Losing an Empire

The Parliament in Westminster dispersed for its summer vacation after hearing the prime minister's survey of military and diplomatic affairs, delivered with an unmistakeable note of victory. In June 1944 Allied military forces liberated Rome, OperationOverlord successfully began the re-invasion of occupied France and in Eastern Europe Russian troops were advancing along a huge front. In Burma Commonwealth forces—not just British but also Indian and native African troops—were pushing the Japanese onto the defensive. American-led forces were on the point of expelling the Japanese from northern New Guinea and Admiral Nimitz had defeated the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Philippine Sea. Although there was still a great deal of fighting ahead the end could be seen and the Dominions were centrally involved: New Zealand and South African troops were heavily committed in Italy, the large Canadian land force was playing a key role in north-west Europe, Australian forces were proving their worth in New Guinea. This did not include, of course, the continuing efforts of Dominion sailors and airmen who had fought the longest war on the seas and in the air in various theatres throughout the course of the global conflict.1

Adding to Churchill's sense of well-being, the meeting of the Empire's prime ministers had also been a great success and the unity of the coalition never appeared to have been stronger. The British leader had himself described it as the 'highest pinnacle' to which this 'worldwide family organization' had yet reached. As The Round Table warned, however, great as the achievement had been, there was a need to beware, the danger being that 'hope and resolve' might turn into 'complacency and inaction'. This august monitor of Imperial affairs had detected a problem, the relationship of the last five years had been based upon a common goal, defeating the aggressor, but post-war Commonwealth relations would be different. Each of the Dominions was bound not just by the value which it attached to its historical position in the Empire but also its regional position and the development of a future international security organization. 'As nations they pursue their separate national interests; as members of the group they share the group responsibilities as well as the group resources.' It was indeed potentially something of a paradox.2

The recent London meeting had been keenly watched on the other side of the Atlantic. Halifax had telegraphed back from Washington just before its start to say that the decisions that were reached would likely have considerable influence on American policymakers. As he put it, 'if the result demonstrates Commonwealth solidarity respect for us will increase and vice versa'. He cautioned, however, that any reference to Imperial Preference, or indeed economic questions in general could prove disastrous, having a negative impact on willingness to consider plans for cooperation and the attitude towards Lend-Lease. If this could be avoided he believed it would encourage a desire to work with the Commonwealth. He believed 'a good deal would depend on this' and the FO generally agreed with his comments. Post-Conference the department concluded that American opinion thought Mackenzie King had triumphed in defeating calls for the Commonwealth to be more coordinated and centralized. He had also successfully opposed the efforts of those Dominion leaders who wanted the Commonwealth bloc to have a bigger say in the discussions about the post-war organization. Nonetheless it was also believed that the outcome should have been satisfactory to both American and the British alike, confirming that 'the Commonwealth can no longer be regarded as an end in itself' and showing the rest of the world that 'the Commonwealth is far from moribund'.3

The only concern was that the American press was judged not really to have realized the Conference's significance; radio comments monitored in the British Embassy had included 'a certain amount of talk about "glittering phrases of which people have begun to grow tired"'.4 MacDonald in the High Commission in Ottawa therefore took it upon himself to double his efforts to better explain to the North American audience what the Empire stood for or at very least his interpretation. He had produced a series of rough notes in the spring of 1943, later titled as 'Some Thoughts on the Post-War Position of the British Commonwealth of Nations', which had been distributed throughout Britain's overseas posts.5 Following Lord Halifax's Toronto speech he had promised London that he would provide a more detailed study of Imperial cooperation and his new treatise, which covered 22 tightly typed pages, was delivered in April 1944 with apologies for the long delay in its production.6 This new document had generated scant praise in Whitehall, but it did not appear to deter him from his self-appointed role. Taking the message directly to the target, he told an audience in Boston in October 1944, it would be best for everybody if the ignorance which existed could be overcome and both Americans and Britons could be better informed about each other. The main purpose of British Imperial rule, as it now stood, was to extend freedom 'to all the peoples of the British Colonies, Burma, India and the Dominions, whatever their race, colour or creed'. It might have been more akin to propaganda than education but it was considered to be of stalwart value by those reviewing it—and no doubt helping prepare it—within the High Commission who extolled London to read these excellent speeches being made by MacDonald. Examining the speeches in the DO, what was noted was the undesirable tone and content and Emrys-Evans was clearly upset. This most recent speech was 'altogether too apologetic about the British Empire. It is not good from a historical point of view and merely confirms the Americans in the view held among a large part of the population that the United States introduced constitutional government into this country and the Commonwealth.' He believed that such speeches did not help to improve Anglo-American relations or 'bring any light into the darkness of American ignorance of our Imperial developments'. Cranborne was less scathing but he also could not agree with MacDonald's almost sycophantic praise of American political institutions. In the Dominions secretary's view, the reality was that 'they learned almost all they know on this subject from us, and if they had modelled their constitution more closely on ours, they would be in a much happier situation today'.7

The quest for unity dominated discussions and debate throughout what was to prove to be the penultimate year of the war and a commonly heard theme was the danger that the rest of the world faced if the alliance collapsed. A speaker at the Empire Club in Toronto—where Halifax had ignited a crisis—believed at least one of the causes of the two great conflicts of the century had been that Britain's enemies had believed the Dominions were 'so unconcerned for her interests, so remote if not actually hostile in purpose, as to be negligible in a forecast of comparative fighting strength'. The challenge would be to ensure that this never happened again.8 Elsewhere a contributor to Empire Review was convinced that a united Commonwealth would 'save the world future torture', all that was needed to secure this was realistic diplomacy and straight-speaking.9 Mackenzie King's address to the combined House of Commons and Lords in May 1944 was pored over in the FO for clues as to his thoughts on the subject. As a result of this analysis, it seemed the only way to maintain the Commonwealth was the successful establishment of an international authority, one in which unity could be preserved in so much as the Dominions, although associated with other powers, would likely act together. Were there to be no organization, the Whitehall reviewers feared that the Commonwealth 'would gradually cease to exist', or it would 'exist only in part'. Some form of continental isolationism would be encouraged in Canada and South Africa, while Australia and New Zealand would be 'driven into the arms of the United States'. Although such conclusions were seen elsewhere in the same department as being unduly pessimistic, here was evidence of the gloom that existed.10

Another key tool in this research process was the FO's memorandum on the future of the Empire which had been distributed the previous year and was generating a 'flood of suggestions' from the overseas embassies. Perhaps the most incisive of these came from Halifax, fresh from his recent brush with Dominion sensitivities.11 He offered a both perceptive and far-sighted view, taking issue with the central idea that Britain could preserve its 'Great Power' status without the support of the Dominions. He recognized the changing nature of the relationship, even if some of his colleagues in London did not, and disagreed with the notion that there could remain 'any lingering tendency to assume that the members of the Commonwealth are in any way less than equal'. He counselled that there should no longer be talk of 'preserving' or 'maintaining' the Commonwealth 'as if it were a venerable but hoary building which has to be shored and buttressed if it is not to tumble down'. Not until October 1944 was a précis available of all the responses, and it took the form of a draft FO programme for promoting better Commonwealth cooperation. All new candidates for the Foreign Service would be encouraged to spend part of their training period in a Dominion and refresher courses of lectures on the British Commonwealth and Empire would be given to serving officials. It was also agreed that members of the DO would, in appropriate cases, be attached to British Embassies where other Commonwealth governments were represented and junior FO staff would be attached to the High Commissions in Canada and South Africa. Even nomenclature was considered. Reminding the reader that the term 'Commonwealth' actually connoted Britain and the Dominions, it was stressed that it whenever possible would be well received. One oft-advanced suggestion which it was agreed not to include was that the DO and FO should be amalgamated; despite the obvious lingering contempt shown by many of the ambassadors it remained official policy that relations with the Dominions required special handling and their own Whitehall department.

The DO was generally content with the submission. There were, however, some reservations about the 'somewhat patronizing tone' in places and the degree to which the special nature of the relationship between Britain and the Dominions was not necessarily brought out. The British high commissioners in their distant outposts had also been asked for their views about this document. From the High Commission in Ottawa, despite not agreeing with all of the points that were made, it was seen as encouraging that the FO should be taking an interest in Commonwealth matters. There were, however, some telling criticisms. The paper appeared to have been written from a 'superior standpoint', one which seemed 'to regard the Dominions as strange animals which require special treatment'. The Dominions were in fact 'good friends or ours', who if treated in an adult way as being able to 'form their own views' could be of great help, not only in terms of defining the future relationship but also helping find common ground with the United States. There were also some agreement with Halifax and his doubts that Britain could be a Great Power without the Dominions. Batterbee thought it to be generally sound both in terms of the picture it presented and the conclusions it reached. He did, however, note that the memorandum failed to carry any disclaimer saying that it did not represent the official view of the government and worried about this omission presumably because of how it might have been interpreted by certain of his diplomatic colleagues. In his view Britain held its position in the world because it had 'long been regarded as the champion of political liberty'. In order to maintain its position at the head of the Commonwealth, enabling in the process 'the Commonwealth to endure', there was a need to show a much greater interest in social and economic liberty and this was entirely overlooked in the FO's conclusions.12

Wider public attention was inevitably increasingly focused on the myriad discussions to determine the nature of the post-war international system. One of these was the meeting held in Chicago in November and December 1944 involving delegates of 52 nations to plan for international cooperation in the field of air navigation in the years following the war's end. As Attlee had explained at the beginning of a long debate in the House of Commons the year before, Britain's need was urgent as it was at the centre of a great Commonwealth and Empire, a quarter of the world's inhabitants 'scattered over every Continent'.13 What he did not say was that concerns about American rivalry over air routes, which had existed since before the war, had worsened as its attempts to dominate had become much more obvious. A November 1944 high commissioners' meeting in London was dominated by bitter warnings that the United States now regarded the air as 'something created by divine providence for them to dominate' and it degenerated into 'a chorus of anti-Americanism'.14 In this light the International Conference on Aviation might not have been the best venue to test the cohesive nature of the alliance. This proved to be the case; following the meeting a long and secret report was produced by the DO's representative and it made for difficult reading. It was a 'depressing' account for Cranborne to read, who claimed to have had no idea of 'the divergences in the British Commonwealth' when the intention should have been to settle on 'a united Empire policy'. The Canadian delegation had been especially difficult and it was feared that there might be a rift as an outcome. It was believed that the Ottawa attendees were more concerned with modifying the British viewpoint to meet that of the United States' delegation than arriving at a common Empire policy. The result was that they were 'unfortunately mistrusted', and not just by the British but also by the other Dominions. There were nightly meetings of the British Commonwealth delegates to discuss progress and future policy but the Canadians declined to attend and generally appeared to have a tendency to disappear for long periods of the conference.15 It was recognized that there had in fact been a breakdown of the alliance during these discussions, the Canadian delegation being in much closer touch with its American counterparts than the British.16 The conclusion was that relations with the Dominions had in this case been adversely affected, and what Cranborne read certainly made him pessimistic in terms of preparing for future meetings.

The major focus of the many proposed conferences facing him was obviously to bring together an effective post-war global security organization. It has already been seen that Churchill favoured regional councils and blocs and proposed a network of them. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion though that the British leader's policy towards such ideas was prone to sporadic bursts of imaginative energy but lacking in any real substance or, for that matter, a policy that was coherent and workable. Planning on the British side was achieved in spite of his efforts while his most consistent characteristic was that of 'obstinate apathy'.17 There was also little reference to Gladwyn Jebb's Economic and Reconstruction Department within the FO, which had been tasked with planning for the postwar organization. As Jebb commented, the prime minister was quite allergic to any proposals for post-war action that he had not himself engendered, or at least discussed personally with his American counterpart.18 An obvious example had been when Roosevelt apparently proposed the term 'United Nations' because 'Associated Powers' sounded flat and when he tested it on Churchill, who was taking a bath at the time, he concurred.

The Moscow Declaration, signed in October 1943, had reaffirmed the announcement of the previous year relating to the 'United Nations' and marked the official recognition of the need for an international organization to replace the League of Nations. The earlier 'Four Power' Declaration, authored by the United States, had already necessitated the Dominions be approached for their views and they had broadly agreed with the proposal but with some anxiety about the role to be played by the non-'Great Powers' such as themselves. As the Cabinet in London were told Australia had a further recommendation; the 'British Commonwealth of Nations' as a whole should be treated as one of the four 'Great Powers' and not just Britain alone. This was in keeping with Curtin's proposals for closer political integration but, despite its superficial attractiveness to the DO—the idea was after all no different than had been adopted at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919—it was once again recognized as being untenable. Aside from the fact that Canada and South Africa were unlikely to endorse such an idea, it was felt that each of the Dominions would insist on retaining a final say on questions affecting their foreign policy and considerable time would be consumed during any future international negotiations in trying to secure their complete agreement.19

At the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, held near Washington in August and September 1944, the four 'Great Powers' attempted to draft specific proposals for a charter for the new organization. It was clear that there were considerable differences of opinion, particularly over the issue sponsored by the Americans that the Permanent Members of the proposed Security Council should have a right of veto on any decision which potentially affected their own interests. The Soviets had a different view and were adamant that only the four principals should have any form of vote.20 So great were the disagreements that it proved necessary to hold another series of discussions about the structure of the proposed World Organization. This was held at the Crimea resort of Yalta in early February 1945; once again the Dominions were not represented in person but, instead, had to rely upon Britain to safeguard their interests.21 One of the British officials who had been at the Dumbarton Oaks talks admitted that the attitude of the British delegation there changed 'in a rather remarkable way' during the course of the talks. Initially there was strong indignation at what were considered to be 'disreputable' proposals from the Russians that would 'place the Great Powers above the law'. In time the British came to see that this view was actually quite 'realistic' and that to oppose it would have been hypocritical and akin to the worst days of the League of Nations.22

Cranborne had striven at every opportunity to cajole Churchill into keeping the Dominions fully informed about developments affecting the proposed post-war security organization. They had been equally forceful in turn in making it clear how much they disliked any system under which the smaller powers were to be treated differently. The Dominions secretary's argument, that he had made repeatedly to the prime minister, was if they were consulted on the proposals at the formative stage it would not then later appear that they were being approached merely for their acquiescence in a policy that had already been settled in London.23 This was sage advice as it remained the issue about which the Dominions had indicated from the outset of the war that they were most sensitive. As Cranborne now noted, any suggestion that the British government endorsed the idea of regional blocs would likely make it 'most difficult' to bring the Dominions into line. The announcement from the White House in the spring of 1945 that it had been agreed at Yalta that it would be acceptable for the United States and the Soviet Union to have three votes each only served to make the situation worse.24 The British government had not actually been consulted about this proposal in advance, not for the first time. The British delegates at the conference realized that there remained a popular belief that the Dominions would actually perform as a bloc and there was still little understanding of the British Commonwealth and how it functioned.

It had been decided that final talks involving delegates from around the world would be held in San Francisco in April 1945 to establish the United Nations organization. In preparation for this a group of Commonwealth politicians met in London for ten days to discuss associated issues. Chaired by Cranborne, the meetings included some now big 'Imperial' hitters, notably Smuts, Evatt and Fraser. The Dominions secretary was keen that these talks should not be viewed by the press and public at large as anything more than 'a perfectly normal feature of the routine working of Commonwealth cooperation'.25 The opening session would, however, include a series of speeches which would be released and during these he stressed that what would follow would merely take the form of 'conversations'—Mackenzie King was not present so it had to be clearly stated that they were informal—concerned mainly with the plans for the new World Organization. As Cranborne told the delegates, it was quite possible to be a citizen of the world and a member of a family. 'We are a family and it is natural that we should wish to deliberate together so as to ensure that, as far as possible we see eye to eye on the difficult problems we have to face.'26 Cadogan was also centrally involved but found himself harassed by the 'bloody Dominions' who took up so much of his time and he was left uncertain in his own mind whether the Anzac representatives were 'more stupid than offensive'.27

The sensitive issue of the Colonial Empire which had been so exposed the previous year had not gone away and the question of trusteeship remained a bitter one. In late December 1944 it appeared that an official British position had finally been reached with a long memorandum entitled 'International Aspects of Colonial Policy'. There was little within the document that differed from the statement made by Oliver Stanley to the gathering of the Dominions' leaders. It did not raise any issues that were considered controversial with regard to the proposed establishment of a number of regional organizations, including those in the South Pacific and South East Asia which had been highlighted by Curtin. The question of 'accountability' was, however, different and would need some specific explanation to the Dominions. It was recommended that an International Colonial Centre be created through which each Colonial power could publish an annual report outlining economic and social progress in their respective territories. As this would not have any supervisory or executive powers this was deemed as not going far enough to appease the views on the subject expressed by the Tasman Dominions.28 Churchill was much less enthusiastic about such talk of colonial trusteeship. There was no question of Britain being 'hustled or seduced' into making any declarations that affected sovereignty in the Dominions or Colonies. He had no opposition to the Americans taking Japanese islands which they had conquered, 'But "hands off the British Empire" is our maxim and it must not be weakened or smirched to please sob-stuff merchants at home or foreigners of any hue.' Eden reassured him that there was not the slightest question of liquidating the British Empire, Stanley's paper instead represented 'a constructive policy', one which safeguarded both the sovereignty and administrative responsibility of the powers involved. It was an attempt to persuade the Americans to accept the British version of colonial administration and 'not to go in for half-baked international regimes' in the ex-enemy held territories they occupied.29 Churchill nonetheless remained vehement in his opposition to any American-inspired move which might weaken his Empire, erupting at regular intervals at Yalta in a grand old imperial fashion, famously advising his audience that under no circumstances would he ever 'consent to forty or fifty nations thrusting interfering fingers into the life's existence of the British Empire'.30 The position changed dramatically in the run-up to the San Francisco Conference. It was clear that it was unacceptable not just to the United States but also New Zealand and Australia, who had indicated that they remained advocates of the existing mandate system. Added to this it was unlikely that much in the way of international support could be garnered. But most importantly it was now obvious that this subject would not be discussed in private but in open session, in front of a 'motley assembly', where the future of Britain's colonies would no doubt be painfully scrutinized. A new memorandum, released to the War Cabinet in March 1945, recommended that the continuation of mandates be therefore endorsed in principle but with some insistence on revisions to remove their worst features. Ideally discussions about trusteeship could be avoided and resolved later by an ad hoc, and presumably less uncertain and potentially emotive body. The great danger remained that American elements would demand that the whole of the Colonial Empire be placed under international review and, potentially, pressure would be applied that it be placed under trusteeship.31 Attending the London meetings the following month the Dominions had been informed of the changes which, once again, had been reached without any prior communication with them and they remained unconvinced.32 Despite Cranborne's best efforts the alliance departed for San Francisco in questionable spirit.33

The Conference was conducted on a typically American grand scale and as one commentator put it, 'confusion reigned at almost every level'. No less that 2,636 journalists were accredited as part of the propaganda campaign orchestrated by the authorities in Washington. A total of 282 delegates represented their countries and were assisted by staffs and a secretariat totalling over 2,500 people. At 4.30 pm on the afternoon of 25 April 1945, American Secretary of State Edward Stettinius Jr. struck his gavel three times on the podium to convene the first plenary session of the United Nations Conference on World Organization. The Conference opened on the same day as American and Russian troops met on the banks of the River Elbe. For working purposes the Conference was divided into 12 committees with sections of the Dumbarton Oaks documents assigned to each for review and revision. These committees reported in turn to one of four Commissions, which in turn reported to plenary sessions of the entire Conference. Coordination was theoretically the responsibility of a Steering Committee supported by a smaller Executive Committee. In reality the most important work was done by the informal group made up of the representatives of the four Great Powers, joined later by France. Along with China, however, the French delegate had little real voice; power rested with 'the Big Three'.34

The part played by the Dominions during the Conference and their relationship with the British delegation can be gauged from a series of 'racy and interesting' letters that had been sent back to London by a member of the British delegation. In the summer of 1944 it had been proposed that Ben Cockram, who had been the Political Secretary to Lord Harlech in South Africa, should move to the Washington Embassy as the DO representative. With the rank of Counsellor, he would replace Stephen Holmes who was departing for the High Commission in Ottawa. He was to be considered a full member of the embassy staff with full diplomatic privileges and an impressive array of allowances.35 Cockram held an Oxford doctorate and had been part-educated at an American university. With nearly 20 years' experience of Dominion affairs he was well-respected and there was no opposition from the FO to his appointment. His role would be to act as the DO's 'eyes and ears', working within the Embassy to gather what information he could about specific issues that involved or affected the Dominions. Having previously prepared a detailed analysis of the Dominions' likely attitude to the Conference, he was well qualified to provide this new commentary. His letters arrived at the DO approximately a week after each was sent from San Francisco and provided an excellent and well received account of events as he experienced them.36

The British delegation only arrived the night before the Conference began and were, therefore, thrown in 'head first'. The opening days were spent squabbling over who would take the Chairmanship and listening to plenary speeches. Cockram judged the British delegation to be more efficient in organization and ahead in planning than any of the other delegations present and this had helped them to secure a leading position on the important Steering Committee. He was happy to report that, at the outset, relations with the Dominions' delegation were 'admirable', with all of them appearing to be 'as helpful and cooperative as possible'.37 Having delivered their initial speeches the delegations quickly settled down to business and the two weeks that followed proved 'unconscionably grim and earnest'. Problems were encountered due to a lack of experience amongst many of the smaller states and Cockram estimated that only one committee was effectively presided over, the 'success' being Sir Ramaswami Mudaliar, the former Mayor of Madras and leader of the Indian delegation.

Much of Cockram's time was spent trying to reconcile the proposed amendments to the draft Charter that had been submitted by each of the various Dominion delegations. From a long initial list of concerns this was whittled down to just four questions that needed to be referred for further negotiation. The first of these, as had been widely predicted, was trusteeship.38 Ultimately, however, the solution proved much less intractable than had thought would prove to be the case. Discussions between Eden and his American counterpart, who had taken over from Cordell Hull the previous November as the American secretary of state, produced an accord that appeared to safeguard British interests and was also sufficient to overcome New Zealand reservations on the issue.39With the other three outstanding issues, the adoption of regional agreements, the manner in which the Council might call upon any member to use armed forces and the respecting of domestic jurisdiction, it was agreed that the British delegation would try and seek amendments. Cockram felt that it should prove possible to secure the agreement of the sponsoring powers to make the changes required by the Dominions, leaving the prospects for a common British Commonwealth line not unfavourable. The greatest challenge, however, remained Evatt, 'the biggest thorn in the flesh of all the British Commonwealth delegates and officials'. He had already caused considerable offence to the Americans and an official from the State Department told the British delegate privately that so long as Evatt was a member of the government in Canberra there was not 'the slightest chance of Australia being elected to the Security Council'. In Cockram's view, he was probably 'the most generally disliked man at the Conference' and had been outmanoeuvred at every turn but, with his potential supporters alienated, he had come to realize that he would have to cooperate with the British rather than work against them.40

Cockram's hopes that an early conclusion to proceedings might prove possible proved overly optimistic, two weeks later the now 'Big Five' were still struggling on the issues of regionalism, trusteeship and domestic jurisdiction. At this point hopes of an early conclusion had collapsed and events had gone 'haywire' with all sides degenerating into squabbles over those issues closest to their own national interests. At the heart of the tumult remained Evatt who had become steadily more disgruntled. His many amendments had either been voted down or emasculated; the fact that those sponsored by the other members of the British Commonwealth were generally accepted seems to have increased his ire. The State Department prophecy had also reached his ear which only served to strengthen the vitriol and within a short space of time he succeeded in further offending the Americans, upsetting the French, and annoying both the Russians and Chinese, in short all of the major players. His explosion at Cockram late one evening was returned in kind and this was judged as having had something of a positive modifying effect on the Australian's attitude. Field Marshal Smuts had, in the meantime, also lost faith with the discussions and was threatening to go home. He had been appointed President of the General Assembly from where he grew steadily more impatient with proceedings, comparing them unfavourably to the 1919 Peace Conference.41 His departure would have been hugely embarrassing and only a personal intervention by Lord Halifax persuaded him to stay. Despite this Cockram thought that inter-Commonwealth relations were better than at any stage of the Conference.42 The bureaucrats from the respective Dominion foreign affairs departments tasked with organizing the management of their respective delegations seemed content with the manner in which the alliance functioned. A number of them were pleased that the Dominion delegations had demonstrated that they had their own ideas.

The Conference itself, however, remained in a state of flux as it proved impossible to move the Russian position on the fundamental idea that the United Nations Organization should first 'discuss and consider' disputes without the automatic application of the proposed veto which was to be offered to each of the Big Powers. This issue had proven particularly difficult, Evatt believing it was 'a negation of democracy'. Although the self-appointed champion of the smaller powers could no longer count on Fraser's support about trusteeship, the New Zealander would still listen to the 'poison' being 'distilled into his ears'. The rest of the Australian delegation remained generally moderate though and it was clearly hoped that its leader's dissenting voice could be controlled. South Africa and Canada had been 'helpful and cooperative throughout', and what votes they had registered against the British position had been well considered and served to demonstrate the degree to which the Commonwealth was not a single block. The finding of a successful resolution to the domestic jurisdiction dispute proved this to be the case but in a fashion that was acceptable to the British delegation as 'the battle was fought and won'.43

With the Conference now hopefully drawing to a close Cockram could look back at the analysis he had provided earlier in the year. He had been proven correct in most regards not least in his warning that the great difficulty would be the Australian delegation. He had worried that it would be likely to find itself 'disunited and split by personal ambitions and dislikes', leaving it 'an unpredictable factor' upon which the British could not necessarily count for support.44 Headed by the deputy prime minister, Frank Forde, soon to become the shortest serving leader in Australian history, he and almost all of the other officials had been anxious to cooperate. There had been fatal division, however, as Evatt had often been 'hasty and suspicious'. In the view of those who accompanied him from Canberra, in many ways the Conference was both the high and low point of the Australian minister's career. He had successfully lobbied at the outset for Australia's inclusion as a member of the Executive Committee, an opening which 'gave so many opportunities'.45 From this position he assaulted those aspects of the agreements at Dumbarton Oaks that were deemed the most reprehensible. For this the small powers accorded him a vote of thanks at the Conference's end. What he had wanted, however, was the acclaim of the lead nations. His fruitless efforts to amend the Great Power veto in the Security Council did little more than extend the gathering's life by several weeks and ensure that he would be subsequently viewed with considerable suspicion by both the United States and Soviet Union.46 And in a clear sign that the Australian position had been weakened as a result of some of his antics it was noted that Stettinius had apparently deliberately kept the Australian off the list of speakers for the final session of the Conference. Cockram would subsequently note that Forde's visit to Washington to discuss supply difficulties had also apparently met with little success and he concluded that this was an indication of the likely nature of postwar relations between Canberra and Washington.47

The Conference had amply demonstrated that 'the Commonwealth countries breed independent and vigorous personalities' and, it was hoped, dispelled any lingering illusions that Dominions' representation actually meant six votes for Britain. Halifax was concerned as the end approached that there had been perhaps too much success in demonstrating the independence of each of those involved and that the dangerous impression might have been created that 'the British Commonwealth was less united than it really was'. The Dominions' delegation heads disagreed and thanked him for the support he and Cranborne had given them. There was, however, considerable criticism about many of the more junior British representatives who had treated their Dominion counterparts 'with lofty superiority'. The DO participants had been 'unfailingly helpful', but FO officials appeared to think that 'the Dominion delegations should be seen but not heard'. Halifax pointed, by way of a defence, to the general election that had been called in Britain and the impact that this had had. Eden and Attlee had been called home to defend their seats, leaving officials to sit on committees who lacked experience of parliamentary practice and procedure. Cranborne was also anxious to correct Evatt's claims that there had been a departure from conclusions that had been reached at the April meetings held in London. There had been no conclusions reached beforehand about what line might be taken, the pre-Conference gathering had taken the form of discussions that had been intended solely to gain a better understanding of each Dominion's point of view.48

At the end of this final meeting of Dominion representatives the Australian minister had gone out of his way to thank Cockram for the support that had been given to his delegation, a 'superb gesture' that had left its recipient 'slightly deflated'. He also felt that it would be wise to put this commendation on record just in case Evatt should 'at a later date, have second thoughts and come seeking our hides with a boomerang or whatever they use for scalping purposes at Walleroo'. This decision revealed just how well the British official had come to know his character for, as he had feared, Evatt still had a card to play. Four days later he gave on off-the-record briefing to the British press correspondents covering the Conference. Those present were left with the impressions that he was trying to discredit the work of the British delegation in order to claim greater credit for Australia. He criticized a number of members of the British delegation by name, including Halifax and Cranborne, and had complained that Britain had not supported Australia. This was all a clear breach of the one of the guiding principles of inter-Commonwealth relations, that one country of the Commonwealth does not interfere with the affairs of another.49 The matter was reported in the Australian media and debated in the House of Representatives in Canberra where every effort was made to dampen excitement about any potential damage to imperial relations.50 Forde, having returned from the Conference, specifically refuted the idea that there had been any British criticism. The truth was that Cranborne had written to Evatt complaining at his actions and had also forwarded a copy to the deputy Australian leader. He, in response, had issued his usual 'forceful' rebuttal; clearly this in large part was because Forde had been copied into the correspondence. Cranborne had been so stunned by the language and argument employed in this that he at once wrote back refusing to accept the version of events put forward by Evatt and suggesting that no good would come from continuing their correspondence.51

Shortly following the conclusion of the San Francisco gathering a new nuclear age dawned and Hiroshima and Nagasaki's destruction was swiftly followed by the end of what had proven to be the Empire's final war. One FO commentator noted that recent events did not mean the Dominions' attachment to the Commonwealth was impaired. It was, however, clear that 'the lead did not rest with the UK in the same way as before the war'.52 Traditional impressions of Dominion independence had been adapted as a result of events at San Francisco. The Canadians, whose performance had been so warmly applauded by the British, had been anxious that this should be the case and were pleased with the results; reports reached the DO confirming that senior Canadian officials thought 'the myth of unity' had now been broken.53 Such a position was entirely as some felt should be the case. British Labourite Frederick Pethick-Lawrence was a conscientious objector during the First World War who was destined to become post-war secretary of state for India and Burma. The previous December, during the debate on the King's Speech at Westminster, he had responded to criticisms that the Dominions were displaying a policy of their own which differed from that of Britain, by rising to defend them. He saw this as a source of strength, the fact that there was a unity based around loose bonds, and attempts to turn them into something more rigid would not work. He held the Dominions to be 'a magnificent partnership of free nations, the constitution of which we certainly would not desire to see altered'.54 The war had certainly seen all of the Dominions grow increasingly more confident of their abilities to manage their respective foreign policies. It had also provided them with levels of fiscal and military strength that had been hitherto unimagined and a sense of independence that would not now be surrendered. Canada and South Africa had shown this on numerous occasions before the war had begun; now they were joined by even New Zealand, the most loyal of Dominions, but a member in its own right of the United Nations of independent states.

Batterbee, writing for the last time as the high commissioner before he left Wellington in the summer of 1945 for retirement, warned that Britain needed to show the will and ability to take the lead in the new world. His lesson for London was that 'as soon as peace comes again Great Britain, if she is to retain her prestige, must show that she belongs to the future and not to the past, and that she is determined not to follow but to lead the world in all matters of social and economic progress'.55 The final word must, however, go to the figure who had laboured longest to try and keep this sometimes difficult but nonetheless crucial coalition working. Following the defeat suffered by his Conservative Party colleagues in the July 1945 general election, Cranborne wrote to Emrys-Evans with a long appraisal of the DO's wartime performance. He was modestly pleased with the role he had played and the successes that had been achieved but he was less happy with the situation that now prevailed within the Empire, generally concluding that there had actually been little improvement during the last five years. As the figure who had been most intimately involved in the management his is a fitting epitaph.

First Canada, and now as appeared at San Francisco, Australia and New Zealand, are beginning to show most disturbing signs of moving away from the conception of a Commonwealth acting together to that of independent countries, bound to each other only by the most shadowy ties. Dr Evatt is only a particularly repulsive representative of a not at all uncommon point of view in his own and the other Empire countries. I wish that I could see the answer to all this, but I don't. It may be that we ought to speak more frankly to Dominion governments. Whenever, however, we have tried this, the only result has been to irritate them and strengthen the voices of independence. I really, during the last few months, sometimes felt at my wits' end. Perhaps that is a sign that I had been at the DO quite long enough, and that what is needed is a fresh mind, both at the Dominions and Foreign Offices, and perhaps most of all, at No. 10. For I think that Winston, with all his great qualities, always tended to look at Foreign and Empire policy as if they were in watertight compartments whereas they are in fact mingled. Our prestige with the other countries of the Commonwealth is dependent on our prestige in the outside world. Today we are regarded abroad as very much the junior partner of the Big Three and this inevitably and immediately affects the attitude of the Dominions towards us.56

Britain had lost its Imperial position and the unquestioned leadership of the Empire and, in his mind, if this could not be regained it would now have to look to Europe to demonstrate it still maintained a strong global role. This would not be a challenge Churchill would have to face, but instead would be one for Attlee and his new Labour post-war government. It would quickly discover that the Anglo-Dominion alliance had in fact seen its best days.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!