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The Right Honourable Sir Francis H. D. Bell, P.C., G.C.M.G., K.C.,: His Life and Times

Chapter XXVII. — Some Empire Problems and the League of Nations, 1926

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Chapter XXVII.
Some Empire Problems and the League of Nations, 1926.

Bell's work in London—The Hague Tribunal—Bell at Geneva—He opposes Dominion representation on the Council—He attends Imperial Conference—The Statute of Westminster.


On Christmas Day, 1925, Bell wrote to his brother, Arthur:

"I go to represent New Zealand at Geneva, but shall take the Derby and Ascot en route as part of my official duties. I leave the Cabinet in January and discard all offices, but remain a member of the Executive Council until Geneva is over. They tell me I shall be a Right Honourable P.C. on January 1, but that rests with the King still. But I shall be seventy-five in March and am sacrilegiously defying the Psalmist in all my programme—the end must not be far off for me and not greatly further for all the brethren. Linquenda tellus et domus et placens uxor. (Earth and home and well loved wife must be left for ever—Horace) and no trees except the invisas cupressos (the hateful cypress)."

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When he reached London early in the year he was soon. hard at work, as a few extracts from letters will show:

London, May 3, 1926,

"Dear Prime Minister,—We arrived here on 28th April, and ever since I have been very deep in engagements of all kinds. The Colonial Office have not given me much trouble so far, but I have had to meet one of the Assistant-Secretaries once or twice. I have an appointment to meet Amery to-morrow, but expect to have that interview postponed by reason of the constant meetings of Cabinet over the strike …."

He considered that attendance at a Passport Conference at Geneva was unnecessary, as the British delegate could represent New Zealand:

"As a fact we have always acted in exact accordance with Great Britain in the matter of passports, adding however always our insistence that our immigration restriction laws are not in the least affected by either the grant or the vise of a foreign passport on our behalf … I do not anticipate that we shall have to go to Geneva until the end of August, but in the meantime it is evident that I shall have numerous attendances at the Colonial Office and the Foreign Office, and conferences with the representatives of the other Dominions and the British delegates.

"The real difficulty I have is in persuading the Colonial Office that I am no longer Attorney-General, and in insisting that they shall not draw me page 253into consultations on any other matters than the League (as they did in 1922)."

On May 28 he wrote:

"There is something every day requiring attention. Allen sends a lot of stuff to me from time to time, and I think I am able to help him. I refuse to go to the meetings of the Parliamentary Union consisting of a number of delegates of foreign Parliaments with the British. I did give an address on the New Zealand Pacific Islands at the Empire Parliamentary Union, and was careful to give no opinion on any point, but merely to state facts. I have the strongest objection to members of Parliament, especially Ministers other than the Prime Minister, talking as if they knew what their Dominions sought or wanted. X does it right and left, and, in my opinion, is really mischievous, as people here take him seriously."


In September, at the request of the Foreign Office and the Colonial Office he attended at Geneva the conference relating to the International Court of Justice at the Hague. This was not a meeting of the Assembly of the League, but a separate conference of those powers which had become signatories to the Protocol, constituting a great Court of International Justice. Bell was appointed a Vice-President of the Conference, and also a member of the drafting Committee.

At this Conference an interesting difficulty arose owing to the attitude of the United States on the question of reservations. Under the Protocol, any nation could make reservation of any matter which it refused page 254to submit to the jurisdiction of the Court. For example, Britain had made reservations as to belligerent rights at sea. Although the United States of America was not a League member, she wished to assist in setting up the International Court of Justice. At the same time her Senate desired to make five reservations, of which the only one that gave rise to any difficulty was that which stipulated that the Court should not entertain, without the consent of America, any request for an advisory opinion on a dispute in which she was interested. Strong objection was raised by the other powers, as the effect of this would be to place America in a higher position than themselves.

Bell took a leading part in the effort to get over this difficulty, and he suggested that it could be solved by all the other powers reserving for themselves the same privilege as America desired to retain:

"The question of the conditions under which the United States has proposed to accept the jurisdiction of the Hague Court has been debated by the Conference ever since my arrival here, and a silly enough set of answers has been proposed, and I think will be accepted to-morrow … The reply to the fifth reservation is a mass of meaningless words, and I publicly wash my hands of all responsibility."

The proposal fell through on this point of difference, and at a later date in the New Zealand Parliament Bell said:

"I was sorry to differ on that point from the Rt. Hon. Sir Cecil Hurst, who is really a great jurist, and from others too, who were far better able to determine questions of jurisprudence than myself, page 255but who I think are not better able than myself to measure the importance of giving way to the United States, and having for the first time a really powerful court of appeal to deal with matters affecting international relations."


But there was another reservation made by Britain and the Dominions to which Bell attached great importance. It provided that no dispute between Britain and one of the Dominions, or between two or more Dominions, should be subject to the Hague Court. In other words, disputes between the nations constituting the British Empire were to be regarded as domestic problems on which it was unnecessary and unwise to invite an outside tribunal to adjudicate. The only Dominion which refused to make that reservation was Ireland. But it was useless for Ireland to adopt this attitude unless some other part of the Empire did the same, for it did not lie in the power of Ireland to bring any other unit of the Empire before the Court.

"But the real danger," said Bell, "is that other Dominions, and perhaps even the Empire, may, in the idolatry of the League and of this high Court, cancel the reservation as has been done in respect of our belligerent rights. Then the rights of Great Britain and our rights will be determined not by the Legislatures of the Dominions of the Empire, and not even by His Majesty's Parliament at Westminster, but by a body of quite eminent foreigners who have no possible interest in the continuance of the Empire, and whose every interest is against its continuance."

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Bell next turned his attention to the meeting o£ the Assembly of the League.

"I am earning my pay," he wrote on September 9, "by listening to interminable orations, the irrelevance of which is only equalled by our New Zealand debates on the Address-in-reply.

"Yesterday we all voted to admit Germany, and gave her a permanent seat. The Assembly applauded, and the people are throwing up their hats and ready to receive the German delegates triumphantly tomorrow. For you and me the presence of Germany in the Assembly and on the Council means that our peaceful management of Samoa will be disturbed, and in all kinds of ways the mandates will be subjected to interference such as we have never yet experienced. I voted 'Yes' and meant 'No' on the question of the admission, but I suppose the world's peace must come before our comfort."

On September 22 he wrote:

"They are hurrying on this week the work in the Assembly, and in all the six committees and numerous sub-committees, some of which it is really necessary that I should attend. Except for a week-end at Lucerne, I have kept steadily at the business here since I arrived. The Mandates Commission is getting it in the neck from England, France, and Italy, and the other Dominions that have mandates. That has enabled me to keep quiet, and see my objects attained by the others. One phase of the Commission's proposed activities has been referred by the Council to page 257the several Governments of the mandatory powers for their observations, and each of us will therefore have the opportunity of putting in concise and courteous writing direct to the Council what we think of the mischievous extension of the Commission's authority.

"Germany's appearance in the Assembly and on the Committees has so far not been particularly obnoxious, but there, are indications that they mean to give trouble about mandated lands, and want most of them back."


One question which caused Bell grave alarm and misgivings was the claim by a Dominion for a seat on the Council of the League. He would have been surprised could he have foreseen that in 1937 New Zealand itself would have a seat on that Council. But the danger he foresaw still exists, and his warning is worth putting on record:

Bell to Coates, September 9,1926:

"There have been several meetings of the Empire delegates at the rooms of Sir Austen Chamberlain, who heads the British delegation, and at one of them I was surprised to find that the other Dominions are actually claiming that one seat on the Council of the League should be allotted to a Dominion. This has been raised by South Africa, and it seems to have the support of Canada, and Australia (through its Attorney-General) seems also to urge it. I kept silent except to point out that at the present time it would be out of place to put such a claim forward, page 258as the increase of the elected seats on the Council was in fact proposed by Lord Cecil, and therefore it would be open to suggestion that we had all conspired together to get a further opportunity of representation on the Council, and that view prevailed.

"But you can see at once the danger in prospect if the Assembly elected a representative of a Dominion to the Council. It might be the Irishmen from the Free State who would certainly oppose everything that the British representative proposed, or it might be the representative of a Labour Government in Australia, Canada, or New Zealand, and again there would be 'Buckley's' chance of any cooperation between the British representatives and the Dominion representative.

"Great Britain has a permanent seat as a great power, and at present has all the influence which the representative of a great Empire can exercise, but if there were another member of the Empire on the Council it would be hopeless. Any one member of the Council can veto any proposal, because every decision of the Council must be unanimous.

"I think you and Bruce could do something to postpone at all events any early attempt to procure a Dominion direct representation on the Council of the League. No Dominion could be elected to the Council unless the British Government exercised its vote in that direction in the Assembly, which chooses the States to be represented, and it is easy to see that the British Government could prevent the thing happening by abstaining from supporting it. But that would put the British Government always in the very page 259awkward position of having to argue at Geneva with the Dominion representatives against the view of the majority of those representatives. It is a much more serious question than appears at first sight, but I tell you of it as I have no doubt that the point will come up at the Imperial Conference for discussion."

After his return to New Zealand Bell recurred to this danger in several of his speeches in the New Zealand Parliament. He highly approved of the practice whereby delegations from the Dominions met by invitation in the rooms of His Majesty's delegation so that unanimity of action was arrived at:

"I speak of His Majesty's delegation because I detest the word British, and I am not allowed to use the word English."

But in his view it was quite inconsistent with the constitution of the League under which Britain has a permanent seat that one of the Dominions should be elected to the Council. If the Dominion representative agreed to a proposal, it added to the weight of Britain's vote. If it disagreed, it rendered Britain's vote ineffective.

These views will seem old-fashioned to those whose main idea is to make New Zealand appear bigger than she is. But as her pretensions are limited by her power, it must be admitted that her voice can carry only such weight as Britain is prepared to support, and that Bell's view is right if we place any value on Empire unity in foreign affairs. It is easy to talk and vote without responsibility, but it is dangerous to act without adequate power. As far back as 1923 Bell had said:

"I never asserted that New Zealand was entitled to a page 260voice in foreign affairs, other than as a very, very small fraction of that great Empire of which we are so proud to form a part. I never lifted my voice in that sense except within the delegations of the Empire, which were held in private, the voice of the Empire being delivered almost invariably by Lord Balfour."*

And in 1927:

"I wish to impress on the Legislative Council the great divorcement from all our ideas of unity of Empire, created by the claim that we can have a separate and distinct seat upon the Council of the League of Nations in addition to that permanent seat already granted to the Mother-country. I do not know that there has been any event in our constitutional progress more ominous than what happened at Geneva last year: The advent of a representative of the Dominions to a seat on the Council is dangerous beyond expression."

This warning lends interest to the following cable:

A message received on May 30, 1937, stated: All Geneva is discussing a strange scene involving Mr. Anthony Eden and Mr. W. J. Jordan (New Zealand High Commissioner with a seat on the League Council), who is reported to have intended to invoke Article 10 of the Covenant regarding Spain. While Mr. Eden's speech was being translated in French, Mr. Eden walked to Mr. Jordan and began pointing a pencil to certain passages in Mr. Jordan's speech… Mr. Jordan was seen making alterations and made an innocuous plea in favour of moves to secure page 261cessation of hostilities in Spain. Mr. Jordan denied the reports that Mr. Eden had blue-pencilled his speech. 'It is true that Mr. Eden and myself conferred regarding the speech I was about to make, but neither Mr. Eden's action nor mine was influenced thereby. We do desire if practicable to present similar cases at the League'."

A few days later the story of this alleged clash was repeated in more detail by Mr. Vernon Bartlett in the News Chronicle. The truth or otherwise of the story is not so important as Mr. Jordan's further reply:

"I am too jealous of the position of New Zealand in the League to submit it to the undue influence of any other delegate. New Zealand counts as one in the League as does the United Kingdom. It is absurd to suggest that I and other New Zealanders are offended by anything that Mr. Eden is said to have done."


While Bell was still at Geneva Lord Cecil wrote to him:

"It has been a great pleasure to me to work with you all and to receive from you and the other delegates of the Dominions your help and valuable counsel and support."

In the meantime Coates arranged with the British Government that he should join him in London as one of New Zealand's representatives at the Imperial Conference to be held in October. Probably nothing ever gave Bell greater pleasure, and he described it as a quite unexpected honour:

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"I hope I may be able." he wrote from Geneva, " to be of some use to you at the Conference, but all the speeches must be yours alone."

It will be remembered that this Conference was notable for many important resolutions affecting Empire relations, and for the famous Balfour formula which later on formed the basis for the Statute of Westminster. The New Zealand delegates were not in sympathy with the Balfour formula, but acquiesced in it for the sake of unanimity. It is well known, of course, that New Zealand has never adopted the Statute of Westminster. In 1931 Bell, in commenting to his brother in Melbourne on an incident in Australian politics, said:

"It is the outcome of the damned Statute of Westminster propaganda. You know I was a member of the Conference that adopted Balfour's formula, but I never agreed to it, and was not one of the select body of Prime Ministers who accepted it. Some even of them have since seen the danger to unity created by a declaration of equality of all members."

Speaking in Parliament in the same year, Bell said:

" Though I hope that the result of the Statute of Westminster may not be to facilitate dissolution of the Empire, I feel the very gravest doubt on that point, for every part of this Statute is against the view I have held during all my life. However, the Statute will not affect New Zealand until the Parliament of New Zealand determines to take up what is called full freedom, and I venture to express the hope that the Parliament of New Zealand will never page 263at any time seek to come under the charter that this Statute affords."

The New Zealand view was maintained by the Hon. T. K. Sidey at the Imperial Conference of 1930, and Bell congratulated him on advising the provision which has the effect of declaring that New Zealand is not one of the Dominions that seeks to hold power or right beyond her territorial limits, or to enter into relations with foreign powers except through ambassadors of His Majesty.

* Hansard, Vol. 199, p. 31.