25 OCTOBER 1930, Page 14


On Conferences

I HAD no idea in my mind, when my thoughts first hovered over this theme, of the Imperial Conference now sitting in London. I only thought that I should like to throw an idle stone or two into the ever-spreading waters of the conference habit, and to watch the ripples spreading after the stones had sunk. But in these sunny (and yet curiously Fad) days of autumn, when a particular, and particularly important, conference is busily engaged on great business, it would be impolite not to make a bow to the exception before throwing any stones at the rule.

There are conferences and conferences. There are conferences of likes, of people who come together because they have a common cause, or a common fad, and Want to talk about it ; and there are conferences of unlikes, of people who come to- gether because they have different points of view, and want to compare and compose their views by the give and take of discussion. There is everything to be said in favour of con- ferences of unlikes. Perhaps the greatest step in the interest of the peace of the world that has ever been taken was the institution, in 1919, of a regular system of conferences on inter- national affairs. That is what the League of Nations means ; and if it does nothing except to confer, in its councils and assemblies and commissions, it will be doing a mighty amount of good, because it will be making a new sort of mental world in which the nations can live with a far greater understanding of one another—and, indeed, of themselves. In the same way the conferences of our British League of Nations, which began in 1887 with Queen Victoria's Jubilee, are golden conferences. We talk of the unity of our Commonwealth (which is not a " commonwealth,- in any natural sense of the word), but we know that in reality it is a system, or a no-system, of different sovereign nations. We know that it is composed of unlikes, and that its vitality and its promise depend on its differences. That is why it needs conferences, and practises conferences, for the comparison and composition of its different points of view.

The pity is that there are not more conferences, or at any rate a more regular machinery of conference, like the regular machinery of the League of Nations. It was a significant thing that, a month ago, the Federation of British Industries and the Trades Union Congress agreed in recommending a regular and permanent scheme of conference on the economic affairs of the Empire. (There goes another word--the word " Empire " ; but words arc poor things for covering our British set of facts—if, by the way, the word " British " itself is in any way a good sort of word.) There is only one reformation, besides the refor- mation of having still more of a really good thing, which any good citizen would earnestly desire in the manner and-mode of Imperial Conferences. That is the reformation, the retrenchment, one can hardly say the abolition, of the hospitality by which they are attended. Thought is a tense activity. Discussion is an intense activity. If you add to the tense and the intense a whirl of social activities, you drive human strength very hard. There is an island on the West Coast of Scotland which was recently evacuated by its inhabitants. Is it possible that an Imperial Conference might retire, for a solid session, to that island ? But perhaps the island of Ascension would be better. According to the books it is a resort of the turtle. and it is also (they say) the breeding ground of a bird called the " wide-awake."