The Daventry Message was smuggled out of Windsor and broadcast on July the 19th 1940 in place of the Midday BBC short wave news bulletin from the main overseas transmitter at Daventry (hence the name) outside London. The communique was in two parts, the first a spoken message addressed to all, and the second transmitted in encoded Morse directed at the various Dominion and Colonial governments, sent twice each time in a different cipher, both of which were specifically for the use by the Crown.
It was this last portion that was in effect the living will of the Crown, and literally the fate of an Empire rested on it. As might be expected there are theories galore about alleged changes, missing words, punctuation and variations that only prove there is no limit to the human imagination. The reader is free to hold their own opinions, but those two messages were probably recorded by more people in more places than any other Morse transmission in history. They were decoded in every outpost of the Empire with access to the keys and almost immediately compared between them. There is even a web page from Canada (and I think another from South Africa) that offer Java Scripts that allow you to encode in any message you like including the original transmissions (which are available from numerous sources, just Google) and decode it in exactly the same encryption, correct for date of broadcast. Ive done it myself along with several test messages of random gobbledegook, and the published version always matches.
Anyway, back to Australia at 2 am one fateful morning in 1940. The effective part of the communique reads:
Be it known that it is our will that in the event of direct communication with the Crown being severed. The Powers of the Crown will pass through the direct Representative to the DomCol Cabinet in Committee in trust George VI Rex.
Forty two words; forty two words that have probably been the root of almost as much controversy as “Thou Shall Not Kill” for over 60 years and will probably still be debated far into the future. Obviously the key was and is in the interpretation of those two sentences and the intent. Since clarification was at the time impossible, every Colonial Administration and Dominion Government was free to make their own guess at both, and they generally fell into two schools of thought.
The first which is the generally accepted formula is that it was a safety clause, intended to cover those actions already taken by the Empire and Commonwealth namely telling Halifax and Co to go boil their heads, and at the same time provide for the worst case, that is the King remaining under the control of the Halifax Government. Historians generally agree that the intent was for everyone wait and see; only using the text if and when they absolutely had too.
The second group were those governments who seized on it to further their own agenda in various ways. First among these was Australia, the Coalition Government of the day was lead by the Australian Labour Party. The ALP was based on a blue collar and trade union foundation that included a large Irish and Catholic membership. Of the two major parties, it was the least enamoured with the Empire and while it cloaked its self with a loyalist façade, the party had a strong Republican bent and was the one most willing, nay eager, to shed our Dominion status for complete independence. The conservative Australia Party was staunchly monarchist but had no more idea about how to take the Kings message than anyone else. However there was one thing they were certain about and that was Labor wasn’t going to get away with anything so partisan on their watch thank you very much.
The Labour Caucus were hell bent on taking advantage of this golden opportunity to gain one of the principal historical aims of their party, and with the balance of power in the parliament there was going to be change. The only question was how much and in what direction, the Australia Party could swing enough votes to affect the outcome, but they couldn’t stop it outright. The compromise that resulted hung on that last sentence. Labour wanted to read it as the Crown passing its powers to the local legislature to dispose of at their discretion. The conservatives insisted on a literal interpretation, as this was seen to be the least workable one, so offering the most obstruction to Labor in the hope they would can the whole idea. The whole process was pushed through with indecent haste by Labor, in an effort to steamroll the opposition, just as the Loyalists (there was a fair bit of cross bench movement over this issue) dug their heels in hoping to delay.
The original sentence read
The Powers of the Crown will pass through the direct Representative to the Col/Dom Cabinet in Committee in trust George VI Rex.
“The Powers of the Crown” are constitutional and laid down the Constitution and the Common Law, there was no real argument here.
“…will pass through the direct Representative to the Col/Dom…” The direct Representative in the case of the Dominions was the Governor General and the Crowns powers pass through him anyway, Col/Dom was a simple contraction of Colonial and Dominion that was in regular use, so there was not much to argue about here either.
“… to the Col/Dom Cabinet in Committee in trust George VI Rex.” Is where all the trouble begins. There are two main questions here.
The first issue is a matter of punctuation or rather the lack of it. By inserting commas the passage can be manipulated in any number of ways. For example put one after ‘Col/Dom’ to read “…to the Col/Dom, Cabinet in Committee in trust George Rex.” It begs the question which cabinet? If the reference to Col/Dom was only to identify the Governors of the Colonies and Dominions, then the only Cabinet with a general purview was London and that would rather defeat the whole purpose of the statement in context. Obviously this was the version preferred in London at the time and indeed they repeated the transmission at midnight with that very change. But they rather over egged their pudding by making several other changes to the original and no one at the time excepted the ‘Halifax Revision,’ They didn't fool themselves either, as they sent it in plain language.
The other favourite place to add a comma is after ‘Committee’ to read “…to the Col/Dom Cabinet in Committee, in trust George VI Rex.” This is by far the most popular revision because by re associating ‘Com/Dom’ with ‘Cabinet’ it transfers the power to the local authority; and by reducing the words “in trust’ to a parting salute, it also removes the one possible condition imposed by the King on that power.
However if we accept the original transmission as sent, it renders all this moot at the cost of opening an even bigger can of worms. That is, what the hell does “The Powers of the Crown will pass through the direct Representative to the Col/Dom Cabinet in Committee in trust George VI Rex,” mean?
Naturally the first instinct was to refer this to the courts, but ironically the only court with authority to rule on such an issue was the Privy Council in London, so that wasn’t much help. With time pressing as more and more Commonwealth countries adopted a wait and see approach, the Labor Party found themselves hemmed in by judges at every level, the majority of which insisted that the only legally supportable interpretation was the literal one; which was of course the same position held by the loyalists. This was that the authority of the Crown was to pass through the Governor General to the Cabinet, there to be held in trust by the Cabinet sitting as a Committee of Trustees.