It is notoriously a dangerous thing when a country’s words and deeds fall out of line with the realities of the world in which that country has to live. It is equally dangerous when the words and deeds of a country’s politicians fall out of line with the real sentiments and opinions of that country’s people. I believe this is what has been happening, and at an increasing pace, in recent years in regard to the Commonwealth; what politicians of all parties have felt, and still feel themselves obliged to profess and to perform has made less and less sense to the people of this country, whom they exist to represent, until by now there is an almost complete divorce between the politicians’ words and the public’s opinion.
True, we are a very conventional nation. Walter Bagehot would have said, we are a very ‘deferential’ nation. Our extraordinarily well-developed homogeneity, or herd instinct, tells us by a kind of intuition what is ‘not done’, and those of all classes and callings then conform without a murmur to the ruling dictates of ‘good tone’. Unkind foreign observers might say that this is only an aspect of the almost infinite capacity of the English for humbugging themselves and other people. For my own part I prefer, patriotically, to interpret it as the converse and concomitant of our grand national virtue of solidarity, which has stood us in good stead at more than one critical juncture.
Be that as it may, the convention has reigned for many years now that the Commonwealth is one of those subjects on which it is ‘not done’ to say what one thinks, with the consequence that there is one language held in public and quite another in private. This has built up an area of unreality and hypocrisy in our politics which cannot be either safe or healthy.
A few weeks ago there was a successful independence conference of British Guiana, a territory to be known in future as Guyana – with a ‘y’. The nub of the results, published as a White Paper, is contained in the following sentences: ‘The Conference agreed on the form of a constitution. The constitution will contain a recital of the basic principles of human rights on which it is founded and a reference to the Deity. It will provide for a sovereign democratic state of Guyana, with a Governor-General appointed by the Queen. There will be provision for the Parliament of the new state, if it so wishes’ – you may be sure it will so wish – ‘after 1st January, 1969, to bring into operation scheduled amendments, establishing a republic on the parliamentary system.’ It was announced that the new constitution is to come into force on 26th May. Guyana will be inserted in the schedule to the British Nationality Act, and the Guyanese, while ceasing to be ‘citizens of the United Kingdom and colonies’ will continue to be ‘British subjects’ or ‘commonwealth citizens’, whichever you – or rather they – prefer. We shall sponsor Guyana for membership of the United Nations.
Before I go further, let there be no misunderstanding: I wish all the people of Guyana heartily well, as I do those of Dutch and French Guiana too. I rejoice that this fragment of the large and miscellaneous spoils of the Napoleonic Wars will no longer be governed on the responsibility of – among others – the representative of the constituency of Wolverhampton South-West, an arrangement so absurd and repugnant to reason that it is only tolerable as long as no alternative exists. I hope that under their new constitution the Guyanese will prosper and in the words of the collect ‘be godly and quietly governed’. I am sure that if there should arise any danger of them falling a prey to dangerous outside influences, the combination of the Monroe Doctrine with the Pax Americana will be more than sufficient to avert it.
But surely it is not inconsistent with all this to ask whether it is really necessary for this South American colony to go through the process of becoming first a sovereign state ruled by the Queen and then a republic within the Commonwealth recognizing the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth, but not as its sovereign, which will make if my information is correct, a total of 13 crowned republics.
A possible response to this question is to say that, whatever may be argued for or against the idea of republics within the Commonwealth Guyana must be one of the very last to be added to the list and then the process will have reached completion apart from the mopping up of odd particles of territory under the proposals whereby minuscule communities might become independent but continue to be defended and represented externally by the United Kingdom.
I can see the force of this contention. Personally, I have argued ever since the India (Consequential Provision) Act of 1949 against the conception that there can be a common nationality between the citizens of a republic and the subjects of a monarchy, and in 1953 I protested in my place in Parliament against the statutory change in the Queen’s titles which purported to make her the Head of a Commonwealth comprising an unlimited number of republics. But that is all a long time ago, and even if it was a mistake and an absurdity then, it might be claimed that the mistake and the absurdity have been hallowed by time and usage. One can hardly retch at the Guyanese gnat after having swallowed, if not digested, all those enormous Asiatic and African camels.
That I concede. Nor would I suggest for a moment that the Guyana Bill ought not now to be passed. But the argument runs the other way too. Just because the end of this 20-year-long process is now near, the time has come to consider the results; we are entitled to a retrospective judgment. And I believe that the great majority of people of this country have already made that judgment. I say ‘I believe’ because on a subject which has been so little a matter of serious and candid public discussion or debate, everyone is thrown upon his own judgment and opinion, and I offer mine as no more than what I have been able to form in the manifold contracts which any Member of Parliament makes with the public. I believe, then, that the great majority of people in this country see no reality or substance in the proposition that they belong to a Commonwealth comprising all that vast aggregation of territories, except for Burma and South Africa, which by colonization, by cession, by conquest, by purchase, by a variety of other means, had come to be under the dominion or protection of the British Crown at the time of the Second World War and are now independent countries.
The people of Britain observe that a number of these countries are antipathetic to one another, even to the extent of breaking off diplomatic relations and going to war. They note that an antipathy towards Britain is a marked feature of the visible, public behaviour of some of these countries, at the United Nations and elsewhere, and that none of them appears to recognize any common interest with Britain where it would override or conflict with its own. They gather that the manner in which the internal affairs of some of these countries are conducted, though admittedly no more business of ours than ours is of theirs, are repugnant to their own basic ideas about liberty and democracy. These things the British observe in no censorious mood; we are, I think, not naturally an interfering, critical people and are ready to recognize that others have a right to run their own affairs and pursue their interests in their own way. Only, it is difficult after all this to be told that all these countries form with us a great Commonwealth which is the world’s best hope and model for international and inter-racial co-operation.
Almost every week new events re-emphasize these sensations of incredulity. We noted, for instance, that at the very moment when we were assisting at our own expense a Commonwealth country, Zambia, through the territory of Tanzania, the latter, in what seemed a particularly insulting manner, broke off relations with Britain, without however ceasing apparently to be a Commonwealth country also. We noted that the first steps to reconciliation between the two warring Commonwealth countries of the Indian sub-continent, steps which every person in Britain greeted with hope and relief, were achieved not in London, nor Canberra, nor Lagos, but in Tashkent.
These mounting inconsistencies between the form and the reality, between professions and deeds, might be at first, and were at first, shrugged off as points of academic interest perhaps – inconsistencies indeed, but not intolerable in a world where anyhow a wide divergence between facts and aspirations, formulae and intentions, is of common occurrence. I believe that phase is passing, if it has not already, passed, and more and more of our people are coming to feel that this unreal convention is leading us into actions and situations which are contrary to our own manifest national interest. I think three recent episodes have helped to crystallize this feeling.
One is Commonwealth immigration. True, in some parts of the country, such as that from which I come, this has been a visible menace now for a decade; but over most of Britain it is only in the last few years that people’s eyes have been opened to what has really been happening. Largely because of the legal fiction of Commonwealth citizenship and our determination to maintain it, we clung year after year to the assertion that our nearest European neighbours were aliens, to be strictly excluded from Britain, but that the myriad inhabitants of independent countries in Asia, Africa and the New World were British, indistinguishable from native-born inhabitants of these islands, and that no limitation could be placed on their inherent right to enter and leave this realm at will. For fear, so it was said, of ‘offending the Commonwealth’, we persisted in this course until we had entailed upon ourselves a fearful and wholly unnecessary problem, one which has brought no compensating benefit to any other country, and one with the consequences of which our children and their children will still be coping.
The second experience is that of aiding the developing Commonwealth countries. Personally, I hold the view, which I have publicly argued on many occasions, that aid to developing countries does more harm than good, and I see signs that this view is gaining ground. However, on the assumption that aid is beneficial, this country, at the expense of its balance of payments and home investment, sets aside large sums annually for aid to developing countries, selected for the purpose because they are in the Commonwealth. I do not believe that these sums are begrudged; but I am certain that the people of this country are sick and tired of then finding themselves attacked and abused by the recipients.
Finally, there is Rhodesia. Undoubtedly a deep and genuine division of opinion exists in Britain as to what ought to be our action and attitude towards this hitherto self-governing territory, which – beyond dispute illegally – has declared itself independent. What I believe has been profoundly and generally resented is to be told at every stage that this or that action must be taken, not necessarily because we regard it as right or just or in the interests either of this country or of Rhodesia, but because, if we do not, ‘it will mean the break-up of the Commonwealth’. Those who merely judge by what is said publicly or printed in the newspapers might be astonished to know how many people on being told this say, to their neighbours or under their breath: ‘let it break up then; so much the better!’
I repeat, I do not believe it can be a safe or healthy thing that a branch of politics affecting this country’s future at home and its relationships with much of the outside world should be carried on in terms of make-believe, as if all this great volume of opinion and feeling which I have been describing simply did not exist. Deception and self-deception always have to be paid for, and the price is often a cruelly heavy one. True, it is also difficult to break out of the net of our own former words, phrases and professions by which we are enmeshed, even when the context where those words, phrases and professions, so often since repeated, were first devised and pronounced has utterly changed and disappeared. Above all it is difficult for a government in office to do this between one day and the next. All the greater burden rests upon Her Majesty’s Opposition, whose lack of immediate administrative responsibility confers on them a relatively wider freedom of thought, speech and expression, not to leave unvoiced and unrepresented a major and relevant aspect of public opinion in this country. There comes always a time ‘when the kissing has to stop’. In my believe it has come.