The Commonwealth: White Man's Burden or Blind Man's Bluff?
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 11 Mar 1965, p. 252-264

Holmes, John W., Speaker
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The speaker as a true believer in the Commonwealth. Clearing away old concepts and prejudices to see the Commonwealth as a thoroughly modern institution. Its purpose in 1965 the most important and difficult in the world today: the maintenance of trust among the major races of the world. The speaker's visits over the past year and what he found. A description of the Commonwealth of nations as it exists today. The decline of the Commonwealth as an economic entity. All that the Commonwealth is not. The Commonwealth's justification in a common search for understanding, for the sharing of viewpoints, constant consultation. "The quality of listening to each other with forbearance." Grave issues confronting the Commonwealth, particularly with regard to the last stages of colonialism. The responsibility for initiative and special concern. Mr. Diefenbaker and Mr. Pearson's contributions. The will to preserve the Commonwealth. What is happening to the free constitutional principles the Commonwealth claims to be the heritage that binds it together. Not expecting conformity to all the traditions of Westminster in countries where unity is frail, illiteracy high, and the economy baffling. Apathy as the main problem of the Commonwealth. What might happen to the Commonwealth. Canada and the Commonwealth.
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11 Mar 1965
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Full Text
MARCH 11, 1965
The Commonwealth: White Man's Burden or Blind Man's Bluff
CHAIRMAN, The President, Lt. Col. Robert H. Hilborn


As our guest of honour and speaker today will be addressing us on the Commonwealth in its present day context, I should like, with Mr. Holmes permis sion, to introduce not only his person but, for one minute, his subject.

Churchill credits Lord Roseberry, during the apogee of Empire in Victoria's reign, with christening the growing family of nations and races linked by the Crown as The Commonwealth. This and the fact that he won the Derby twice during his sixteen months as Prime Minister are about the only memorable items of good fortune that befell him.

This was a century after the seeds of the Commonwealth and the dissolution of the Empire had been planted here in Canada by the very people who are called United Empire Loyalists. I say this as one springing from one group of these Loyalists, the father of two sons who, when born, were the eighth generation of Hilborns in the same township in Ontario. I am sure that all descendants are proud of those whose nationalism after the American Revolution forced the production of a new Empire out of which sprang the Commonwealth. I may be entitled to append U.E.L. to my name. I do not regard it as an anachronism. For me as a descendant of Pennsylvania Dutch Quakers the designation P.D.Q. is more correct, though possibly misleading.

There are those within our own ranks who consider our Empire Club name anachronistic. I feel that it is a designation that for all time will indicate respect for tradition and will reflect strong loyalties. If, at some specific point in time, it is not the current designation given to the union perpetuating these qualities, it will be an honoured and respected synonym as long as some such union exists.

Now, having taken advantage of presidential prerogative to get that off my chest, I hasten to introduce our guest of honour, John W. Holmes, M.A.

It is our Canadian good fortune to have one experienced in public service on Canada's behalf around the world, eloquent and self-sacrificing, who is prepared to devote his great energies and abundant talents to directing the Canadian Institute of International Affairs.

A student of history, after two years as National Secretary of the Institute, John Holmes joined the Department of External Affairs in 1943. In the foreign service he served successively as First Secretary in London, Chargé d'Affaires in Moscow and Canadian Representative to the United Nations. Following two years on the Directing Staff of the National Defence College in Kingston he became Assistant Under Secretary of State for External Affairs supervising the Far Eastern, United Nations and Commonwealth Division. He left the public service in 1960 to become President of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs. This title has been altered to that of Director General. He is a prolific writer on Canadian foreign policy and other international subjects in authoritative journals and papers on this continent, the U.K. and Europe. He is to speak to us on "The Commonwealth-White Man's Burden or Blind Man's Bluff?" and I can think of no more appropriate way of presenting John Wendell Holmes than in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes-"It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen." Mr. Holmes.


I am deeply conscious of the privilege of speaking before this association on this subject. Like the Empire itself, you have a distinguished past to be proud of. You have also shown characteristic adaptability in the attention you consistently pay to the vital issues of today and tomorrow. I feel, therefore, that you would want me to speak with candour about the contemporary realities of the commonwealth as I see them.

Let me assure you at the beginning that, whatever I might say, I remain a true believer in the virtue of the Commonwealth. Indeed, there are those who may accuse me of wishful thinking for finding so much vitality in what Mr. Dean Acheson recently referred to as a body "which has no political structure, or unity, or strength." Well, Mr. Acheson, it is well to recall, is the man who largely invented United States policy towards China. I accept, however, the charge of wishful thinking because the Commonwealth is what one chooses to see in it. It will have a constructive future if we wish it so. I do not consider that either its survival or its decline and fall are predetermined. The elements are there for us to make what we will of it. So I choose to look at them wishfully.

Proof that there must, after all, have been some miraculous quality in the British Empire is to be found in the fact that its heir, the Commonwealth of Nations, is alive and kicking in 1965-although the kicking is sometimes more apparent than the life. At the beginning of last year I was asked to express views on the future of the Commonwealth for The Times of London. I was strongly in favour of survival but I was apprehensive that it might not last out the year. I thought it might blow up or expire of apathy. Evidence of apathy was the humiliating fact that I received only one indignant letter. A year later I am a little more confident, but more convinced than ever that the prospects depend on our collective will for survival and on our ability to look hard at present realities. We have to clear away old concepts and prejudices and see the Commonwealth as a thoroughly modern institution. It is an institution which respects its tradition because it is only because of shared traditions that it has any meaning at all. But it also has shown a genius for adapting itself to serve the purposes not of 1896 or 1940 but of 1965. (It could, of course, adapt itself right out of existence). Its purpose in 1965 is the most important and difficult in the world today, the maintenance of trust among the major races of the world.

During the past year I visited a good deal of the Commonwealth, including such troubled areas as Malaysia and British Guiana where people were quite desperately and immediately concerned as to what a modern Commonwealth meant for them. In Australia and New Zealand as in Canada, I found the mood to be sceptical, and in Britain sceptical or hostile. However, when I said in a broadcast from Sydney one day that I feared an explosion, the next day my words appeared in a Lagos paper under a headline: "Holmes says Commonwealth to Blow Up." I can only believe that the Editor had confused me with the Baker Street branch of the family to warrant this easy familiarity with my name, but it was reassuring evidence that the network existed and some one in Nigeria cared. Last December, I was one of a team of Observers from six Commonwealth countries asked by the British Colonial Secretary to observe the elections in British Guiana. It was an interesting and, I think, intelligent use of the Commonwealth, and I was heartened to find how Indians and Ghanaians, Maltese and Canadians could find a common understanding on the electoral process. The principal cause for optimism in 1964, however, was the spirit to compromise at the Prime Ministers' meeting last summer and the evident anxiety to avoid disruption over the passionate questions of Central Africa.

We are faced with some harsh realities. We are faced also with a problem of image-making. We still have to live down the image left by those for whom the Empire was the

privileged domain of Wasps, a bulwark against democracy and Yankees, wogs and frogs and black chaps who didn't know their place. This caricature too long obscured the nobler side of the British tradition and soured on the whole idea those who didn't qualify or didn't want to qualify for such a heavenly kingdom. It has provided an easy target for those who find advantage in denigrating the Commonwealth, whether they be ardent Europeanists in Britain or unweaned nationalists in Canada. The Commonwealth, as I see it, is not anachronistic in 1965. If it fails, it will not be because it is reactionary but because it is a fraternity too progressive for the state of the world.

That the Commonwealth of Nations as it exists today is a different phenomenon from the British Empire of the past, or even the British Commonwealth of recent years, is a reality which ought not to need emphasizing. It ought not to be regarded as primarily a matter of antique ceremony reserved for those of Anglo-Saxon or Celtic ancestry. The traditions of the Palaces of Westminster and Buckingham are woven deep into the fabric of the Commonwealth. It seems to me unnecessary to deny in Canada the strength of institutions which contribute stability and romance to our national life and those of others. They do not, however, appeal in the same way to the hundreds of millions of citizens of the contemporary Commonwealth, which is multiracial and multilingual, monarchical and republican. It is important for us at this time to recognize that the question of whether Canada should remain a monarchy is distinct from the question of whether or not we should remain a part of the Commonwealth. (I trust that this effort to define the issues will not be misinterpreted as evidence of anti-monarchical sentiment.) Essentially the Commonwealth must be looked upon now in the 1960's as an informal and largely deinstitutionalized association among countries of various races and continents. As a result of a common historical experience and in spite of wide differences of political practice and international orientation, they do have vital things in common. They share certain constitutional and legal attitudes, governmental and business practices, and habits of working together. It is neither an empire nor a power bloc. It is not a diplomatic or military or economic unit- although it is not devoid of diplomatic, military and economic significance.

Because the usual political terminology is inept, the nature of the Commonwealth has been encrusted with clichés-all too many of which are nauseatingly mystical. Its essence, as I see it, is that it is in the nature of a family. This, however, is a stale metaphor, and the comparison with a family went out of fashion because it was used by those who overemphasized blood. Since the Commonwealth has come to glory in its multi-racial quality, it has been considered bad form to call it a family. Yet there are multi-racial families. The essential thing about a family ig that it has a common origin, and the Commonwealth is a historical phenomenon, having significance only because its members grew out of a common institution. It is not a club as it is sometimes called; it is not in any sense a federation. It is not a thing you join; it is a thing you stay in-or out of which you get. The family figure may suggest a unity closer than in fact exists. This is so if we have a kiddies-round-the-hearth image of the family presided over by a mother figure looking like Queen Victoria. What I have in mind is the modern grown-up family each member of which normally spends most of his time in other circles but in whose life the family remains a unique if not predominant association.

The Commonwealth ought no longer to be looked upon primarily as an economic organization-if indeed that ever was its principal justification. However, we must not be too parochially Canadian. The commercial and financial advantages of membership have been of less importance to Canada than to other members, and we may have been guilty of underestimating the economic factor and stressing the political. The reaction to Britain's flirtation with the European Common Market indicated that Commonwealth commercial advantage may have meant more to us than we thought. It revealed also the dependence of other parts of the Commonwealth on the British market and on British finance. One reason Asian and African members remain within the Commonwealth is the expectation of more favourable economic terms, and aid not only from Britain but from Canada and Australia as well. If they are disappointed, they may be more easily tempted to resign the first time they are irritated.

Nevertheless, as an economic entity the Commonwealth is of declining significance. What still exists in the way of preferences or the sterling area need not be abandoned on principle nor surrendered without compensation. Preference might be regarded as vestigial, arrangements to be incorporated into broader international systems of commerce and currency if these can be achieved. We should accept as progress the fact that many of the economic and political functions of the Commonwealth have merged into broader international organizations. The Colombo Plan, a Commonwealth initiative, was extended to include foreign peoples moving in the same direction. The Commonwealth is of growing importance as a framework for technical, especially educational, assistance programmes. These are personal in application and the element of familiarity in a historic association is important. If the Commonwealth survives it may be because of thousands of teachers, scholars and administrators working or studying in each others countries: Australians and New Zealanders in Malaysia, the Canadian military training missions in Ghana and Tanzania, CUSO volunteers in Sarawak and Zambia. These strengthen the fabric of an association in which peoples get along better than governments. None of this activity, however, can be exclusive, because other countries, and especially the United States, play an important role in all those economic questions with which the Commonwealth is concerned.

I have said that the Commonwealth is not an economic unit. That it is neither a power bloc nor a diplomatic unit is also obvious enough. It is not a military unit either although its importance for defence, at least regionally, has been highlighted by the crisis over Malaysia. The idea that it should face the world as a unit with a single foreign policy persisted in some quarters until the end of the Second World War, but it was never a practical possibility. The new Commonwealth of many races would not have come into being if India, Ghana, or Malaya, on achieving independence, had felt unable to exercise their independence in foreign policy. Not even for the older members was a tight framework a possible alternative in an era when regional attractions were becoming stronger. So, making a virtue of necessity in accordance with its genius, the Commonwealth proceeded to glorify its diversity. It found its justification not in unity of policy but in a common search for understanding, for the sharing of viewpoints, constant consultation. I once heard a Nigerian describe its essence as "the quality of listening to each other with forbearance". Those critics who say that the Commonwealth is meaningless because its members often differ publicly should realize that it ought not to be judged by a criterion of unanimity which it does not postulate.

This search for understanding remains the primary justification of the Commonwealth, and it is essential to continue asserting the virtue of such a way of international life. Nevertheless, it is unwise to ignore the hollow sound these assertions sometimes have. Our practice falls short of our , pretensions. The denunciation of India's actions in Goa, of Uganda's attitude on the Congo or of Britain's actions in Central Africa may or may not be justifiable, but they are too often shrill, unctuous, and quite unresponsive to the victim's explanations. The Commonwealth never has been and never conceivably will be a happy band of concord, but there must always exist enough good will, candour and recognition of common interests to justify the institution. We must keep the quota of hypocrisy to an acceptable level.

The Commonwealth is confronted with grave issues, and the British, on the horns of appalling dilemmas over Rhodesia, Basutoland, Sarawak, or British Guiana, are a bit resentful of advice from other parts of the Commonwealth. Much of this advice is so gratuitous that resentment is inevitable. Nevertheless, there are paradoxes in this final stage of colonialism which must be resolved, and if this multi-racial fraternal society has any reason for existence it is to help resolve them. The responsibility for initiative and special concern does not rest only on those most deeply involved or passionately concerned; it rests also on those elder members who boast of the magnanimity of spirit and purity of conscience with which a history unsullied by imperialism has endowed us. Both Mr. Diefenbaker and Mr. Pearson served the Commonwealth well, I believe, by forestalling divisions along racial lines over South Africa and Rhodesia. Their healing diplomacy is the reason Canada occupies a crucial position. The decision whether the Commonwealth will survive is as much up to us as to any member.

One of the new realities of the Commonwealth is that the will to preserve it has to be encouraged not only at the periphery but also at the heart. The trials of Suez, the dilemma of immigration, ingratitude and abuse in the United Nations have stimulated doubts in Britain about the value of empire. The responsibility for sustaining former colonies looms larger than the diminishing commercial advantage. The illusion of the Commonwealth as a power bloc to maintain their position as a first-class power in world diplomacy has been revealed as misguided, although Britons are too little conscious of the prestige they have in world diplomacy because of their way of transforming an empire. Those Canadians who can never get rid of the idea that the Commonwealth is a plot of the English gentry to enslave poor gullible Canadians ought to read what they are saying in London about the way the Commonwealth is exploiting poor gullible Britain. It would be a good thing if both groups could drown each other in their own crocodile tears.

Another reality we cannot blink is what is happening to the free constitutional principles we claim to be the heritage that binds the Commonwealth together. Here it is hardest to be objective. In the older established countries there has been a soul-searching effort to be fair about governmental trends in Pakistan, Ghana, or Zanzibar. It is true that all too many people delight, like outraged spinsters, at the proofs Kwame Khrumah present for their satisfaction that it was a mistake ever to let Africans out of the hands of their whitefaced governesses. Nevertheless, we are conscious of the sins we have all committed in our time in the name of effective government, of the mixed history of colonial rule, of our racial intolerance. Most of us recognize that we must not expect conformity to all the traditions of Westminster in countries where unity is frail, illiteracy high, and the economy baffling. We cling to the belief that, in spite of the restrictions on legitimate opposition and even interference with the courts, the spirit of free Commonwealth principles is still in some measure preserved. Free principles of government may, however, have a harder time from anticolonialists than they had from colonialists. It is hard to say how far we can go in tolerating in membership governments which deny the few but fundamental principles which have distinguished the Commonwealth system. On the other hand, we have to ask ourselves whether expulsion from a freedomloving community would help them through the terrible testing-time that faces governments in all new states.

The main problem of the Commonwealth is apathy. It no longer inspires strong hostility in Chicago or Moscow or Dublin. It is accepted, taken for granted but not taken very seriously. For many people, unaware of its transformation, it is unfashionable. Regional solutions-the European Community, Pan Africanism, the Western Hemisphere, the Atlantic Community--are more in style, although the fact that the world gets smaller and regions less meaningful should make an intercontinental organization more rather than less significant. For the Africans there is a stronger emotional attachment to Africanism than to the Commonwealth. For many Britons Europe is more attractive and for many Canadians the continental pull is stronger. The Asian members are Asians first. The Australians and New Zealanders are trying to adjust themselves to their Pacific community. If we regard these regional affiliations as irreconcilable with the interests of the Commonwealth, the cause of the Commonwealth is lost. This would resemble the mistake too many of our forefathers made in assuming that Canada's destiny had to be either British or American, thereby setting up a schizophrenia in the Canadian mind which has clouded our perspective ever since.

The Commonwealth cannot force people into an unnatural framework, set Malaysia apart from Asia, Trinidad from South America, or Canada from the United States. It can recognize, however, that nations need not and should not be total in their orientations, that they may, with profit, vary their cultural and political--and their commercial--affiliations. It profits no one that the peoples of the world should be isolated in regions. To draw them together is, of course a function of the U.N., and it may be argued that the U.N. makes the Commonwealth unnecessary. But the ties which hold races and continents in contact are tenuous enough; all bonds which reinforce them are worthy of maintenance. The Commonwealth, we know from experience, is a force for good, working within the United Nations. It is counter-regional; its role is not to rival regional blocs but to serve as a link between them.

The Commonwealth cannot coast. Its very existence creates demands which must be continuously fulfilled--for consultation, understanding, moral support and economic assistance. It might of course cease upon the midnight with no pain, having fulfilled its historic role as a framework during the perilous transition from an imperially controlled world to a world of independent states. It is more likely to expire in anguish, strangled in its own rhetoric. If it does, then much of its historic mission will have been destroyed. We need not be dismayed or diverted by thinking that we must construct a framework to last a thousand years. Like all political institutions it will eventually be supplanted. All we need to know is that it has a useful function to perform for the time being because the world is still disorderly.

The Commonwealth Prime Ministers' meeting in July of last year was reassuring. The leaders of the new nations showed a statesmanlike concern to avoid confrontation and seek constructive agreement. They went beyond merely avoiding disruption to propose a common Secretariat to assist the exchange of information. It should not be assumed, however, that this represents a reversal of the old decision against the Commonwealth as a centralized unity. What is sought now is a practical measure to make consultation more effective.

What about Canada in the Commonwealth? It was we Canadians who worked out in our own interests the peculiar constitutional principle which later caught on in the whole Empire and transformed it. The new Commonwealth after the Second World War was built on the formula of association which we Canadians advocated in opposition to ideas of imperial federation or a united front which found more favour in Britain and Australia. And in the post-war years, when we were finding our feet in international diplomacy as a middle power whose greatest asset was its capacity to make friends, no member profited as much as Canada from this world-wide association. The purpose of these nationalist assertions is not to deny the wisdom and dedication of the British, who had to play the central role in transforming an Empire and do most of the dirty work. It is rather to remind us that this is one of the great political ideas of modern times, and it is one of two great political ideas of which we Canadians can boast. The other is not dissimilar; it is the experiment of maintaining a single state in the bosom of which two major European cultures co-exist and flourish. Lord Acton said that "the combination of different nations in one state is as necessary a condition of civilized life as the combination of men in society". It is not only for the benefit of Canada but for the progress of the whole world that neither of these ideas should be allowed to fail.

French-Canadians complain of our preoccupation with an English-speaking Commonwealth. They are anxious that we fulfil our bicultural mission by extending our concern to the countries of Africa and Asia where French is spoken. To this I think those who cherish the Commonwealth should:say: Why not? We are not still fighting the Battle of Crecy. The French commonwealth has had a different history from that of the British, and yet its mission, generously conceived, is similar. If these two beneficent international organisms should intersect in Canada, why not? The vision is grandiose, but we need a touch of grandiosity in Canada to lift us from the meanness of spirit, the failure of conviction which beset us.

For those who doubt that the Commonwealth has meaning for this country at this critical state of its history, may I, in conclusion, quote the words of the Prime Minister of Quebec one notable Saturday last October. Mr. Lesage said, ". . . the Commonwealth remains, for the whole world, an inspiring example of how nations can get along together despite differences in outlook and of how they can pursue common objectives, albeit by differing ways and means. And . . . the Commonwealth, in the relations that exist between its various members affords to Canadians a striking illustration of collaboration based, not upon uniformity, but upon a community of purpose born of mutual respect and understanding."


Thanks of this meeting were expressed by Mr. Peter W. Hunter, a Director of The Empire Club.

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The Commonwealth: White Man's Burden or Blind Man's Bluff?

The speaker as a true believer in the Commonwealth. Clearing away old concepts and prejudices to see the Commonwealth as a thoroughly modern institution. Its purpose in 1965 the most important and difficult in the world today: the maintenance of trust among the major races of the world. The speaker's visits over the past year and what he found. A description of the Commonwealth of nations as it exists today. The decline of the Commonwealth as an economic entity. All that the Commonwealth is not. The Commonwealth's justification in a common search for understanding, for the sharing of viewpoints, constant consultation. "The quality of listening to each other with forbearance." Grave issues confronting the Commonwealth, particularly with regard to the last stages of colonialism. The responsibility for initiative and special concern. Mr. Diefenbaker and Mr. Pearson's contributions. The will to preserve the Commonwealth. What is happening to the free constitutional principles the Commonwealth claims to be the heritage that binds it together. Not expecting conformity to all the traditions of Westminster in countries where unity is frail, illiteracy high, and the economy baffling. Apathy as the main problem of the Commonwealth. What might happen to the Commonwealth. Canada and the Commonwealth.