The British Empire faced its nadir in 1942 as military defeat was followed by further military defeat. At its emotional centre outrage and dismay had followed the 'Channel Dash', the escape of a German naval fleet consisting of Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and the Prinz Eugen, supported by a number of smaller ships, through the Straits of Dover to their German home ports. An editorial in The Times of London reported that 'nothing more mortifying to the pride of our seapower has happened since the seventeenth century'. The event signalled 'the end of the Royal Navy legend that in wartime no enemy battle fleet could pass through what we proudly call the English Channel'.1 The Far East position had collapsed and the massed Commonwealth armies that had been assembled in North Africa appeared to be faring little better with Tobruk gone and the final line of defence established near a small railway station at El Alamein. None of the alliance members were immune. The raid on Dieppe in August 1942 was the greatest amphibious attack since Gallipoli and the first European battle fought by the Canadians since the last war. Contemporary accounts and articles written shortly after the subsequent Normandy landings portrayed it as having been 'a symbol and an experiment' that provided important experience and allowed ideas to be trialed for future operations. The official Canadian historian would record that 907 of his compatriots died—nearly one-fifth of the total who had embarked on the raid—over 1,000 were wounded and nearly 2,000 more taken prisoner. The casualty rate was in fact the heaviest sustained in any Allied attack during the entire war.2
Success at the third Battle at El Alamein in November 1942 appeared to save the day and represented what Churchill described as 'the end of the beginning'. The polemic is one of his most famous, delivered as part of a speech at the Mansion House and it was during this that he also told his audience he had 'not become the King's First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire'. As his most eminent biographer has pointed out his next remark is seldom quoted, that if this were to take place 'someone else would have to be found' to carry it out, a declaration of his belief in Empire, 'not a political statement that the Empire would never be dissolved'.3 This sentiment was noteworthy as debate about the alliance's future was becoming increasingly fever-pitched. Even a cursory reading of the sessions in the House of Commons that same month, following the King's Address, gives a flavour of the arguments that were being put forward. The Empire's role in the war was widely praised but there was dismay at the growing practice of referring not to the 'British Empire' but to the 'British Commonwealth of Nations'. Sir Edward Campbell believed that 'it is a horrid term for the greatest Empire the world has ever known' and, despite being informed that the phrase had been first used over 40 years ago, the irate parliamentarian resolved that he would continue to use 'British Empire'. Flight-Lieutenant Raikes, by his own description a right-wing member of the House, was of a similar mind. He welcomed the continuing use of the term and believed that there had been 'a gasp of relief' from many countries upon learning that 'the British still believe in something which they are prepared to hold and fight for'. Mr Emmott, the Member from eastern Surrey, was also troubled and as he put it: 'Are the British not to be permitted to acknowledge their pride in the British Empire, their determination to defend it against those who would destroy it and their will to make all sacrifices for it?' He believed that the British public was actually mystified by 'a pestilent doctrine which teaches men to be apologists for the British Empire, to be ashamed of it, to explain it away as part of the old world'. As he concluded: 'Are we to deny, to disown that Empire which has given peace, justice, humane administration, and good government to countless human beings throughout the habitable globe? ... How odious, how shameful is this doctrine!'4
As this debate should have made clear, while there was no shortage of interest much of it remained hopelessly uninformed about how the Imperial alliance was changing. This was nothing new; the father of all the parliaments scattered around the Dominions had a pretty indifferent record when it came to debating about them. There were a number of parliamentarians who were keen to discuss Imperial matters but they were definitely in the minority. Edgar Granville had been born in Britain but had served in the AIF during the First World War and was one of the most vocal questioners of government policy relating to the Dominions. He served briefly as a captain in the Royal Artillery before returning to Westminster, first as a National Liberal but from 1942 until the war's end as an independent. Another leading protagonist was Emmanuel Shinwell. A leading member of the Labour Party, in May 1940 he refused a position in the Ministry for Food in the National Coalition Government but two years later became party chairman. In June 1941 both of these parliamentarians rounded upon Churchill for not having organized an Imperial War Cabinet.5 Two weeks later Granville was asking another question about the functioning of high commissioner meetings; the week after he was enquiring about methods of increasing the amount of information being supplied to the Dominions; six weeks later yet another question on the possibility of an Empire War Cabinet.6 Another in this category was Beverley Baxter, a Canadian-born journalist-turned-politician who held the suburban London seat of Wood Green for the Conservatives. In a May 1942 debate about the war situation he criticized Churchill and his parliamentary colleagues for their apparent lack of interest in the Empire. Many felt deeply about the subject but he wished that the prime minister, one who 'had done so much to bring the English-speaking people together', would appear more visibly interested and that in Britain as a whole there could be a far greater appreciation of what the Dominions were doing in the war.7
Inevitably the figure of Churchill loomed large over the debate. As he told a Party meeting on 9 October 1940, convened to discuss the question of Chamberlain's successor, he had always 'faithfully served two supreme causes—the maintenance of the enduring greatness of Britain and her Empire and the historic certainty of our Island life'.8 Indeed, an American correspondent in London wrote later that same year, Britain's wartime leader was undeniably 'the son of Jennie Jerome of New York City, American in his directness but otherwise British as bully beef' but while his 'blood is half American when it begins to boil, a chemistry of ancient loyalties makes it all British—exultant, proud, superior, unbeatable even in defeat'.9 Massey referred to him in often critical terms as the 'Headmaster' for this was how he sometimes appeared to deal with his errant pupils.10 Although a staunchly self-professed imperialist, his views continued to draw their basis from an era that was drawing to a close. Indeed to certain commentators in London, he was 'Eighteenth century in many respects' and even his undoubtedly closest Dominion confidante, Smuts, could only lament the degree to which Churchill remained 'obsessed with 1776'.11 Even the British leader's own trusted secretary thought that his boss was 'in the main oblivious to the growth of nationalism as a force in British imperial affairs'.12 As an exponent of Empire in nineteenth- rather than twentieth-century terms, he was determined that nothing should be surrendered.13 The Empire was 'an instrument that gave to Britain a world position that she would not otherwise have had'.14 Malcolm MacDonald, in his draft handwritten memoirs talking about Britain's wartime relations with Canada, detailed the 'certain difficulties' that arose 'now and then'. Sometimes this was because of the prime minister's 'old fashioned notions'. He was inclined to regard Canada and all the other Dominions as still a partly, if not wholly, dependent colony of Britain, whose Cabinet ministers should accept—and indeed obey—the British government's views on all problems at all times as 'the last word in wisdom'. He recognized their constitutional status but tended to view this as 'a matter of polite, and somewhat ridiculous theory rather than undeniable fact'.15 With this highly romanticized, but often conditional view of the Empire, he found it hard to view the Dominions as equals.
If Churchill loomed, Cranborne's was a much more munificent presence. He may no longer have been at the helm at the DO but he had only moved to the larger, sister CO department situated in the same building. From here he remained a key presence, a contender for the mantle of the Empire's most important wartime statesman. He saw the Commonwealth of Nations as a living organism in which the grown-up children were the self-governing Dominions and what pains there were could best be described as 'growing pains'. In July 1942 Lord Elibank had once again begun another debate on the question of the future unity of the British Empire. Together with Viscounts Bennett and Bledisloe, these grandees of the 'Imperial Idea' detailed what they considered the post-war world might hold. Cranborne was called upon as secretary of state for the colonies to respond for the government and employed a familial relationship to put across his argument. He told the Peers that during a family's early days, 'children are young and inexperienced, and not able to face problems themselves'. This meant that they had to be protected and educated but as they grew up they could 'begin to take their own line—to think for themselves'. Eventually they would become independent entities, independent personalities and, finally, self-supporting. 'They are no longer dependent upon their parents, but they remain members of the family still bound to each other by ties of affection, and still having a responsibility to help and protect each other.' He concluded his passionate account with the assertion that the Empire was 'neither dead nor even going into decline'. Instead, with sensible and sympathetic treatment, it would emerge 'wiser and more united than it has ever been in its long history'.16
His new position left him well placed to focus on what he considered to be the most critical areas of deficiency blighting the relationship. Cranborne had written to the high commissioner in Ottawa in early summer 1942 detailing his thinking on Imperial issues. He believed that relations between Britain and the Dominions needed to be closer and the job being undertaken by MacDonald and his counterparts in the other overseas capitals was 'invaluable'. The danger as he saw it was that there were 'centrifugal tendencies' and these increased the strain on future unity so much so he believed that its structure was on the point of collapse.17 He was also concerned about the way in which the Dominions thought of the Colonial Empire. Commenting on a report on the subject prepared by the DO he noted that it was an aspect of Imperial policy that had been long neglected. As he went on:
So long as the Dominions regard the Colonies as our private property they will take no interest in them—although, as a matter of fact, they are just as much involved as we ourselves. We must manage by hook or by crook to make it clear to them before the end of this war that the British Empire is not a number of very loosely connected units; it is an inter-dependent whole; and that the loss of or even unsatisfactory condition in any portion of it must affect not only the prosperity but the international influence of the whole. The Australians I feel, are particularly bad about this. They want all the advantages of the Imperial connection without any responsibilities. We must by some means manage to make them realise that this is not possible, and that it is not even to their own interests that they should divorce themselves from the affairs of the Empire as a whole.18
There seemed to be a growing view that the Colonial Empire was being overlooked and a wish to break down stereotypical images of what the English were about. A joke repeated in the Empire Review in January 1943 seemed to say as much: 'We all know the story of the six men wrecked on a desert island. Two Scotsmen, two Irishmen, and two Englishmen. The two Scotsmen immediately went over to a cave and formed a Caledonian society. The two Irishmen began to fight and the two Englishmen walked up and down the beach waiting for somebody to introduce them.' The writer's comment on this was that the rather 'snooty' impression was misplaced and it was actually shyness that was the problem. The article's message was that the future lay not with the Old World but with the New, those states that had been colonized by Britons.19 Throughout the 1930s Empire and colonization had been a largely marginalized issue in the British Labour Party; not until the war years would ideas of long-term colonial development became much more visible, ones in which the white dominions played a central role.20 Home Secretary Herbert Morrison told the House of Commons that he held out the twin prospects for the colonies of greater attention to their economic welfare and eventual self-government. He also thought though that it would be 'sheer nonsense—ignorant, dangerous nonsense—to talk about grants of full government to many of the dependent territories for some time to come. In these instances it would be like giving a child of ten a latchkey, a bank account and a shotgun.' According to the Economist it was clear that the government was 'building up an apologia for the Empire', one that represented 'not only the timely riposte of bludgeoning from abroad but also a new and welcome upsurge of popular interest in the responsibilities of Empire rule'.21
This was certainly a debate that was closely followed by the media. A long piece written by a Time correspondent in London in April 1942, in seeking to identify the current character of the British people, examined the role of Empire. It argued that it was something that had been taken for granted, the assumption being that it would always be there and the conclusion for the American readership was that 'England as a whole simply did not have any serious thought whatever about the Empire. England was unanimously non-imperialist—and unanimously unprepared for the break-up of her Empire.' It perhaps took an American to identify the problem:
The English people themselves are principally to blame for the weakness of their Empire. The English people blame their various rulers—including the Old School Tie. But the average Englishman has for a decade or two exhibited an almost total lack of interest -even a lack of ordinary curiosity—in great affairs of Empire. He and his countrymen had an Empire—and they were just plain not interested. That, perhaps, is the whole truth, as nearly as it can be stated in one sentence.22
A survey on the public's opinion conducted by the BBC's Listener Research Department reached similar conclusions. One of the findings of the January 1943 study was that there was widespread ignorance as to the differences between a Colony and a Dominion, hence the habitual use of the term 'the Colonies' to denote any part of the Empire other than Britain. There was, however, a much better understanding that the term 'British Commonwealth of Nations' covered the Dominions; 10 per cent, however, did not think this included the British Isles.23
The intensity of the debate could be seen in something as apparently innocent as the correct use of language. There was often little distinction drawn between 'Commonwealth' and 'Empire'; as was made clear in a post-war memorandum the two were considered 'strictly speaking interchangeable' and sometimes they were used together, sometimes separately. But the meanings could vary depending on the circumstances and those using them.24 Churchill was a leading advocate of the importance involved and had rounded on more than one member of the House of Commons for 'pedantic divisions about nomenclature'.25 During his second wartime visit to London in the spring of 1944, Mackenzie King had asked for some explanation as to what was meant by 'Commonwealth and Empire'. Cranborne told him that Churchill himself had coined the phrase and everybody had followed suit. 'The Commonwealth meant the five completely self-governing countries: Britain being one of the five. I said: "the Balfour Declaration". He said: "Yes". That Empire meant the Colonial Empire—Colonies and India.'26 There is of course the well-known anecdote about the British leader's address to a group of Americans among whom was Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a leading anti-imperialist. During this he made it clear that 'British Empire' or 'British Commonwealth of Nations' were merely titles, taunting the senator with a mischievous suggestion that he maintained 'trade labels to suit all tastes'.27
He was not alone in such opinions. Keith Hancock, although an Australian by birth, with his long historian background, was perhaps better qualified than any to comment on the nature of the Dominions. In his wartime mini-polemic, Argument of Empire, he put the case in his usual informed fashion. For him Dominion status meant 'sovereignty but not separation, independence but not interdependence'. There might be those who disagreed or found it odd but his view was that 'the Dominions are free to separate from the British Commonwealth if they choose' but the reality was that they did not choose to do so.28 He was also prepared to add a word—or two—on the correct use of language:
Some people have become ridiculously self-conscious even about words. If, for example, I use the old-fashioned term British Empire, there are progressive people who will write me down as a Blimp. If, on the other hand, I use the new-fashioned term British Commonwealth, there are plain blunt men who will think me hypocritical or high-falutin. I intend to use both forms of speech just as I please: indeed, I can't properly get along without using both, for each signifies an essential aspect of the living reality. British Empire connotes the historical tradition, which is alive and real: British Commonwealth connotes the progress and the programme, which are also alive and real. There are many people who mistake words for things. Some people use the same words to signify different things. The word 'Imperialism' is a good example. In one morning I once counted up ten different meanings given to it by ten different writers: to some of them it meant federation between Great Britain and the Dominions, to others it meant military expansion, to others it meant 'dominion over palm and pine', to others it meant the 'monopoly stage of capitalism', to others it meant the government of primitive peoples. Its connation was at one time political, at another time military, at another time economic, at another time racial. Words are good servants but bad masters.
There was also a considerable public debate about the future of the Commonwealth alliance and this reached its crescendo again in 1943 as various politicians, some still influential, others less so, sought to promote the value of the imperial connection. It had begun the year before with an address by Attlee, in his role as Dominions secretary, to the Royal Empire Society. His speech provided a typically impressive array of facts and figures detailing how grand and important the role of the alliance partners had been in fighting the war so far, outlining 'a common battle with common ideals'. As he concluded, 'the British Commonwealth stands today as an example to the world of the unity of democratic nations who have learnt how to achieve unity and common action while retaining individual freedom'. The enthusiastic questioning that followed agreed with the theme, indeed expanded upon it, that the war had been fought effectively by an alliance that had adapted to the necessities it encountered.29 Barely a month later Duff Cooper—a late replacement for Sir Walter Monckton, a much more acknowledged imperialist—was the guest of the lunch-time meeting at the same venue, his task being to consider the make-up of the post-war world.30 He introduced to his audience a new idea of international relations: 'interdependence'. This involved a future based upon closer cooperation and there was no better example than the British Empire, 'a binding together of a vast community of peoples'. Richard Law followed a week later. A key FO figure, he had been considered in early 1940 as a potential Dominions secretary and would lead the committee examining American understanding—or lack of—of the Empire. His theme was 'The British Commonwealth as a World Power' and his aim was to consider how this 'unique' organization would fit into the proposed post-war international system. Here was a model for a global organization, the only one that was already worldwide, allowing it to 'form a bridge of understanding and influence between one continent and another'. In his vision it would take a central position with each of the members taking a key role in their particular region. Once more this provoked an outburst of mutual self-congratulation. Geoffrey Whiskard, who had been an 'eventful' high commissioner in Australia until 1940, thought that the British had used their genius to evolve 'a new relationship between completely free and independent nations'; previously, independent states had existed only with the fear of war between one another.31
The debate extended to the Empire Review which was full of stories that same year on a broadly similar theme, what would be the fate of the British Empire. Aside from Richard Law's speech, which was apparently considered to be sufficiently important to be repeated, Lord Elton, Lord Hailey and Sir Charles Petrie, 3rd Baronet, each of whom was an established commentator on imperial matters, produced polemics which were published with great prominence.32 Elton was full of praise for 'the only League of Nations which has ever worked'. The Dominions had banished the idea of war yet they had gone to the rescue of victims of aggression. If the post-war world was to work it would do so only because it had its core the British Commonwealth and other like-minded states which had 'gravitated towards it'. Both of the other writers were content, meanwhile, to develop upon popular, emotive themes typical of which was the claim that 'if it had not been for the British Empire the swastika would be triumphant in the world at the present time'.
In the background and pervading much of this discussion and debate, the United States was as a sometimes malevolent presence that had many in London almost looking over their shoulders while creating tensions for the Anglo-Dominion alliance. The sense of anti-American prejudice which Dalton detected within the FO and Treasury was accounted for by one of his sources as 'the jealousy of the old British governing classes at "the passing of power"'.33 It was perhaps an intrinsically and peculiar American vice, certainly in the eyes of those living in the shadow of the British imperial sun, to question British imperial motives. Lord Swinton, the Resident Minister in West Africa, reported back to London that he was having considerable problems in the Gold Coast with the Americans. The Headmaster of the National School in Accra wrote to the Governor-General to complain about 'the most reprehensible conduct and hooliganism' being displayed by many of the visitors.34 This did not at all 'reflect any credit on the Americans as cultured people' and there was a widespread rumour that they 'had come to be lords of the Africans, to exploit them and treat them as "hewers of wood and drawers of water"'. As the writer warned, there was a danger 'that the rude and bratish behaviour of the American may have a tendency to impair the whole structure and fabric of amity and goodwill which have been built up with so much tact and patience by many generations of British men and women on the Gold Coast'. Of greater concern for the British authorities in London, however, would undoubtedly have been reference to 'some stupid loose talk by irresponsible Americans to African about the desirability of Americans taking over the country'.35 Such 'anti-colonial whispering' and the message it contained had fortunately been quickly rejected out of hand by the African audience.
There were other more serious examples of American indiscretions and these directly affected the Dominions. Perhaps foremost amongst these was the alleged case of Colonel Frank Knox, the United States Navy Minister, news of which reached London through a tortuous route involving the interception of a letter sent back to Britain from the French Cameroons. During a tour of the Pacific area in 1943 he had apparently given an impromptu speech to a group of Australians and New Zealanders during which he had expressed the view that they would no doubt want to 'quit the British Empire and join us after this war'. The audience's response was less than complimentary, leaving the minister 'with a very red face'. As the correspondent concluded, aside from being amazed that an American politician should say such a thing, it seemed clear that there was a section within the United States 'who seem to think that we should liquidate the Empire—God forbid we ever do!' Across the Tasman Antipodean hostility in response to similar American sentiments had extended beyond strong language. The British high commissioner in Canberra had reported in December 1942 that riots had broken out in Brisbane and the behaviour of even quite senior US officers, particularly in the US Air Force, had become a cause for real concern. The Australian military was clearly unhappy with its American counterparts, in part because of a failure to fulfil promises of material support but also because of the often disparaging attitude displayed by the visiting forces to their new allies.36 Orders had apparently been issued by Generals Eisenhower and Clark that any member of the US forces in North Africa heard making derogatory remarks about Britain or British forces were to be sent home.37 This did not apparently extend, however, to the South Pacific.
From his vantage part at the heart of the British Embassy in Washington it was Gerald Campbell who had precipitated much of the debate about American thinking on the Empire with the reports he sent back to the FO. Previously Britain's other representative in Ottawa, after Mackenzie King had fallen out with him, he had been moved to become senior British Minister to Washington where he had been warmly welcomed, in at least some circles.38 Typical of his warnings to London was that written in August 1942 discussing Australia's position. In a lunch with Roosevelt his host had told him that the Australians 'had been rather a nuisance' in their efforts to gravitate closer towards him. Campbell apparently enjoyed taking the opportunity to tell the president that the Australian attitude made little sense: 'I have often noticed that Americans think the Australians like them, and therefore their country, much better than us and our country, and that they only have to beckon for them to come: and I have also noticed that when Australians, who rather play up to this idea initially, are beckoned, they are furious.' The same conclusion was held among the FO's mandarins, 'a distant flirtation is one thing but [the Australians and Canadians] would both recoil violently from embraces which would, in their view, shortly be of the possessive kind'.39
The 'Open Letter to the People of England', published by Life magazine in October 1942 and running to some 1,700 words, is perhaps the most visible wartime example of American disdain for British imperialism. It famously pronounced: 'One thing we are sure we are not fighting for is to hold the British Empire together. We don't like to put the matter so bluntly, but we don't want you to have any illusions. If your strategists are planning a war to hold the British Empire together they will sooner or later find themselves strategizing alone.'40 There was also the worldwide tour made by Wendell Wilkie, the defeated 1940 Republican presidential candidate, the focus of which was the condemnation of colonialism at every opportunity, apparently with Roosevelt's tacit approval. Amery thought his strategy to be a 'mischievous and silly effusion', telling Cranborne that he had become angry 'about our worthy allies, who are no doubt good at mechanical production, but slightly ignorant in other domains'. His suggestion was that the secretary of state for colonies should broadcast to America 'saying that Wendell Wilkie is an ignorant and mischievous ass'. Bobbety agreed that there could indeed be more productive use made of propaganda and assured his colleague that he favoured 'a sturdier attitude' than had been the case previously promising 'we will not stand before our Allies in a white sheet'.41 The Wilkie tour certainly had an impact, spectacularly backfiring as Stalin, whilst pleased to see his two key allies bickering, used the visit to Moscow as an opportunity to chastise Roosevelt and Churchill. As for the principal target, the British prime minister responded to Wilkie's call from Chungking for an end to imperialism—and Roosevelt's subsequent endorsement of the statement—with his most explicit public defence of Empire policies with his previously referenced speech at the Mansion House.42
The reaction to all of this American interventionism was generally hostile, even amongst the Dominions and their representatives overseas. The London-based high commissioners were notably critical about the degree to which there was an American sense of defeatism about the future of the Empire. Attlee wrote to Churchill in June 1942 to warn him that they were growing restless and were 'considerably exercised in their minds as to the habit of prominent American, including members of the Administration, of talking as if the British Empire was in the process of dissolution'. He went on: 'It would be well for the Americans, whose knowledge of Dominion sentiment is not extensive, to be aware that the British Colonial Empire is not a kind of possession of the Old Country, but is part of a larger whole in which the Dominions are also interested.' There was also reference to the aggressive commercial activities of the Empire's main strategic ally, with the Dominion representatives also being disturbed by 'the economic imperialism of the American business interests which is quite active under the cloak of a benevolent and avuncular internationalism'.43 Smuts received his own lengthy assessment of the position as it was understood by his representative. The commonly held view in Whitehall, and one with which the South African high commissioner agreed, was that 'the average American is convinced that Great Britain rules the Empire (in which is included India and the Dominions) direct from Downing Street, derives large revenues in direct taxation from everywhere and that the Empire is peopled with subject races to whom the glorious freedom enjoyed by every American is unknown'.44 Massey returned home distinctly anti-American, at least in terms of his private outlook. His biographer speculates that this might have been as a result of American over-assertiveness in Newfoundland and Canada or over-glorification of the role that the American military had played in Europe.45 Or, more simply, it might have been as a result of having to deal with the American Ambassador Joseph Kennedy 'or the complacent self-satisfaction of visiting American movie stars and politicians'.46
From the war's earliest stages there had been many besides Churchill and Cranborne who had recognized that maintaining Imperial unity in the post-war world was an absolute prerequisite if Britain was to have any hope of keeping a powerful voice. Perhaps the three most celebrated contributions to the debate came not from parliamentarians at Westminster. The first was a speech given by John Curtin who, speaking in Adelaide in mid-August 1943, had proposed the creation of a supreme body to govern the entire post-war Empire. He had apparently re-embraced the 'Imperial Idea', conveniently forgetting his earlier emotive 'looks to America' statement. The United States had subsequently mishandled the war, and Curtin had become 'no lover of the Yankees'.47 No doubt buoyed on by the positive reaction he received, the Australian expanded upon his proposals during the following months. An Empire Council could be a permanent body with a permanent supporting secretariat. Its regular meetings could be held in the various Dominion capitals and so on. It was an apparently far-reaching argument, although of course, as commentators in Canberra were quick to point out a similar series of proposals had been first put forward during the 1911 Imperial Conference and resoundingly rejected.48 Various Australian speakers made the journey to the Royal Empire Society in London where they repeated a broadly similar message—Australia was determined to assist in maintaining the British Empire.49 In the DO Paul Emrys-Evans was particularly pleased at the visit by a Parliamentary Delegation from Canberra. He thought they returned home impressed by what they had seen and hoped they believed Britain was 'more conscious of the Commonwealth and Empire than we have been for over 25 years'.50There were also regular written contributions from sympathetic writers which lauded the Australian role in the wartime alliance and painted a picture of a post-war future dominated by strong political and economic relations.51 This was all good for public consumption and helped dampen some of the hostile reaction to Curtin's actions immediately following the Japanese attack.
Jan Smuts gave another speech not many months later to the Empire Parliamentary Association at Westminster. This was perhaps the most noted wartime comment made by any Dominion statesman, with its twin themes of Britain's position in the post-war world and the general position of the British Empire. Titled 'Thoughts on a New World', it was given to about 300 parliamentarians who had gathered in Room 17 of the House of Commons. According to his son, who accompanied him on his wartime visits to London, Smuts, who said he was 'merely thinking aloud' himself, referred to it as his 'Explosive Speech'.52 He spoke from brief notes to an audience who cheered enthusiastically at the end of the address. He told them that Britain would emerge victorious but poor and if it was to play a significant position as a world power it would be necessary to strengthen the Empire and Commonwealth, to look to its inner strength and see to it that it would be safeguarded for the future, his over-riding message being that there should be some way to bring the two closer together. He doubted the prospects of a closer union with the United States. Instead he proposed the forging of new links with some of the smaller European powers, specifically the Scandinavian states. He proposed that some of the colonies might be combined to form more economically viable groups and these might then become self-governing Dominions under white leadership. The Empire and Commonwealth was the best missionary enterprise that had been launched in a thousand years and such a move would help tighten up the whole system. Of some interest also was his conclusion that neither France nor Germany would emerge as significant post-war powers.53 The speech was poorly received in Canada, where it was seen as advocating a single British Commonwealth foreign policy and a return to the centralization of the machinery of government within the Commonwealth and Empire. It was noted, however, that it should have been unusual that the speech should have caused 'so much excitement' when Curtin's not entirely dissimilar proposals had generated relatively little interest.54
The final, and perhaps most controversial of these contributions, was given by Lord Halifax in January 1944 at the Empire Club in Toronto. Essentially this speech argued that the Dominions should fortify their relationship with Britain and with one another so that, as a group, the British Empire could claim a degree of substance and equality with the United States and Russia. In his own words, the speech argued that 'while the Statute of Westminster had given us all equality of status, we had to be thinking quite hard upon the problem of how we were to get real equality of function and responsibility in such fields as Foreign Policy and Defence'.55 Mackenzie King was 'simply dumbfounded' and saw it as an Imperialist conspiracy, a plan worked out with Churchill to push through a 'centralization' in which future policies would again be made in London. He even considered resigning and forcing an election with the question of British interference his main theme. His initial explosion abated as it became clear that the official British response was one of concern that he should be so distressed and renewed expressions that this was not the time to discuss Empire policy.56 The British ambassador was distraught that his 'wretched speech', the giving of which had completely 'bored' him, could have caused 'a slight extra headache' for London.57 Cranborne was quick to respond with soothing words. The speech had not caused any headache but was instead read with 'admiration and agreement'.58 Churchill, however, had disowned it and the ideas it represented but, along with Smuts and Curtin, Halifax had publicized still further the importance of this issue and the debate which existed.
The continued close cooperation of the Dominions was clearly paramount to Britain, and this could only be secured if they were satisfied that their interests and position were being safeguarded. This was the conclusion of a memorandum issued by the FO in December 1943 the specific focus of which was the British Commonwealth's future. Eden had produced another War Cabinet paper in November 1942 in which he stated that if the British Empire and Commonwealth could not be maintained Britain could no longer exist as a world power.59 The new document, barely three pages in length, incorporated a vast sweep of the subject. Its aim was reportedly to help stimulate debate in overseas missions about how foreign relations involving the Empire—specifically methods of exchanging information, consultation and cooperation—might be conducted post-war.60 Caveats were added about how difficult it was to foretell the future and that in order to safeguard brevity the Dominions had been treated as one when in fact it was recognized that 'each has its particular characteristics, interests and problems, and will increasingly develop and assert its own national individuality'. The DO had little involvement in its preparation, a draft being submitted for comments, some of which were adopted. The result was that it was distributed without any departmental objection but, equally, without its endorsement. Attlee doubted whether the Dominions would be willing to accept the idea that Britain might be a member of the proposed post-war international organization, the so-called 'Four-Power Council', without there being any separate representation for them.61
This first warning had been made at the beginning of 1943 and would remain a much repeated one throughout the discussions that continued on the matter over the coming months.62 As Attlee, in his dual role as deputy prime minister and secretary of state, put it to those present at a meeting in the DO held on April Fool's Day 1943—two of the four Dominions high commissioners being amongst them—the problem was that both the United States and the Soviet Union were only prepared to accept a single voice in discussing questions of general policy.63 There were obvious areas for which this presented a potential clash; most notably in terms of the route by which any future declarations about the surrender of the Axis powers and the post-war world might be settled upon. The group recognized that, in terms of resources and population alone, the United Kingdom would struggle to lay claim to a seat at the 'top table'. Its association was as a result of war effort, colonial possessions and relationship with the Dominions. It was therefore argued by successive British speakers that it would be best if one voice could be presented. While Massey and Bruce were willing to accept certain merits to the proposal, they would not countenance any suggestion that the Dominions might sacrifice their hard-earned separate nationhood. There was clearly something of an impasse of thinking, and while the commonly expressed sentiment was to hope for some form of compromise, nobody appeared to have any idea as to what this might be or how it might operate. What few anticipated was that the solution would actually come from Canberra and it would not prove a particularly palatable one for the British government.