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Historical Observations: The Imperial Conference 1921 – Australia’s Position

The Imperial Conference was the only forum that allowed the Dominion Prime Ministers of Australia, Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand to question the British government on  Imperial foreign and defence policy – Great Britain was solely responsible for formulating the foreign and defence policy for its entire empire. The relations of Dominions and India with Britain changed due to the contribution of the former to the empire in the 1914-18 war. The time arrived for the Dominions to become involved in the formulation of Imperial foreign and defence policy and to be consulted on matters which affected their vital interests. It must be noted that India was the jewel in the British Imperial Crown.

The Australian Prime Minister, Willam M. Hughes cabled the British government urging it to stage the Imperial Conference in London sometime in June 1921. This cable was sent to the Colonial Office, where Lord Milner promptly forwarded it to Premier, Lloyd George, who responded positively to Hughes’ suggestion. Hughes considered it important that the Dominions be consulted and involved in the formulation of the Empire’s foreign policy.

Lloyd George’s opening address on June 20, 1921 outlined some of the important issues to be covered at the Imperial Conference. These included: reparations, renewing the Anglo-Japanese Treaty, making peace with Turkey, and the enforcement of the peace treaties. The Dominions’ new status allowed them to be “as equal partners in dignity and responsibility in the British Commonwealth of Nations.”

Hughes’s opening speech of June 21 allowed him to query Britain’s foreign policy. He asked: “I am sure you will quite understand our desire to know the reasons for your policy in Mesopotamia, in Palestine, in Russia, in Egypt, and your policy in Greece and Turkey. If I have singled these things out it is not because they cover the whole field of foreign policy but because these matters are perhaps the most obvious.”

Hughes divided British foreign policy into two parts: present and future. The present he argued allowed all shades of opinions to be expressed, which made amendments to foreign policy easier. However, the future involved uncertainty which would deprive the Dominions of an effective voice on foreign policy. Hughes complained that they might be told of a decision only after it had been made, or might not be consulted beforehand.

This problem could be overcome by improving communications between London and the Dominion capitals, which Hughes considered essential. Hughes complained that while the press was able to provide “a good imitation of the substance of official telegrams, the telegrams themselves were delayed in transmission for several days.”

The next day the British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon provided the Conference with an excellent historical overview of the Greek-Turkish conflict. He stated that the Allies in Paris had appealed to the Greeks to accept Allied mediation but that they were about to renew hostilities against the Turks. Hughes outlined the Australian attitude to the Greek-Turkish war. He stated: “The general feeling of the people of Australia, at any rate, I think … is that we ought not to be involved in this trouble. We ought not to spend one shilling or to risk one life to further the ambitious projects of King Constantine. Lord Curzon has explained how the position arose. I could not help thinking, while he was speaking, how mysteriously the finger of Providence moves. A monkey, we are told, has done this thing. He bit Alexander so sorely that he sickened and died! But why did he stop there? Why did he only bite King Alexander?”

Hughes had contempt for the Greeks, a feeling which had emerged during World War I along with admiration for the Turks. He believed that it was important to conciliate Moslem feelings. He probably thought that Moslem uprisings in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India would have a deleterious effect on British strategic interests in Suez and the Persian Gulf and that the Kemalists were in a strong position to stir up Moslem passions in Mesopotamia and the Arab world. Perhaps the Australian Prime Minister considered it important to come to terms with Mustapha Kemal.

After his return from London, Hughes addressed Federal Parliament on September 30, highlighting the achievements of the Imperial Conference. He mentioned the change in the relationship between Britain and the Dominions where the latter wanted to have a voice in the formulation of the Empire’s foreign policy. Furthermore, he added that Dominion leaders were shown copies of inward and outward Foreign Office cables dealing with foreign issues, which was indeed a major advance for the Dominions. Hughes also mentioned that Australia with its five and a half million inhabitants was a negligible force in international affairs, but that as a member of the Empire “she spoke in trumpet tones that were heard and heeded throughout the Earth.”

Egypt was considered of vital importance to Australia due to its pivotal position in the lines of communications with Britain. The Anglo-Japanese Treaty and the Pacific were two issues to which Hughes gave a lot of emphasis, as well especially as these were of primary concern to Australia’s defence and security. What is interesting is that the Greek-Turkish war only got a passing mention in his speech.

The Melbourne newspaper The Age in its editorial of October 1 was critical of Hughes’ questioning of Lloyd George over Britain’s policy in Mesopotamia, Greece, and Turkey. It continued that: “In what terms did Mr. Hughes express Australia’s exciting views on these outlandish affairs and what are those views? What are for instance are Australia’s aspirations in the matter of Anatolia? How many Australians know where it is? … He must not mistake his voice for that of the Commonwealth. When he says Australia demands consultation about remote parts of the world of which it knows nothing, he is palpably and grievously mistaken. We shall not go blindly along the road to war through ignorance of Anatolia; on the contrary, we are likely to encounter serious trouble by foolish and ignorant interference with other people’s business. Australia wants to be consulted only in her direct concerns.”

It would appear The Age saw Hughes’s meddling over Imperial policy in Anatolia as something dangerous which might involve Australia in a future war. Indeed, the editorial was prophetic, as was to be borne out by the events at Chanak in September 1922 and the newspaper thought the Imperial conference under the circumstances had been unnecessary.

The Chanak crisis was to sharply expose the myth of Imperial consultation which resulted in a conflict between Imperial and Australian national interests.

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My name is Charles Robbins, the chief correspondent of the Chicago Daily Tribune in Constantinople.

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