Paris Peace Discord

Hugh Purcell looks at how, 90 years ago, the British Empire rejected the principle of racial equality on which the Commonwealth is now based.

The Commonwealth, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, is dedicated to the principle of racial equality. The Singapore Declaration of 1971 proclaims: 'We believe in equal rights for all citizens regardless of race ... We recognise racial prejudice as a dangerous sickness ... and racial discrimination as an unmitigated evil of society.' Yet it was the British Empire Delegation at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 that effectively prevented the so-called 'racial equality clause' from inclusion in the Covenant of the League of Nations, which was signed 90 years ago.

The presence of the delegation in Paris was due to Prime Minister Lloyd George who two years before had heeded the call of a previous prime minister of Canada - 'if you want our aid, call us to your councils' - by summoning an Imperial War Cabinet. The so-called 'White Dominions' of Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand sent their prime ministers and India was represented too. Although India was not a self-governing Dominion, its commitment of one million men to the Allied armies, of whom nearly 80,000 lost their lives, was considered justification enough for inclusion.

Three Imperial War Cabinets were held from 1917 to 1918 and at them the prime ministers of Canada and Australia, in particular, became increasingly outspoken. Sir Robert Borden of Canada referred to the 'incompetence and blundering stupidity of the whisky and soda British HQ staff while 'Billy' Hughes of Australia opined that had he been consulted he would never have agreed to Third Ypres, the terrible failed offensive called Passchendaele. So when they discovered that they were expected to tag along to the Peace Conference as part of the British delegation they were furious. Borden threatened to 'pack his trunks, return to Canada, summon parliament and put the whole thing before them'.

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