‘What’s in a name?’
The curious tale of the office of High Commissioner1
‘One cannot use the word "diplomacy" in speaking of the
relations within the family circle of the British Empire.’
(Lord Hankey) 2
In the fourteenth century BC, Egypt sent officials to her vassal states in Canaan to keep the pharaoh informed about conditions, settle disputes, expedite the imposition of Egyptian discipline on unruly subordinates and generally enforce the pharaoh’s will. The generic term for these men was rabisu, which is generally translated as ‘commissioner’, senior rabisu being described as ‘high commissioners’. More than two millennia later, Egypt, which had fallen under British control, was obliged to receive high commissioners from London. And even after the termination of Britain’s formal domination in 1922, her representatives continued to be designated by the imperial-sounding title of ‘high commissioner’ and retained a notable standing. This was matched by the pomp with which they behaved and were treated. At official dinners, the high commissioner and his wife would arrive in full regalia to shake each guest by the hand, the ladies curtsying and the men bowing. ‘After the comparative simplicity of one’s life [as ambassador] in Peking,’ one high commissioner found ‘all the formality . . . rather startling. For instance, going to dine at the Consulate [in Port Said] the streets were lined with police, and we were preceded by two cars ahead, bicycle outriders on both sides, and followed up by another car behind. All extremely well done.’
Other dependent territories that were also not formally part of the British empire - protectorates, protected territories and mandates - likewise received high commissioners. Their title, and their responsibility to the foreign office rather than to the colonial office, reflected the fact that these territories had a degree of international personality. Thus, the British governor-general in South Africa was also high commissioner for the Rhodesias and the native administrations in Basutoland, the Bechuanaland Protectorate and Swaziland. In 1877 Britain created a high commissioner for the Western Pacific with jurisdiction over all islands not administered by Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, ‘or any other civilized power’. The following year she sent a high commissioner to Cyprus, when the Sultan of the Ottoman empire gave Britain the right to occupy and administer the island. Meanwhile, between 1874 and 1914 a series of treaties and engagements with the rulers of the nine Malay protected states resulted in the Governor of the Straits Settlements (Penang, Singapore and Malacca) having additional functions as high commissioner for the Malay States. Under the 1948 agreement establishing the Federation of Malaya, executive authority was vested mainly in a high commissioner although to all intents and purposes his position was the same as a colonial governor. After the first world war, Britain also established high commissioners in Iraq and Palestine, which had become League of Nations mandates. The French likewise appointed high commissioners to their mandated territories.
A second category of arrangements which led to the appointment of high commissioners were cases of territories placed under international control. Thus, after the first world war and until the withdrawal of allied troops from defeated Turkey in September 1923, the inter-allied commission in Constantinople consisted of British, Italian, French and Greek high commissioners. (In the case of Britain, the office was attached to the British ambassadorship to Constantinople.) Britain’s inter-war representative on the Inter-Allied Rhineland High Commission on the occupied west bank of the Rhine was styled ‘high commissioner’. And there was a League of Nations high commissioner in the free city of Danzig which was, under Articles 100 and 102 of the Treaty of Versailles, protected by the League.
Thirdly, the term ‘commissioner’ has sometimes been bestowed on diplomatic envoys. According to Anderson, ‘commissarius’ was one ‘a bewildering variety of titles’ given to resident diplomatic representatives in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. At this time commissioners were generally entrusted with particular negotiations, while (lower-ranking) resident envoys concentrated on information gathering. This was the sense in which Machiavelli referred to them in the fifteenth century. In British practice, the title of ‘high commissioner’ was at least on occasion given to negotiators (not necessarily members of the diplomatic service) who held special and usually temporary appointments to deal with one specific subject or group of related subjects. A twentieth-century example was in Transcaucasia after it separated from Russia into three independent national states (Georgia, Erivan and Azerbaijan) following the Bolshevik revolution. In the summer of 1919, the allied powers and Britain despatched separate high commissioners on special missions.
In the fourth place, the title of ‘high commissioner’ has been, and still is, bestowed on international civil servants dealing with humanitarian matters. The first was Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer and scientist, who in 1920 reluctantly accepted an invitation from the Council of the League of Nations to become high commissioner for the repatriation of prisoners of war. The following year he became the League’s high commissioner for refugees and from 1921 to 1923 he was also high commissioner for aid to Russia (the latter appointment reflecting the Soviet Union’s unwillingness to have anything to do with the League). The UN high commissioner for refugees is legatee of Nansen’s efforts in this respect. The responsibilities of the high commissioner on national minorities of the Organisation on Security and Cooperation in Europe, an office created in January 1993, mirrors those of the UN high commissioner.
The final way in which the title high commissioner has been used - and is very familiar today - forms the subject of this paper. It is in respect of the diplomatic envoys exchanged between the fifty-four members of the (ex-British) Commonwealth. In the normal way, the head of a residential diplomatic mission is called an ambassador. This is normal in several senses: in popular understanding and usage; in that nowadays states never establish diplomatic missions of the second rank - legations (the heads of which were called ‘minister’); and statistically. But the statistical uniformity falls far short of 100 per cent. This is because getting on for one-third of the world’s states - the members of the Commonwealth - do not use the title ‘ambassador’ for the heads of the residential diplomatic missions which they send to each other.
Fifty years ago there were not many instances of this diplomatic breed, and the title’s survival was in serious danger. High commissioners were rare because they were employed by only six of the world’s sixty or so states: the United Kingdom and the dominions of Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland. Furthermore, there was not an all-round exchange of high commissioners between these six states. Only between Britain and the dominions was there a full exchange. High commissioners were endangered because there was considerable dissatisfaction with the office and the inequality which it implied vis-à-vis non-Commonwealth countries. Yet today high commissioners are relatively thick on the ground and it seems that the position has come to be cherished. The manner in which this occurred merits examination.
1: The emergence of dominion high commissioners
Given that what used to be called the self-governing dominions of Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand developed out of colonies of settlement, it was to be expected that some provision might be made for their representation at the hub of the empire. In fact, such arrangements existed before they obtained dominion status, first in the shape of crown agents appointed by the relevant British secretary of state to deal with commercial and financial business on behalf of some colonies. Nova Scotia was so represented as from 1749, and other appointments followed. Most of the incumbents, however, were colonial office clerks who treated their additional positions as sinecures and about whom colonial governments frequently complained. In 1833, therefore, the system was overhauled. Two colonial office clerks gave up all other responsibilities to become full-time agents and the others were pensioned off. However, their limited functions and their distance from the various territories meant that they were hardly effective representatives of the colonies. And they had no reverse functions: all official communications from Britain to a colony went directly from the colonial secretary in London to the colony’s governor.
Following the establishment of the federation (and dominion) of Canada in 1867, members of its government came to see the desirability of a specifically-Canadian representative in London, who could play a political as well as an economic role. Without someone to engage in ‘the fullest and most frank exchange of views with Her Majesty’s Government’ there was a danger ‘of a feeling of indifference, if not of actual antagonism and irritation on both sides’. Canada therefore suggested in 1879 that an appointment of a ‘quasi-diplomatic’ kind be made, giving its holder the ‘social advantages of such a rank and position’. It was recognised that such an official would need a title other than one of those customarily used in diplomacy. But it needed to be indicative of the importance and dignity of the office. A number of possibilities was considered. The one finally suggested was ‘resident minister’.
The colonial office accepted the idea of a high-ranking representative, but was unable to contemplate the position having anything like a diplomatic character: Canada could not have dealings in London (or elsewhere) at that level, as she was part of the empire. Nor did London like the sound of ‘resident minister, given the diplomatic connotations of the word ‘minister’. Several ‘pallid alternatives’ were suggested, dominion or Canadian ‘commissioner’ being among them. Canada went along with the term commissioner, but wanted it to be prefixed by ‘high’, partly to ensure that foreign governments appreciated his stature. (In so doing, she firmly asserted that her relations with Britain were now of ‘a quasi-diplomatic character’.) Rather uneasily, the colonial office agreed to the term high commissioner. The foreign office did not object, and the first Canadian high commissioner was appointed in 1880. Similar appointments were made by New Zealand in 1905 (two years before the colony achieved dominion status), Australia in 1910, and South Africa in 1911. The missions they headed were, in consequence of their own titles, called high commissions.
From the very beginning, dominion high commissioners in London ‘began to act in a generally representative capacity and to perform tasks which were closely comparable to the duties of a diplomatic officer’. Those who enjoyed the confidence of their prime ministers (and whose prime ministers were sufficiently confident to trust them) were increasingly used as a channel of communication with London. But there was no question on any side of their being treated as diplomats, and their different status was made clear in the arrangements in London. Diplomats dealt solely with the foreign office. High commissioners dealt mostly with the colonial office (until the creation of the dominions office in 1925) and they could approach most other departments, but not, until the early 1920s, the foreign office. They did not present letters of credence. They were not members of the diplomatic corps, and they and their staffs were not entitled to the rights and privileges that went with diplomatic status. Some irritations on that account were removed in the 1920s. High commissioners were given precedence after British secretaries of state on formal occasions, granted exemption from customs duties and certain taxes which were not levied on diplomats, and allowed to wear a diplomatic uniform on ceremonial occasions. Nevertheless, the principle remained clear: high commissions were different from foreign, diplomatic missions.
This was the position even after the 1914-18 war had propelled the dominions into the world of diplomacy because the dominions had become international actors before they had fully separated from Britain. In 1919 dominion prime ministers had just gained the formal right to communicate directly with the British prime minister, and the governors-general in the dominions remained the representatives of both the British government and the British crown. Only in 1931 did the dominions obtain the right to acquire sovereignty. Even when the most assertive - Canada, the Irish Free State and South Africa - took every opportunity to assert their independence, they were backwards in establishing the machinery for formulating and conducting independent foreign policies. Their foreign ministries and diplomatic services were embryonic and the name they bore - departments of external affairs - reflected the fact that the departments were not originally intended to be ‘proper’ foreign offices but were set up to improve the administration of external matters. The term was also sufficiently wide to include their relations with Britain (which constituted the bulk of such business) and which were deemed to be ‘non-foreign’.
2: The despatch of British high commissioners to the dominions
The despatch of British high commissioners to the dominions was a consequence of the decision by the 1926 imperial conference that, if dominions so wished, their governors-general would only represent the British king and not, as hitherto, the British government also. This would have left Britain with no-one to protect and champion her interests but the Canadian prime minister, Mackenzie King, had a ready solution. ‘[T]he business transacted between the Governments of Britain and Canada was’, he said, ‘sufficiently large to be dealt with in the same manner as was employed in the case of foreign Governments, many of which were smaller than Canada . . . he had in mind the establishment in the Empire of a sort of diplomatic representation such as existed in the rest of the world.’ In pursuit of this aim, and wanting someone to counterbalance the influence of the US and her newly-appointed minister in Ottawa, King said he would ‘like to give the British representative regular formal precedence’. However, he accepted that this was impossible as it would flout diplomatic protocol. Initially King also wanted a more elevated title than ‘high commissioner’. However, the dominions secretary reminded him of the significant status of Britain’s high commissioners in South Africa, Egypt and Iraq. King gave way.
The already quasi-diplomatic status of intra-Commonwealth relations was underlined by a tussle between the dominions and foreign offices, both of which claimed responsibility for Britain’s high commissioners to the dominions. The former emphasised that if the foreign office was involved, it would look as if intra-Commonwealth relations had become similar to those between foreign states. The foreign office urged its appropriateness on the ground that the high commissioners would require diplomatic skills. The dominions office won. In 1928 and without seeking Canada’s prior approval (as would have been necessary if the appointment had been regarded as diplomatic), Britain appointed Sir William Clark as her first high commissioner. Clark was said to have been ‘a considerable success’, but initially he and his staff did not seem to appreciate that their job was essentially diplomatic. Ever-prickly and on the lookout for slights, Mackenzie King ‘had a real blowout’ when Clark presumed to tender advice on the proper procedure to be followed when Canada opened a legation in Japan. ‘I got thoroughly mad’, he confided in his diary,
& told him that we in Canada did not need to be told how to behave, we did not intend to be told by the Br. Frgn. Office, or his office . . . we wished our representative to stand on his own feet . . . we would make our own mistakes if need be, but intended to hold to the equality of status in every particular . . . this "tranquil consciousness of effortless superiority" on the part of Englishmen was intolerable . . . I could not contain the feeling of indignation at the way the High Commissioner’s Office has been seeking to "keep tab" on us.
And while Clark’s staff worked hard
to establish close relations with their opposite numbers in the Canadian government service . . . they sometimes seemed to have rather exalted ideas as to the identity of their opposite numbers in the queer colony to which they had been temporarily exiled. In certain instances the High Commissioner even addressed himself to the Governor General rather than to the Secretary of State for External Affairs or the Prime Minister . . . At Canadian insistence the proper procedures eventually became established practice, but it took more than a little persistence . . . It was a long time before London began acting automatically in accordance with the new code [agreed at the 1926 imperial conference].
It was not just in Canada that Britain’s high commissioner displayed insensitivity to the developing status of their hosts. But the representational pattern had been established. South Africa received a British high commissioner in 1930 (at which time he was given the additional, separate commission of ‘High Commissioner for Basutoland, the Bechuanaland Protectorate, and Swaziland’, which had hitherto been vested in the governor-general). In Australia, a high commissioner’s office was established ‘in embryo’ in 1931 and a full mission was opened in 1936. New Zealand did not accept a high commissioner until early 1939, the year in which her governor-general relinquished his role as representative of the British government.
New Zealand delayed receiving a high commissioner because she objected to what she regarded as the separatist wedge that it introduced into the empire. By contrast, British representation in the Irish Free State was delayed because that state objected to the ‘imperial history’ of the title ‘high commissioner’. Prolonged negotiations were necessary before the arrival in Dublin, in October 1939, of a British envoy who was addressed differently by Britain and Eire. The former called him the ‘UK representative’. The latter used the term ‘British representative’. This was part of Eire’s ongoing battle against what she perceived to be the second-class international citizenship of the dominions, and the associated doctrine of inter-se. This had been devised by Britain to provide a theoretical framework for what Britain claimed were a series of special, non-international relationships - and ones which made it impossible for Britain and the dominions to engage in diplomatic relations with each other.
3: Dissatisfaction with the system
Until the Second World War dominion to dominion representation was limited to non-diplomatic trade commissioners. Trade commissioners had been despatched since 1894 when Canada sent a full-time commercial agent to Australia because she was dissatisfied with the British diplomatic and consular officials who had hitherto looked after her interests. Because people assumed that an agent’s job was to purchase goods, the title had been changed to ‘trade commissioner’ in 1907. The title was chosen because the presence of high commissioners in London had given the word ‘commissioner’ ‘the established connotation of a government representative’. In 1908 Britain followed Canada’s example and appointed trade commissioners to all the dominions. But partly because there was little bilateral trade, few were sent from one dominion to another. Hard political reasons, such as would justify the expense of exchanging high commissioners, were even thinner. The approach of the Second World War caused serious consideration to be given to the matter, and from 1938 onwards the dominions began exchanging high commissioners. However, as a senior Canadian official had forewarned, they were not really necessary and their work-loads were light. During the war years, ‘virtually no business was transacted between Ottawa and Pretoria’. In 1942 Canada’s high commissioner in Canberra thought that if Canada did not supply aid to Australia, he would not have much to do. Canada’s relations with Newfoundland (whence a high commissioner was despatched in 1941) were deemed ‘more varied, more important and more urgent’ than with Eire, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand combined. The South African prime minister, Smuts, was reluctant to acquiesce to Australia’s request to exchange high commissioners, since he had ‘a relatively low opinion of Australia’ and its external affairs minister, Evatt. And after the exchange had become reciprocal - following change of government in South Africa - both countries tended to leave the high commissionerships vacant for lengthy periods.
Meanwhile, South Africa had been first to despatch an envoy to another dominion. In 1937 her prime minister, Hertzog, had begun pressing Mackenzie King to receive an ‘accredited representative’ with diplomatic status on the grounds that
there is nothing in the legal relations between the Union and Canada which would militate against, or stand in the way of, an exchange of properly designated diplomatic agents . . . we do not see any reason why it should not be possible for the head of the state of the Union to be represented in Canada and to be accredited to the head of state of Canada. In deference to the position taken up by you . . . and not wishing to prejudice our position, we decided to choose the vague title [of accredited representative] . . . in the hope that it would be . . . acceptable. The main thing for us was establish contact with you all along the line, on a diplomatic basis. This . . . evaded the difficulty of having, at this stage, to raise with you pointedly the question whether the nature of the British Commonwealth allows of an exchange of diplomatic agents with titles commonly used.’
Mackenzie King agreed to accept the ‘accredited representative’, Meyer, but would not give him diplomatic status. Hertzog protested that there was ‘no justification, either in law or in common sense, for perpetuation of such an unsatisfactory state of affairs’. King insisted, however, that while Meyer might ‘discharge substantially the same functions’ as a diplomat, his status, privileges and immunities were those of a high commissioner. This did not prevent Meyer - who arrived in 1938 - from describing himself ‘as the first diplomatic representative of one Dominion in another’, and insisting that the British high commissioner was his junior and should therefore, in accordance with diplomatic practice, first call on him. But in 1943, and partly because of Meyer’s ‘ambiguous and meaningless title’, a Union minister in effect told his parliament that Meyer did not have the rank of high commissioner. Ottawa protested at the implication that South African did not think Canada worthy of receiving a representative of that rank. The result was that in 1945 Meyer’s successor was designated high commissioner.
Meanwhile, from South Africa, Canada’s high commissioner, Burchell (who aspired to membership of the diplomatic corps), was sending a string of complaints to Ottawa about the various ways in which Pretoria was (as he saw it) making clear its displeasure at King’s attitude. Burchell was refused tariff exemptions on the grounds that such privileges were reserved for diplomats. He was not treated as well as when he had been high commissioner in Australia. His status was deemed lower than that of the British high commissioner and foreign diplomats, the South African press adding insult to injury by calling him a trade commissioner. He also believed that Canada’s insistence that high commissioners were not diplomats had led South Africa to decide to replace Meyer with ‘a ranking member of the Broderbond’. Burchell’s guns were, however, somewhat spiked when he was told that Canada had a more important matter to worry about: her relations with Eire.
Eire had been relentless in kicking away any Commonwealth bonds that implied subordination. By the end of 1939 these had included allegiance to the king, common citizenship and the notion that a member of the Commonwealth (however tenuous as in her case) could not remain neutral in a war which involved Britain. The title ‘high commissioner’ was also in her sights, since it was given to Britain’s non-diplomatic representatives in such territories as Palestine and the Western Pacific. By analogy, the title was regarded as ‘impl[ying] administrative functions and the power to interfere, and [wa]s not therefore appropriate to a representative carrying out diplomatic functions’. In 1939, during negotiations over the title to be given to the head of Britain’s mission to Dublin, Eire intimated that she would prefer to emphasise her ‘independence’ by first exchanging envoys with Canada. Canada and Britain did not object and an Irish high commissioner arrived in Ottawa in August 1939. But when the exigencies of war prompted de Valera, the Irish prime minister, to receive a British envoy, and, with Britain’s assent, he was designated ‘representative’, Ireland hastily asked Ottawa to bestow the same title on Ireland’s envoy to Ottawa. Ottawa said it was too late.
Eire’s next approach was to Australia in November 1945 when de Valera suggested sending a ‘representative’ to Canberra within the next six months. In April 1946 Australia agreed to receive a ‘representative’ and an exchange took place that year. However, while Australia’s representative in Eire was a high commissioner, Eire’s assumed (and Australia accepted) the title ‘Minister Plenipotentiary Representative of Ireland in Australia’. The Irish mission then proceeded to underline its ‘diplomatic status’, by rejecting office space in a projected building for Commonwealth representatives in Canberra; insisting on dealing with the external affairs department like foreign diplomats rather than the prime minister’s office (to which high commissioners had the right of direct access); emphasising its ‘foreignness’ by having a bi-lingual letter-head; and informally calling itself the Irish legation. Australia, on the other hand, treated Eire’s ‘minister’ as a high commissioner. He was listed as one of the ‘Representatives in Australia of other Governments of His Majesty’ and was ‘invariably’ grouped with dominion representatives at official functions. (When a new government was elected under Menzies in December 1949, and although Ireland had by then formally left the Commonwealth, the Irish representative in Canberra was ‘officially addressed as "High Commissioner"‘.)
Another Irish foray concerned the presentation of credentials. Her ‘minister’ to Canberra claimed to have done this, and Australia’s high commissioner in Dublin, Dingam, found himself pressed to provide ‘at least a short formal letter of introduction signed by the Prime Minister and/or [foreign minister, Evatt,] for presentation at the official ceremony at Dublin Castle followed by a banquet similar to [the] reception of Foreign Representatives’. With Britain’s dominions office sending informal warnings about serious constitutional issues and embarrassment to other Commonwealth members, Canberra told Dingam that, ‘as no Australian High Commissioner had presented formal letters of accreditation, it was not proposed to issue one . . . unless the Government of Eire expects it.’ However, letters of introduction were not unknown, and Dingam urged that Australia should comply with Eire’s request:
The Irish view is that members of the family, and Australia before any, are entitled at least to the same if not greater status and dignity than [sic] an outsider. In any event, they will accord myself and staff full diplomatic precedence, privileges and immunity. The recent Canadian High Commissioner died on arrival before presenting very formal letters patent of appointment by the King as High Commission[er] under the Great Seal of Canada signed by the Governor-General, Secretary of State and Attorney-General. The document was given to and retained by the Irish Government . . . As far as I am aware, Maffey [the British representative] has never been informed of the existence of this document. My views on display as such are well known to yourself but I would gladly accept the same to please the people here and the Irish in Australia.
A more important question involves precedent and the Australian Government’s views on the issue raised by Maffey. His viewpoint is similar to the Opposition attitude . . . [He] exaggerates the importance of outward formality and conflicts with the more generally accepted Australian viewpoint that British Commonwealth links are not so fragile as to depend on abstention from or be endangered by [sic] ceremony of this kind.
Evatt allowed Dingam to participate in a ceremony of welcome and sent a formal letter for Dingam to present to de Valera. At roughly the same time he also instructed Australia’s high commissioner in India to tell Nehru that, ‘Australia was anxious to help India to her goal in every way short of leaving the British Commonwealth. If it would assist India as a mark of her independence, Australia would be ready to style her diplomatic representative in India, Minister instead of High Commissioner’. Evatt’s attitude was not surprising. In 1944 he had been reported as favouring replacing high commissioners with ambassadors or ministers and he cared little for pleasing Britain.
With Canada about to appoint a new envoy to Dublin, Eire urged her to drop the ‘colonial title’ of high commissioner. It was ‘utterly inappropriate to the facts of free association’ and ‘had the effect of relegating [dominion high commissioners] to a place lower in prestige and public estimation than non-Commonwealth representatives, whereas the logic of the situation is that they should have the special status of Ambassador’. Canada’s envoy should be called ‘Ambassador, Representative of Canada in Ireland’ or, by analogy with Maffey, ‘Canadian representative’. He should also ‘be received with at least the same degree of ceremony and honour as non-Commonwealth representatives, namely, a formal reception in Dublin Castle, mounted escort, exchange of speeches, salute, etc. This implies some form of credentials’.
Canada was willing to meet Ireland half-way in respect of credentials and prepared for her high commissioner-designate a letter which ‘did not mention the word "credence", but [wa]s a rough approximation of the letter’ de Valera had given his ‘minister’ to take to Canberra. However, while senior Canadian officials had for some time disliked the term ‘high commissioner’, ‘nobody could think of a suitable substitute title’. Although high commissioners in Ottawa had been styled ‘honourable’ for several years, it was ‘out of the question’ to use the title ambassador or the style ‘excellency’. Mackenzie King was a cautious man and his high commissioner in London, Massey, had emphasised the inadvisability of sacrificing such ‘real advantages’ as informal and direct access to officials and ministers ‘in order to move up several places at table’. But there was now ‘much to be said’ for adopting the title ‘representative’: it might be more suitable for Canada’s first appointment to India, South Africa would not object and Australia could hardly do so. Britain, however, was pressing Canada to stick to ‘high commissioner’ and the whole ‘tiresome business’ was in danger of delaying five or six other diplomatic appointments. Canada therefore adopted the quicker and easier task of appointing a high commissioner and calling for informal Commonwealth discussions on the whole question.
While the dominions were tearing the doctrine of inter-se into tatters in respect of the exchange of representatives, significant voices in Britain were calling for high commissioners to be given a higher status. The second world war had removed any lingering doubts about the international standing of the dominions. They were no longer international infants. They had gravitated out of Britain’s strategic and diplomatic orbit and were rapidly expanding their foreign offices and their diplomatic representation. It was clearly anomalous to suggest that the nature of their official relations with each other was different from those of other states. Additionally, there was a suggestion that the if high commissioners were not granted at least equal status with ambassadors in the new dominions of India and Pakistan, ‘the position of the High Commissioners would be intolerable’. However, it was feared that any formal discussion of the question might lead to a clash with Eire on questions of principle. As Canada saw it, Britain accordingly decided to ‘launch a diversionary attack on . . . the High Commissioners’ weakest flank by suggesting that . . . they can be given the title "Excellency"‘(which is bestowed on ambassadors). There were informal discussions but these were inconclusive. The prime ministers would have to resolve the problem at their meeting in London in October 1948.
4: The outcome
By September 1947 a small, high-level committee of officials had provided British ministers with a report on the status of high commissioners. Believing ‘that it ought not to be the object of policy to assimilate the position of British high commissioners to that of foreign ambassadors’, the committee said high commissioners should not formally be granted legal immunity. It was also suggested that it was unnecessary as ‘administrative action was regularly taken, as far as possible, to put them and their staffs in the same position as diplomats’ as regards immunity, and they were also accorded the same privileges as diplomats. However, the committee thought there was a very strong case for giving high commissioners ambassadorial status. This raised thorny problems of precedence. High commissioners came some way down the British table of precedence, after members of the British government, the house of lords and the royal household. Traditionally, and by courtesy, ambassadors yielded only to members of the Royal Family who were royal highnesses. This had been appropriate when there were few ambassadors, since that status had initially been initially reserved for representatives of states enjoying royal honours. However, great powers had begun bestowing the title on their envoys to important posts and this prompted other states to appoint ambassadors to great powers. By the mid-1940s this meant there was a plethora of ambassadors in London. Accordingly, the committee thought ambassadors should be ranked immediately after the lord privy seal. The proposal also meant that high commissioners could not outrank the British prime minister, the lord chancellor and their own, visiting prime ministers. But the committee did not stop there. It recommended that high commissioners should ‘rank as a separate group immediately above Ambassadors’. This was because there were so many ambassadors, because it would maintain the conception of the Commonwealth representatives as a single recognised group’, and because it would satisfy Commonwealth opinion. However, this would done by stealth. As hitherto, ambassadors would be omitted from the table of precedence and a new footnote would state that they ‘yielded precedence only to the Royal Family and the High Officers of State’. While on paper this clearly implied that ambassadors would retain precedence over high commissioners, it was not regarded as
inconsistent with the conception that the two groups were of equal status, i.e., in effect, they would be in parallel columns . . . On any occasion where the two groups appear together as groups, (e.g., at Courts, Levées, etc.) it should be possible to arrange matters in such a way as not to suggest that either group ranks above the other. Where members of the two groups are present as individuals, e.g., at public dinners, there would be no difficulty in adopting the system already in practice here whereby High Commissioners are "interleaved" with foreign Ambassadors, United Kingdom Cabinet Ministers and other distinguished persons. This is a well-established principle designed to prevent Ambassadors being grouped together. In seating guests at such functions the Table of Precedence is used for guidance, but not as a rigid law.
The Foreign Office retorted that not only would ambassadors object to being moved down in the table of precedence, but for a British national (a high commissioner) to have ‘precedence before a foreign personage representing the ruler of his country’ would flout ‘a long-established rule of international courtesy . . . with the possibility of lowering the status and prestige of the Diplomatic Corps in other capitals’. However, the foreign secretary did not press his department’s views.
Consultation also revealed dominion objections to interleaving. Wellington thought it ‘would not be understood and could not be made to work smoothly’. Canberra was divided: the prime minister saw no difficulty with ‘interleaving’, the department of external affairs under Evatt, wanted high commissioners to rank among ambassadors according to date of appointment. This was also the view in Ottawa. ‘Interleaving’
might work all right in the U.K., where . . . except on formal occasions - Ambassadors and High Commissioners do not often run across each other; but . . . [not] here [in Ottawa], where we meet almost every day at some official or social function or at private luncheons or dinners. Some definite order, which everyone knows .. is essential if friction is to be avoided and the published Canadian Order of Precedence . . . is a godsend to all concerned.
Britain’s proposals would, moreover, perpetuate the hierarchy within the Commonwealth since existing practice meant that the British high commissioner would always have seniority. This was because Commonwealth countries were ranked, after Britain, according to the date they achieved dominion status. Britain’s high commissioner to Canada, who felt uncomfortable at being senior to colleagues who had been longer in post, also thought it unfair for the high commissioner of a newly-independent Commonwealth country always to remain at the bottom of the list. His New Zealand colleague supported his view that the precedence of high commissioners should be determined by seniority of appointment. And Britain’s Commonwealth secretary, Philip Noel-Baker, thought that whatever the formal ranking, in practice the British high commissioner would be treated as the principal Commonwealth representative.
By October 1948, when the Commonwealth prime ministers met in London, Britain had concluded that to protect her view of the special nature of Commonwealth relations (which required maintaining distinctions between high commissioners and ambassadors), it would be necessary to accept different practices in the matter of precedence. This was borne out by the meeting. The prime ministers quickly agreed that high commissioners should rank with ambassadors, and take precedence among them according to their formal date of arrival in a capital. However, they disagreed whether high commissioners should be granted the title ‘excellency’. Canada, New Zealand and South Africa ‘felt that in the circumstances of their respective countries, the title [of excellency] was open to misunderstanding’. Britain, Australia, India, Pakistan and Ceylon favoured its adoption. Accordingly, while it was recommended that countries which gave this title to ambassadors, should give it also to high commissioners, it was for each government to act as it saw fit.
This not enough for some. Australia and South Africa felt strongly that the title ‘high commissioner’ ‘was no longer appropriate . . . and that an alternative to it, which would more clearly mark the sovereign status of Commonwealth countries and which would not have misleading and outmoded associations, should be found’. But there appeared to be no acceptable alternative to ‘ambassador’:
‘Minister of State’ would be open to misunderstanding and lead to confusion in certain Commonwealth countries. ‘Envoy-General’ met with no support. ‘Envoy Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary’ was regarded as cumbrous, and did not otherwise find favour on merits.
The further question was thus reduced to whether, after all, to adopt the title ‘ambassador’. On this, no agreement could be reached. The arguments on each side were almost equally weighty. In favour of ‘ambassador’ was, firstly, the contention that it would constitute ‘a recognition of the sovereign and independent character of Commonwealth countries’. And, given agreement that high commissioners ought to be on equal footing with foreign ambassadors, ‘there was less reason for continuing to draw this distinction’. Secondly, ‘"ambassador" was a well understood title carrying greater prestige than the title "High Commissioner" with its misleading associations, and was better understood by the public’. Thirdly, there was ‘rapidly ceasing’ to be any difference in the functions discharged by high commissioners and ambassadors. Fourthly, there was no ‘difference in practice’ between the relations Commonwealth countries had with the representatives of other Commonwealth members and foreign states with whom they had a close association. Fifthly, the change ‘might be of real importance politically to Ceylon’s international position’. And, sixthly, adoption of the title ‘ambassador’ ‘would dispose of all difficulties in connection with the personal status and precedence of UK representatives’.
On the other hand, there were five arguments against making the change. Firstly, the title high commissioner marked ‘the family character, and the greater intimacy and in some respects informality’ of Commonwealth relations. Secondly, it was a ‘well-settled tradition’ for ambassadors to represent a sovereign or head of state, while high commissioners represented a government. Thirdly, in practice there was a difference between the position of high commissioners and ambassadors: ‘his contacts both in nature and extent were closer, more intimate and more extensive . . . Could it seriously be maintained that the ordinary Foreign Ambassador in a Commonwealth country bore anything like the same relation or was in the same intimate confidence as a United Kingdom representative?’ Fourthly, the ‘functions of Ambassadors and High Commissioners were not necessarily identical’. And, fifthly, ‘any misunderstandings’ about ‘the true position of High Commissioners’ would be removed by their being raised to the rank of ambassador.
Australia, South Africa, Pakistan and Ceylon wanted to turn high commissioners into ambassadors. Britain, New Zealand and India were opposed. Canada did not think the moment was right and a Foreign Office representative pointed out that, since the alterations in precedence would not be very acceptable to foreign Governments, it might be best not to change the title at that time. The prime ministers adopted the obvious course and agreed to reconsider the question at a later date. But the substance of the dominions wishes had been met. Problems did sometimes crop up, and sometimes new members of the Commonwealth resented a title which was not widely understood and therefore offended the vanity of office holders who were keen to emphasise their ambassadorial rank. However, whenever the the matter was discussed, the majority was always in favour of keeping the title.
5: 1948 to 1998
Thus, as a result of the 1948 prime ministers’ meeting, high commissioners were no longer ranked according to their countries’ seniority as Commonwealth members, and each member arranged individually for the detailed implementation of the new scheme in its own jurisdiction. Most states announced the necessary changes in December 1948 and this was soon followed by legislation granting diplomatic privileges and immunities. In foreign states, however, ‘great tact and care’ was ‘always called for’ when Commonwealth ambassadors had to agree among themselves about arrangements for a Commonwealth function: when the Queen visited Washington in 1957, a Commonwealth reception nearly had to be held in a hotel because of worries about precedence.
As regards credentials, nothing had been agreed beyond recognising that the sovereign could not accredit someone to himself. But it was fast becoming commonplace to provide letters of introduction and it was agreed in 1951 to adopt a standard form and address them from prime minister to prime minister. Meanwhile, India had become a republic in January 1950. This had raised the prospect of exchanging ambassadors rather than high commissioners, with all that this implied in terms of transferring responsibility for relations from the Commonwealth relations office (1947 successor to the dominions office) to the foreign office and exchanging fully-fledged diplomats. Britain’s high commissioner in India had been surprised at how many issues arose. For example, deputy high commissioners would become consuls and take over functions currently exercised by Indian officials such as notarial acts, issuing visas and care of merchant seamen. And if trade commissioners (who reported to the Board of Trade) became commercial consuls, they would become members of the foreign service. However, an assistant under-secretary of the Commonwealth relations office (CRO), Hamilton, was
horrified to find that a change in nomenclature which, if accorded at all, is to be accorded to suit the amour propre of the Indians should be thought by members of the staff of C.R.O. - even if they are members on secondment from the Foreign Office - to carry so many consequences in its train.
For, as he emphasised, such consequences would only occur if India became a foreign state. It was for prime ministers to decide that - and in April 1949 they had explicitly declared it would not. Accordingly, not only were high commissioners, deputy high commissioners and trade commissioners retained, but Britain’s dealings with India continued to be through the CRO. But instead of bearing ambassadorial credentials, the high commissioners carried letters of commission to and from their respective heads of state (the King and the Indian president). All but Pakistan followed suit, Pakistan preferring to continue using letters of introduction from prime minister to prime minister. However, Pakistan’s devotion to this practice did not stop there. When she became a republic in 1956, Pakistan wanted ‘to minimise the extent of the "republicanism" in relation to other Members of the Commonwealth’ and continue using prime ministerial letters of introduction. Britain was naturally happy to agree.
Britain’s insistence that high commissioners did not represent ‘foreign’ states and should therefore be treated differently from ambassadors lingered on. Thus, the flags on their official cars were distinct from those of the diplomatic corps. Despite the objections raised in 1948, Britain regarded ambassadors and high commissioners as separate, but equal, groups and ‘interleaved’ them at functions where both were represented. She also put much effort into protecting the distinctive office of high commissioner during the negotiation of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations which, as a result of a Ghanaian proposal, protects the office by referring to ambassadors ‘and other heads of mission of equivalent rank’. However, during the next decade many of the distinctions disappeared in London.
In 1965 members of the foreign office and the CRO were merged into the common diplomatic service, and were no longer listed in separate publications. This was followed by the 1968 merger of the foreign office and the CRO, which meant that high commissioners no longer principally conducted their business through a separate department of state. In 1972 Britain ceased regarding it as ‘inappropriate that a subject of The King . . . should be the Doyen of diplomatic representatives in his capital [sic], since he was technically not accredited to The Sovereign’. Also in 1972, as a result of a conference called by New Zealand, consular appointments were deemed acceptable in Commonwealth countries (although there is no uniformity in British practice). The impact of Britain’s 1973 entry into the (then) European Economic Community (EEC) on intra-Commonwealth relations will be further investigated but initially, at least, it appears to have supplemented rather than detracted from Commonwealth diplomacy. Thus, there were now meetings of EEC heads of mission in addition to meetings of high commissioners.
In the intervening years, ambassadors have gained the right to deal directly with departments of state other than the foreign and Commonwealth office, but high commissioners in London feel more privileged in that respect. A Canadian high commissioner (and former foreign minister) was quickly impressed by the extent to which ‘[a]cessibility is the rule’, ‘how generous the ministers are with their time and their prompt acceptances of an offer to see them. This is in contrast with the situation at home, where most Canadian ministers take a long time before they see an ambassador and act as though it was a favour they were granting.’ British high commissioners, too, have enjoyed remarkably informal and immediate access to government leaders. Formally-speaking, however, state visits are nowadays the only significant occasions when there is a distinction between the role of ambassadors and high commissioners - but only from those states that recognise the Queen as their head of state.
In terms of protocol, too, some differences remain, symbolising the historically close relations between Commonwealth countries. Such differences may have much appeal to high commissioners for they enable them to see themselves as a privileged group. One such example used to be state banquets. Until the 1960s high commissioners were automatically invited, as was the dean of the diplomatic corps. However, ambassadors only went if they had ‘a special interest in the guest’ such as cultural or economic connections with her or his country. A proposal to treat high commissioners in the same way as ambassadors in respect of state banquets was dropped when the Commonwealth secretary, Lord Home, demurred on the grounds that ‘the importance of the Commonwealth should be emphasised every time The Queen entertains foreigners’. Eventually, there were more high commissioners than could be accommodated, and high commissioners are no longer privileged in this respect, but in 1969 Britain still invited a third of the high commissioners to state banquets. Another example is the Queen’s practice in Commonwealth capitals of receiving high commissioners and inviting them to stand with her when she receives ambassadors. And when the leader of a Commonwealth country makes a state visit to London, high commissioners are presented before ambassadors.
Unlike ambassadors, high commissioners in London get down to work before presenting letters of commission. (And in a number of capitals they may be able to present their letters of commission at an earlier date than if they were ambassadors.) Both categories of high commissioner (together with his or her spouse) also enjoy a private, informal audience with the Queen on arrival in London, and are entitled to travel to Buckingham Palace in carriages with a four-horse team ridden by postillions. (Canadian high commissioners, however, prefer the comfort and convenience of their chauffer-driven official cars.) By contrast, ambassadors only have a pair of horses driven by a coachman and their meeting with the Queen can be a stiffer, more formal affair since an ambassador may be accompanied by embassy officials. Special invitations to royal garden parties are reserved for Commonwealth countries and not for foreign states. At the trooping the colour ceremony, high commissioners are seated in the prime minister’s stand, ambassadors sit in the diplomatic stand. The old dominions - Canadian, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa - retain individual seats for their representatives to sit on official occasions in Westminster Abbey and during the Opening of Parliament. And in 1997 the senior high commissioner and high commissioners of the Queen’s realms were invited to the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.
The title of high commissioner also has the appeal of marking the fact that some of those who enjoy equality of status also belong to a widely-valued club: the Commonwealth. The pull of this club (which is now the largest political multilateral global organisation after the United Nations) is exemplified by some recent happenings. In 1989 Pakistan returned to the fold after seventeen years outside the Commonwealth. Within two weeks of becoming president of South Africa in 1994, Nelson Mandela had applied for readmission - South Africa had left in 1961 - and this was swiftly granted. Fiji rejoined in 1997 and three other countries that had, historically, lacked intimate links with Britain were recently admitted: Namibia in 1990 and, in 1995, Cameroon and Mozambique. Mozambique’s application had raised a ‘big issue of principle’ since she had had no historical connection with the former British empire and English was not an official language. Her case was deemed exceptional but since then Rwanda and Yemen have made formal applications and Palestine has investigated the possibility of joining when she becomes a sovereign state.
Manifestly, there is no problem whatever about the fact that the head of a Commonwealth state’s diplomatic mission, when accredited to another Commonwealth country, does not hold the once prestigious title of ‘ambassador’. In substantive terms there is no difference between the two offices. But membership of the ‘high commissioners’ club’ opens diplomatic doors, facilitates good relations and oils the diplomatic wheels - something that is especially appreciated by the smaller, weaker members of the Commonwealth. The office of high commissioner, therefore, is much more than a curious imperial relic. It is a diplomatic asset.