can–the cries that were raised a long time ago about the recognition of the Sultan of Turkey. We recognised the Sultan of Turkey and we had dealings with him. We did not like it, but we did it. And we have had dealings, as people who recognise realities, with Governments in Moscow and other places. It is not the colour of the Government concerned which is in question; it is entirely a matter of considering British interests. So far as Canada is concerned, she did not us to with-hold recognition. We know that Canada wishes to delay recognition for good reasons; but Canada never raised any objection at Colombo to our action, and she quite appreciated that we had acted as we did for the purpose of safeguarding British interests.

I was very much struck with one of the noble Lord's plaintive thrusts. He said that all these troubles were due to Socialist policy in this country. Well, my Lords, why in the world did Lord Milverton8 ever join the Socialist Party? Has he discovered since the days when he sat on this side that all the troubles and hunger and misery in South-East Asia existed because of the wicked men who occupied these Benches? These are old, old miseries, I am sorry to say, going back for generations–almost for centuries. But it was quaint, having regard to the permutations of the noble Lord in political affinities, that he should put down these troubles to Socialist policy, which he says is a threat to the prosperity of these areas. I do not agree with him in the least. There are many causes for the misery of those areas other than the Government of the United Kingdom. These miseries have not begun since 1946, when the noble Lord professed his adherence to the Socialist Party. He may derive some consolation from these aspersions on his former colleagues and, if so, he is welcome to it, so far as I am concerned; but they leave me completely unconvinced.

7.40 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure we all owe a great debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Milverton, for having raised this subject. It is almost tragic that this question should have come up at so late an hour that Lord Milverton should feel it necessary to cut down his observations. I am convinced that the questions that have been raised to-day and touched upon briefly are questions that well merit the fullest discussion in your Lordships' House at a convenient hour when full expressions of opinion could be given. I venture to suggest that the time has arrived when it is very necessary that this matter should be considered and discussed in another place.

I have listened to what Lord Milverton said and to what the noble Viscount the Leader of the House has said; and I must say I have a deep feeling of regret. I have listened to many speeches from Lord Addison. They have been dignified and completely fair. But the speech he made this evening struck me as being in tone and method of expression not of the standard which I have observed in my short time here is usually maintained in your Lordships' House. The speech had a sort of peevish ring which, on an issue of the transcendent importance of this one, seems to me to be extremely unfortunate.

As the hour is late I will not detain your Lordships for long, but there are one or two remarks I wish to make. Lord Milverton's main point, as I understood it, was that peace, law and order and an established Government in these countries are essential before there can be any hope of success in economic endeavours to raise the standard of living of these unfortunate people. To-day, when we all clearly appreciate that South-East Asia is one of the great danger spots of the world, we recognise that these things are essential. But I agree with Lord Milverton that this issue has not yet been faced. It seems to me it goes far beyond our activities�that is, the activities of the British Commonwealth: I believe that there should be discussions with the United States with the object of co-ordinating the responsibilities in that area between the British Commonwealth and the United States, and of determining what action we are prepared to take.

It may be that the decision would be that the British Commonwealth in its present position has all it can do to handle the situation in the British Possessions in that area. Take the case of Malaya. We have had a Conference at Colombo, and Lord Milverton has said that there might have been a little more leadership there. I am in complete and absolute agreement with him. On this issue of Malaya I most certainly think that the whole problem should have been faced boldly. Leadership should have come from the United Kingdom Government, who should have told all the British nations there that the situation in Malaya had to be drastically handled and that the burden was too great for Great Britain in her present circumstances to undertake. The other countries should have been asked whether they were prepared to come in. I have a strong conviction that my own country, Australia, would have been prepared to come in if the whole of the situation and its gravity had been sufficiently emphasised at the Colombo Conference, and if the leadership and action for which Lord Milverton pleaded had been in evidence.

I know I shall be told that discussion are now proceeding on all these matters and that the Government have full considered these problems. But I believe the present situation is very dangerous and that, as the noble Lord said, this is no longer a time for consultation but a time for specific action. I, at least, can plead, for I have had as much experience in regard to Commonwealth relations as probably anybody; and my conclusion over the years is that we have failed time and time again because we have never been bold enough. I am not making any charge against the present Government, but every United Kingdom Government have been just as afraid to tackle the Dominions, face them up with the issue and give them the direct leadership as to what action should be taken. 1 believe that in the past we could have done much better if the United Kingdom Government had done that. I am convinced that times are so serious to-day that it has got to be done.

In regard to the Colombo Conference, I slightly part company with the noble Lord who moved this Motion. It suffered from the same thing that every Imperial Conference, every meeting between the United Kingdom and the Dominions has suffered from for the last thirty years�there was nothing like enough drive and force behind it. But on this occasion, quite frankly, I think the Government had a much more delicate and difficult task. We now have three new Dominions in the Commonwealth�India, Pakistan and Ceylon. I am throwing no half-bricks at the general principle of the Government that they found that they could not do all the things they wanted to. But the Conference has done this. It has afforded the first opportunity of getting all these Governments together and trying to obtain some basis for co-operation in order to get somewhere.

The one particular point to which I want to address myself is the economic situation in South-East Asia. Up to a point I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Milverton, that the setting up of this Committee seems to be just another stage of 'Cannot we do something?' instead of considering what we are going to do. However, I have every hope that all that will be cured when the meeting takes place in Australia. I read the Press reports of what took place in Colombo. I thought: �Well, I suppose some of the gentlemen who went to the Colombo Conference have heard a few of the things that are going on in the world and with regard to economic aid and technical assistance,� but there was nothing in the Press which created any impression but that none of them had ever heard what was going on. Fortunately, I was able to get a little more information. I have had an opportunity of talking to both the former Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs and his successor. Of course, Mr. Noel- Baker was at Colombo, and the thinking was not quite so confused as I thought, but there is still the criticism that they did not know very much. One of the burdens of my complaint about a lot of these things is that, if you cross-examine the Ministers in His Majesty's Government here, and if you cross-examine the Ministers in His Majesty's Government in Australia, and ask what is the situation in regard to technical aid and exactly what has taken place, practically none of them can stand up to cross-examination for five minutes.

I am not throwing that out as an insult to the intelligence of Ministers. It is inevitable that Ministers are pre-occupied with their own particular tasks and cannot follow and be full informed about everything that is going on in the international field. I believe it would be well worth while if there were a Minister whose job was to keep in touch with everything of that sort and keep the Cabinet informed about it. It is true that Ministers go to various conferences. At my Food Agriculture Conference we have had the Minister of Agriculture present. We have had Mr. Harold Wilson, the President of the Board of Trade. They drop in for a number of days, but they are pre-occupied with other things. Mr. Harold Wilson is very pre-occupied with his great problems in the film industry. There is no getting to grips with these things. That is the cause of many of the troubles.

At the risk of detaining your Lordships for a few minutes, I want to say this with regard to this position of technical aid, because it links up completely with these instructions to this consultative committee as to what they have to do. Technical aid, of course, has made terrific strides since President Truman enunciated in his inaugural address his fourth point. It was followed up by action by the Economic and Social Council. All the specialised agencies of the United Nations were brought together and formed into a committee. Each of the agencies was asked to formulate not mere advice but specific plans involving what action it proposed to take, what expense in respect of each individual action would be involved, and the number of specialists and technicians required to afford the technical aid.

I went over to Washington on the Food and Agriculture Organisation simply for the purpose of presiding over a committee of all the chairmen of the different expert committees drawn from every nation of the world. We went into the question of technicians, and we came to the conclusion that for the first set of plans it would be impossible to get them, but that if this first move�I will tell you the extent of it that is contemplated�was successful, there would be an insistent demand to follow it up. That follow-up would mean that there would not be available the technicians and people to supply the help and aid to the backward countries. The first step, therefore, was to approach all universities and technical bodies in all countries in order to encourage them to build up a reservoir of those people. The extent of the first years' proposal for which all the plans have been prepared is 20,000,000 dollars. That may seem very moderate, but in the case of my Food and Agriculture Organisation it means exactly doubling our annual income. We have an income of 5,000,000 dollars, which is a scandal; but that cannot be helped. We shall have to make all our plans to go ahead with it.

This work is all being done on the basis of regions, and all the countries in the regions are being brought together. All countries in South-East Asia are already meeting together on agriculture and food production. The whole scheme is in train. I believe that a reasonable amount of money is assured because, while Congress is being very coy in getting to the point of taking action at President Truman's request, I am assured from America that there is not a shadow of doubt that they will carry it on. The whole project ought to be launched by this July.

If these representatives are going to meet in Canberra, it is perfectly wild and absurd that they aim to go off on a leg of their own. What the Canberra Conference will be doing is to recognise the fact that aid to these backward nations, whether it comes from the United States or from some of the richer countries of the British Commonwealth, will not help us to get any distance along that path�for the simple reason that all those backward countries are terrified of the Great Power domination. Underneath it is a revolt against the Colonial system. The action has got to be taken through the United Nations and its agencies. President Truman stressed that point when he made his proposal in his inaugural Address. The matter is all in train to be done on the best basis possible. But where I think these conferences can do something is by getting all the Commonwealth nations at least to understand the position. I do not want to be offensive, but I am absolutely certain that they do not know how far all these things have gone. For my sins, I have had to live with this particular problem. Because of my particular job, I have had to know it backwards, but I should be amazed if any Minister really knew it, because it is something outside his ordinary sphere.

I believe that at Canberra they will wake up to what the problem means, and if we can get a concerted policy by all the Commonwealth nations coming in to reinforce the action that is being taken�everybody seeing eye to eye on what is the best way to tackle this question�we shall obtain the co-operation of the United States of America, and they will be prepared to render aid to the 'nth' degree. Then, instead of being a number of vague gentlemen who obviously have no instructions from their Government and do not know what line they ought to take, there will be people present who really know the subject; and if we get all the British nations in line on this problem of economic aid; and America is also in the picture, there is every hope that success may be achieved.

My final word is this. The Colombo Conference is regarded as something good, and I share this view, because it has brought all these nations together, including the new Dominions. There are thousands of questions about which you can squabble and brawl to your heart's content at these meetings, but this is one subject upon which you will get complete agreement and co-operation. I have had the people of India, of Pakistan and Ceylon at my meetings at the United Nations organisation. They play a most active part. There is one point there upon which I have not the time to dwell�namely, the fourth point in the instructions to the Conference at Canberra about commodity agreements, which should support prices and give some reasonable basis to the farmer. At the present time there is a committee sitting on that particular subject. It was appointed at a moment when we had grown a little tired of international committees which were set up to shelve such matters. The Government of the United Kingdom gave its full assent and they and the United States Government said that there had to be an answer. With a view to trying to arrive at a solution to the problem, it was decided to appoint a full-time working chairman for that committee, and the gentleman appointed is an Indian, Mr. Abbay Ankir.9 I stress that point, because I believe that if we get the whole Commonwealth working together on this economic question, we can make great strides towards the solution of the problem and, at the same time, make an invaluable contribution towards laying the foundations for real Commonwealth co-operation.

[NAA: A 1838, 708/9/2 part 2]

1 Viscount Bruce of Melbourne, formerly Australian Prime Minister and High Commissioner in the United Kingdom.

2 See Truman's inaugural address delivered on 20 January 1949 in Department of State Bulletin, Vol. XX, pp. 123-26.

3 Not published

4 Not published.

5 Maurice Webb, UK Minister of Food.

6 In a reply of 19 April, Spender wrote that: 'The Government has some reservations about the activities of international organisations, and, in future, Australia will seek to reduce the large number of unnecessary conferences and studies which make great demands on our staff and resources; but, at the same time, we are proposing to make a voluntary contribution towards the extension of the technical assistance work of these organisations which we agree has great promise for areas such as South and South-East Asia ... In our opinion, however, there is room for bilateral programmes of technical assistance in the countries which are of particular political and economic concern to the British Commonwealth. We cannot rely alone upon the share of the programmes which might be allocated to these countries by international organisations, but we recognise the desirability of a close co-ordination of effort'.

6 Viscount Christopher Addison, Leader of the House of Lords.

6 Baron Arthur Frederick Richards Milverton.

6 Not identified.

Last Updated: 10 January 2017
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