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Imperial Federation: After 130 Years (Part 1)

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In this new series, our Secretary Edward Harris shares his history of the Imperial Federation League, which celebrated its 130th anniversary in November. Further parts of this essay will be shared over the coming weeks.

Between 1870 and the Great War, the world economy thrived in ways which seem familiar today. The mobility of commodities and labour reached unprecedented levels, the sea-lanes and telegraphs were rapidly becoming busier, as Europe exported people and capital and imported raw materials and manufactures. The economic climate was characterised by the relatively free movement of goods, people and capital. Technological innovations were believed to be annihilating distance and revolutionising the energy sectors, as telephones, radios, internal combustion engines, paved roads and oil-burning ships and power stations began to complement the coal- and steam-driven infrastructure of the Victorian economy. The development of the massive American domestic market and the opening of China encouraged business innovations and allowed substantial profits.

The many similarities between this earlier period of globalisation and today make one of the key differences seem especially striking: in the former period, international relations were not governed by nation states and bureaucratic treaty organisations, but by a series of empires. In practice, the imperial economies formed linked economic networks within the Liberal International Economic Order of the late Victorian world and its Edwardian twilight: unlike in the twentieth century, therefore, they encouraged rather than hindered the integration of the regions and continents of the world, and to an extent which was not only quantitatively but also qualitatively different from the ‘proto-globalisations’ or ‘regionalisations’ of the past. Led by the British Empire, which opened all its territories to free trade with the rest of the world, the principles which the Manchester School liberals had popularised in the 1840s were locking the world into an open economic system as never before.

Those free traders of two generations before, however, would have been astonished to learn that the apparent apotheosis of their movement would correspond, towards the end of the century, with the emergence of imperial instead of global considerations as key concerns for both British and colonial policymakers; but the increasing political maturity of the settler colonies, combined with a whole series of international political and economic developments, to transform many people’s thinking about the relationship between Britain and the Dominions, and the old model of metropolis-and-colonies would give way to a new kind of inter-imperial relations.

As for the old country, it was somewhat unexpectedly adjusting to the possession of an Empire unexampled in extant and complexity, bringing imperial questions into sharper focus at Westminster. Simultaneously, changing attitudes in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and even South Africa matched this new imperial tone emerging in Britain: national pride in being ‘Britons overseas’ was at its height as the Empire moved towards its zenith, bringing imperial solidarity to its greatest height since the first colonisations. Moreover, having become sophisticated political societies at least as advanced as the United Kingdom itself (and in New Zealand’s case considerably more), they naturally expected that a larger rôle within the Empire and the wider world was their proper due, and that their status as dependencies should now give way to a near equivalence with the Mother Country. Read more