28 NOVEMBER 1931, Page 5

Empire or Commonwealth ?

THESE are anxious days for those who think that the British Commonwealth is the greatest political achievement of the human race. Much that has been written and said in Great Britain during the past week showg that there are still many people who persist in thinking of the British Commonwealth as it was before the War—a Mother Country surrounded by daughter States. For them there has been no Balfour Declaration in 1926 postulating " Equality of Status."

When the House of Commons discussed the Statute of Westminster at its second reading on Friday last week, it was obvious that there was considerable apprehension among some of the supporters of the Government about the scope of the measure. A writer in the Sunday Times went so far as to say that, had the measure been put to the vote, " the Government, for all its huge majority, might have been in danger of defeat." The transfor- mation which has taken place in the Empire's Con- stitutional development is—even five years after the Balfour Declaration—not understood. All that the Imperial Conference of 1926 did, was to express in words what already was a fait accompli ; namely, that the British Dominions had become Sister States, equal in status to the Mother Country, and bound together by a common allegiance to the Crown. The Statute of Westminster merely restates this in legal terms. It sets forth that the Parliament of Westminster ceases to be an Imperial Parliament. In future the British Parliament becomes the Parliament of Great Britain. This naturally includes the control of the Crown Colonies, Dependencies and all British territories oversea excepting the self-governing Dominions.

The old British Empire passed away with the War, and its place was taken by the British Commonwealth, which has reconciled the two apparent opposites of freedom and co-operation—a consummation which General Smuts has referred to as the greatest political discovery of the twentieth century. The opposition to the Statute of Westminster is not so much due to its restatement of the fact that the British Parliament will no longer have the power of revision over the legislation of Dominion Parliaments, or to the fact that in future the Dominions will have the power to make Treaties with and enter into Diplomatic relations with foreign nations, for that right has already been conceded, but to the fear that it would enable the Irish Free State to abrogate the Anglo-Irish Treaty. No doubt if the Southern Irish electorate desired to go back on its word and nullify the settlement, it would do so whatever the legal position. No treaties or pledges will compel nations to act contrary to their wishes. If the Irish Free State should one day make up its mind to withdraw from the British Commonwealth, no clause inserted in the Statute of Westminster would stop her. If Canada or South Africa decided to withdraw from the Commonwealth, not- a British bayonet would be used to prevent it. It is because the Commonwealth rests on foundations of freedom that we think it will not go the way of the world Empires of the past.

To turn our attention to India; a dangerous situation will face us if the reactionaries have their way. The -question at issue is whether the British Commonwealth is great enough to include within its orbit partner nations belonging to other colours or races. Or is it merely a White Empire, into which none but white races will be permitted to enter as equals ? The present National Party was not returned to Westminster with a mandate -to go back on the oft-repeated pledges that the goal of British rule in India is responsible Government. The issue before the electorate in the last Election was the -economic future of this country. Great Britain is pledged to help India, in the shortest possible period, to become a partner-State within the Commonwealth. That is not to say that there must be no safeguards. Obviously there must be safeguards during the transition period, and most Indians will be ready to admit their necessity, once they are convinced as to British good faith. As a • result of the recent events here, Indian moderates are asking whether Great • Britain is, in truth, ready to enter into an equal partnership. We have never sought to minimize the difficulties in the Indian situation, nor to ignore Hindu-Muslim differences. We could have wished that Mr. Gandhi, during his stay in England, had talked less of India's rights and more of her responsibilities. But this does not excuse the action of those who use the lack of accord on the Communal question as an oppor- tunity to advocate the indefinite postponement of responsible Government at the centre.

If Great Britain refuses to create a strong Central Authority and merely grants a measure of Provincial autonomy, she will be incurring a grave risk. While it is essential that the Muslim Minority receive fair play, it is equally important that the Hindu majority be not left with a sense of grievance. If the British people were prepared to impose on India fifty years of firm government, with a permanent British military occupation on a large scale, a case could be made out for autocratic methods. But it cannot be supposed that the British electorate would be willing to pour money indefinitely into India to enforce British rule against the wishes of the majority of Indians.

If we want a lasting partnership with India, we can have it, with adequate safeguards for the transition period : but it can only be obtained by proving that the proffered partnership will be of advantage to both parties. The British Commonwealth has been built on foundations of freedom and co-operation, and thereby has been able to satisfy national aspirations so widely different as those, for instance, of French Canadians and Dutch South Africans. There is no valid reason why it should not be great enough to include even the heterogeneous Indian Federation.