Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

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

Chapter XXVIII. — New Zealand and the Empire

page 264

Chapter XXVIII.
New Zealand and the Empire.

Proposed Imperial Council—Sir John Sinclair's viewsBell's objections—Lord Milner's letter—Problems of foreign policy.


Some attempt must now be made to summarize Bell's views on the best method for improving the machinery for co-operation and of securing unity of policy and action in Empire affairs. These views were expressed from time to time over a series of years, but for the sake of simplicity I have condensed them into a continuous narrative. In dealing with these problems Bell rendered a great service to New Zealand by his clear pronouncements on subjects which are too often obscured by vague rhetoric or exaggerated nationalism.

He did not fail to recognize our growing sense of nationhood due to the part played by New Zealand in the Great War, the Peace Conference, and the League of Nations; nor did he forget that our expanded responsibilities in the Pacific called for a broader out-look on world affairs.

But the strong wine of these great changes never went to his head—never led him to entertain an exaggerated opinion of New Zealand's place in world affairs or in page 265the Empire itself. He had a sure sense of the realities of the situation, and while he refrained from criticizing the aspirations and actions of larger Dominions, he exercised a strong and salutary influence in restraining New Zealand from adopting grandiose ideas of her new status.

We have seen in an earlier chapter that his best speeches were prompted by the efforts of the Hon. John MacGregor to promote various legal reforms. It was another legal member of the Council, Sir John Sinclair, who was the chief cause of Bell giving full expression to his views on certain aspects of our Imperial relations.

Sir John Sinclair was a keen student of Empire problems and had represented New Zealand on the Dominions Royal Commission which toured the Empire between 1912 and 1917. His speeches gave evidence of earnest thought and wide reading. His main contention as that the machinery for consultation and co-operation on matters of Empire and foreign policy was entirely inadequate, and he claimed that this had been admitted by Bonar Law, the British Prime Minister. In his view what was required was an Empire consultative body, formed broadly upon the lines of the War Cabinet, whose members would reside in London, and be available at any time to confer on problems of foreign policy. Pending the creation of such a body, Sir John Sinclair urged that we should have a resident Minister in London— "a Minister wise in Council, of wide experience, mature judgment, versed in the history of the diplomacy of nations." The duty of such a Minister would be to keep in close touch with foreign page 266policy, and enable us to avoid our past experience of " shock cablegrams" from England when a crisis threatened.


The reply made by Bell to these proposals was briefly as follows. He admitted that many Empire statesmen advocated the proposal to have a resident Minister for each Dominion in London.

" But a Minister," he said, " who would consent to leave New Zealand as a member of the Cabinet, and to reside in London, would, in the nature of things, not be a very prominent man in political life.

"It is certain that he would not have been away from the country for a year before he would be distrusted in the sense that he would have lost touch with matters that would be alive around us … It is certain that he would never venture to speak on behalf of his Dominion without reference to the Cabinet of his own country, or, if he did, he would speak without authority. I am confident that would be so, and that if he spoke inconsistently with the view of the subject taken by his Cabinet, he would be repudiated."

Bell then discussed the effect which the appointment of a Resident Minister would have on the prestige and dignity of the High Commissioner.

" The High Commissioner is in fact an Ambassador from one part of the Empire to the great capital of the Empire and to its Court. I do not see how his authority and dignity could be maintained … if there existed another person in London page 267with an authority and dignity equal or superior to his own.

" It is manifest that whosoever is sent to London dare not speak without reference to his Government here and that we already have in the person of the High Commissioner a representative who can be consulted, and who can, after reference to the Government, speak for it … There is nothing to be gained by appointing another person clothed with merely apparent authority, without real authority to speak for his Government."

For several successive years after the War this argument about a Resident Minister was renewed, but Bell did not waver in his contention that the High Commissioner was no longer merely a commercial agent, and could fulfil all the proposed duties of a Resident Minister.


Bell was equally opposed to the idea of an Empire Consultative Council. He believed that it would be less authoritative than the present system under which Prime Ministers meet and consult at Imperial Confererences. No representative of less standing than a Prime Minister could anticipate with authority what his country would probably agree to? or could carry back with him to his country the power of the Leader of the Legislature to ask for the ratification of what he had provisionally approved.

" If the Conference had legislative powers," said Bell, " if the resolutions of the Conference were binding upon the various parts of the Empire, then indeed the representative should have some mandate page 268from his constituency. But if the object is that the Prime Minister, even if convinced himself of the benefit of a broad course, should have the advantage of hearing and perhaps being persuaded of his error by those who hold contrary views, than the dictation of a mandate from the country which sends its Minister is wholly contrary to the object and intent of. that great gathering which the genius of our race has designed for preserving the unity of the Empire."

In many of his speeches he reiterated the view that the Imperial Conference is an illustration of the way in which

" the genius of our race has evolved and is evolving methods by which the several autonomous parts of our Empire may continue in union under a common Sovereign."


A new phase of the discussion arose in 1924 when Sir John Sinclair claimed that the Imperial Conference machinery had broken down. He pointed out that the resolutions of the Imperial Conference and Economic Conference of 1923 had failed of their effect, because of the defeat of the Baldwin Government, and its replacement by a Labour Government which refused to adopt the resolutions passed by these Conferences. He argued that if there had been in existence a continuous consultative body to form a nexus between successive Imperial Conferences, the breakdown might have been avoided. He quoted an opinion expressed by Massey before he set out to the 1923 Conference, to the eifect that they should keep in view and work for an Empire Council—able to give its whole time and attention to page 269affairs of Empire. He quoted also similar opinions expressed by Sir Robert Borden and Ramsay Macdonald.

These were certainly weighty authorities, but Bell flatly denied that the Imperial Conference had broken down. He drew exactly the opposite inference:

" Indeed, what has happened," he said, " is a proof of the value and meaning of an Imperial Conference, the meaning being that the Prime Ministers of the Empire meet and discuss matters of domestic interest to the Empire. Incidentally, but only incidentally, they discuss the attitude of the Empire as regards foreign powers. As to domestic affairs, they discuss matters which they think can be determined in such a way as will meet the approval of the respective Parliaments they lead. The Prime Ministers are the leaders of the dominant parties in their respective Parliaments. The deposition of the Prime Minister of Great Britain is only an instance of what must occasionally happen under that procedure, if but one of the Parliaments of the Empire will decline to ratify the agreements of the Governments, and in this case it was the most important Parliament that declined.

" The meeting of the Prime Ministers is the real Council of the Empire, but that its decisions must necessarily be subject to the approval and confirmation of the respective Parliaments is obvious, and that will be the case with every Conference. Unless we establish a Parliament representing all the various Dominions of the British Empire that will be able to pass laws for the Empire—a course which neither of page 270us advocates—then the alternative is an Imperial Council, followed by legislation throughout the Empire, because obviously law is required to bind and give effect to any agreement.

" No Council that human intelligence can devise could possibly be better than a Council of the Prime Ministers of the Empire. It is a true Imperial Council, and its past history shows how successful the genius of our race has been in devising that method for the Empire. To abandon all its recent proposals is not a proof that the method has broken down, but rather a proof of the essential meaning and effect of the method—that it is a meeting of statesmen to arrive at resolutions subject to the confirmation of their several nations.

" Let us suppose that an Imperial Conference had been in existence—a continuously existing body of men from each part of the Empire who are members of their respective Governments. Let us suppose that Mr. Baldwin had called them together in London and had said to them, ' We want to devise a method of Imperial trade. Let us discuss the matter among ourselves and you can then consult your Governments and see what they think and let us have an agreement,' That would have resulted in the identical agreements arrived at by the Prime Ministers, but the change of government in England would have nullified the agreement. There is no difference except that my honourable friend's council, or whatever it may be, is distinctly an inferior body both in standing and weight."

One more extract from a speech delivered in 1925 will suffice to show how persistently Bell held to his views:

page 271

" I once more desire to emphasize my dissent from any suggestion that there should be in London a conclave or cabal of ministers of second rank. It will not be of any use. It cannot be of any use…. I had the opportunity of discussing the whole question with the late Lord Milner, who was perfervid in his desire to have what he thought would be a Council of the Empire sitting in London, consisting of ministers from the various parts of the Empire, and forming a sort of Imperial Cabinet or at least a consultative body.

This reference to the views of Lord Milner will serve to introduce an extract from one of his letters.

Lord Milner to Bell, October 19, 1922:

" … With regard to our little controversy I may say that, so far from being annoyed from anything you said—for there was not a word at which any reasonable human being could take offence—I was very glad to be made to realize the difficulties which beset a pet scheme of mine from the Dominion end.

" Of the advantage of having a Minister, a member of the actual Dominion Executive of the day, who can do things, to deal with at this end, I have, from much experience, no doubt whatever. Of course the Prime Minister is best. But the Prime Minister can only be here at long intervals, hence the ' Imperial Cabinet,' which in its ideal form is a meeting of all the Prime Ministers, can only function satisfactorily on rare occasions. But crises in Imperial policy will not wait for its meetings. The British Government has in the interval to take page 272decisions on its own responsibility, with such consultation as may be possible by telegram through the Dominion representative on the spot.

" I have always found that, on such occasions, it has helped us greatly, if we had a member of the Dominion Government here, to deal with, rather than the High Commissioner.

" There are other reasons why I think it a very good reason to have a Dominion Government represented here, when not by the Prime Minister, then by one of his colleagues. But I quite realize that it is very difficult, especially in the case of the more distant Dominions, to supply such a representative, and failing this, I am all for making the best of the High Commissioner. As I said the other night, I feel it is for each Dominion to determine for itself how it will be represented.

" We may express an opinion as to what is best, and most helpful from our point of view. One Dominion may see its way to adopt the plan, which appears best to us, and another may not. In any case, whoever the Dominion representative here may be—Minister or High Commissioner—I think the more completely he is kept informed, trusted, and consulted by the British Government, the better.

Yours sincerely,


All these problems of the machinery of co-operation were fully discussed at the unofficial Conference on British Commonwealth Relations held at Toronto in 1933. Delegates were present from Great Britain, the Dominions, and India. Although Sir Francis Bell was page 273not present at this Conference it is interesting to observe that the views expressed largely coincided with what he had said nearly ten years before.


So far the discussion has turned on the question of the best machinery for Empire consultation and cooperation, and I have quoted freely from Bell's speeches to illustrate the clear and emphatic views he held in favour of the present system of Imperial Conferences of Prime Ministers, as the only authoritative voice of the Empire.

On the whole question of the right of consultation, he drew a clear distinction between matters affecting the Empire and problems of foreign policy.

" In all matters relating to the Empire and its internal government and affairs which concern us alone, we have a right to be heard—a right to be consulted, and a right to claim that no matter of importance shall be determined without the voice of the self-governing Dominions and of the Crown Colonies through the Colonial Secretary being fully heard and fully considered.

" But when we consider the Empire facing a foreign country, entirely different considerations arise. England is a European power. The Empire is a Pacific and an Asiatic power. Doubtless, in matters concerning the Pacific, the authorities of the Empire who sit in London, not here, would in the nature of things consult us. How far there would be a reason for our being consulted in respect of matters relating to Asia and the great Indian Empire page 274I will not offer an opinion, but I will venture to say that the Empire cannot last if the Government-—the King's Government in London—faced with difficulties with a foreign power, is called upon to hold its hand until it has ascertained the views of the Dominions. What if the views of the Dominions differ? There is one Government of the Empire in its relations to foreign affairs and that is the Government of England. It may be, it frequently is, that those relations involve matters which directly and closely concern one or other of the Dominions. Obviously in those cases the Dominions concerned would be informed and consulted."

Perhaps enough has been quoted to illustrate Bell's views. At the time of his death the Hon. Mr. Nash said:

" I am particularly sorry he has gone in the first year of a new form of Government in this country because despite his political outlook I feel that if the Government desired advice on Imperial matters and had sought his opinion he would have given what he believed to be advice in the best interests of the Dominion."