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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.

As such, the choice which they faced was straightforward: carving out a distinct rôle in the world as separate nations, or finding some way to share in the strength and pride of the superpower of the day. As we shall see, they eventually tried to fudge it, proving beyond doubt that they were true Britons still, but at the time there was a significant and influential body of people in all the English-speaking countries except the United States whose preferred solution was to create a global confederation out of the four core nations of the British Empire. Their organisation, founded in 1884, was the Imperial Federation League.

In one of those interesting historical coincidences, this was precisely 100 years since the first attempt to rationalise and

Mrs. Britannia.—“Is it possible, my dear, that you have ever given your cousin Jonathan any encouragement?”  Miss Canada.—“Encouragement! Certainly not, Mamma. I have told him that we can never be united.”

Mrs. Britannia.—“Is it possible, my dear, that you have ever given your cousin Jonathan any encouragement?”
Miss Canada.—“Encouragement! Certainly not, Mamma. I have told him that we can never be united.”

integrate Empire had ended with the migration by thousands of American loyalist refugees across the Canadian frontier in 1784, to start new lives under the aegis of the Crown rather than live in the new American republic. These were the United Empire Loyalists, whose descendants in the next century temporarily captured the narrative of Canadian history and were able to define Canadian-ness as the rejection of disloyalty to Britain. Their significance, however, went far beyond Canada: their insistence on a British colonial identity meant that the American Revolution was never quite able to entrench the belief that colonial independence was inevitable, and that the Mother Country should therefore shed its colonies at the earliest possible moment.

Still, such a belief was very widespread by the mid-nineteenth century, especially in Britain itself: even a young Benjamin Disraeli – later such an staunch imperialist – argued in the 1850s that there was no point in wasting resources just to put off independence until another day. Others pointed out that, in Canada’s case, it increased the danger of war between the UK and the US; that free trade made the colonial link economically pointless and that, even without free trade, commerce with the United States had been more profitable after independence; that emigration as a domestic social function would take place without a constitutional connection, and that colonial wastelands were no longer in the hands of Parliament in any case; that the colonies would never send troops to help the mother country, but would demand British troops when threatened; and that the vindictiveness which had embittered Anglo-American relations had to be avoided in future, and that this could only be achieved if future partings were not in anger.

One paradoxical result of this attitude was that it gave rise to the doctrine of benign neglect which itself contributed to colonial loyalty, as indeed had been the case with the American colonies until the 1750s. As CA Bodelsen wrote in the 1924, “[t]he liberal policy of…constant yielding to colonial demands, to which the continuance of the connection is largely due, was greatly facilitated by the belief that the connection was in any case bound to come to an end in some not too distant future.”

By the 1870s, however, these assumptions had begun to lose ground. Extremist movements tend to bring about a reaction to themselves in any case, but the situation in Britain itself was giving rise to an increasing emphasis on the imperial rather than global aspect of British power. Prophesies of inevitable separation were proving increasingly hollow, and after the gradual garrison withdrawals from 1862 the colonies were costing less to defend anyway; war was looking less likely with the US as the Fenian threat died down and the Northern States became less obstreperous after 1865; as Europe and America turned increasingly towards protectionism as a tool of national policy, the borderless, free-trade model for the British Empire began to seem old-fashioned; and the rise of America and Germany, after the Civil War and Unification respectively, both heightened competition and caused many to think that devolution was going against the grain of world political developments in which states were coalescing into larger blocs: the Zeitgeist was not fragmentation, but integration and even federation.

As a result, when William Gladstone’s first ministry seemed to be trying to cut the colonies adrift by withdrawing troops from New Zealand actually during the middle of a Maori uprising in 1868, he unwittingly lit the fuse of a new integrationist movement. At first, it was very much a London phenomenon: the Royal Colonial Institute was established and various influential voices were recruited for the federalist cause, such as Liberal statesman W.E. Forster and historian J.A. Froude. The latter’s essay, England and the Colonies, was directly prompted by the sense that the administration was inherently separatist.

"The Colonial Question", compiled by Edward Jenkins

“The Colonial Question”, compiled by Edward Jenkins

From 1871, when Edward Jenkins published his two articles on imperial federation, the emphasis moved away from merely stopping the break-up of the Empire, and towards the reversal of existing devolution – in other words, it became an offensive rather than defensive movement and thereby took on a new character. In this context, Disraeli’s pro-Empire Crystal Palace speech of 1872 suggests not only that the movement had acquired a firmer standing in political thought as a respectable concern of the recently-enfranchised middle classes, but also that it must have been generally popular, since Disraeli’s earlier contempt for the colonies hardly argues for pro-colonial sentiments, but rather the ability to spot an electoral asset when he saw one.

Moreover, as people paused to consider Britain’s place in the world in the last third of the nineteenth century, it perhaps seemed to many that the Whiggish emphasis on the constitution and the Corn Laws was misplaced, and that the more significant story was the transition from island backwater to global colossus. If so, of course, they were dead wrong, as the latter was entirely the result of the former, but it is easy to see how, taking stock of things as the new century approached, the expansion of the British people to form new nations across the oceans suddenly loomed large in contemporary imaginations.

Specific developments in the Dominions, too, made them highly receptive to this new attitude. Canadians, for example, faced the end of the railway boom, the failure to attract mass settlement to new northern and western provinces, economic stagnation in the 1880s, and the hæmorrhaging of people to the US – to the extent that a third of all Canadian-born people were living south of the border.

By the 1880s, therefore, many Canadians believed – not without some justification – that allowing their connection with Britain to fade would lead not to independence but to absorption within the United States. ‘Commercial union’ with the US, widely regarded as a precursor to political annexation, in fact, had many advocates – most notably Goldwin Smith, former Oxford professor, Manchester School Cobdenite and arch annexationist. In the first place, however, joining the American union was perceived – by those less soundly Cobdenite than Goldwin Smith – to be incompatible with Canada’s material interests, as the country sought to protect its nascent industries from developed American competition, just as the US had used tariffs to shelter American industries from British competition in previous generations. Secondly, and perhaps more determinatively, it ran against the powerful Canadian self-identification as British North Americans. Contemporary observer Alexander McNeill, for example, conceded that, although there may have been much economic sense in Goldwin Smith’s ideas, he was nevertheless “an interesting relic of a bye-gone time”, when countries were considered mere “geographical expression[s]” or “money-making machines”.

Let it not be forgotten, too, that French North Americans – the redoubtable Quebecois – would also never have tolerated a political settlement which put them at risk of being annexed to the United States: they knew that the Americans would be far less accommodating to their unique culture and heritage than English Canadians. The unfortunate Acadians – who had fled from Nova Scotia to Louisiana after the British conquest of Canada in order to preserve French North America – had been incorporated into the independent Unites States a generation later, and found that their culture, language and religion were subject to pressures which the British were neither willing nor able to bring to bear on those French Canadians who had stayed behind.

For Anglo and French Canadians alike, then, it was clear that London would always be a less demanding companion than Washington, however integrationist Britain might become. Furthermore, unlike the American alternative, simple geography meant that closer economic and even political relations with Britain could never lead to outright absorption. So, while annexation was just what it said on the tin, and independence would inevitably lead to annexation as la seule eventualité probable, as Gailly de Taurines put it in 1891, the logical course was to entrench the imperial connection.

At the same time, the old country was finding itself less confident in the High Victorian world system, with its old, mid-century objective of creating a kind of great free global republic of money, with world peace and world trade as two sides of the same coin. Indeed, both the imperial federation movement and the so-called Scramble for Africa, which are so different as to seem entirely unrelated at first, were at least partly responses to the disappointing results of the Empire of Free Trade model. On the ideological side – and with obvious echoes in the twenty-first century – modern commercial intercourse with, for example, China and Turkey, had not moved those old tyrannies a single inch towards liberal reform; on the economic side, British commercial expansion had occurred overwhelmingly in Europe, the Americas, India and Australasia, particularly the United States and Australia, which received most of Britain’s capital and labour exports in the period.

These places’ stable governments and affinities of culture, practices and even sentiment with Britain were simply more conducive to profits than some uphill struggle against entrenched cultural differences elsewhere. This coincided not only with feelings of economic and political insecurity in the colonies, but also with an increasing sense of a pan-Britannic identity and patriotism throughout the Britain and settler Empire. The Imperial Federation League, therefore, was no mere vehicle for British expansionism, with the metropole seeking to advance and expand British strength in North America and the Pacific at the expense of the hard-won rights of the British colonists on the spot. Rather, it was a bold attempt to re-evaluate the whole of the non-American anglophone world’s position in international affairs, and to modernise it for the coming century. In our next installment, we will look in more detail at the imperial federation debates in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

A map of the British Empire published by the Imperial Federation League, 1886

A map of the British Empire published by the Imperial Federation League, 1886


Edward Harris


6 December 2014

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