Seminar Room A, Coombs Building, ANU
Family Matters? The Dominion High Commissioners in Wartime Britain, 1938-42
Dr Kent Fedorowich, University of West England, Bristol
The demands of the Second World War had long-term consequences for Britain’s future relations with its four self-governing dominions of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. Forged by war, a key component in this evolving diplomatic relationship was the office of the high commissioner, which by 1950 became the main conduit of communications between the British and dominion governments.
This essay introduces some of the main actors and tensions within the ‘family circle’, especially during the first three years of the conflict, when, after the Fall of France in June 1940, the British Empire stood almost alone until the United States entered hostilities in December 1941. Christened the ‘junior war cabinet’, the influence of the dominion high commissioners reached its height in 1940, only to decline rapidly with the coming of Winston Churchill to power in May 1940. Indeed, their influence within Whitehall was directly linked with who was Dominions Secretary and the influence or not they had with the prime minister.
The essay pursues several lines of inquiry. First, there is a brief outline of the growing historiography on this subject which is followed by how the modern-day high commissioner was created during the interwar period. Second, there is an examination of the dominion high commissioners themselves, their activities as a group, their varying approaches to their office and their relations with the Dominions Office. Finally, interwoven within the analysis, is an exploration of the how these men were viewed by their counterparts in Whitehall, especially Churchill, who was determined to control the strategic direction of the war without any interference from the dominions or their representatives in London.
Dr Kent Fedorowich is Reader in British Imperial and Commonwealth History and the University of West England. His research interests include empire migration, prisoners of war, and Anglo-dominion relations. He is co-editor (with Carl Bridge) of The British World: Diaspora, Culture and Identity (London: Frank Cass, 2003). Dr Fedorowich is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Humanities Research Centre, ANU.