A Family Council

In May 1944 the various prime ministers from the Dominions finally assembled at the centre of the British Empire to meet face-to-face, discuss the war's progress and begin considering how the post-war world might look. This was the first time in seven years that such an assembly had taken place and it would be the only time during the entire global conflict that all of them would be gathered together in one room. As has been seen, for a variety of reasons some of the central figures involved were previously unable or unwilling to attend such a formal event, one that carried memories of meetings of the last war and discussions not merely of Imperial unity but of sacrifice of power. The idea that such a meeting might take place had been put forward almost immediately the war had started but it had taken this long to organize and, in the process, proven to be one of the most contentious questions that had faced the Anglo-Dominion coalition. The first detailed proposal had come in the spring of 1940 but it contained a reference to it being an Imperial War Conference; Mackenzie King, the most suspicious of the group, objected and with Smuts, in any case, unable to attend the idea was dropped. Menzies' efforts in the summer of 1941 had seen the proposal revived, first in the June and then in the August, but these ultimately proved disastrous for the Australian.1 With each of the leaders preoccupied during the following year's military and political turmoil, it would not be until 1943 that any really serious discussion of the matter would once again resurface and, perhaps surprisingly, it was Churchill who took the lead.

That he, Britain's magnificent wartime leader, should suggest the Dominions visit London to help formulate high strategy could have been anticipated at any stage during the war. It would have been a big idea from the colossus of the Empire's political world but, rhetoric aside, he had actually given every indication of loathing such a proposed gathering. Perhaps, in keeping with Amery's warning of many years before, he did not feel that he had the time spare to entertain his colleagues to tea when there was so much other pressing business to be managed. This did not prevent visiting Dominion ministers being welcomed to meetings of the War Cabinet, or some other suitably impressive gathering, as a visible manifestation of the greater access that they and the other members of the Commonwealth alliance were now said publicly to enjoy. In early April 1943, however, Churchill had written to his Canadian counterpart to say that more was needed, suggesting that an Imperial Conference should be held later that year. Mackenzie King, constantly suspicious of Whitehall orchestrated Machiavellian plots, was still unconvinced about something so formal but he did agree that a meeting involving the Dominion leaders would be sensible.2 With this approval, efforts to bring the various prime ministers together took on a greater sense of urgency and, mindful of Ottawa's caveats, Whitehall's intention was that it would only be the key men invited. Various dates when each could attend were submitted from the distant capitals: it was noted at this initial stage that Curtin was unlikely to be prepared to travel and Evatt would probably appear in his stead; Smuts also was unwilling to leave South Africa until the back end of the year. This meant that November was quick to emerge as the most obvious date but Churchill preferred something earlier although he indicated to the DO that there should be some margin given; September made the greatest sense in his mind.3 Despite his initial acceptance the difficulty still lay with Mackenzie King and his continuing hesitancy about publicly endorsing a date.

The British leader was clearly angered at this, telling the DO that there was no reason to wait 'indefinitely' for a response from Ottawa and that the delay should not be allowed, effectively, to veto a meeting of the whole Imperial body.4 But, with no sign of consensus emerging, it was reluctantly decided to again, at least, temporarily curtail the planning. The eventual decision to hold the meeting in May 1944 can in fact though largely be attributed to Smuts. He told Cranborne that he could not travel any earlier and he thought it would be a more convenient date for his fellow Dominion leaders; also he believed, crucially, that the war would be within a few months of its end, allowing for more relevant talks about the future.5 As a basis for reaching a final consensus this seemed to do the job and proved the culmination of the long-running attempts to settle on a date.6 On this basis the British political class could now become more fully involved. Cranborne had first asked at the beginning of January 1944 that he be allowed to submit a short memorandum on the subject to the War Cabinet. A very tentative agenda for a meeting in London involving all of the Dominion prime ministers had first been set out in the summer of 1943; there were at this point two items for discussion, 'short term problems, mainly in Europe' and 'long term problems of world organization'. Inevitably the changing nature of the war had quickly made this redundant, but this gave the DO a start-point with which to sit down and produce a more comprehensive document. The Dominions secretary envisaged that the main subjects for discussion would be the immediate military situation, questions arising from the probable defeat of Germany prior to Japan's capitulation, outlines of the post-war settlement and cooperation within the Commonwealth following the war's end. There would also likely be special subjects such as colonial policy, migration and civil aviation. He did not want any 'elaborate preparation of documents', but felt that there would be advantages in giving certain material in advance to the Dominion leaders, noting that Smuts had asked that this might be done.7 With the desire being to stress that it was not an Imperial Conference, Cranborne was keen that the South Rhodesian prime minister should not be invited and the Indian representative in the War Cabinet should only attend if there were any special subjects affecting India.8

This departmental study resulted in a Cabinet paper that was discussed at an evening meeting of the War Cabinet held later that month, although it was actually a much shortened and more general document than had been prepared by the Whitehall officials. Churchill concluded the very brief discussion with the comment 'we should be at pains to make it clear that the note of the meeting was to be an effort to establish still more strongly, closely and recognizably the unity of the structure of the Commonwealth and the Empire'.9 Privately he had let it be known among his senior colleagues in Westminster that the agenda for the meeting was to be reduced to a minimum. The senior official in the FO responsible for Dominion affairs recorded that he understood Churchill did not contemplate a series of formal meetings and that any agenda, if one was even prepared, would be extremely restricted.10 It was proposed that a Ministerial Committee be formed, headed by Cranborne, whose aim would be to scope out the parameters of the proposed conference, who would be attending, the views of other government departments—notably the FO—as to the suggested agenda and whether the political discussions might be followed by talks amongst the respective military chiefs about future cooperation post-war.11 To do this the Committee would need to have memoranda on various subjects commissioned from the departments concerned and then make recommendations to the War Cabinet about what line to take during the subsequent meetings. The memoranda could, if they were agreed upon, be communicated to the Dominions in advance.12

From the first meeting of the Ministerial Committee there had been some argument over how best to proceed. At the centre of it all was a prolonged discussion about the best strategy for dealing with Curtin's proposal made the previous year. Cranborne felt that ignoring it and waiting was the best approach; if the Australian leader wanted to discuss his views he could do so in front of the other Dominion prime ministers and let them express their opinions back.13 The FO agreed that this was too complicated a subject and it would be best to leave the initiative to the visiting Dominion leaders. Any discussion on the subject would have to avoid the use of the word 'machinery' as this would likely lead to misgivings in Canada; 'methods' was the specific word to be adopted. There was also an argument from the FO that securing an understanding on how collaboration at the lower level might function was possibly more important than any other; discussions among civil servants, and any agreement that could be reached, was deemed to commit the respective Dominion governments to given courses of action. The proposal therefore was for a meeting of officials to take place after the conference had finished. Apparently taking the lead on the question, the FO recognized the need to improve the current position although with the considerable caveat 'as far as circumstances permit'. As the intra-Whitehall discussions gathered pace it even proposed that some form of discussion about improving methods should be encouraged among the Dominions themselves as this would 'help to overcome inertia'.14

Despite this keen interest it was Cranborne who actually produced the memorandum which considered the question of future cooperation within the British Commonwealth. The Dominions secretary felt that Curtin would raise his proposals, but doubted whether they would find much support. The official policy so far from the British government had been to refrain from committing itself. While Australia wanted a more effective voice in the framing of policy, Mackenzie King, as he had made clear with public responses to the Curtin proposals and Halifax's Toronto speech, was satisfied with the existing system and was opposed to any alterations. He wanted to ensure that Canada could influence world policy and did not believe that this could be achieved by closer linkage with the Commonwealth. His preference was for a worldwide organization in which Canada could play a leading part. Smuts had indicated his support for the idea of another great Power to counter-balance the Soviet Union and United States and was prepared to see closer links, not just with the nations of the Commonwealth but also with other countries in North-Western Europe. New Zealand had made no public comment on the matter but it was likely that there would be some support for its Tasman neighbour. Changes in machinery would be considered with an open mind but would need to be approved by all. He proposed therefore that some compromise suggestions be offered. These entailed a regular annual meeting of ministers concerned with foreign policy, subject to three of the four Dominions splitting the portfolios of 'external relations' and prime minister, something that was thought likely to work more effectively in the post-war international political system. The other option was for some kind of formalization of the meetings with the Dominion high commissioners or expanding the number of liaison officers who could maintain stronger links within Whitehall.15

Responding to Cranborne's paper at the next Ministerial Committee meeting, Amery was critical of this proposed permanent secretariat, 'an Empire post office' whose role would merely be to exchange and collate information and prepare the agenda for more formal meetings. He could not see anything wrong with Curtin's proposal. The FO's representative also stressed that the Australian leader's ideas should not be dismissed as impracticable. While Mackenzie King might be opposed to the idea he judged that the other Dominions were not and with 'the benevolent neutrality of His Majesty's Government' it was possible that Canada might drop some or all of its objections.16 Within the FO there was also little real support for any possibly higher profile for the London-based Dominion representatives who, it was considered, would be unlikely to 'add any weight to the Councils of the Empire'.17 J. D. Greenway who, pre-war, had served in the British Embassy in Moscow, giving him something of an established diplomatic pedigree, was prominent with his criticism. He thought that progress was 'disappointing and somewhat timid' and was certain some form of machinery could be devised that would not be hamstrung by Canada choosing not to join. Curtin's proposed permanent secretariat did not seem such a bad idea.

If this was the most important issue to be addressed before the Dominion leaders arrived in London, the question of military cooperation was not far behind. From the Committee's earliest meeting the DO's argument was that it would be best to try and secure some form of approval for continued joint planning at the staff level in the hope that this might lead eventually to planning on the political or ministerial level. As Eric Machtig put it, 'we would be wise, particularly in view of Canadian idiosyncrasies, not to fly too high'. Proposals put forward by Bevin were, therefore, considerably more than had been envisaged. A letter from him to the Chairman recommended that the Empire be split into zones: Australia and New Zealand would be the Pacific Area; South Africa would be the nucleus of an area stretching as far north as Kenya; Canada would take responsibility with America for the Pacific and the Atlantic; Britain would accept responsibility for the defence of the Commonwealth in relation to Europe. Such a scheme, he argued, would also see benefits in terms of promoting trade and intra-Imperial immigration. The FO saw various potential issues with the suggested Canadian role—specifically how the US might respond and the danger that the government in Ottawa might choose not to be involved—but they appreciated its 'big' nature. The DO deemed this to be going much too far when it would be difficult enough simply to secure a continuance of the existing liaison machinery that had developed during the war. Amery also had written to Cranborne stressing that future defence collaboration needed to be considered as a matter of priority but many of his ideas were also a little too enthusiastic.18

The determining answers would come from the experts and Cranborne had approached the chiefs of staff asking that they prepare papers on the main issues involved by the end of March. It was proposed that the immediate military situation, the war against Japan, the military aspect of the post-war settlement and the coordination of defence within the post-war British Commonwealth would all be raised during the conference. As the meeting would be short they could only be tackled in a general fashion without any detailed arrangements, and the committee was anxious to avoid placing any 'cut-and-dried proposals' before the visitors.19 With papers submitted by the chiefs on 'Policing of Europe' and 'United Nations' Bases in Relation to General Security Organisation',20 the main memorandum reviewed the system of Imperial Defence and examined how it had worked before 1939 and the changes that had taken place as a result of the war. On the whole, the comments it had to make about future collaboration on defence were positive. Australia and New Zealand were felt to have recognized the need to strengthen their links with the centre, 'they see the advantages of securing that the whole weight of the British Commonwealth shall be applied in future situations in which they might be involved'. It was anticipated that the Tasman Dominions would require inclusion in the central formulation of any future world security system but, also, that they would be prepared 'to take their full share' of ensuing responsibilities. The South African view was less clear but was felt likely to be broadly similar. Canada, however, was recognized as being different because of its relationship with its southern neighbour and the corresponding desire to retain a more independent stance. One WO reviewer of a draft of this paper had complained that it did not really bring out the need for a strong British Commonwealth as part of the post-war system, what he saw as 'the big point' that needed to be made to the Dominion leaders when they visited. To him it was clear that Australia, New Zealand and South Africa could be counted upon to adopt closer ties and commitments within the British Commonwealth. The authorities in Ottawa could, perhaps, be persuaded to look favourably upon the existing system by being told that they would have no voice if they stood alone and telling them that they must choose between London and Washington. By a neat calculation it was assumed, therefore, that remaining within the Commonwealth would be recognized as the only solution 'if she is to make her voice heard'.

Ultimately these two issues would appear to have been the most heavily worked on with political and civil service input coming from far and wide. That is not to say that there were not other important areas that were highlighted. Other papers were submitted on education matters, post-war shipping policy and the disposal of former Italian colonies. As the committee secretary noted, these were only part of a rather 'formidable array'; 'International regional bodies in colonial areas', 'Future of the French Colonial Empire', 'Migration' and items focused on the actual mechanics of how the conference itself would be run were all included.21 Investigations were also made about a possible appreciation of American thinking over its future role in the Pacific but this proved too difficult to arrange beyond a series of unofficial comments.22 There was also the question of the future intentions of the Soviet Union to be considered, a subject of particular interest to Smuts.23 Additional preparations also needed to be made, Eden being asked to prepare a statement on the proposed post-war settlement under two headings, the political aspect of post-war organization and the future of Germany.24

The curtain raiser to the Dominion prime ministers' visit took place the month before when, in April 1944, a two-day debate on Dominion affairs was held in the House of Commons. This offered an opportunity for parliamentarians to express their opinions while the press coverage recognized that it could not be seen as 'an occasion for a declaration of Imperial policy'. This was the first time since he had become prime minister that Churchill would speak specifically on the Dominions and, as such, Cranborne was asked to prepare him a lengthy briefing paper. The Dominions secretary was asked to identify any points that critics of the government might raise and, while he considered this a difficult challenge, he did offer seven areas that he thought were of greatest concern. These included any suggestion that the government should take a lead in pressing the Dominions to enter into closer cooperation. There was also a chance that the levels of pre-war cooperation—both in terms of defence and foreign policies—might be criticized as having been inadequate or that participation by the Dominions in any future war could not be counted upon. Curtin's proposal was an obvious subject that could be raised, migration, Imperial Preference and the Dominions' interest in colonial affairs made up the list. Cranborne was able to provide simple single sentence rejoinders to deal with any questions that might focus on these issues; just to be on the safe side, he also provided another ten pages of notes and reference material.25 The line it was suggested Churchill take was that the meeting was an informal discussion, nothing more and nothing less, and it would be wise not to advocate to any particular suggestion or proposal in advance.

The debate itself was recorded as having been marked by some 'plain and straightforward speaking'. There were 27 speakers on the first day, drawn from all the parties, including in their ranks Messrs Winterton, Granville and Shinwell, each notable contributors to the wider debate that had taken place throughout the war. Added to these was an intriguing mix, some from rural wards, others from large cities, some self-avowed Imperialists, others talking of the shameful exploitation that had been suffered by the Colonial Empire. At the end of this opening salvo Hugh Dalton finished on behalf of the government. Time and again he returned to the central position, the forthcoming meeting was to be informal in nature 'conducted between equals at the family council table'.26Fourteen new speakers rose the following day to add their observations, reflections and, more often than not, their advice as to how the 'Imperial Idea' should be developed in the years to come. Beverley Baxter, Canadian by birth, journalist by trade and Conservative by calling, made perhaps the most telling observation when he noted: 'The neglect of the Empire over the last 25 years is not one of the proudest moments of this great Assembly. It did not matter in those fateful days between the two wars what the particular subject of foreign affairs was, it drew this House like a striptease revue. But once the Dominions or the Empire was being discussed, the indifference was chilling to a degree.' As he concluded, all sides had been as bad as one another and if there had been greater interest in all things Empire, both at home and abroad, it might have been the case that Hitler would have been restrained and the Nazi party would have collapsed.

When Churchill finally rose he did so to tell the House that the debate had been a great success. There followed an opportunity for him to wax lyrical on his understanding of Empire, ideas extolling the spirit of Kipling and sprinkled liberally with historical and anecdotal metaphor. It was the by now traditional tour de force although low on harangue, instead much more soothing in tone and structure. The British Commonwealth and Empire had never been more united but the system needed to be modernized so that those nations involved could be better advised of world events and better aware of what each was thinking. It was a surprisingly progressive speech, in light of many of his wartime observations and instructions, and would appear to have augured well for the conference soon about to begin. According to Time, 'for two days men of all parties hailed Commonwealth and Empire' and it had provided the prime minister with 'a jubilant stage ... in his imperial role'. Even Shinwell, previously noted for his clashes with Churchill on Empire-related questions, seemed prepared to offer him his support. As the magazine noted: 'Every Churchillian turn got a cheer [as] he beamed, waved, chuckled ... Ever jealous of Empire, and now equally committed to world association, Churchill hoped for the best.' Nonetheless it was clear from his comments and the tone of his speech that he was still thinking of a Commonwealth centred in London where the British government could bring greatest influence to bear.27

The gathering of Dominion prime ministers followed shortly afterwards. Because the emphasis was on it being a personal exchange of views and not a full Imperial Conference, they did not bring any ministerial colleagues and were accompanied by a small staff. Fraser and Curtin travelled via the United States. The Canadians flew direct. Smuts flew in his own aircraft to Cairo, accompanied in the end by Sir Godfrey Huggins, the Southern Rhodesian leader, to whom it had been decided to extend an invitation; there Churchill's personal plane was waiting for both of them to complete the journey to London.28 The seven-strong Canadian delegation were centred at the Dorchester Hotel, the Australians and New Zealanders, 18 in total including the prime ministers' wives, settled into the Savoy, while the much smaller South African party, just four in total, made do with the Hyde Park Hotel. Special telephones with scrambler equipment were installed in the suites of each of the Dominion leaders. In addition Curtin and Fraser were allotted offices in the War Cabinet Rooms; Mackenzie King and Smuts preferred to work in their hotels and arrangements were made to assist them.29 The Dominion leaders were invited to attend the Monday War Cabinet and any other war-related meetings that were deemed appropriate. In addition there would be two meetings a day of the actual Conference both held in the Cabinet Room at No. 10 Downing Street; the only exception was the two general reviews of the war situation which took place in the Prime Minister's Map Room at the War Cabinet office.30 The timetable covered ten days, but there were plenty of gaps with only eleven specially convened sessions and the invites to attend the War Cabinet gatherings; on seven of the days there was just a single meeting. A draft schedule showing a two-week programme was also given to each of them upon their arrival, but it was subsequently found to be impracticable to adhere to these plans. The Dominion leaders made various suggestions as to the order on which the subjects should be discussed and it proved impossible to forecast with any degree of accuracy how long would be spent on each. As a result the detailed agenda issued the night before a meeting was the only firm indication of arrangements. To keep each of the prime ministers fully informed it was agreed that, aside from messages received from their home governments, that they would receive various FO telegrams and the weekly résumé of the military situation during their stay. Ultimately no papers were circulated in advance, only the main points for discussion were sent to them. Ten papers were circulated during the course of the meeting and several of these were intended as providing further clarification about points that had arisen during the discussions. A reviewer of the events that took place, writing some time afterwards, commented that because it had not been intended to produce a series of formal resolutions this 'made it all the easier for discussion to be developed on broad lines and unnecessary detail to be avoided'.31

Socially no effort was spared to impress the Imperial guests. The Conference opened with a dinner party at Buckingham Palace; the King had asked beforehand for a briefing of the current political situation in each of the Dominions and this was augmented by a personal report from Cranborne in late April of the most recent developments.32 Each of the overseas leaders was also the guest-of-honour for their own hosted lunch as Cranborne was keen to ensure that they would all have an opportunity to make an important public speech. Smuts would visit Birmingham where he would receive the Freedom of the City. In addition Mackenzie King was invited to address members of both Houses at Westminster—he was said to 'excel' in parliamentary surroundings—while both Curtin and Fraser had the Freedom of the City of London conferred upon them in a grand ceremony at the Guildhall.33 Initially it had been agreed that private individuals and bodies were to be discouraged from extending social invites to the assembled leaders. The official record noted that 'in the event it turned out that the prime ministers were rather embarrassed by the number of invitations they received to attend official or semi-official parties'. The problem was that many of these were issued by Whitehall departments with no reference to what other engagements were taking place. Also it was clear that the secretariat had been largely ignored.34

At the first meeting there were 28 British ministers, military officers or civil servants present; the Dominions between them—not including representatives from India and Southern Rhodesia who had also been invited—mustered 15 in total. The number of British officials—with the exception of those most directly connected—was supposed to be based on the number of Dominion officials present; the rule was that they should not attend unless specially needed. Dominion high commissioners were also to be discouraged from attending. As it had been repeatedly stressed that these were to be intimate meetings, some of the Dominion guests were a little annoyed at the consistently large numbers of British officials who tried to attend subsequent meetings. So much so that Churchill was asked to offer a soothing comment or two along the lines of how important the topics were and how important it was thought to hear the views of the visiting statesmen from the Empire.35 The meetings were recorded in the normal form used for War Cabinet Conclusions with the possibility of additional confidential annexes being added at a subsequent date. The draft minutes were sent to each of the prime ministers for them to make amendments but very few were forthcoming; a bound final version was available for when Mackenzie King, the first to leave, departed for Ottawa. They also received a completed set of records as did members of the War Cabinet, the Service ministers and chiefs of staff in London and the DO and supporting secretariat. Copies with the confidential annexes removed were given a much wider distribution. Finally, the Ministry of Information was responsible for dealing with the media. This was clearly an important part of a meeting for which the intention was to demonstrate Imperial unity and the arrangements had been discussed in some detail as part of the pre-conference committee process. Cranborne held four press conferences during the period and the Dominion leaders also spoke individually, both to correspondents from their own Dominions and to the British press.36 The Conference's opening was reported prominently in The Times and the other leading newspapers, and regular stories were published throughout the meetings and in leading journals.37

The most detailed account of the Conference is provided by the meticulous summary sent the following month to British Heads of Mission. Understandably this was dominated by references that had been made to foreign affairs and it was stressed to the readers that accounts of the proceedings had been given a most restricted distribution in London and should therefore be regarded as being 'most secret'.38 The Conference began at noon exactly on 1 May with a brief address from Churchill on the immediate war situation. He told his audience that they had gathered to take stock of affairs and whilst he did not expect them to reach conclusions to all the problems that 'confront the British Empire and vex mankind' this would be an overdue opportunity to exchange views and ideas. More than that, it would allow them to show the watching world and the 'very powerful Allies' with whom they had fought, what they were about. With a typical flourish he had concluded that the meeting would demonstrate that the British Empire and Commonwealth 'stands together, woven into one family of nations capable of solving our common problems in full loyalty to the supreme cause for which we have drawn the sword'.39 Mackenzie King thought these comments to be 'most impressive' and 'reassuring'.

Eden's review of foreign affairs followed. According to the comments given to Britain's ambassadors these were well received with general praise being given for the way in which wartime foreign policy had been handled. It was further, pointedly, noted that there was 'entire satisfaction with the arrangements that had been made to keep them in close and effective touch with developments'. These comments were 'particularly gratifying'. Fraser thought that British policy had been right; Curtin did not know how it could have been done better than it had; even Mackenzie King thought that difficult situations had been 'handled marvellously' and in such a way as to command 'the strongest possible admiration'. All this seemed very different to some of the stinging comments that had been received on the DO's deciphering systems during the course of the war. While brief reference was made to the other meetings—monetary and commercial, colonial policy, shipping and migration—special mention was also given to the two full meetings that had been devoted to the post-war settlement. Even in the flowery diplomatic prose of the Foreign Service, it was clear that there had been some tensions during these discussions despite these having been confined to 'broad principles'. Mackenzie King had made it clear that there could not be a single Commonwealth spokesman at any future discussions; each would speak with their own voice. He was willing to offer British representatives the 'fortification' that the Dominions would be 'of one mind with them', and the knowledge that this was 'a body of nations that normally acted in concert'. But such balm would only be given if adequate consultation had taken place beforehand.

The issue identified beforehand as being potentially the most contentious, future Commonwealth cooperation, was saved for the penultimate meeting. Curtin began by announcing he no longer intended to pursue his proposals of the previous year which he now recognized were clearly unacceptable to Canada and also possibly to South Africa. This, in the end, was not entirely unexpected. Curtin had given a press conference soon after his arrival in which he extolled some of his thinking about a permanent secretariat. It was reported back to the FO by somebody who had been present that at this the Australian leader was 'very frank throughout' and had said that he would be prepared to take what he could get and explained that 'if three would agree, why then, let's have a secretariat for three'.40 Discussion had followed among the Dominions about the idea, the result of which seemed to be that he was now prepared to confine himself to ideas for improvement based on generally informal means such as periodic meetings of ministers and expansion of liaison staffs; not a permanent executive group as had been contemplated in the text of the Anzac agreement. His final proposal was very similar to that which the FO had argued for, that a small technical committee might be formed including representatives from Britain and the Dominions to consider the whole question of cooperation.41 He would later confide that he had been disappointed that his plans for closer unity did not receive more of a hearing and it was noted that neither Churchill nor Smuts had attended the meeting that discussed the proposals.42 He was though prepared to accept the inevitable and the conclusion following the meeting was that the prime ministers seemed most satisfied with the existing methods of consultation.43

The conclusion of the FO's long review of the Conference sent to the overseas diplomatic corps was that it had been 'successful beyond our hopes'. The atmosphere had been 'strikingly friendly' and discussions had been completely frank. There had, however, been one striking exception to this and, unsurprisingly, it had come from Churchill. With their enthusiastic support for the League of Nations, the New Zealanders were especially interested in ideas regarding any future world organization and it had been the British leader who had submitted the relevant paper. His ideas for Regional Leagues under a World Council had been politely dismissed even by Cranborne who, having seen them at the draft phase and in his attempt to dissuade the prime minister from introducing them to the Conference, had pointed to his knowledge of how the League of Nations had failed. He had spent a long period at Geneva while serving in the pre-war FO and had seen first-hand how it had worked, but this did little to improve the merits of his observations.44 Churchill was pressing for a United States of Europe with a Council in which Britain, the United States and the Soviets would all be members. While Fraser was prepared to recognize the British paper as 'a valuable contribution', Berendsen was said to be highly critical of the British proposals.45 A protest ensued forcing the FO to convene a special meeting at which it was agreed that the British leader would withdraw his paper. The alternatives of 'the supreme body versus general mob' would be reconsidered by the professional Whitehall bureaucrats who would put the argument in a more balanced way to produce a revised version that would be amenable to all of the Dominions. The DO was upset at this outcome, believing the FO to have adopted an 'unfortunate' approach; Machtig thought that the contents of the revised paper were quite different from what had been agreed at the Conference. The DO believed that it was entirely clear that the Dominions had rejected both of Churchill's key suggestions, the unitary representation of the British Commonwealth and the idea that regional organizations would act as representatives on any future World Council.46 Yet the new document still supported Churchill's point of 'capital importance', and that there should be some European regional machine.47 The re-draft was savaged when it was put before the Dominion diplomats who had been left behind in London to discuss such matters, the allegation being that it contained ideas which had not been approved at the full conference. The proposal that Britain alone might represent all of the Dominions on any future World Council was particularly abhorrent to the overseas representatives.

For each of the Dominion leaders, their visit to London had a different effect. The FO's summary had noted that Curtin in particular had conducted himself in a praiseworthy fashion, his visit having been remarkably successful in demonstrating his ability to stand out among his fellow prime ministers. He had 'hit it off' well with the British leader and admitted his 'boundless' admiration for the British war effort. Fraser also, despite some doubts about the conduct of the war in the Mediterranean and Italy, was assuaged by Churchill's exposition and left in a positive frame of mind. It was noted that Mackenzie King had proven as reluctant as had been expected to commit Canada to specific Commonwealth proposals. He had, however, remained throughout 'most helpful, friendly and enthusiastic' and it was believed that he had returned home well satisfied. Smuts was 'as always a source of strength and inspiration'. The South African had commented in his closing address to the Conference that while it had not been a formal meeting, what had been achieved was successful and 'amazing' under the conditions prevailing in an atmosphere and spirit unlike any he had experienced at previous gatherings. As another writer put it, it had not been expected that Curtin would be such a success; aside from Smuts, 'an international statesman of the Churchill-Roosevelt calibre', his performance was judged to have placed him 'head and shoulders above the other PMs'.48

Some of the doubts about what to expect had been based on the warnings received by the DO beforehand that the Australian leader had been in 'a far from cheerful mood' about the Conference. Indeed, in February 1944, a visiting DO official returned from Canberra with the news that Curtin was not interested in international affairs and would likely still refuse any invitation to visit London. According to Cross, he was apparently apprehensive about the prospect of meeting with Churchill and uncertain about how he would compare to the other Dominion leaders, both in terms of his statesmanship and his stature. He returned home full of self-assurance, feeling that he was 'in every sense one of the brotherhood'. He was also particularly pleased to have formed a strong friendship with the British leader and extolled the degree to which it was vital for the Commonwealth and the Empire that he remained in power for the duration of the war. He felt 'the hatchet had been buried' over 1942 and the high commissioner believed that Australian cooperation would in future be 'more sympathetic' and 'pliant' than in the past. Overall the experience was likely to introduce a new degree of understanding and cordiality and greatly enhance Anglo-Australian relations. Press correspondents who had returned to Canberra brought with them the message that 'Curtin is now as British as Churchill'.49

Curtin briefed the Australian parliament in mid-July on what he had learnt during his trip. It was an upbeat and optimistic review in which he made quite apparent his renewed support for the need to maintain the appearance of a unified Commonwealth. He stressed that the smaller members should offer their views in a discrete fashion allowing them to be discussed within the group who might then develop 'a friendly acceptability' to them. As he concluded, 'we cannot approach by a crude and blatant declaration the problem of getting other countries to see our point of view'. However sincere the sentiment, this all seemed a little ironic in light of the events surrounding the Anzac agreement and the controversy it had caused. It was commented on in the local press about it being axiomatic that Britain should take the initiative in British Commonwealth relations in Europe, but it was appreciated the way in which the main partner 'refrained from trying to assert any political domination'.50 After some reflection the value of Curtin's speech was in fact generally doubted, and the lack of new information it provided was widely criticized. There was, however, some agreement that the promise that large and powerful British forces would soon be fighting in the Pacific region had offered a practical indication of how the power and prestige of the Empire would be restored.51

Mackenzie King's biographer claimed that the Canadian approached his second wartime visit to Britain in a much more positive frame of mind. His position at home was now secure, while he and Churchill had become quite friendly and he had no uneasiness about his reception in London. His diary entries during his stay at the Dorchester, never noted for their brevity, were fulsome as is reflected in the length of the relevant chapter in the volume.52 This seems at odds with the view of one official in Canada House who recorded that his prime minister believed such meetings should be 'for consultation and cooperation but not for the formulation or preparation of policies'. He did not want to work through the Empire towards broader affiliations and, as a result, was said to 'mistrust the whole thing'.53 The Canadian might have arrived in an apprehensive frame of mind but he left reassured by the results of the Conference, although nothing could remove the view that the speeches by Halifax and Smuts expressed the official views of the British government. His speech to the combined House of Commons and Lords was recognized as a warning not to mess with the existing system. The Commonwealth was not founded on racial ties but on the ideals of freedom and justice. This was seen as evidence that if any attempts were made to strengthen political and economic ties Canada would not offer its support. The Canadian leader was widely seen to have 'won on points', he had got his message across to the Whitehall crowd.54 In fact, for Mackenzie King the Conference was a great public relations coup and on his return to Ottawa airport he was greeted by members of the public and politicians of all sides; ovations and civic receptions followed. This was all due to his having been seen to have spoken on behalf of all Canadians, successfully pleading the Dominion's case. It was deemed astonishing within the British High Commission that a man who had considered holding a divisive election on 'the Empire issue' following Halifax's speech only a few months before should have enjoyed his visit so much and returned with such apparently fond sentiments, telling all that he had 'never been more proud to be a citizen of the British Commonwealth'.55

Smuts' visit had re-emphasized the degree to which he was treated differently than the other Dominion leaders. Instructions had been given by Churchill before he arrived that the South African was to be allowed to view any documents of interest as there was nothing seen by the British prime minister that could not be seen by the field marshal. It was stressed that, in this respect he was to be 'treated on an entirely different footing' from his counterparts. As a result, every morning and afternoon a pile of sensitive documents were despatched to South Africa House in Trafalgar Square; included among these were copies of Churchill's personal telegrams, Heads of State telegrams in their special locked boxes, along with any other papers he wished to see connected with military operations. Whenever the South African leader had visited London he had been allowed such apparently unrestricted access to Whitehall's documents; the other Dominion leaders had been given much less.56 The younger Smuts had once again accompanied his father and noted in his diary at the Conference's conclusion: 'The Conference has been largely exploratory and no real resolutions have been thrashed out, but it does indicate for the future that we can at least get together and discuss contentious subjects in a friendly mood. The range of subjects covered was very comprehensive and most of the delegates will leave with a sound background to current world affairs ... There has been much mutual patting on the back. So we are all happy and beaming.'57 While his counterparts went home, Smuts stayed on and took great pleasure in accompanying Churchill on visits to the coalition forces who were preparing for the imminent invasion of Normandy.

As for Fraser, he had repeated Savage's pledge that 'where Britain goes, we go; where she stands, we stand'. He had also made himself and his country heard about how the Empire should approach the question of a future international security organization. He left London to visit New Zealand troops fighting in Italy and stood at the ruined site of the monastery at Monte Cassino, before going on to Egypt and then home via the United States. On his return to New Zealand he had travelled over 8,000 miles and once again demonstrated that he had a gift for oratory that could, on occasion, rival that of Churchill himself. As he told the House of Representatives in a fitting example of this talent, 'here is a paradox the world outside the British Commonwealth finds it difficult to understand -the paradox that, the freer we become, the closer we draw together; the more our constitutional bonds are relaxed, the more closely we are held in bonds of friendship ... the more truly we are one in sentiment, in heart, and spirit, one in peace, as well as in war'.58 This in many respects was an entirely fitting epitaph for the Conference, far better than the flowery final statement that each of the leaders had signed at its conclusion.59

Speaking in the House of Lords in the first days of January 1945, Cranborne was still finding reason to praise the meeting that had taken place the previous year. Those pessimists who had prophesied that the Statute of Westminster would mean the beginning of the dissolution of the Empire had been proven visibly wrong. He could claim that there was a different reality in which material and spiritual ties were actually stronger than ever before. He also proposed that the Dominions could build on this in peacetime by having an annual prime minister's meeting.60 To British writers at the time the Conference had been a 'milestone in history'.61 More intriguingly, the largely American readership of Time was told that Churchill 'had neither qualified nor abandoned Britain's belief that she must have the Commonwealth and Empire behind her in order to remain a Great Power'.62 The idea that the Dominions might form a bloc had been—at least temporarily—abandoned. Instead, those assembled had publicly agreed that there should be a world organization which would allow them to 'gather around Britain as closely or as loosely as they pleased'. Despite the apparent success of the London meeting and the renewed vows of loyalty and unity of Empire that had spewed forth, the process of creating this United Nations would demonstrate just how much the wartime experience had changed the Anglo-Dominion alliance.

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