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Imperial Federation: After 130 Years (Part 3: Internal Developments)

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This is the third part of a multi-part series studying the development of the Imperial Federation League, inspiration for the United Commonwealth Society. The continuing thanks of the UCS Council and membership goes to Council Secretary Edward Harris for his tireless work creating this document.

In the last instalment, we looked at how external circumstances – especially perceived threats to security and peace of mind in the Dominions – had a significant effect on the attitude of people and especially politicians towards their place within the world system, which at this time was still largely a British system. Indeed, for some people, these external factors by themselves were reason enough for imperial consolidation. The Australian R. Langton, for example, wrote floridly in the 1900s about Dominion contributions to the Boer War:

“Thus the noble spirit of patriotism bound together the British Colonies with their motherland, just as twenty-four centuries ago the ancient Greek colonies, a mere handful of people, stirred by the same spirit, banded themselves to withstand the mighty army of Xerxes…a stupendous struggle which saved for Europe her arts, her civilisation, her liberty.”

Australian Commonwealth Horse

“Troops of No 1 Battalion, Australian Commonwealth Horse, in the Transvaal.” (Australian War Museum

Even if statements such as these served only to mask a more cynical agenda for securing some British quid pro quo for co-operation, this only shows that the Canadians and Australians of 100 years ago were much less squeamish about deploying their traditional international connections in support of their national objectives. Part of the explanation for this was the sheer diversity of social, political and economic motives behind the Dominions’ enthusiasm for Empire in the later nineteenth century.

An important part of the explanation for this is that internal as well as external dynamics encouraged many colonial Britons towards an imperial rather than national set of aspirations. While this involves some reflection on each Dominion’s particular situations, it is important to our understanding of the Federalist movement. Read more

Imperial Federation: After 130 Years (Part 2: The Changing Dominions)

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This is the second part of a multi-part series studying the development of the Imperial Federation League, inspiration for the United Commonwealth Society. The continuing thanks of the UCS Council and membership goes to Council Secretary Edward Harris for his tireless work creating this document.

In the last installment, we introduced the origins of the movement to integrate the four core nations of the English-speaking Commonwealth, showing that changing economic and geopolitical realities, combined with the increasing political maturity of the Dominions, rendered the old way of thinking about the Empire obsolete. Instead of a hierarchical or ‘hub-and-spokes’ model, with the United Kingdom at the centre and a number of lesser dependencies orbiting it, many people began to think of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand with a sense of collective nationhood. In this instalment, we will take a closer look at some of the concerns and aspirations of the mature Dominions.

A postcard issued to mark the visit to Australia of the US Navy's Great White Fleet (1908)

A postcard issued to mark the visit to Australia of the US Navy’s Great White Fleet (1908)

In the case of Australia, for instance, many of these concerns will be familiar to students of changing power relationships in the Pacific today, or during the Cold War. Australians realised that the United States would soon be the main power in the Pacific, and were keen to ensure that Australia could also be a key player, as they could never secure Australia’s future without significant influence on the geopolitics of that region.

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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