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Political and External Affairs

CHAPTER 2 — The Working of ‘Imperialism’

page 13

The Working of ‘Imperialism’

IN the New Zealand of the nineteen-twenties the word ‘imperialism’ was commonly used in a sense far from pejorative. It referred to the spirit expressed in 1930 by that very typical New Zealander, G. W. Forbes, when he said that ‘It is only by strengthening the ties which bind us to the rest of the Empire that we can hope to realise the general benefits that we all hope for. In view of the condition of the world, it is our duty to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Motherland and our sister dominions and endeavour to develop to the utmost that spirit of unity which I believe is necessary for the welfare of our Empire1.’ Forbes spoke as Prime Minister. The Leader of the Opposition, J. G. Coates, supported him ‘in everything that will lead to a wider, a larger, and a united Empire.’ By unity both men plainly meant close association with Great Britain and acceptance of British leadership. They were in this sense Imperialists, and both main parties revelled in this robust, if old-fashioned, word: nor would either of them yield to the other pride of place in ‘Imperialistic sentiment’ and ‘standing for the Empire’.2 In this they fairly represented the community. It was with justice that Lord Milner in 1925 hailed Massey as both ‘the true interpreter of New Zealand’ and ‘the most staunch, the most steady, and the most consistent of Imperial statesmen’.3

New Zealand had taken no part in the pressure for definition of dominion status which led to the Statute of Westminster, and Mr Forbes went to the Imperial Conference in 1930 with ‘no complaints and no demands’, though with apprehension lest fellow dominions should combine to loosen the framework of the Commonwealth. When New Zealand departed from its attitude of entire satisfaction with the status quo was to stress the need for greater cohesion rather than for greater freedom. With this attitude there went a tendency to minimise the importance of consultation between the United Kingdom and New Zealand on matters of foreign policy. In February 1923 Sir Francis Bell, ablest of lawyers and already an elder statesman, had described from long experience in cabinet

1 NZPD, Vol. 225, p. 539.

2 Ibid., Vol. 196, p. 485 and passim.

3 Dominion, 11 May 1925.

page 14 how New Zealand preserved detachment in face of fellow dominions'' interest in foreign affairs. ‘I cannot remember any instance in which we have been consulted on such matters where the answer had not been in stereotyped form: “New Zealand is content to be bound by the determination of His Majesty's Government in London.”’ To this testimony he added a commonsense criticism of the claim then fashionable in other dominions that they should be ‘consulted’ before imperial foreign policy was determined. ‘The matter that concerns us is how far it is of any benefit to anyone that we should be consulted; and, if we were consulted, is there any man in New Zealand who thinks that we are really fit to judge? By “we” I mean Government. I am quite sure the Opposition would say that we are unfit. I am a member of the Government myself, and I have no sense of fitness to advise the Imperial Government in matters of foreign policy1.’
Yet New Zealand's ‘Imperialism’ was in fact never quite so unconditional as the warmth of loyal words suggested. Francis Bell himself gave an important clue in the very speech in which he spoke misleadingly of New Zealand's stereotyped comments on foreign policy; for he mentioned how he and his fellow delegate had spoken up emphatically in the Assembly of the League of Nations when an issue arose–that of mandates–in which New Zealand was ‘essentially and directly interested’.2 Massey had already participated at the Versailles Conference in a ‘front’ of the interested dominions which, independently of the United Kingdom, opposed Wilson's mandate proposals. In each case, of course, the motive of New Zealand interest was Western Samoa. In 1923, however, New Zealand, on Bell's advice, formally rejected the Imperial Act of 1914 on nationality on the ground that her special circumstances had not been adequately dealt with; and New Zealand remained out of step with the rest of the Empire until in 1928 Bell pronounced himself satisfied.3 Forbes himself could be exceedingly blunt when British policy conflicted with his wishes in a field where he had special interests. Moreover, the famous remark attributed to the British Dominions Secretary (‘Mr Forbes, we were delighted to meet you, but thank God you are going’) was quoted with appreciation by hot ‘Imperialists’ who expected their Prime Minister to ‘speak his mind fearlessly, and back his statements by arguments4’ when British and New Zealand policies diverged. There remains in Bell's dictum a solid core of truth. New Zealand ‘Imperialists’ were ‘content to be bound by the determination of

1 NZPD, Vol. 199, pp. 33–4.

2 Ibid., p. 31.

3 Stewart, Bell, p. 207.

4 NZPD, Vol. 228, p. 558.

page 15 His Majesty's Government in London’ on the numerous issues in which they were not seriously interested and on the many others in which their own views coincided with those of the British government. Nevertheless the confidential communications exchanged during the terms of the first two British Labour governments make it clear how much New Zealand acquiescence in British foreign policy depended on a substantial identity of political colour between London and Wellington, and show that where this was lacking a policy of being plus royaliste que le roi could in itself be a source of independent opinion. These documents, indeed, deprive of much of its apparent novelty the ‘independent’ foreign policy pursued by a New Zealand Labour government when the Conservatives were in office in England.

Though on the whole Massey seems to have refrained from protesting against those items which irked him in the foreign policy of the first MacDonald government (January-November 1924), he sent on 11 March 1924 a most sharply worded response to the British Government's decision not to proceed with the development of the Singapore base–‘I regret exceedingly that the Government of the United Kingdom do not intend to proceed with what is looked upon as one of the most important proposals connected with the defence of the Empire…. India, Australia, New Zealand, and a number of Crown Colonies are intensely concerned in this matter and are looking to the present British Government to remember that every country of the Empire and every citizen of the Empire are entitled to protection from the possibility of attack by a foreign foe…. You say that “your Government stands for international co-operation through a strengthened and enlarged League of Nations.” In reply to that I must say that if the defence of the Empire is to depend on the League of Nations only, then it may turn out to have been a pity that the League was ever brought into being.’

The Singapore base was obviously one of those issues in which New Zealand was ‘essentially and directly interested.’ However, during the term of the second Labour Government (June 1929–August 1931) action which the New Zealand Government clearly regarded as showing an irresponsible attitude towards imperial interests soon made the whole issue of consultation a very live one. On 10 August 1929 Sir Joseph Ward thus addressed Ramsay MacDonald:

Will you allow me in a helpful spirit to call attention to one aspect of the relations between H.M. Government in the United Kingdom and H.M. Governments in the Dominions in connection with such questions, for example, as naval defence, Singapore, the Optional Clause of the Statute of the Permanent Court of International Justice, Egypt, and Russia.

I do not question the fact that H.M. Government in the United Kingdom are much more directly concerned than the Governments of the Dominions page 16 in these subjects and I readily recognise your wish to implement your policy without delay. At the same time H.M. Government in the United Kingdom act in such matters not only on their own behalf but in a very real sense as the agent or trustee of H.M. other Governments and no decision taken by the Government in the United Kingdom can fail to have a direct and important effect upon the Dominions.

Our feeling is that there are disadvantages in moving too fast in such matters, that sufficient time has not been available for a study of your proposals and that there is much to be gained by taking the point of view of the Dominions in ample time to allow of a reasoned expression of their opinion before a decision is reached in London….

So far as public record went New Zealand remained a dutiful daughter dominion, except when her economic interests were involved, or some political matter in which she was directly concerned. Yet as early as 1929, when confronted with a distasteful trend in British policy, she spoke sharply on matters of principle, and on techniques of Imperial consultation. Other cables sent at this time confirm considerable New Zealand interest in issues geographically remote and not related to her immediate material well-being. New Zealand and Australia were so interested in the negotiations with the Egyptian Government over the Suez Canal that the United Kingdom suggested that they should appoint representatives to keep in touch with the United Kingdom negotiators. New Zealand nominated Thomas Wilford, her High Commissioner in London. On 9 April 1930, after attending a sitting of the conference, he cabled to the New Zealand Government suggesting that it express to the United Kingdom Government its concern for the maintenance of communications through the Canal–which it did–and that it should make a press statement on the matter–which characteristically it did not. Nor did the notification of the United Kingdom's intention to resume diplomatic relations with Russia pass without an expression of uneasiness–‘His Majesty's Government in New Zealand look with some misgiving upon the resumption of diplomatic relations with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; especially in view of the outstanding questions of propaganda and debts. They appreciate the reference to these subjects made in the proposed telegram to the Soviet Government and assume that due care will be observed to ensure that His Majesty's Governments are not subjected to subversive propaganda.’

After the death of Sir Joseph Ward Mr Forbes carried in his notes to the 1930 Imperial Conference a list of bombshell communications from the United Kingdom, when the Dominion was asked to comment on matters of major importance practically by return of cable: for example, a proposal to summon five powers to a naval conference reached Wellington for comment a week before the invitations were to be despatched; and the text of an important page 17 joint statement by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the President of the United States two days before it was to be issued. At the conference itself, if Forbes did not ‘complain’, he pointed out rather sharply that this kind of thing did not amount to consultation, that it was unfair to expect any government to give decisions at a few days' notice on matters of far-reaching importance, that New Zealand resented being bustled in this way, and was only restrained from more effective protest by ‘the paramount desirability of maintaining commonwealth unity’.

Sharp divergence of view seems to have been confined to times when New Zealand felt that the Government in London was careless of imperial interests; yet it would be wrong to suggest that the interest of New Zealand governments in foreign affairs was confined to such periods. At the Imperial Conference of 1926 Coates, though without any suggestion of reproach, had put forward proposals for improving the machinery of consultation. He was also responsible for the establishment in the same year of a small organisation to advise the Prime Minister on foreign affairs and other matters. The Prime Minister's Department was established with F. D. Thomson as first Permanent Head, and under him a staff of three including C. A. Berendsen as Imperial Affairs Officer. These officials furnished Coates with voluminous notes for the 1926 conference, including a comment under the heading ‘Spain’ which anticipates in a remarkable fashion the stand which was to be taken by the Labour Government ten years later. It was observed that ‘Opinion in New Zealand is alarmed at the extension of the movement indicated by events, for example in Russia, Italy, Spain, Greece, Bulgaria, Portugal, in the direction of imposing and maintaining forms of Government by force.’ In view of ‘the widespread agitation in favour of direct action in industrial affairs’ and of communist propaganda, it was ‘feared that action on these lines, which appears to be received with remarkable equanimity not only in the countries concerned but generally throughout the world, will tend to spread from the political to the industrial sphere, and in the present delicate industrial situation may have very serious effects. Matters in Spain do not in general affect New Zealand directly, but it is considered that His Majesty's Government should act with great caution in expressing any toleration or approval of such coups d'etat which it is thought must eventually have a repercussion on British affairs.’

In his speech on foreign affairs at the conference Coates made only a brief and vague reference to the matter, but the line of argument in the notes does seem to correspond to something constant in the New Zealand attitude. Primo de Rivera's coup in Spain, like Mussolini's aggression there and elsewhere in the next decade, set too dangerous an example to the forces of lawlessness page 18 everywhere to be accepted with complacency. That the object of fear in the earlier instance was internal subversion by communists, and in the latter, military aggression by fascists, should not obscure New Zealand's continuing anxiety lest expediency should tempt governments less morally robust to compromise with evil.

None of these evidences of independent thought and action can qualify the basic statements with which this chapter opened. The leaders of New Zealand–Bell and Ward, Massey, Forbes and Coates–in their different ways were at once true interpreters of New Zealand and staunch Imperial statesmen. They all appreciated fully the necessary relationship between a World Power and its smaller dependencies. Yet dominion status was to them no empty concept, and their loyalty to British leadership was neither blind nor dumb. If New Zealand's public policy within the Commonwealth be compared with that of Ireland, for instance, or South Africa, or even Canada, the contrast is sharp enough; yet this is a comparison which in most contexts it is mistaken to invite. The root questions are whether, in principle, New Zealand had made sufficiently clear her intention to participate when it suited her in the privileges of dominion status, and whether this intention had been recognised in practice, both in Wellington and in London. In a field where definitions are difficult and precision apt to be swept aside in the flow of political give and take, it nevertheless seems clear from the record that the answer to these questions is clearly affirmative. Beneath the so-called ‘mother complex’ an adult tradition lived on in the consistent attitude of statesmen who gloried in the title of ‘Imperialist’.