Monday, Jul. 16, 1956

The Talks Were Helpful

The mystical ties that bind the Commonwealth (née 1926 the British Commonwealth) get more mystical each year. Its 650 millions are not united by allegiance to the Crown (India and Pakistan refuse it), or by common culture, or by language, religion or policy. The nine Commonwealth Prime Ministers gathered in London last week ranged from South Africa's racist Johannes Strydom, a Boer who dislikes the British influence almost as much as he dislikes Indians, to India's Jawaharlal Nehru, who is heard in such surroundings with some deference but little affection. They did not talk in council about matters that touched some of them most, e.g., Kashmir, for if too much practicality were let in the door, the mystical would fly out the window. "The Commonwealth is split on too many specific issues to act in concert," said London's Economist.

Hope & Wariness. And so they talked of many things—the kind of discreet chatting so beloved by Sir Anthony Eden. They talked of Communism's new directions, hopefully on the part of Nehru, warily on the part of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. (The final communiqué artfully alloyed both the hope and the wariness.) They agreed on wishing that the Formosa situation may not get out of hand. The Asian Commonwealth members wanted more trade with Communist China, and wanted the Reds in the U.N.; others for the present held back. Eden wanted the Commonwealth to share some of the responsibility for the bases that link it together, and got nowhere. He also explained his troubles with Greece over Cyprus—and got unexpected and able help from Pakistan's Mohamad Ali, who shares the misgivings of the Turks.

Some were quick to say that all this meant nothing, and others to say how helpful the discussions were. The truth seems to be that the Commonwealth, which means a great deal to some of its older hands, is to some of its proud and newer independents only a forum, another gathering place on the international circuit, which is acceptable so long as it makes no demands. An uncoerced assemblage, the Commonwealth often finds its strength defined by the willingness of its least enthusiastic members.

Wish to Continue. The only specific agreement reached at the conference reflected this fact. Britain agreed to transfer its fine Trincomalee naval anchorage and R.A.F. base at Katunayaka to Ceylon. In return, Ceylon offered to maintain there for the British "certain facilities enjoyed at present for communications, movements and storage." Britain offered to help Ceylon train its armed forces, and Ceylon accepted. For the British, this constituted a graceful retreat. And for the newest Prime Minister, Ceylon's Solomon Bandaranaike, who rode to office last April shouting demands that the British get out, it was a sensible compromise. By the light of the old imperialists, this was rather a sorry solitary achievement. But in all the shifts and strains of colonialism and anticolonialism, it was still something that a relationship originally founded on exploited and exploiting should have evolved into a tie, however ephemeral, that its members find of some value and wish to continue.