Family Diplomacy: Canada and the Commonwealth Office of High Commissioner

By Lloyd, Lorna | International Journal, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Family Diplomacy: Canada and the Commonwealth Office of High Commissioner


Lloyd, Lorna, International Journal


THE OFFICE OF HIGH COMMISSIONER emerged because Britain and the fully self-governing dominions-Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Newfoundland (until 1934) and Ireland-were engaging in diplomacy well before the dominions had become separate international units. Such a development did not fit into the diplomatic system. Diplomacy was, and usually still is, understood to be "[t]he conduct of relations between sovereign states" and is therefore restricted to states enjoying constitutional independence.1 Yet not only did non-independent parts of the British empire engage in what was recognizably diplomacy with the mother country, but they also developed between themselves distinctive diplomatic practices long before the 1931 statute of Westminster (which gave them the right to obtain sovereign statehood).

Canada's attitude to the office reflected its relationship with Britain as well as the nature of the evolving empire and Commonwealth.2 One of the hangovers of colonialism was considerable touchiness in some dominions about the slightest suggestion of dominion subordination to Britain. It rubbed off on the office of high commissioner inasmuch as the distinctions between high commissioners and ambassadors were interpreted as indications that high commissioners (and by implication the states they represented) were second-rate. Once, however, the dominions could fully stand on their own international feet and decolonisation was under way, the Commonwealth was swiftly transformed, and in 1948 high commissioners gained equal status with ambassadors. At this point, high commissioners began appreciating their exclusivity and their very real advantages over foreign agents. The obvious benefits of the office did not long outlast the heyday of the new Commonwealth, which was over by the early 1960s. Yet the office survives.

I INTRA-IMPERIAL ASSERTION: THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE OFFICE OF HIGH COMMISSIONER

Intra-imperial contacts of a diplomatic kind began when the overseas colonies of settlement needed representatives in London to encourage and supervise emigration. Nova Scotia, for example, was at least intermittently represented from 1762. Other appointments followed, and by the time of Canada's Confederation (in 1867), most self-governing colonies had appointed part-time agents to speak for them in London and to promote their interests, especially in respect of immigration and economic matters.

In 1868, Canada took intra-imperial diplomacy a step further by appointing Sir John Rose as "a quasi-official representative"3 to Britain. Then, in 1878, Canada's recently re-elected prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, claimed his country was now an "auxiliary kingdom," whose relations with Britain were political and diplomatic rather than colonial. Accordingly, it needed a full-time "resident minister to London with diplomatic or semi-diplomatic status," someone who could engage in "the fullest and most frank interchange of views" with the British government.4 Macdonald accepted that such an official would have to have a title other than one of those customarily used in diplomacy, but he wanted it to sound important and to be easily recognized by foreign courts. He therefore suggested "resident minister."

This was at a time when Canada's constitutional subordination to Britain meant that it had to conduct all its official business with Whitehall through the Colonial Office, to which Macdonald had addressed his request. The Colonial Office accepted the idea of a highranking official, but thought that Canada's membership in the British empire meant that its representative could neither have diplomatic status nor be called "minister" (since minister is a recognized diplomatic title). "Commissioner" was suggested as more suitable. Macdonald wanted it prefixed by "high," partly to ensure that foreign governments appreciated the stature of his representative. After some grumbling about Canadian grandiloquence, Britain agreed, and the first appointment was made in 1880 in the person of Sir Alexander Gait (who served until 1883).

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