THERE has been a great stirring of minds on the subject of the British Commonwealth and Empire. Its name; its structure; its internal rights and duties; its means of family consultation; its place in the world -- all are in debate.

In the nature of things, uniformity of ideas about it would be unlikely. For example, there are no real racial difficulties in the relations of an Australian or a New Zealander, either with his fellow citizens or with the land from which his grandparents came. He has no difficulty in understanding the institutions of the home land which are also his own. He rejoices in being British, and has a respectful but affectionate and almost proprietorial interest in the Crown which makes a common "subjecthood" a matter not of subordination but of pride. But in this matter a Canadian has great difficulties to face. There are marked differences of race and tradition between the major groups of inhabitants of the major provinces, and there is in the immediate proximity a powerful United States which must exercise an influence upon many matters, including the psychological problems of national security. These and other factors have inevitably encouraged the growth of a conception of local and special Canadian nationality which differs very clearly from that to which we Australians are accustomed. Again, the problems of the Union of South Africa are in a sense known to and understood by students, but can be fully appreciated only by those on the spot. Eire also chronically produces problems; we who look on from a distance are sometimes tempted to be impatient about them, forgetting, as men commonly do, that distant difficulties always falsely seem capable of relatively easy solution. The new Indian Dominions have, in their accession to independent self-governing nationhood, brought with them a host of new questions as well as what all hope will be an increasingly strong and fruitful partnership in world affairs.

This curt and inadequate summary need not be elaborated; but its elements must constantly be borne in mind if we are to make a reasonably objective approach to the total problem of the British Commonwealth association. For these immense and inescapable differences of approach have meant that nothing is static. A process of adjustment and accommodation constantly goes on. It is not, and cannot be, a dry academic process. It proceeds from practical and human impulses, and does not lend itself to that deductive application of broad theories to particular facts which is so popular among younger nations and peoples but which is so opposed to the "step by step" inductive method which has been the characteristic contribution made by British genius to the solution of constitutional problems.

In the result, we are moving from one formula to another, whether we like it or not. My purpose is not to attack this process as such (though I have a fear and distrust of formulae), but to point out that the time has come when we should ask ourselves in what direction we are travelling. As we take one step after another, we should know in broad terms our route and destination. Will the present search for an all-embracing formula which will place an Irish Republic or an Indian Republic inside a Commonwealth which up to now has been bound together, both legally and sentimentally, by a common allegiance to the British Crown, weaken or strengthen the Commonwealth? Is it necessary? Is it inevitable?

The more I have thought about it, the more convinced I have become that we must now, once and for all, decide whether the British Commonwealth is to remain as an organic structure in which there must be some permanent binding element which preserves unity, or whether it is to broaden out into a merely functional association, an alliance between otherwise separate and independent nations. The difference between these two courses is not verbal, and cannot be eliminated by mere drafting ingenuity. It is profound. It goes right down into the hearts and instincts of British people all over the world. Are we to be one family under one head, the King, or are we to be a business (and perhaps defensive) partnership with no more guarantee of permanence than any other such association has had in the past?

I state my own faith at once. Alliance is not enough. Organic union under the Crown is vital if we are to play our full part in the world and its vexed affairs. This notion does not exclude other and most friendly associations and agreements. It would even permit associate, as distinct from full, Commonwealth membership. But it gives expression to the belief that British unity under the Crown will be destroyed if and when we accept a new formula under which we are not to be British, our nations are not to be united organically, and the Crown is no longer to be significant except to some members in some places.


One of the many disadvantages of a formula is that while it is originally hailed as an expression of agreement it all too easily becomes a cause of disagreement. The words come to be regarded as legal, as terms of art; problems of interpretation arise. Every lawyer knows that a contract is frequently the beginning of a dispute, and not its end. Sometimes, as in the case of the Balfour formula of 1926, some phrases are remembered and applied, while others are forgotten. This process has had a significant effect upon current discussion of Commonwealth relations. The words of the formula used in describing the Dominions were: "They are autonomous communities within the British Empire, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs though united by a common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations."

In the years since 1926, and especially in the last few years, all the emphasis seems to have been placed on the expressions "autonomous," "in no way subordinate one to another," and "freely associated." These have been treated as connoting a voluntary partnership of quite independent nations, and have therefore given rise to the growing conception of the Commonwealth as a mere functional association. But this does no justice to the formula as a whole. In it separate autonomy is limited or conditioned by the significant words "within the British Empire," "common allegiance to the Crown," and "British Commonwealth of Nations." It was by the intermingling of all these phrases that the Imperial Conference of 1926 sought to explain the new Dominion status. There was to be full legal power of self-government; but while that power was complete, it was to be exercised within the broad structure based on a common Kingship and allegiance, on such a coördination of policies as would preserve the British Empire as an entity, and on the use of the word "British" as a compendious description of the whole. Such a complex of ideas is difficult to state or explain; but with practical good sense British people felt that it would work. "Does it work?" is still the instinctive test applied to every British political arrangement.

The importance of the common Crown as the nexus between the self-governing nations of the British Commonwealth should be reëmphasized. Among other things, it points to the real need of a broad common foreign policy. For if the words "in no way subordinate" are treated as unqualified, clearly each British nation may, if it chooses, adopt policies and enter into obligations so diverse and indeed inconsistent that intra-Empire conflict may be provoked. If the great issues of peace and war are to be dealt with as if the Commonwealth relation involved no common obligations and connoted no unity of action, the Kingship is in clear danger of destruction. The King makes war as the head of the state. He cannot be at peace and at war with the same Power at the same time, unless the truth is that he is the several head of several states, in which case there is no common allegiance to the Crown at all.

It is frequently said, of course, that the proposition that our independence is qualified in the way I have described is mere "colonialism," and is intolerable to progressive Dominion thought. My reply is that the notion of an unqualified autonomy is mere obscurantism. The world has moved through many shifts and dangers in our lifetimes. We have learned and forgotten many lessons. But we cannot, at our peril, forget that no man liveth alone, and no nation can dwell in isolation. Independence is always dependent on somebody else's independence, so that in the result we see that independence is interdependence. For British people, this means that our autonomy is not absolute; it is created and preserved by our common allegiance to one Crown, that is, by our family right to rely upon each other.

So much for our foreign affairs. The power of each Dominion to deal in its own way with its own domestic affairs has never, I believe, been questioned in my time. There were one or two vestigial remains of earlier doctrines, such as the limitation upon the right of a Dominion Parliament to make laws having extraterritorial operation, but these were later on usefully dealt with in the Statute of Westminster itself.

As I have just mentioned the Statute of Westminster, it may be not inappropriate to remind those who are seeking ways and means of making us British people monarchists and republicans at one and the same time that in the Statute, in 1931, the second recital repeats that "the Crown is the symbol of the free association of the members of the British Commonwealth of Nations, and . . . they are united by a common allegiance to the Crown."

In an age of clichés, I pause to remark that "a common allegiance to the Crown" means one allegiance, of one nature, to one Crown, and admits of no ambiguity.

I sum all this up by saying that if we are united yet equal in all things (as we are), it is because of our brotherhood. We are brothers because we are the children of the same father. The less political power the King has, the more significant becomes his function as the living expression of a bond which distinguishes the British Commonwealth and Empire from all other groupings of nations: a bond which marks it out as something vital, organic, unique.


In dealing with this problem I at once adopt the words of the Australian Minister for External Affairs, spoken in the Australian House of Representatives in 1943:

Australia cannot safely limit her interests even to the gigantic area of the Pacific. Twice Australia has taken a prominent part in a world war that commenced because of European questions. With Britain vitally involved, so at once were we. Our concern with Europe cannot be limited to the waging of wars. We must have some say in taking steps to prevent wars and in changing the conditions which are likely to cause wars. In short, we cannot contract out of Europe. The reason is plain. The center of the British Commonwealth and Empire is in Europe. From Europe have come all our immigrants. In peacetime much of our trade was with Europe. Our culture is European. European colonies are our neighbors in the Pacific and one of the three great powers of Continental Europe, the Soviet Union, is also a world power and will be a great force in the Pacific of tomorrow. Therefore the peace, order and good government of Europe are vital to us. We are greatly concerned in the European settlement of the future. . . . We are firmly of opinion that the time has passed when either the peace or prosperity of mankind can be regarded as divisible and one continent or one nation can be treated in isolation from another.

If we cannot contract out of Europe we certainly cannot contract out of the British Empire. For it is demonstrable that for good sober reasons of fact the British nations must achieve joint foreign policies if they are to remain firmly associated. It was during my own term of office as Prime Minister of Australia that we first established legations in the United States, Japan and China. The reason for such establishment was that Australia, to use my own words, had "primary responsibilities in the Pacific. "The same notion is inherent in a view recently expressed in this review [i] that because Australia is the nation most immediately interested in the Far East and the Western Pacific she should there be regarded as the spokesman of the whole Commonwealth. There is much force in this contention. But there is equally clearly a reciprocal proposition; that because Great Britain is the British nation most immediately interested in Europe she should there be the spokesman for all the rest of us.

But how can either Australia or Great Britain speak for the Commonwealth in such zones unless there has been a prior consultation designed and effective to produce one policy? A single spokesman cannot propound varying policies at the same time. Again we see that if the British nations are to have coherence in world affairs they must act jointly; this once more reminds us that the theoretical idea of utter individual autonomy may easily be pushed too far.

Is the present machinery of consultation adequate? This question has been so much debated that I hesitate to propound it once more. Yet it is of great importance. Constant contact through High Commissioners, a stream of outward and inward cables, occasional meetings of individual Ministers, and rare meetings between Prime Ministers, all these and other minor means exist. But I believe it is still true to say that great policies can be worked out in London, intimately affecting a Dominion, but either not really discussed with the Dominion concerned or discussed so late that critical comment or opposition by that Dominion would be embarrassing.

Proposals to establish an Empire Secretariat which could know of and fully consider all matters affecting British countries have been rejected. Thus, in 1946, a meeting of Prime Ministers in London mildly approved of the existing methods, but added: "While all are willing to consider and adopt practical proposals for developing the existing system it is agreed that the methods now practised are preferable to any rigid centralized machinery."

I have never shared the view of those who see in a London secretariat a subtle threat to Dominion independence. But, if the objection is to centralized machinery, why not set up decentralized machinery? There would be no difficulty in establishing a small but highly qualified and constantly informed Empire Secretariat in each Dominion's capital, containing representatives of each self-governing British country. At Canberra at present there is a nucleus of one, set up under the Australian-New Zealand Treaty. The existence of such a joint secretariat in each capital would provide not only a splendid means of pre-consultation but a fine demonstration of the organic nature of British unity. This suggestion is very much in line with those made by Mr. Paul McGuire in his recent book, "Experiment in World Order." He was good enough before writing this book to discuss his proposals on this matter with me, and they command my warm agreement. After all, consultation is designed to produce mutual understanding and a community of ideas leading to common policies and concerted action. If it is to do this it must occur before decisions are made or even half-made. Again, if consultation is to occur early enough to be effective, having regard to the state of flux in which human affairs exist it obviously must possess continuity. The work of collating and exchanging facts and ideas must therefore be done not merely ad hoc but with permanency.

In this necessarily brief sketch of some of the modern problems of British Commonwealth development it is perhaps appropriate to point out the much-forgotten truth that the internal relationships of the British Empire are not merely those between Dominion and mother country, but are also those between Dominion and Dominion. Because it is true that the relationships between Canberra and Pretoria and Ottawa and Wellington are of immense importance if the total Empire structure is to be soundly built, the case for a decentralized Empire Secretariat becomes overwhelmingly strong.

A point commonly ignored in discussions of this problem of British Commonwealth machinery is that a secretariat with its constant means of consultation would, whether centralized or decentralized, increase the authority of each Dominion and not derogate from it. It is one of the supreme advantages of the organic conception of the British Commonwealth that each of its constituent parts has in fact not one but three capacities:

(a) It has its own intrinsic capacity as an individual nation: the kind of capacity to which it would be reduced, not elevated, if the British Commonwealth and Empire were to be resolved into its constituent parts.

(b) It has its corporative capacity as a nation exercising, on the right facts and at the right time, influence over the policy of other nations in the Commonwealth.

(c) It has an added capacity and strength derived from the fact that the joint policy so influenced will attract the coöperation and, if necessary, the active support of those other nations.

In brief, proposals for a permanent organization of British Commonwealth coöperation, so far from involving some lessening of the autonomy of the Dominions, would in reality add immensely to their power and prestige.


There were those who thought that the organization of the United Nations at San Francisco would diminish the importance of the British Commonwealth and Empire. This view derived some color from the fact that the Dominions are members of the United Nations in their own right, and that some of them have gone to considerable lengths to prevent other people from thinking that the British countries have some unity of foreign policy.

There was also an early disposition to exaggerate the power of the United Nations to enforce settlements and restrain aggression. As time has gone on, however, considerably more realism is being shown in this regard. Most of those many millions of British and American people who support the general idea of the United Nations would, I think, be prepared to admit that, in view of the veto, the Security Council's power of enforcement is negligible; and that if strength is to be placed behind intelligent world sentiment and judgment with a view to restraining aggression, that strength must be produced by individual nations acting outside the Charter, or, in other words, acting as they would if there were no Security Council at all. After all, so long as the Security Council is impotent to deal with a Great Power (as it will be so long as that Great Power can frustrate a decision), so long will it be both unnecessary and improper for the Council to call upon member states to furnish large military forces. The military strength of the United Nations must be related to what the United Nations can lawfully do -- which is, as the matter now stands, very little in the field of action, though still perhaps a good deal in the field of debate.

All these considerations have, I think, led many people back to the truth that not only does the United Nations not render the British Empire obsolete, but that in reality all special and regional organizations of a pacific but realistic kind are of immense importance as giving solidity and strength to the international structure.

If the question were put: "Would the chances of preserving peace through the San Francisco Charter be increased if the British Empire were tomorrow completely liquidated?" there can be little doubt that the overwhelming majority of British citizens and a handsome majority of American citizens would answer "No." It is because of the growth of this realization that recent discussions about Western European Union and a North Atlantic Pact are seen to refer, not to something which represents the abandonment of the international ideal but, on the contrary, to something calculated to give it life.

There have, however, been two aspects of the Western European Union proposals which have excited confused comment and considerable misunderstanding. The first is the question of the relation between Western European Union and the British Commonwealth, Great Britain being in a sense a European country, and also the principal nation of the British Commonwealth. The second concerns the nature of Western European Union and, in particular, whether it should be a legally established de jure political federation of the same genus as that of the United States of America, or whether it should be based upon the idea of practical de facto coöperation through executive representatives upon such matters as development, trade, finance and defense.

These two problems are, in fact, closely related. If attempts are really going to be made to force or encourage a European federation of the strict legal kind, with Great Britain as a constituent state and therefore with some of the more important elements of British sovereignty merged in a new European sovereignty, the conflict between such an idea and the continuance of a British Commonwealth under a common Crown is at once quite obvious. But if what is being aimed at is that the European countries should learn to live together by a series of practical working arrangements made from time to time upon specific matters, then participation of Great Britain in such arrangements will be in no sense inconsistent with her membership and leadership of the British Commonwealth.

It is a mistake to suppose that the British countries have complete rigidity of mind about their mutual preferences or their internal coöperation. It can be assumed that Great Britain would enter into no European arrangements without the fullest consultation with and approval by her Dominions. This being so, her participation in a European pact would be all the more effective because it would bring with it such powerful outside backing and consent.

In the same way, participation by the United States in a North Atlantic Pact would not involve that loss of sovereignty which the federal system inevitably connotes. It would, on the contrary, strengthen the independence of each participating nation by providing real means for its protection.

In a recent visit to the United States I felt that in some quarters -- though not, so far as I could judge, in Washington itself -- the idea of a legal, political Federation of Europe had been greatly oversold. Nobody can reasonably expect that in a few days or a few years nations with different languages and histories and traditions and institutions, and with a long record of wars and disputes behind them, will agree not only to be friends but also to enter into new constitutional arrangements under which some of the greatest powers of government will pass from the control of their own people into the hands of a federal parliament in which they must be, in the nature of things, a permanent minority.

I believe that, viewed in practical coöperative terms, what we call Western European Union will be a good thing for Europe, and therefore a good thing for the British Empire and the United States. But over-zealous advocates of legalistic paper schemes do not forward the processes of unity. On the contrary, they tend to retard them by making inevitable unnecessary disappointments. They are putting on the roof before laying the foundations.


My conclusions may be quite shortly stated. If the British Commonwealth is to possess an organic character and structural strength, it must remain as a free union of nations whose people owe a common allegiance to a common Crown. Around that nucleus there is ample room for general or special arrangements with other nations (including the new republics) of a friendly and we hope enduring and mutually helpful kind. This means, if you like, a Crown Commonwealth within a broader and looser partnership or alliance. Side by side with both of these things there is ample scope for regional or other collective agreements such as Western European Union or the Atlantic Pact.

All these things fit into the pattern of practical and intelligent international organization for peace, because each of them will itself create an area of peace. In my opinion they represent a much more sensible and effective means of securing peace than more elaborate and universal schemes which, while they possess an admirable and valuable idealism, make the error of starting from the wrong end. The real foundations of peace are not to be laid by destroying the nature or fabric of old associations which have been valiant for peace for many years, or by preventing the formation of new associations which are based upon geographical neighborhood or a deep community of interest. The best assurance of world sanity is that there should be more and more friendly peoples who have learned or are learning to work together, and to whom aggression and offensive war are alike abominable.

[i] "Postwar Strains on the British Commonwealth," by Nicholas Mansergh, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, October 1948.

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  • ROBERT GORDON MENZIES, P.C., Prime Minister of Australia, 1939-41; now Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives; author of works on legal and constitutional problems
  • More By Robert Gordon Menzies