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The New British Empire

ISSUE:  Summer 1927

Most of the empires existing when the Great War began had ceased to exist when that struggle ended. The Russian Empire fell into pieces and chaos. The empire or dual monarchy of Austria-Hun-gary, was hopelessly shattered. The German Empire came to an end, with Germany stripped of power and outlying dominions. The Ottoman Empire was at last broken up. In the Far East the Empire of Japan was unshaken, but it had been far from the theater of disturbance and ruin. The British Empire, however, in the very midst of the conflict, fought clear of the greatest danger that had ever threatened it, and after the settlement of 1919 was more extensive and appeared to be more powerful than ever.

Good fortune, destiny, accident, or great intrinsic strength had brought Britain through the storms that wrecked its contemporaries and rivals. For some time, however, forces of disruption had been working within it. Before the war there was discontent in India, nationalist feeling in Canada, and a group in Ireland aspired to complete independence. All this was increased by the profound disturbance of the war, and by the troubled years that succeeded. The great self-governing dominions had given and suffered in the mother country’s behalf: now they felt freer. The great dependencies seethed with desire for self-determination or separation. To some it seemed, such dissolution had set in that the British Empire had in reality come to an end. Others considered that disintegration had begun, that at best a slowly weakening Great Britain must be less and less able to hold together the vast aggregation which diverse interests were pulling asunder.

The drift towards this danger was feared by many who wished the empire to continue. They realized that there must be new arrangements. But the difficulty of making an imperial constitution, the most formidable task that statesmen and political scientists ever had dealt with, seemed to defy every effort. Then in 1926 a scheme was drawn up that may, be, if not the beginning of a constitution for the empire, a great charter under which that empire can continue to exist and stand firm.

The people of the British Isles, especially those of the southern part of the principal island, England, have on several occasions, during a long time, been the center of a larger aggregation. In the eleventh century Knut the Dane ruled an “empire” about the North Sea, embracing Denmark, Norway, England, and smaller islands. Had this short-lived jurisdiction remained, probably England would soon have been the principal part. A century later was built up an “empire” on both sides of the English Channel, when Angevin rulers became lords of the Norman possessions. In the sixteenth century began the development of a third “empire” overseas, based upon sea-power, emigration, and the activities of traders and merchants.

After the loss of the English-speaking Colonies in America, another British Empire, which might be styled the fourth, was constructed, much more extensive than any that ever before had existed. In North America, Canada, Honduras, and various West Indian islands had been held, as well as the old possessions in Africa and in India. In 1786 the district of the Straits Settlements—lying on one of the most important trade routes of the world—was taken. Two years later began the acquisition of Australia. Other gains were made during the wars of the French Revolution and of Napoleon. In 1795 Ceylon was taken; in 1803 part of Guiana; Cape Colony in 1806. During all this time and later a series of wars brought parts of India under the rule of the East India Company and other parts under its over-lordship. The Company’s rights were completely transferred to the British Crown in 1858. In 1878 Cyprus was obtained, and the occupation of Egypt began four years later. In 1898 the Sudan was conquered, after which the vast extent of Africa under British control reached from the Mediterranean far to the south. Meanwhile British rule had been extended northward from the Cape of Good Hope. In 1843 Natal was annexed. In 1889 the British South Africa Company began to win Rhodesia. Next year Zanzibar was acquired. In 1902 the Boer republics were conquered. Save for one stretch of territory which the Germans controlled, British possessions in Africa now extended from AJexandria to the Cape. Expansion also went on in Asia. Seaports were got in China, especially Hong Kong in 1842 and Wei-hai-wei in 1898, while the approaches to India were secured—Baluchistan in 1854, Upper Burma in 1885, southern Persia in 1907, and Tibet in 1914. The British Empire now contained more than 12,000,000 square miles and about 365,000,000 people.

The Great War, which so nearly ruined Great Britain and from which she may not recover, made further additions to her empire. Various islands were added to the innumerable ones which the empire already contained. In Asia there was some control of Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Arabia. In Africa most of the German possessions became parts of the British Empire. Its area was increased to 13,-350,000 square miles, with a population of 450,000,000. It was much larger than all of the Roman Empire at its greatest extent had been together with all that Spain ruled in the time of Philip II. It seemed beyond all compare with its principal rivals: the Russian Federation or “empire”—with 8,200,000 square miles and 140,000,000 inhabitants—and the territories of France—4,000,000 square miles and 100,-000,000 people.

Yet there were with respect to this British Empire certain weaknesses and disadvantages that might well cause anxiety and which might make it less permanent than the Roman Empire or the Spanish Empire had been. The United States of America and the Russian Empire were far less extended, but each of them had a huge and continuous land mass on which a numerous population might consolidate power. The parts of the British Empire were scattered all over the world. They had been acquired through supremacy, at sea and could be certainly held together oniy while British naval power was maintained. With respect to this, fundamental alterations had already occurred. Because of submarines it was not only doubtful whether the British Isles—the center and heart of the empire—could live through another great war, but notwithstanding Britain’s numerous naval bases, it was not certain but that lines of communication in the empire might be cut.

Despite many additions to the primary and principal stock and despite the presence of one great unassimilable group, the population of the United States was essentially a homogeneous body of English-speaking people strongly united. In the Russian domain the principal mass of the people were the Great Russians who had built up the empire. But in respect of race, color, and religion the inhabitants of the British Empire formed the most heterogeneous aggregation that had ever existed. That empire contained millions of Chinese and Malays, half the negroes of Africa, red Indians in North and South America, bushmen, aborigines, and islanders in widely scattered places. Nearly half the Mohammedans, most of the Brahmans, numerous Buddhists, were under British rule. The rulers of this agglomeration were some 50,000,000 people in the British Isles—one ninth of the empire’s population. Some 15,000,000 English-speaking people and less than 5,000,000 more of the white race were in the various self-governing dominions. The vast subcontinent of India, with a welter of peoples, was the home of 300,000,000 more or less, very different in race, traditions, religion and outlook from the distant people who ruled them. As different were the millions of southeastern Asia and the islands nearby. Of the 50,000,-000 black men and women in Africa, some were in the patriarchal age that preceded Abraham’s time, others had but recently emerged from the culture of the old stone age, vanished in Europe for ten thousand years.

Such an empire could be most certainly held together by power and by force. So long as no great enemy approached too near, its holdings would not be torn away. As long as the center retained vigor it might rule. So long as sea-power remained the parts might be held together. But if ever heart ceased to be strong and head grew faint, if ever grip on the oceans were loosened, then the empire would be broken up easily, for physical conditions would not let the parts coalesce in one great mass. Meanwhile its rule was just and its subjects for the most part acquiesced, but if the blacks and the orientals should awaken and be reached by political ambitions, it might be impossible for small, distant white populations to maintain their lordship; and in time of upheaval and unrest even a small minority of these subjects—who had taken ideas and ambitions from the west-might be able to rouse great hosts of the lowly to yearn for “self-determination.” Accordingly, it could not be foretold whether at the end of another century the British Empire would hold India and Egypt.

The Great War, which shook the old world so terribly, overturning so much of the older order, brought consequences that threatened much of what the war had left standing. Great Britain reeled with weakness. She was burdened with crushing debt. Her people were weary and disillusioned. Unemployment, suffering, radicalism increased. More widely were preached doctrines that the empire had been made by imperialist oppressors of the common people in the British Isles and without; that the parts of the empire were held in unwilling subjection, paid for by the British masses for benefit of the wealthy; that imperialism and capitalism must be destroyed before the world could be better.

Everywhere the conflict brought enormous unrest and aspiration, with enormous development of nationalism and desire for self-determination. Since the Russo-Japanese War Asia had been stirring; but after 1918 Hindus, Egyptians, Chinese, and Africans hoped more and more to control their affairs. Previously nationalism had been growing in Ireland. With the development of Sinn Fein it became the strongest passion in the island. A tendency, to drift away appeared even with respect to the self-governing dominions.

In the years just after the Great War the empire seemed threatened with disruption. In England, Scotland, and Wales the masses of the people were tired, disillusioned, depressed. Some in the Labor Party and others taught that the empire was not worth holding. Within the British Isles an ominous breaking up began when the Irish radicals tried by force to win complete independence. In India, in Egypt, and elsewhere native populations were led to demand freedom from Englishmen’s control. The self-governing dominions were conscious at last of maturity, and without loss of affection for the parent country, wished to set up for themselves.

Irish nationalism, largely sentimental and based upon injuries fancied or real, was to a considerable extent the work of England. Down to the sixteenth century Ireland was divided among various tribes of Mediterranean or neolithic people, who contended with each other even more than with the English. Final conquest by the British and gradual adoption of the English language—which by the end of the nineteenth century had almost completely superseded various Celtic dialects formerly spoken—gave a unity never before attained by the Irish. During the nineteenth century grievances were removed by very liberal land laws, but Irish control of domestic affairs was sought by the Home Rule Party, which dominated most of Ireland. For various political reasons Home Rule was delayed, and though promised had not been given when the Great War broke out. A small group, the Sinn Feiners, who desired no Home Rule but an Ireland completely Irish and independent, grew with the unrest and disturbance of the years of wartime and after. In 1916 certain radical groups set up an Irish Repulic for a moment. In 1919 Sinn Fein proclaimed a republic again. Attempt was then made to drive out the British by boycott, assassination, and terror. A horrible guerilla warfare ensued, which, because of war weariness in England and because of assistance from abroad —particularly from Irishmen in the United States—in the end had large success. A united, independent Ireland was not achieved. In 1920 the northeast, Ulster, was given Home Rule, and it remained connected with Great Britain, as it desired. Next year the remainder of Ireland accepted the status of a “free state,” controlling its own affairs. But while Great Britain and the Irish Free State remained under a common king, there was nearly complete separation of the two principal islands which made the group that was the heart of the empire, and a more radical party of Irishmen continued to strive for an Irish republic and complete separation. It was not long before the more moderate Irish party sent a minister to the United States and was unwilling that appeals should go from Ireland to the privy council in London.

For the moment it was less important that similar movements were going on in India and in Egypt After greater trouble and unrest than the remainder of the world realized, limited self-government was granted in India. The bulk of the people there were almost entirely unfit to exercise as much as was granted; but these reforms, far from satisfying native aspirations, were the prelude to graver discontent for a while. In 1922, after a campaign of assassination and resistance, the Kingdom of Egypt was established, the British giving up their protectorate, but retaining control of the canal zone and foreign relations. Here also discontent mounted rather than diminished. In each case it seemed that complete separation must eventually come, though perhaps not while Great Britain herself remained undefeated and strong.

During the war the great self-governing dominions had given indispensable help to the mother country. Altogether the outlying parts of the empire, including India, contributed 3,000,000 men and 1,000,000,000 to the empire’s cause. Then it seemed that the liberal British colonial policy of the past two generations was bringing rich rewards to Great Britain.

In 1837 there had been a rebellion in Canada—not unlike the one in New England sixty years before. It was easily suppressed, but the British government, following the advice of its high commissioner, Lord Durham, shortly after decided to win the inhabitants by satisfying demands. In 1840 Canadians were given almost complete control of their own affairs by, the Canada Government Act. In 1867 various self-governing provinces were federated in a dominion. By 1914 Canada had entire control of her affairs, save that appeals might ultimately be taken to the privy council in London—the supreme court of the British Empire outside the British Isles. The king’s representative— the governor general—had power mostly nominal. It was generally understood that Canada was really held—though perhaps held very strongly—by ties of blood, sentiment, and common interest.

Similarly, when the Boers were conquered, in 1902, they received very liberal terms of peace, and they were presently accorded full share in the self-governing Union of South Africa, established in 1909. Meanwhile the various parts of Australia, also self-governing, had been united in a great federation, and Newfoundland and New Zealand had complete control of their affairs. To a considerable extent, it seemed in 1914, the portions of the empire inhabited by white people were united by ideals, self-interest, and common share in self-government which all of them had. The British Empire had achieved unexampled success in holding together widely scattered inhabitants under rule in which most of them willingly acquiesced.

Some enemies of Britain believed that the first touch of disaster would bring this far-flung, loosely united empire down in ruins. Such expectations were not fulfilled. Canadians, Australians, South Africans, joined the mother country at once, and their exploits at Ypres and Gallipoli did much to save the cause of the Allies. Even India sent great numbers of men. At the end of the war all were faced with heavy burdens and confused finances.

When the war was over it might seem that common sufferings and achievements had welded together the parts of the empire more closely than ever before. During the struggle efforts had been made to perfect machinery by which the principal parts might work together. In 1916 executive authority had been concentrated in the hands of a small war cabinet—virtually, a dictatorship for conduct of the war. Next year the dominion premiers were invited to sit with the war cabinet, and a little later it was arranged that an imperial cabinet—the prime minister of the United Kingdom, the principal British ministers concerned with affairs of the empire, the premiers of the dominions, and a representative from India—should meet each year.

Great centrifugal forces, however, and diverse interests slowly growing appeared destined to loosen the bonds between Britain and the self-governing dominions. The people of these dominions were not discontented with Great Britain and their governments were controlled by themselves, but they were more and more like children grown up, venerating the parent but bent on establishing homes of their own. Increasingly apparent were large concerns of their own, different from the interests of Great Britain. Many Canadians disliked Americans and the United States and preferred English things, yet Canada found her predominant economic interests more and more closely connected with those of the United States, and her position in world affairs more dependent upon the United States than on England. There were not wanting Canadians who said Canada should be independent, that if connection with England were severed Canada’s actual position would be no different from what it was. Canada also began to be irked at appeals to the privy council, and in 1926 a minister was appointed to the United States.

New Zealand and Newfoundland, small and unimportant, remained very loyal to the British connection. This was not so much the case with South Africa and with Australia. In 1902 Great Britain, and implicitly—though not much was thought about it then—the British Empire, had made an alliance with Japan. The Anglo-Japanese Alliance became a principal factor in the foreign policy of Britain. After the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) uneasiness and jealousy with respect to Japan grew in the United States, and for a time it seemed that the future might bring war between them. Meanwhile in Australia and even in New Zealand the dominant thing in foreign relations was fear of encroachment by Japan. It could not be doubted that in any great conflict Australia, New Zealand, even Canada, would be with the United States against Japan, if need were, in defiance of Great Britain. All this had much to do with the ending of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1921. In South Africa the liberal terms of the Treaty of Pretoria and full share in the self-government of the South African Union accorded to the Dutch had not prevented a rebellion by some of them during the Great War, and later did not prevent the growth of separatism under a Dutch leader, General Hertzog. In 1926 he was attempting to bring into use a flag from which the Union Jack had been displaced and he was urging “international independence.”

Some recognition there was of the greater independence and maturity of the self-governing dominions. By the end of the Great War men were saying that the British Empire had become the British Commonwealth of Nations, to a considerable extent a free association of self-governing units. When the League of Nations was established in 1920 the British Empire had six votes in the assembly, which was to say that not oniy Great Britain but Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, and South Africa were members, and later on Ireland also was admitted as a member. In 1925 European affairs were largely settled by the Treaties of Locarno. By this settlement, among other things, there was substituted for the old neutralization of Belgium substantially a neutralization of the Rhine-Meuse district—the Franco-German frontier. The treaty of guarantee was signed by Great Britain, for the matter concerned her directly. The dominions declined to ratify. They might, when occasion arose, assist Great Britain, as they had assisted her during the war, but they would not commit themselves in advance.

In May, 1926, General Hertzog, speaking at Stellen-bosch University, declared that the international independence of the dominions had been recognized when they signed the Treaty of Versailles. Afterwards they had hesitated to act in accordance with their new status for fear of disrupting the empire. So they had followed the doctrine of “group unity,” under which the empire was to take decisions about matters of foreign policy as a unanimous group, not as a number of entities. This doctrine had utterly, failed. At Locarno the dominions had not been properly represented, and the British government made its own decision without consulting them. He rejoiced that Great Britain had done this: the dominions could now properly claim again the international independence accorded them by the Treaty of Versailles. They should formally declare this independence to the world. International independence would through mere self-interest mean closer and more cordial cooperation of the parts of the empire; but actually the only link between Great Britain and each of the dominions was the personal bond of a common king.

In the autumn of 1926, in the midst of anxiety and some foreboding caused by these events, an imperial conference assembled in London. To it came the premiers of Australia, Canada, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, New Zealand, South Africa, and a representative for India. After various consultations and exchanges of opinion, and after a confidential communication from the foreign secretary, a momentous pronouncement was made. It concerned Great Britain and the self-governing dominions alone. It did not, save possibly by implication in respect of the future, have to do with India, with the West Indian islands, with the vast African domains, and the scattered possessions in Asia and the islands of the seas—altogether nearly 7,000,000 square miles with 380,000,000 people. India, and especially these other possessions were still a “sub-empire” of the Dominion of Great Britain, which thus by itself was still the greatest empire in the world.

But so far as the other six self-governing dominions were concerned, the empire was now no more than an association of free commonwealths united by common interests and old attachments, more or less, but formally united only in allegiance to one sovereign, who in his single person was the king of each one of them. The designation of the sovereign, fixed by the Royal Titles Act of 1901, “of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas King . . . Emperor of India,” was changed to the title, “of Great Britain, Ireland, and the British Dominions beyond the Seas King . . . Emperor of India.” Evidently monarchy in Great Britain, which contrary to predictions and contrary to the desires of some, had been growing stronger in the affections of the people, and which had since the establishment of the Irish Free State assumed a new constitutional importance, was now one of the most potent and useful institutions in the world, indispensable in maintaining the connection of principal parts of the British Empire.

Appeals might still go to the privy council in London, which thus continued to be the supreme court of the greatest area in the world: this, however, was later on to be considered further. Otherwise each dominion was now practically independent. Its government was completely its own, to be exercised by a ministry responsible to its legislative body. The governor general was no longer to be a governor, but a non-political officer—as was the king in Great Britain, acting only on advice of the ministry in power for the time being. He was merely the personal representative of the king, when the king was not in the dominion—as since 1922 the viceroy had been in Ireland. The dominions might make their own fiscal and commercial policies. They might carry on their own foreign affairs, sending out representatives to other countries, and making treaties with other countries or with each other. They were no longer bound by the foreign policy of Great Britain, save in so far as they acceded to it.

Doubtless now if they chose to secede or go their own way, such secession would not be resisted by England— though that might not apply to Ireland lying close at hand and right athwart Britain’s principal communications with the rest of the empire and the world. Whether this arrangement was a remedy against the centrifugal tendencies that had threatened disintegration, whether the arrangement but acknowledged a disruption that had gone too far to be remedied, time alone would reveal. Only time also would suffice to explain certain matters remaining in doubt: how far the dominions that were nearly republics would develop as kingdoms; how far the obligations contracted by Great Britain for herself and the empire would, in accordance with state succession, be assumed by. autonomous parts of the empire.

Interesting it was to note that the solution adopted— union in a common kingship—reaffirmed an idea long valid and potent, which events of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had largely obscured. Kingship had once been the bond of union in the British Empire and it was denial of that doctrine that had contributed to the former dismemberment of the empire.

In the sixteenth century the government of England was vested mostly in the king. He carried on his functions largely through his privy council. Parliament was then subordinate in the government of the country, and parliament’s jurisdiction did not extend beyond England. Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, and Ireland were ruled by their own officials and assemblies subject to the king who was sovereign of England, sovereign of Ireland, and sovereign of the other smaller islands. Under the king much jurisdiction over these places was exercised by the privy council, to which also appeals came up. So it continued in the seventeenth century, when to Ireland and the Channel Islands were added Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, Jamaica, Bombay, and other possessions, all subject to the king, governed by officials in them and also governed by the king, his privy council, and associated or subordinate councils or boards seated in England.

During the seventeenth century, however, the authority of the king was overthrown in the Puritan Civil Wars, and though it was restored it never entirely recovered. By 1700 parliament, not the king, was the principal power in the state, and this was far more so when George I, an elderly German, ignorant of the English constitution and unacquainted with the English language, came to the throne. Already the executive part of the government was more and more getting into the control of the cabinet—the essence or important part of the privy council; and while the cabinet was legally the king’s council, as the privy council was, yet in consequence of the complete control of legislation and finance that parliament had obtained after the Revolution of 1688, the cabinet had come to be more and more dependent upon parliament and less upon the king. So, during the Hanoverian period the cabinet, dependent on parliament yet controlling it, virtually a committee or part of parliament, took over the government almost completely. Parliament now ruled Ireland and legislated for the outlying dominions, and while this jurisdiction was sometimes questioned it was also obeyed.

Assertion of the sovereignty of the king and denial of the authority of parliament over the outlying possessions came again when American leaders sought to justify their arguments with legal precept before the Revolutionary War. On the outbreak of the struggle the colonists affirmed allegiance to the king, but denied the authority of parliament, in which they, were not represented and which had usurped, so they, said, rule over them. It is possible that if these protests had been heeded in 1775 the Thirteen Colonies might have been kept, in larger independence but still in allegiance to the king who reigned in Great Britain.

The example of the American revolutionists revived the aspirations of the Irish, and in the midst of England’s difficulties they were able to make some of their pretensions good. In 1782 Poyning’s Law, which had since 1494 subordinated the Irish privy council and parliament to the English privy council, was annulled; the independence of the Irish parliament from the British parliament was reestablished ; and the connection of Ireland with Great Britain became mostly a personal union under the same king. This regime lasted until the end of 1800. At the beginning of the next year Ireland was merged with Great Britain in the United Kingdom, under one king, one ministry, and one parliament—as Scotland had been joined with England to make Great Britain in 1707.

During the nineteenth century parliament became supreme in the government of Great Britain and consequently in the government of the British Empire as a whole. The various possessions of the empire, whether Ireland, Gibraltar, Canada, or Burma, which in the seventeenth century would have been the king’s overseas possessions and which by old law never repealed were so, in general now were subject to the authority of parliament, and were actually ruled by its officers, except in so far as self-government had been granted. Slowly the authority of the king declined, though nominally most of his prerogatives remained, and by the beginning of the twentieth century he seemed little more than a figurehead. But with the development of this vast empire it presently began to appear that the task which parliament had assumed was too large for fulfilment, and that the self-governing parts of the empire would resent attempts by the British parliament to rule them even as the American colonies had long before.

Then as disruption seemed proceeding apace the old idea of sovereignty of the king was again brought forward, an idea modified by modern conceptions and practice; and the kingship, with revived prestige and new adaptation, appears now to be the principal device to hold the dominions of the new British Empire together.


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