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THE IMPERIAL CONFERENCE OF 1937 JOHN W. DAFOE T HE Imperial Conference' of 1937 was the least spectacular of the whole ~eriesJrom I8~7 do\yn to the present day.' Its tepid, non-committal report commanded only a lukewarm press. "Less impressive than its predecessbrs/' "conclusions small and of limited moment," Clending in a cloud of admirable sentiments," 'lsingularly reticen t/' "vague,"-these characterizations of the findings are picked almost at random from the . press of four British nations. But a Canadi'an minister, in attendance at, the Conference, ga've a different summing -up. 'He said the Conference was Huseful" and contented himself with this single word. Doubtless this was a true word. A Conference includll1:g six British prime ministers, each with his retinue of colleagues" aq.vjsers, secretaries, and experts, continuing for a month, with special facilities for the inter~ange of information and views", could not but be of great value ,to all those in attendance. Indirectly there doubtless will be worthwhile results as the outcome'of these exchanges of views, this widening of knowledge, this pooling of experience; but 'of actual business little was done because there was nothing much that could be done under the conditions that prevailed. The Imperial Conference, which once made history, has thus seemingly tapered off to a gathering for the interchange qf views, with conclusions and findings so general in character, expressed in terms of such vagueness, that it is the inclination of a public that was prepared to , be interested, to dismiss it as something of little consequence . But to reach this conclusion might be' a 1 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY mistake because there are occasions when inaction is more significant than action, as seems to be the case in ·this instance. The Conference was unheroic because the British Conference system has passed into a new phase which restricted freedom. of action. There have been three such phases, arid the 1937 Conference marked the beginning of the fourth. First, there were the Colonial Conferences from r887 to 1907; then. the Imperial Conferences that shaded off into Commonwealth Conferences, gatherings of equals. At everyone of the twelve preceding gatherings (including two sub-conferences) there were . definite findings of one kind or another, the result of discussion and the adjustment of differing views. All the . Colonial and Imperial Conferences were called avowedly in the interests of Empire consolidation by agreement for COmmOn action. In the first of the series Lord Salisbury said plainly that the business before the gathering was the forwarding of Imperial naval defence. The colonies, he said, must put away .Iuxurious aspirations in the constitutional sense and concentrate on the severely practical matter of combining with the mother-country for purposes of self-defence. That in the succession of these Conferences the pressure for further consolidation. of the Empire wi th a common policy of defence failed, was due mainly to the delaying and blocking technique developed by Canada. But always, when a Conference was called, the hopes of the "Round-Tablers" rose and they laid their plans; and this was never more the case than on the eve ·of the momentous war-time Conference of 1917. To those hopes Lord Milner gave confident expression on the eve of the Conference. Instead, the Conference, at the joint instance of Sir Robert Borden and General Smuts, made the great declaration which resulted within thirteen years in the Commonwealth 2 THE IMPERIAL CONFERENCE OF 1937 replacing the Empire. A determined effort to reverse this tendency was made in the 1921 Conference, which for the moment seemed to succeed; but with the' Conferen ce of 1923 the movement of transformation .from Empire to Commonwealth resumed its irresistible march, and in 1930 reached its goal when the Conference of that year agreed to the principles embodied in the Westminster Act. The Commonwealth, which had in fact been in existence since 1917 by virtue of constitutional conventions , was confirmed by formallegal enactment. This closed an era and brought 'to an end the series of Conferences to which the ever-present fundamental issue of centralization or· diversity gave character. ' The 1937 Conference was the first to be held by the "sovereign nations...


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