Imperial Economic Conference.

– in the House of Commons on 11th December 1931.

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Photo of Mr Dudley Joel Mr Dudley Joel , Dudley

In the few minutes that remain of this part of the Session I will not trespass for many moments on the indulgence of the House. I wish to raise the question of Imperial affairs. The right hon. Gentleman, the Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Amery) earlier this afternoon, said that the Government had given no indication of its, policy on any major issue. I look forward therefore with keen interest to the statement, that, we were told at Question Time to-day, the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs is to make, in the few minutes which remain at our disposal. Hon. Members from all parts of the House regret the cancellation of the Minister's proposed tour of the Dominions, not only because of the pleasure it would have given him, but because they realise how necessary it is for Members of the Government to understand the point of view of the Dominions before the time conies for the Imperial Conference. No one is better fitted to plead that point of view than the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, who is justly renowned for his tact and good-fellowship. The Conference at Ottawa next year comes just at a time when such shackles as existed have been swept away, much to the horror of some hon. Members who sit below the Gangway. The field is now clear and open for a new arrangement, and a new demand has sprung up in this House, throughout the country and in the Dominions, for new economic links, to take the place of the broken political links. The opportunity of the coming Conference is great, and I feel sure there is no one better able to make the most of that opportunity than the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, now that he is freed from the clogging dead-weight of hon. Members of the Opposition, which hampered his action in the autumn of 1930.

The SECRETARY of STATE for DOMINION AFFAIRS (Mr. J. H. Thomas):

I am sure the House will agree with me in welcoming the maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Joel). It is very fitting that he should have chosen as the subject of his maiden speech—and we are sorry that it should have been very much curtailed by the limitations of time—an imperial matter to which we know he has given great consideration. We not only welcome his intervention on this occasion, hut we look forward to further contributions from him in our discussions. In the few minutes at my disposal I wish to answer the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Amery), who expressed what I may describe as grave apprehension as to the attitude of the Government and their lack of preparation or declaration in regard to this matter. In short, my right hon. Friend left for his Christmas holiday, a real Imperialist, very greatly disturbed. I think that is a fair summary of his position. Nothing would disturb me more than to feel that my right hon. Friend above everybody else was uncomfortable at this festive season. If for no other reason than to help him to have a pleasant Christmas, I think I had better make perfectly clear the Government's views on this question.

We attach great importance to the Conference: I have no hesitation in saying that failure at the next Imperial Economic Conference at Ottawa is something which must not be contemplated and something which, by the very nature of things, would be absolutely disastrous. Because of that fact it must be recognised and clearly understood that detailed preparations to ensure its success must be undertaken by the Government in advance. No one knows better than my right hon. Friend that, however magnificent may be the ideal of Imperial unity, Imperial co-operation and Imperial sentiment, there are a hundred and one difficulties which must be surmounted in order to attain that ideal. There are no two Dominions whose interests are the same. Canada and Australia doubtless will very readily say, "We are interested mainly in wheat." But it is no good going to South Africa and New Zealand and the Irish Free State and saying, "We have agreed upon a wheat policy." They will immediately say to you, "What about our particular interests?"

Equally, it must be kept in mind that, in the main, the great contribution that we can make to their success is in the direction of helping them with their food stuffs. That is essentially the main thing so far as they are concerned, but from our point of view the most important and indeed the only factor is what they will do with regard to our manufactured articles, and in that connection we must also not lose sight of the fact that we are likely—and we may as well face it right away—to strike this situation: In their independent action, in their freedom, they are gradually building up secondary industries to them, but which compete with us; in other words, I do not complain—and I am not going to complain, because I have no right to complain—but I cannot blind myself to facts, and when they say, "Our policy must be Canada first or Australia first and you second," I have to keep clearly in mind what is the interest of this country equally with them.

But those very problems, difficult as they are, conflicting often one with another, are secondary, in my judgment, to the overriding importance of keeping in mind the British sentiment, a desire to foster and cement the Empire, a recognition of all the advantages of British citizenship. All those things, in my judgment, compel us to realise that we must all go to the forthcoming Conference, not in a haggling, niggling spirit, but with a single-minded desire to say to each other, "The overriding factor above everything else is a real Imperial unity that must aim at the advantage of us all." If that is the spirit in which we intend to approach this problem, then I am quite sure success will result.

In that connection, I may remind the House of the spirit in which the Government are tackling this problem. In the first week of the new Parliament they set up a Ministerial Committee, of which I have the honour to be chairman. We have met every week hammering out every detail of this problem from the Ministerial point of view. We have had working with that Committee, not only weekly and daily, but hourly, an interdepartmental committee that is hammering out all the details that are necessary for a fair examination of the problem. In addition, I have invited every Dominion to send to this country representatives, competent, practical representatives, who can sit down with all the material that is at our disposal in this country and hammer out, from their own particular point of view, all the details that are necessary for a fair examination; and over and above that I have given them the offer of the services of our own Trade Commissioners in every Dominion, so that they on the spot can equally hammer out the details. That, I submit, is the best evidence of our anxiety to show that no detailed examination will be lacking to ensure success.

Let me go beyond that. What is the gesture that we have made? My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced on behalf of the Government, a few days ago, that no commitments of any sort or kind would be made that hampered or prejudiced a free and unfettered discussion at Ottawa when it took place. Surely there could be no greater confidence in them than that, when we know what is taking place all over the world to-day. Beyond that, what does the House of Commons say, following the advice of the Government? All the anti-dumping legislation passed by the House had one great exception. It was that it did not apply to the Dominions, and it did not differentiate as between one Dominion and another. We did not say whether the Dominions should be on gold or off gold. We took the broad general view, and said that this is applicable to all. I want to say to the Dominions quite clearly and definitely, having regard to what they did and what they may have been compelled to do, that they must not be unmindful of that magnificent gesture which we made to them in the direction I have indicated.

We know perfectly well that we shall be face to face in Ottawa with many problems. Let me take the question of the wheat quota. The Government have decided, subject to a satisfactory arrangement being made and to a real and genuine quid pro quo, that they are prepared to go to Ottawa and offer to the Dominions a guaranteed quota of wheat. No one who was present at the last Economic Conference can minimise the value that that is to the Dominions. No one can gainsay that they attach considerable importance to it—the guarantee not at fixed prices, but at world prices. The details will be hammered out with them and with the representatives of the millers here. We all deplore the advertisements appearing in the Press in the last two days. I made it perfectly clear to the millers that, just as this and the late Govern- ment would not allow any trade union body to dictate its policy, so I told the millers quite clearly that that principle applied to them as well as to anyone else.

The House will be pleased to know that I have a letter, which will ultimately appear in the Press, stating that whatever views the millers may have had with regard to the quota, they are prepared to work and to co-operate with the Government in making the scheme a success. I am sorry that I have not more time to develop this question. I have given sufficient indication of the Government's determination to make a great success of this Conference. All the sacrifice must not be on one side. Let there be no mistake. We may be called upon to give up ideas and ideals and fiscal views, but let us do it clearly realising the advantages. Do not let the Dominions forget the great sacrifices that we shall be called upon to make. We shall enter the Conference in that spirit, with a single-minded desire, not to see what we can get out of it, but what we can give. In a changing world such as ours, with Europe in turmoil and difficulties all over the world, who can blame us, representing as we do a quarter of the population of the world with all the potentialities and all the possibilities that our Empire offers, for saying that we intend to utilise to the full the advantages for the Empire as a whole?

Adjourned accordingly at One minute before Four o'Clock, until Tuesday, 2nd February, pursuant to the Resolution of the House this day.