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That British Commonwealth

ISSUE:  Summer 1928

Empire to Commonwealth: Thirty Years of British Imperial History. By Walter Phelps Hall. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $4.50. Students’ edition $3.50. The Third British Empire.

By Alfred Zimmern. New York: Oxford University Press, American Branch. $2.00.

Parliament and War. By Francis Rosebro Flournoy. London: P. S. King. 15/—. Peace or War? By Lt. Commander J. M. Kenworthy. With introduction by H. G. Wells. New York: Boni and Liveright. $2.50.

Stephen Leacock once protested against the North American importation of British lecturers, and urged that the balance of trade be rectified by starting an eastward flow of lecturers to Britain. He even set the example by going himself, and “My Discovery of England” was the happy result. Generally speaking however, few have followed in his steps, for the home market is so much more profitable, and Britons do not rush to be lectured to by strangers. But a much more serious invasion seems to be in full swing, and the interest shown in British themes by American academics is producing a five-foot shelf of books. In the field of economic history American scholars such as Gay, Gray, Gras, Furniss, Bowden, and Kramer have written standard monographs; Professor Knaplund’s recent work on Gladstone will become a classic, while the late Professor Allin of Minnesota knew more about Australian tariff history than any Australian. Professor Howard Robinson’s “Development of the British Empire” is a scholarly survey, of the story, and now in “Empire to Commonwealth” Professor Hall of Princeton has given us one of the best books on British imperial events since 1897 that has been written. On the fringe of this American outpouring stand the Norman Wait Harris Lectures on “Great Britain and the Dominions” published by the University of Chicago this year, and Professor Zimmern’s “Third British Empire” which was a course of lectures given at Columbia in 1925. In pre-war days the British graduate in search of a subject for a doctor’s thesis used to complain that Germans had run away with every topic worth writing about; he may well transfer his complaint now to this side of the Atlantic, and if many Americans write with the ready pen wielded by Professor Hall the product will capture the British market by being both scholarly and eminently readable.

It may seem a strange paradox, but nevertheless it is a true one, that the people least interested in the British Empire are the British. The lack of knowledge about the overseas dominions is equalled by the lack of interest in them. Londoners would not bother to go a few miles out to see the Wembley, Exhibition; a wealthy well-educated British Conservative once remarked to me that Adelaide was in New Zealand, and was only 2,000 miles wrong in his geography; the manager of a typewriter agency in a big English town was surprised to learn that I had been able to buy a typewriter in Melbourne, and every “colonial” writhes in wrath at the ignorance and indifference shown by Britons with whom he comes in contact. And when he suggests that they should show a little imperial interest by buying dominion goods rather than those from elsewhere, he is usually met by a reply something like this: “To me an apple is a good apple because it is good, not because it is a Tasmanian or a British Columbian apple.” The more one sees of the general British attitude towards those large areas that are coloured red on the map of the world, the more one wonders (a) How the British ever built up an Empire, and (b) How they manage to keep it together. As a whole they are less interested in imperial affairs than Americans are in the doings of the Department of State. It is not entirely, an accident that while the rest of the Empire and the outside world has discussed at considerable length and with acute interest the famous report on dominion status adopted by the Imperial Conference of 1926, there has been no discussion whatever of it in the British Parliament.

Yet there is an answer to the (a) and (b) just mentioned above, and Professors Hall and Zimmern supply it. Professor Zimmern’s explanation is simple. The first British Empire ended in 1776; it failed because it followed too closely the imperial model designed by Portugal, Spain, and France. But the second Empire grew up based on sea power, stimulated by the immense growth of international commerce, and kept healthy “by the fact that place was found in its institutions for the planting of the seed of liberty.” From that seed sprang colonial self-government, not merely for colonies of purely British stock, but also for French Canada, Dutch South Africa, and, in theory and instalments, for India. The right to govern, to have courts, to control tariff policy and immigration, to administer the public domain, to establish an army and navy, to make treaties, to appoint ambassadors, all these things the British colonies obtained gradually during the 19th century or since the war. Professor Zimmern leaves the impression in our minds that the path to dominion autonomy was easy and smooth, though of course he knows this is far from true. British writers have perhaps exaggerated the ease with which the colonies were allowed to become their own masters; they suggest a picture of a Colonial Office which had written over its door “Ask and ye shall receive.” Dominion writers on the other hand stress the stern fight their statesmen had to wage against an ignorant, indifferent, and conservative Downing Street. Professor Hall, a detached onlooker, gives a more balanced picture, composed of powerful personalities like Chamberlain and Laurier, muddles and tragedies like Ireland, South Africa, and Amritzar, race influences in Canada or South Africa, class struggles in Australia, twists and turns of party policies, and the strident notes of colonial nationalism. It is a story of muddling through, of an empire without an imperial philosophy or theory of statecraft, of the clash between the centripetal ideas of London and the centrifugal tendencies of the dominions, of compromise, of letting some questions answer themselves, and of refusing to consider any grandiose schemes of imperial federation.

Out of it all has come the third British Empire, which, so far as the “white face” section of it is concerned, is not an Empire in any orthodox interpretation of that word. It is rather, in Zimmern’s phrase, a “Britannic entente,” a group of states, each independent and with full control over its policy, but bound together by allegiance to a common crown (which reigns but does not rule), by common political traditions, common political institutions, a large measure of common racial origin, some degree of common economic interests, and by arrangements for mutual consultation in imperial conferences at more or less regular intervals.

This “happy ending” was formally recorded by the 1926 conference. But modern fiction starts off where the happy endings of a generation ago finished, and Britons may therefore ask “Where do we go from here?” The new novel generally goes to the divorce court, and the latest matrimonial fashion says nothing about “till death us do part.” If the British Commonwealth consists of a group of states “freely associated,” may not any one of them freely disassociate itself from the entente, either temporarily or permanently?

No British or dominion writer believes this will happen; even Hertzog went back from London satisfied that South Africa’s future was better ensured inside the Commonwealth than outside it, and Ottawa and Dublin said “Content !” Zimmern is optimistic, but he believes that the Commonwealth can survive only as a league, within the larger League of Nations. “Only in and through the League can the Commonwealth solve its problems of today and take up the tasks reserved for it tomorrow.” But he sees the dangers, dangers springing from the refusal to admit the political equality of the white and coloured races, from the economic exclusiveness of nations and empires, and from the clash of national egotisms and ambitions. If the British Commonwealth can lead in removing these sources of friction and threats of war, it may live on in a peaceful world; but one may doubt whether any of the dominions, flushed with nationalist fervour, would accept for a moment any, proposal that racial equality or international economic cooperation—which means to them nothing more than free trade—be accepted as a guiding rule of imperial or world statesmanship.

The fundamental difficulty about the British Empire today is that Great Britain has to play a triple part; she has to be a “good European,” and shoulder such obligations as Locarno, despite the refusal of the dominions to stand with her; she has to work with the dominions, listen to their demands without making any of her own, and apparently consent to go on protecting them; and she has to handle a vast coloured population in India and Africa. To play simultaneously three parts is no easy task for a country burdened with taxation and depression, and torn between the advice of a multitude of counsellors. Britain’s most vital need therefore is for a generation of peace. Will she get it?

According to Lieutenant Commander Kenworthy, the answer is almost certainly in the negative. That pacifist petrel of British politics has written a book that makes your flesh creep and your blood run thin in your veins; long before you finish its remorseless demonstration that war is brewing in every part of the world, and its horrifying picture of a next war fought with gas, aerial torpedoes, and supersubmarines, you will reach down your atlas and search for some little haven of refuge to which you can flee; but there is no such place, unless it be that tiny coral speck, One Tree Island, just south of the equator on the run from Honolulu to Fiji.

Commander Kenworthy’s book is fittingly introduced by a text from the Old Testament, and there is a flavour of the minor prophets and Cassandra about it. More important still, the volume is prefaced by a highly destructive criticism from the pen of H. G. Wells. Other publishers might follow this precedent, have books reviewed before they are bound up, and then print the reviews as preface. The thesis of the volume is simple. War clouds are gathering everywhere: perils, red, yellow, and white, hang over us, and that “unthinkable” war between Great Britain and the United States is really becoming steadily more certain every day. The most sensational part of the book is a consideration of the possible events leading to that conflict, the probable strategy and tactics, and the part that might or should be played by Canada in it. But whether the next war has its origin in Moscow, Madras, Manchester, or Massachusetts, it will wreck white civilization and be unspeakably frightful. There will be no non-combatants, the trenches will be the safest shelters, and the latest developments of aviation and chemical warfare will make it possible to blot out a capital city in a few moments.

Is there any escape? What of the League of Nations and all those plans we thought of during the war? Kenworthy sweeps them all aside: the League has failed, and its existence is a menace, for it “acts as an opiate on the popular mind of the world,” lulling it into a false security; peace plans by Boks and Filenes and the Christian Science Monitor, threats by labour and socialist parties, organised peace propaganda, all are futile. Only one thing remains. Listen! “Let the English and American nations in the most solemn manner draw up the shortest and simplest treaty possible, in the clearest language, understood by the common people, definitely outlawing war, indicting it as a crime, and undertaking to boycott any future breakers of the peace and indulgers in war.” And let us invite France, Germany, Italy, and “all other nations of goodwill to join us.” In short war must be declared illegal as an institution of public international affairs, for so long as it is a legal way of settling differences it will be resorted to.

To be quite frank, we hope for something better than this as we let Mr. Kenworthy fray our nerves with his picture of a world straining at the leash for a chance to “have another go.” Does his formal treaty solve anything? Does it lift any fears, reduce the armaments bill one cent, remedy any of those racial, economic, or political sores he has been describing, or satisfy (or curb) a single Russian, Indian, Japanese, or Italian ambition? I fear not. A solemn treaty has been signed; the silk hats of London and Washington have been polished and aired once more, the movie cameras have clicked, and Messrs. McNamee and Carlin have added one more to their announcing achievements. But what else? Wells is right when he says “the ending of war is a far too complex, laborious, and difficult task than such mere gesticulations” as the parliamentary commander suggests. Still, every little helps, unless it is another opiate, and the joint labours of Kenworthy and Kellogg may not be in vain. But if Commander Kenworthy’s plan is the only way to peace, I feel disposed to call at the shipping office and ascertain the cost of a one-way ticket to One Tree Island.


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