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Thursday, 27 January 2005

The Imperial Federation Movement - A Manifesto for Global Britain

By Edward Harris

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 relatively free trade, few legal restrictions on migration, and almost unregulated capital flows. 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.

With a few adjustments, this description would not be entirely inappropriate for the post-Cold War global economy. A substantial difference, however, between then and now – perhaps the substantial difference – is that this ‘first age of globalisation’ was not an age of nation states, but of empires. It was the needs of the imperial economies, especially those of the British Empire, which were serving to integrate the regions and continents of the world in a way which seemed both quantitatively and qualitatively different from the ‘proto-globalisations’ or ‘regionalisations’ of the past. Today, opponents of globalisation speak disparagingly of American capitalism’s creation of a single, bland and homogenous ‘McWorld’; opponents of the same process at the turn of the twentieth century might just as easily have derided the consolidation of a Royal Chartered World Company, as the ‘anglobalisation’ phenomenon locked the world into an economic system as never before.

This inevitably brought imperial questions into sharper focus, forcing British statesmen, historians, and what today would probably be called pundits – whether within the United Kingdom itself or in the settler colonies – to give more consideration to colonial questions. Many started to believe – erroneously, of course – that the British Empire had, like Rome after Trajan’s Dacian exploits, reached the limits set on its expansion by nature and resources, and so these colonial questions began to assume more the nature of inter-imperial relations rather than forward strategy.

Founded in 1884, it is hard not to note the irony that the Imperial Federation League (IFL) was set up exactly 100 years after the disastrous conclusion to the previous attempt to rationalise the relations between London and the settler colonies. As the gun-smoke lifted from the battlefields of America and India in 1763, the British found themselves in possession of an Empire unexampled in extant and almost sickening in complexity. Expanding British dominion by far more than was necessary to neutralise the threat of French aggression brought imperial questions into sharper focus at Westminster. The British government of 1763 found itself in sole possession of North America, the dominant power in India, and with a greatly strengthened position in West Africa and the West Indies.

Parallel to the new imperial tone emerging in London in the aftermath of the war, a change in attitudes had emerged in the North American colonies. National pride in being Britons was engendered by the victories, perhaps bringing imperial solidarity to its greatest height since the first colonisations. In addition, the perceived development and maturity of the colonies created among them heightened expectations for a larger rôle within the empire, a rôle which would raise the status of the colonies from dependence upon to at least a near equivalence with the Mother Country.

This immediately ended the old tradition of benign neglect of the settler colonies, and thus raises two interesting parallels between the apogee of the First British Empire and the Second. Firstly, the striking parallels between the 1760s situation and that of the 1880s are immediately obvious, as the British discovered colonial loyalty and came to emphasise the extra-European territories of the British people as the source of British strength, at exactly the same time as British colonists – this time in Australia, Canada and New Zealand rather than America – were coming to believe that their period of tutelage had ended and that they had a choice between sharing in the pride and responsibilities of Empire and carving out a distinct rôle in the world.

The second reason is that while the attempt to rationalise and integrate the Second Empire in the later nineteenth century merely fizzled out, the attempt to integrate the First Empire led to Saratoga and Yorktown, but also – and of crucial importance to this subject – it gave birth to a new British-colonial national narrative, as many thousands of American loyalist refugees poured across the Canadian frontier in 1784 to start a new life under the aegis of the Crown rather than submit to the indignity of living in a Yankee republic dominated by witch-burning puritans.

These were the United Empire Loyalists, whose descendents in the next century completely captured the narrative of Canadian history and were able to define Canadian-ness as the rejection of disloyalty to Britain. Their significance, however, was not confined to Canada, as their very stubbornness in their loyalty to the idea of 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.

This might have come to nothing had not the mid-Victorian belief in separatism given way to liberal imperialism by 1870, as the factors which had given rise to this separatism were unravelling. The conviction that colonial emancipation was desirable was based on out-of-date assumptions: that independence was inevitable; that there was therefore no point in wasting resources putting it off for another day; that in Canada’s case it increased the danger of war between the UK and the USA; 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. According to C.A. Bodelsen in the 1920s, the paradox of this situation 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. “The 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.” As the assumptions outlined above lost ground, and the policy changed from indifference to active interest, it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that the opposite situation would obtain, and the loyalty of the colonies would be undermined.

And indeed these did lose ground, and very rapidly, although the backlash was a long way off. Extremist movements tend to bring about a reaction to themselves in any case – les grandpères ont toujours tort – 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 troop withdrawals from 1862 the colonies were costing less to defend anyway; war was looking less likely with the USA as the Fenian threat died down and the Northern States became less boisterous after 1865; the idea that administrative boundaries were irrelevant in a world of free trade began to seem old fashioned as Europe and America were turning to protectionism as a tool of national policy; in any case, the Manchester School’s ideology was isolated in the mid-Victorian zenith when competition was negligible; 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. As a result, when Gladstone’s first ministry seemed to be trying to cut the colonies adrift by withdrawing troops from New Zealand actually during a Maori uprising in 1868, he unwittingly lit the fuse of a new imperialist movement. “Before 1869 separatism had been in the ascendant, after that year imperialism was steadily gaining ground.”

At this stage, the new movement remained very much a London phenomenon. The Royal Colonial Institute was established and various influential voices were recruited for the imperialist 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, and dealt extensively with the social importance of imperialism: a completely urban population was undesirable, and emigration to the colonies was necessary to preserve the rural element in British life, which meant that émigrés had to remain Englishmen after emigration, and so the colonies must continue to be part of the British nation. From 1871, when Edward Jenkins published his two articles on imperial federation, the emphasis moved away from 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. Benjamin Disraeli’s Crystal Palace speech of 1872 suggests three things: firstly, that the Empire had become an element of party politics; secondly, that the movement had achieved a firmer standing in political thought as “part and parcel of mid-Victorian respectability”; and, thirdly, it reflects the popularity of imperialism, since Disraeli’s earlier well-known contempt for the colonies did not speak for strong imperialist sentiments, but rather the ability to spot an electoral asset when he saw one.

Moreover, as the British stopped to take stock of their position in the world in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, what they saw was not, perhaps, what they expected. Looking at the panorama of a vast Empire, it suddenly seemed as if the keynote of British history was not the constitution or the Corn Laws, but overseas expansion. If, as John Seeley argued in his seminal Expansion of England in 1883, history was the school of statesmanship and the best political teacher, and as such the past was the key to the present and guide to the future, then when the Whiggish historical emphasis on constitutional development through the battle between liberty and authority was discarded as the central element of British history, and replaced by the transition from island backwater to global hegemon, imperialism of necessity became a central element in British political thought.

These, of course, are entirely Anglocentric aspects of the imperial movement. Nevertheless, all this added up to a more fertile ground for imperialism in political thought and a more receptive ear in London to parallel colonial developments. According to J.E. Tyler in the late 1930s, imperial federation, which was by no means unchallenged in the United Kingdom, let alone the colonies where it enjoyed less widespread support, was a vague call for unity in some form in response to a temporary crisis. In Canada, for example, this involved the end of the railway boom, the loss of people from the North and West rather than the attraction of mass settlement, economic stagnation from the 1880s, and the haemorrhaging of people to the USA to the extent that a third of all Canadian-born people were living south of the border. This model of Canadian imperialism sees a crisis in the Canadian position in North America as coinciding with a crisis in the British position in the Concert of Europe, leading to a temporary harmonisation of British and Canadian interests in strengthening the ties between the countries of the British Diaspora.

In the Canadian context, the crisis presented a stark choice between ‘commercial union’ with the American republic and imperial unity. Commercial union, of course, was not without its supporters – most notably Goldwin Smith, former Oxford professor, Manchester School Cobdenite and arch annexationist. As a coherent movement, it can probably be dated from 1886 as the contraction in trade, markets and profits made it easy to extol the virtues of doing anything possible to encourage North-South exchange, to end boundary and fishing disputes with the Americans, and to talk up the supposed successes of the reciprocity period before 1865. This, however, would have not only have been contrary to Canadian sentiment, but also not in Canada’s economic interests, as they sought to protect their nascent industries from developed American competition, just as the USA had sheltered American industries in previous generations. Indeed, Alexander McNeill, a contemporary observer, although by no means impartial where this issue was concerned, went so far as to describe Goldwin Smith as “an interesting relic of a bye-gone time”, when countries were considered mere “geographical expression[s]” or “money-making machines”.

Moreover, the Americans’ dominance of such a pact, combined with their messianic belief in their own destiny – which, perhaps, seemed more dangerously deranged at the time than it does in retrospect – would have meant inevitable incorporation, which tended to turn Canadians towards the Empire for various reasons. In the first place, Quebec would never support it, since the Americans would be far less tolerant than Anglo-Canadians of their culture. 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 French Canadians who had stayed behind. Secondly, for British and French Canadians alike, it was clear that London would always allow a longer leash than Washington, however integrationist Britain became. Thirdly, 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 appeared, and independence would lead to annexation as “la seule eventualité probable” in any case, the logical course was to entrench the imperial connection.

In putting forward this model of imperial federation as a Dominion response to a crisis coinciding with a similar British response to a different crisis, Tyler was perhaps ahead of his time. In many respects, the British turn away from globalism and towards imperialism in the later nineteenth century – which included the Imperial Federation movement as well as the Scramble for Africa – was in fact brought about by a qualified failure of the British world system. The arguments of Robinson and Gallagher, now familiar to all serious historians of the British Empire, describe how a generation or so of the ‘imperialism of free trade’, with the British world system as an iceberg of which formal empire merely the tip, yielded disappointing results among non-European peoples. China and Turkey, for example, had not been impelled towards liberal reform by commercial intercourse with the United Kingdom, as “no effective westernising collaborators had been found” in these places. Such successes as the preferred British system of collaboration, liberalism and free-trade enjoyed in the mid- to late-nineteenth century were 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 government and affinities of culture, practices and even sentiment with Britain were simply more conducive to profits than the establishment of a culture-blind “Great Free Commercial Republic of the world” which Cobdenite anti-imperialists had advocated at Britain’s mid-century zenith. This general sense might perhaps be expressed in modern jargon by asserting that some British statesmen’s faith in globalisation was giving way to a kind of pan-saxonism which would eventually crystallise into the campaign for the consolidation of ‘Greater Britain’.

This is to argue that the movement for Imperial Unity in the generation or so after the 1870s was by no means evidence of 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 an attempt to defend and consolidate, with some members of HMG attempting to compensate for disquieting feelings of weakness by bringing the Dominions ‘into’ the metropole, as it were, and institutionalising their collaboration in the British world system.


STILL, AS ARGUED ABOVE, THE GEOPOLITICS OF BRITISH commerce were not the only factor for the British change of heart. The self-governing colonies were changing, too, and British thinking about the Dominions changed with them. Approaching maturity themselves, their geopolitical concerns and aspirations tended to mature as well, bringing them into line with British priorities, most noticeably where non-Empire competition was concerned.

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. They perceived that the USA would soon be the key player in the Pacific, but wished that Australia could also be a principle player. As well as the United States, Australians worried about the aspirations of Japan, China and Germany. Again, with the exception of the German Empire, whose Pacific ambitions were brought to an end by the loss of New Guinea at Versailles in 1919, this is far from an unfamiliar strain in the early twenty-first century, particularly as regards China. In South East Asia, “in many of the British settlements [there], they have already seized the conduct of trade and a monopoly of the labour market”, and more generally there were “signs that China is preparing as never before for a great struggle”. Whether military, political or commercial in nature, “these questions are not limited to those of internal interest, but go beyond the confines of their vast and thickly populated country…a precursor of a more active part in the world’s affairs”.

The general sense of those Australians who gave thought to such matters was that they were at the vanguard of the English-speaking world in confronting this momentous change and potential problem. They were the first and best placed to understand that changes in Asia would herald wider changes in the world order. Donald Mackinnon noted that:

“Professor Pearson…[has] prophesied that the Chinaman in the age of industrial development would oust the Caucasian from the hotter regions of the Earth and menace his supremacy in the temperate zones…Manufacturing activity must shortly be expected among these eastern races. Englishmen have been surprised to see men of their own race in Australia raising artificial restrictions against the free competition of Chinamen. I shall be surprised if the Englishmen of the United Kingdom do not within a generation find it necessary to protect themselves against the competition of a now awakened and self-confident East. It is not entirely fanciful to suggest that the instinct of race preservation and the desire for a higher standard of life will form the basis for a large Imperial Union”.

While the pseudo-psychiatric nostrums about the ‘instinct for race preservation’ and so forth are just so much discredited, nineteenth century froth, it is nevertheless undeniable that much of what this lawyer and radical politician was saying has an almost eerie resonance today. The rise of China in the early twenty-first century is unarguably in Australian statesmen’s minds as they seek to reinforce ties with America through AUSMIN and continued technology and intelligence sharing; with New Zealand through ever-increasing trans-Tasman co-operation; with Canada through intensified trans-Pacific dialogue, notably the state and provincial premiers’ conference scheduled for 2008; and with the United Kingdom through traditional political, strategic and commercial mechanisms and through institutional innovations such as AUKMIN. ‘Race preservation’ it is not, but the imperative to shore up alliances and improve understandings with those countries with whom Australia shares a coherent body of political traditions, social values and geopolitical approaches, is undoubtedly stronger as a result of the new-found and rising power of a Pacific player with such different traditions, values and approaches as the PRC.

In New Zealand, too, local insecurity was a strong incentive for the strengthening of ties with Britain to shore up the country’s strategic position in every sense. Prime Minister Sir John Ward’s sudden conversion from ‘one day’ federalism to a more urgent federalist manifesto at the Imperial Conference in London in 1911 was directly prompted by German naval expansion in the Pacific. In a more general sense, the fear of France, Russia and the German and Japanese navies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries tended to focus New Zealanders’ minds on the imperial realism of Britain, instead of the national idealism of certain blocs of opinion in Sydney or Ottawa.

Moreover, as with the North American pioneers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the combination of ambition and, perhaps most importantly, the ideology of destiny, served to focus the minds of British Australasian colonists on regional domination, to the frequent consternation of recalcitrant British ministries. In particular, New Zealand’s size and climate inspired its first British residents to see it as a potential “Britain of the Southern Hemisphere”, and as such destined for regional domination and obligated to behave like its larger, northern counterpart. Conversely, this ‘Pacific Destiny’ has, perhaps, echoes in the country’s present-day calls for membership within the Pacific Community as against its relatively minor rôle within the English-speaking world. Indicative of New Zealanders’ determination to play a larger rôle in the region than the government had envisaged is the doggedness with which they persisted in citing the incorrect latitudes of the original proclamation, which gave New Zealand a much larger area of jurisdiction than was intended, in spite of frequent reminders from HMG that it was merely a clerical error.

This attitude, combined with a greater fear of French and other rivals’ penetration into the South Pacific than was much in evidence in London, eventually crystallised support for a kind of ‘Monroe Doctrine’ for the South Pacific – a much more robustly imperial policy than the London was prepared to allow, since “the colony… had enough on her hands controlling her own Maori population, which in the previous decade had caused much expenditure in men and money”. Indeed, London frequently rebuffed New Zealand requests for the annexation of South Pacific islands – Easter Island, Raratonga, and Rapa were all rejected by the British government, and the latter was taken by the French in 1856, confirming New Zealander’s fears.

Quite simply, for New Zealanders as well as Australians, the imperial connection was vital to their national interests in the future of the Pacific region. Both security and ambition contributed to a kind of imperial Realpolitik whereby local and global British interests converged. Imperial federation, therefore, appealed to many Dominion statesmen as the best means for maintaining and fortifying UK support.

In a similar way, the rise of the United States to North American, hemispheric and eventually global predominance through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries served to emphasise Canada’s traditional relationship with the United Kingdom. Indeed, it can and has been argued cogently that Anglo-Canadian relations around the turn of the twentieth century, and particularly the Senior Dominion’s ambitions for imperial unity, were principally “a counterpoise of Canadian-American relations”. As late as the 1960s, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker fought to source more imports from the UK to reduce Canada’s dependence on her southern neighbour and to strengthen the Mother Country and the Empire as a counterbalance to the Manifest Destiny. He was thwarted in this, perhaps his greatest ambition, by what he saw as British betrayal, even treason, as they abandoned the Dominions for the EEC, but he nevertheless still went on to fight to save the Red Ensign in 1965 and block the move to introduce the Maple Leaf banner in its place – evidence of an “Imperial emotionalism” which was seeing its last stand in British North America, and which was doomed to failure.

The much greater proximity of the USA and Canada, as compared to Australia and the Far Eastern empires, amply compensated for their undoubted similarities. The allegedly British values of liberty, order, good government, virtue, Christianity et cetera hardly differed from their American equivalents; nor were they ever likely to do so, since Britain and the United States had been separated not because of different values as such, but over the nature of the institutions which would best protect those values. Nevertheless, the United States represented for most British Canadians the absolute antithesis of their values: partly because their sheer geographical and cultural proximity tended to promote the kind of narcissism of small differences which, to a great extent, still prevails today; and also because British Canada came into existence in reaction to the American republic in 1784.

The American social order was presented as the epitome of what went wrong when the British connection was abandoned. Their constitution, although it was framed in the political language of eighteenth century Britain and its horizons defined by that tradition, was dammed as alien and wicked. The British constitution was sounder: it promoted social progress and social stability as opposed to social revolution and social instability, as the social cohesion of the mixed constitution precluded the “social atomisation” of Yankee democracy. Their total separation of Church and State was irreligious, and the root cause of their shocking divorce and crime rates; their tendency towards mob justice, with lynching and tarrings-and-featherings, was an abnegation of the civilised administration of justice; their schismatic racial problems had not been ended by their scandalously late abolition of slavery, and their treatment of their First Nations left a good deal to be desired.

Charles Mair, the unofficial poet laureate of the Canada First movement and arch-imperialist, describes the four citizens of Vincennes, the Americans Gerkin, Slough, Twang and Bloat, in Tecumseh, his drama about the clash of Canadian, American and First Nations in the Great Lakes country. Conversing easily about gambling, drunkenness and violence, they move on to discussing atrocities against the Native Americans: “They say [Colonel Crunch] killed a hull family o’ redskins, and stuck ‘em up as scar’crows in his wheat fields. Gentlemen, there’s nothing like original idees!”. In fact, this is what their “revolooshun” and marvellous “institooshuns” are supposed to be all about. Along with the French Fact, this tendency to define themselves against the Americans, to fear their supposed ignorant, boisterous brutality, and to take refuge behind the British frontier from such awful people, was the perhaps the central fact of Canadian identity, then as now. “The critique of the Republic was…the other side of the conception of Canada as a British country, stable, ordered, and destined to become a great power”.

Nor were merely ties of sentiment and instincts of habit responsible for the Canadian rejection of the American Way. Objective and considered opinions in Canada tended to disdain American constitutional arrangements as unsuitable for the Canadian temperament, and imperial federation was deemed the best means to secure Canadian national institutions against the Congressional style of government which prevailed south of the forty-ninth parallel. A.H.F. Lefroy, for instance, argued explicitly that the Imperial Federation League in Canada should seek to show up the faults of the US system, and to demonstrate instead that Canada’s combination of cabinet government and federal arrangements represented the Imperial future – the Canadianisation, as it were, of the British Empire.

This Canadian perspective, following so closely Woodrow Wilson’s critique of American as opposed to British institutions, was hardly an emotional opposition rooted in prejudice. It was not part of the ill-feeling engendered by the treatment of loyalists in 1775-83, the invasions of 1812-15, the Fenian Raids into Canadian territory, the fishery disputes, and border encroachments; but it was nevertheless complementary to it. It disdained the paralysing effect of the two co-equal houses of the US legislature and held up as superior the British slant on bicameral legislature which gave preponderance to one chamber. Slavish adherence to Montesquieu’s ideal of separating the executive and the legislature meant that American secretaries of state could not sit in Congress, whereas British secretaries of state had to sit in parliament, placing them under a bond of mutual responsibility with the administration as a whole.

This avoided the American Problem, whereby the innumerable ‘checks and balances’ produced insuperable deadlocks in government, executive policies were only debated by people who did not really know what was going on in the legislature or were deliberately excluded from the debate for precisely this reason, and corruption was made easier rather than harder by the dead-line between executive and legislature. Moreover, legislation was at the mercy of secret committees, each controlled by its chairman and appointed by the Speaker, both of whom were party men. This made them independent and unsystematic – perhaps not much more so than British committees, but at least under the Westminster system the committees investigated and reported before full debate in the House, rather than being in control of the legislation itself. Worse still, the president himself was chosen by party caucuses according to their attractiveness as a candidate, unlike the British and Canadian system which, by forcing statesmen to rise through parliament and the cabinet, supposedly chose its leaders according to their effectiveness as rulers by a kind of natural selection. J.S. Mill wrote that the measure of a good constitution was how effectively it brought good men to the top, and Canadians believed that the American system manifestly failed to do so.

Perhaps worst of all, this mess was enshrined in an immutable constitution which was already perceived to be old fashioned. Lefroy wrote that “the Americans have in their president embalmed George III.”, meaning that the Republic had institutionalised and perpetuated an elective equivalent of the eighteenth century monarchy, whereas British constitutional government of the nineteenth century was precisely the type of administration to which George III. had refused to submit. Unconstrained by ridiculous written ligaments, the British constitution had moved on and left the Americans behind, with a constitution designed for a bygone age. Many observers could see this peculiarity of American presidency. As well as Wilson, mentioned above, in 1885 the British jurist Sir Henry Maine wrote succinctly that:

“The resemblance of the President of the United States…to the King of Great Britain, is too obvious to mistake…He is Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy. He makes treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate, and with the same advice and consent he appoints Ambassadors, Ministers, Judges and all high functionaries. He has a qualified veto on legislation…The mental operation through which the framers of the American constitution passed was this: they took the King of Great Britain, went through his powers, and restrained them
whenever they appeared to be excessive or unsuited to the circumstances of the United States. It is remarkable that the figure they had before them was not a generalised English king nor an abstract constitutional monarch: it was no anticipation of Queen Victoria, but George III. himself whom they took for their model.”

Clearly, this was hardly a model which could hope to appeal to Britons reared on the great Reform debates of the nineteenth century.


IT WILL BE CLEAR FROM CONSIDERATIONS SUCH AS THESE that external threats – real and perceived – to security and peace of mind in the Dominions loomed large in the attitudes of these people and their politicians towards the United Kingdom, and towards their own place within the world system, which at this time was still largely a British system. Indeed, for some people, these external factors were in themselves 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.”

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 suggests that where Australians and Canadians of the early twentieth century differed considerably from their descendents in the early twenty-first is that the former were so much less squeamish about deploying their traditional 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.

This very different solution to the same set of problems serves to remind us that internal as well as external dynamics played their part in turning many colonial Britons towards an imperial rather than national set of aspirations. While this involves some reflection on each of the Dominions’ particular situations, it is indispensable in considering the Federalist movement.

Perhaps principle amongst these was the concept of imperialism as a vehicle for social regeneration. This arose in parallel to the mid-Victorian idea of colonies as “national work worthy of system, attention and the best energies of England…[and not] only as gaols for convicts…or even as asylums for the persecuted or refuges for the bankrupt or social failures of the Mother-country”.

Such pioneers as Edward Gibbon Wakefield convinced many thousands that the settler Empire offered wider horizons and food for the imagination for those “little street-bred people who vapour and fume and brag” than they could otherwise hope for, saving them from a fate of brutalisation and moral degeneration in the factories and slums of the United Kingdom. The British Empire offered the British people something grand, something noble, a great opportunity to ensure that the character of the global British people was broad, expansive and uplifting rather than narrow, limited and dispiriting.

Part of the Dominions’ imperial sentiment was a direct intellectual counterpart to this ideology. As colonials became ‘dominionals’ and clearing frontiers gave way to meaningful nation building, the colonial experience suddenly seemed to have engendered a tendency towards second-rate parochialism. These narrow horizons could be widened, and the national character immeasurably improved, by sharing with Britain the challenges and responsibilities of a world empire.

This type of social imperialism fell in to two categories: socially conservative and principally Canadian; and socially radical and principally Antipodean. Canadian imperialists, who tended to see themselves as Cavaliers to the American Roundheads, as it were, sought to establish in Canada a refined, gentlemanly, moral and religious society. Since they associated this type of society with the refined elegance of the Old World, it was almost inevitable that this laid an exaggerated emphasis on their relationship with the Mother Country. The French Canadians, of course, would have none of this: they associated the capitalist-individualist nexus, “le chacun pour soi”, and the threat which it posed to French Canadian culture, with all Anglo-Saxons everywhere, the British as much as the Americans or the Anglo-Canadians. Unlike the more romantic British Canadian imperialists, they seemed aware that the Industrial Revolution started in rural Shropshire, and that England was more the cradle of capitalism than it was the last bastion of social ease, of bishops and marquises and traditional values, as United Empire Loyalist tradition would have it. It was, simply, “le mercantilisme anglo-yankee”.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of imperial federalists in Canada correlated their social conservatism with imperial unity in some form or another. Imperialist policies emerged amongst these people from “sentiment and outlook”. In particular, UELs associated themselves and their descendents with national greatness, rather like US patricians’ insistence on their ancestry amongst the Founding Fathers. These people – the Denisons, Cartwrights, Robinsons, Tuppers – saw themselves as a Canadian aristocracy whose easy occupation of the top of the social hierarchy seemed under threat. For them, one function of the imperial connection was to remind people of the superiority of these families: without it, their historical contribution to Canada would be meaningless. Canadian values, and by extension imperial values, should be the values of these people. As a result, their values both gave Canadian imperialism is particular conservative flavour and also provided a fertile breeding-ground for the social-imperialist ideas of such people as Alfred Milner in the UK, Gibbon Wakefield in New Zealand, and even Teddy Roosevelt in the USA.
They believed, amongst other things, that Canada was, and should remain, a principally agrarian society. It was not to be an escape from some feudalistic Old World, but an escape back to it from the urban nightmare of the nineteenth century. This was, for example, the romantic social purpose behind the imperial tariff reform campaigns of the 1890s and 1900s: as well as gesture of imperial unity – as good a means as any for bringing forward the federalist programme – the creation of a Sterling-zone would also give encouragement to agricultural production in the imperial provinces, i.e., an economic means to a non-economic ends, which implicitly embraced a flight from materialism. For them, imperialism was a necessary part of their social gospel, since only the demands of the massive British market could promote the preservation of agrarian production with its hierarchical social forms, as against business values which were “inadequate, insufficient, demoralising and corrupting”.

Tory nostalgia, then, was almost inseparable from the social imperialism of British federalists, which rejected the capitalist calculus and extolled the rural way of hands-on living – a country was not merely “a geographical expression” or a “money-making machine”. Charles Mair, the unofficial poet laureate of Canada First whose drama Tecumseh is quoted above, was particularly keen to emphasise this, writing of the Canadian summer:

…[B]ring me dreams of love,
Dreams of by-gone chivalry,
Wassailing and revelry,
And lordly seasons long since spent
In bout and just and tournament.

Of course, this tendency was by no means isolated to Canada. Some Australians, too, worried that the colonial experience was apt to give rise to a culturally shallow national society, with an emphasis on can-do rather than should-do, as it were. Langton, for example, quoted above, felt that without the wider horizons which a global British identity would foster in young Australians, they would become a trivial, petty, one-dimensional people rather than the great nation which he hoped they were building under the Southern Cross. In 1908 he wrote, “we desire to awaken a feeling of responsibility in the breasts of the rising generation, and to show them there is a higher ideal than the pleasures of the cricket field and the various sports so lavishly indulged in by them”. He had no objection to the sports per se, only to their taking precedence over other activities and to the sense that muscle was more important than mind.

Similarly, like their Canadian counterparts, some Australians were magnetised by imperial federation’s romantic pull on the imagination – the creation of a vast, global state, unparalleled in ancient or moderns times, opening up a fantastic field of possibilities. Without the inspiring opportunities opened up by a federation of Global Britain, Australians “would inevitably become a race of political dwarfs; but having acquired the higher heritage of Empire, they should accept the ampler obligations of an Imperial people”.

Still, imperial federalists in Australia and New Zealand were more likely than not to put the practical before the romantic. For them, social imperialism was state imperialism or, rather, a kind of imperial socialism – a larger and more ambitious version of the kind of Staatsozialismus promulgated by Bismarck in Wilhelmine Germany. New Zealand in particular had long seen itself as the Empire’s social laboratory, and most of New Zealand’s leaders between 1883 and 1912, from Richard John Seddon and William Pember Reeves through to Sir Joseph Ward, were not only social radicals but also ardent imperialists: throughout this period, “the most distant colony was the only one consistently to advocate closer union”.

It should be noted, of course, that in New Zealand, this movement for closer union was all Chiefs and no Indians, so to speak: “a general staff without an army”, as one New Zealander has put it. This is to say, that the political apathy as regarded imperial constitutional reform means that a study of the imperial federation movement there is, of necessity, principally an analysis of high-profile politicians rather than their constituents. Nevertheless, the significance of the movement lies firstly in the very high positions which such people occupied within the Empire’s political establishment, and secondly in the fact that the complete absence of controversy which their vocally imperial sentiments caused in the country is important negative evidence in itself. New Zealanders took for granted their imperial identity, and there was no ‘Larrikin Nationalism’ like that of the Sydney Bulletin, nor any obvious equivalent to French-Canadian nationalism; none of those things which in Australia and Canada served to force a British colonial response.

One of the things which seemed obvious to them and their politicians was that the Empire could be a vehicle for social reform, although the most eloquent exponents of this element of the imperialism in the southern Dominions were Australians. L.V. Biggs, for example, writing in 1908, confessed that he was not immune from the glamour of greatness, of magnificent over mundane aims, and of statesmanship over mere politics; but he stressed that this was not so important as the new answers which imperial federation could provide to old social questions. Liberals and socialists, he noted, had often seen integrationism as “a cloak under which some device is hidden for giving a larger life to institutions which in Great Britain have been great obstacles to social progress”. He ventured to disagree, and argued that there was no conflict between federationism and social reform at all. Those radicals who rejected imperial unification on these grounds had been fooled by “the accidental predominance amongst its advocates of the conservative forces of the British Empire”. In a way he was right – such British imperialists as Joseph Chamberlain and Charles Dilke were hardly Tories.

Instead of playing around with tariffs and councils and conferences, they should seek to make the Empire something which inspired the minds of the wage-earner rather than the wage-payer and middle-class patriots, and thereby to

“more closely associate Imperial patriotism and the cause of social reform by means of proposals for simultaneous legislation, by the federations and colonies within the Empire, which shall create a standard of industrial morality and commercial justice and duty which shall apply to every self-governing British country”.

Such legislation would provide for an imperial old-age pensions system to be uniform throughout the Empire; an imperial Factories Act; an imperial immigration policy to benefit native workers; an inter-imperial labour exchange to provide for demand-led distribution of labour throughout the Empire and thereby diminish labour surpluses, and hence unemployment, at particular times and places – something which could only be achieved on an imperial scale; and regular conferences for all labour and industrial relations ministers, to stimulate a sense of social and industrial unity amongst the ordinary people of the Empire: a precursor to Ernest Bevin’s idea of an Imperial Labour Party Executive in the 1940s.

Furthermore, sharing the administrative minutiæ of the Empire would work against the infantilisation of Australian political culture. “This departure would secure for the Empire in all its parts a set of trained men, trained and skilled in administrative procedure, Imperial in its scope and capable of exercising a balanced and temperate judgement in the intricate concerns of Imperial affairs, as they may effect the local problems of their respective Dominion”. This was aspirational rather than deferential imperialism – a sign of maturity, even precocious maturity, rather than child-like dependence. It would be difficult to associate this with romantic social and political conservatism; rather, it is a matter-of-fact, forward-looking assessment, according to which the status quo was an unjust British monopoly on administrative power which denied the Dominions any opportunity to gain experience and Weltanschauung – a natural complement to the idea of reconfiguring the imperial relationship to take account of changes in social priorities within global British political discourse.

In a similar way, Imperial Federation was often seized upon as the logical destination of the Dominions’ journey towards national maturity and hence to full equivalence with the UK. The idea was that, as they became sister-nations rather than daughter-nations, so to speak, their constitutional relationship with Britain necessarily had to change. For some of the reasons outlined above, and also because in such young countries so few people had any concept of any nationality other than the British nationality of their birth, independence movements never impacted on the decision-making process at this political crossroads. Most, as will be discussed below, refused to accept even the idea that there was a decision to be made as to the national direction now that their colonial status was being abolished and a new national life inaugurated by self-government. For some of those who saw the problem more clearly, however, federation with the other components of Global Britain seemed to be the logical consequence of the attainment of responsible government. As early as 1852, for example, John Robert Godley of New Zealand, the founder of Canterbury, called for the federation of the Empire in some form for precisely this reason, as did his successor, Julius Vogel, in the 1860s – although, it must be admitted, New Zealand’s refusal to join the Australian federation a generation later, holding Australians in contempt as degenerate convicts and thanking Heaven for the 1200 miles of blue water between them, suggests that they had not, perhaps, thought through these ideas as carefully as they might.

Be that as it may, perhaps the most consistent internal pressure in the Dominions for imperial integration was impatience with continued subordination to the official mind in Whitehall and the representatives of the population of the British Isles at Westminster. They felt that the status quo could not last forever, and sought a larger field for their talents than could be provided by small countries with populations of a few millions. As the Canadian Colonel George Denison put it in 1899, imperial integration would allow Canadians “more and more to assert ourselves among the countries of the world” . Imperial federation, then, would be a kind of interdependence, rather than a prerequisite for either dependence or independence, by which an enhanced rôle within the imperial system would be a means to boosting the Dominions’ world-rôle. In New Zealand, too, “it seemed that…nationalists sought only the appearance of independence which the relations of world power must render illusory. These New Zealanders sought to give an Imperial Council power in spheres in which New Zealand did not then possess authority so that, in creating a new imperial instrument, the Colony might strengthen its ability to influence its own destiny”.


MODERN AS THESE CONSIDERATIONS MAY SOUND, however, there was an important aspect of imperial federation as this kind of ‘forward strategy’ which conflicts quite starkly with modern values. This problem can be described as a function of the sort of racial and cultural schism which twenty-first century ideas of multiculturalism have superseded. Anglo-Maori tensions in New Zealand, as well as Anglo-Boer friction in South Africa, were an intrinsic part of those colonies’ imperialism and are best illustrated by the robustly imperial response of Anglophone Canadians to Anglo-French tensions within the Senior Dominion.

For many French-Canadians, the imperial federation movement, and Canadian imperial sentiments in general, represented a British-Canadian conspiracy to deny them the bi-racial and bi-cultural country which they had been promised in extravagant terms in every generation since the British conquest of New France in 1759-63. They had already given up much of their sovereignty to the British to preserve themselves from the Americans: the British were bad enough, but their colonists in America did not have even those few trappings of civilisation – such as landed squires and the apostolic succession – which were recognisable to the Quebecois in the UK. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, imperial federation emerged as a threat to their way of life, or so they saw it, every bit as dangerous as absorption into the Manifest Destiny – one which would have just the same devastating effect on the culture which they had struggled so successfully to preserve, and which, for many, it was their sacred duty to preserve as a kind of New Jerusalem in the New World.

Particularly galling was the sense that the blow came at the moment of near victory. Their growth, prosperity, everything pointing to “l’avenir brillant” for Quebec; their success in not only avoiding absorption and obliteration in 1867-73 but actually winning a disproportionate influence over the Dominion, much greater than their numbers might warrant; all under threat because the British Canadians felt undermined by the growth and success of French Canada, and sought to harness this moment of popularity for “the federal idea” to bury them in a vast, Anglo-Saxon polity.

Indeed, they believed, with some justification, that it was the growth and expansion of Quebec which had brought Anglo-Canadians round to imperial federation, as British Canadians began to see their Francophone compatriots as “une injure faite à l’âme de l’Anglo-Saxon…nous sommes une épine cruelle aux flancs du pan-saxonisme”.

Some were more generous, and ascribed this aspect of Anglo-Canadian imperialism not to Francophobia or ‘no-popery’, but to their peculiar love of order and rationality, the same obsession which had given rise to their bloodless, inhuman, capitalist-individualism. So, even if these federal schemes for imperial unity were not motivated by “un sentiment d’hostilité à notre égard”, they simply did not like the aesthetics of the situation. It was irrational that a people, especially Englishmen, should have to share their territory with foreigners – “Le Province de Québec, le peuple canadien-fançais, leur fait l’effet d’une excroissance désagréable qui gêne leur conception idéale d’unité et d’homogénéité” . Even Henri Bourassa, one of the most prominent of the French opposition writers in Canada and more inclined than most to see treasons, stratagems and spoils, wrote in the Devoir in March 1914 that most British Canadians merely felt that the French, “generally speaking, are a nuisance”.

This, however, raises the important question of whether or not this Quebecois anti-imperial opposition was right, and the balance of evidence suggests that, for many Canadian imperialists, they were closer the mark than modern Anglophone Canadians would care to admit. Bourassa, for example, stressed that British Canadians had spotted the demographic doom which Imperial Federation spelled for his people: while they were 30% of the Dominion population and frequently held the balance of power in the federal House of Commons, they were “une quantité négligeable dans l’ensemble des possessions britanniqes: 1,600,000 âmes – en comptant les Acadiens des provinces maritimes – isolés au milieu d’une population de 400,000,000”.

In short, French Canadians were convinced that the perceived necessity to assert a Global British nationality this form – i.e., a campaign for political, economic or military integration, and sometimes all three, with other British colonies and with the Mother Country itself – because of a combination of fear and loathing for the French-Canadian enclosure which they had created directly in between their eastern and western provinces. Even some French Canadian nationalists acknowledged the difficulty in which British Canadians were placed by the geographical location of Quebec between Ontario and the British provinces of the coast – any union between the British provinces had to encompass the French one, or it would make no coherent geographical sense: a split between British and French Canada would rupture British Canada itself, as well as the Dominion as a whole.

In other words, geographical reality meant that British North America had to incorporate a non-British territory, but political and cultural reality meant equally that the job of making British North America truly British was unlikely to be achieved freely and democratically within the territory in question, and therefore that the territory in question had to be changed – in short, widened to include more British territories.

A useful means of assessing the Francophobe element in Canadian imperialism is through the window of the Equal Rights Association, which was established in reaction to the Jesuit Estates Act and was basically a no-popery movement masquerading as an anti-ultramontanism movement. In 1888, Honoré Mercier, Premier of the Province of Quebec, had used the provincial legislature to sell some estates which had been granted to the province in 1830-31 to raise revenues for public education. Before the conquest, they had belonged to the Society of Jesus – the Jesuits – but were thereafter forfeited to the Crown, and held in trust by the government of Lower Canada. Before going ahead with the sale, however, Mercier wrote to the Vatican asking if there were any objections, and in the preamble to the bill undertook to clear any particular sales with the Propaganda and to compensate the Church. The immediate, widespread and implacable backlash in British Canada showed the true colours of many Anglo-Canadians whose prejudices may otherwise have remained under the surface, and perhaps made others think about the question of race in the Dominion in new ways.

The leaders of this anti-Catholic Association were D’Alton McCarthy, Alexander McNeill, Bishop O’Brien, Clark Wallace and later Colonel Denison. These were, without exception, prominent members of the Imperial Federation League. In conjunction with the consistent French-Canadian belief that British Canadian imperialism was a conspiracy to eliminate the French element in Canadian political life, this raises the question of what, exactly, they had in mind for Canada’s future.

In more ways than one, this was an exact mirror image of French Canadian Catholicism: an explicitly British fusion of religion and politics, and the idea of Providence with a sectarian flavour, emerging in reaction to, and in parallel with, the Quebecois’ supposed destiny to preserve the True Faith in North America from the depredations of heathen Protestants. Put simply, the question being debated was whose Providence it was to be: those who, after the Revolution, sought a corner of North America where His Majesty the King, and His Heirs and Successors, would always be Defender of the Faith; or those who sought to ensure that, in spite of the destruction of Bourbon power on the continent, some corner of North America would always own His Holiness at Rome as arbiter of the True Faith. In some ways, perhaps, Canada’s providential character was stronger for British Canadians than the Quebecois, because of the “mythology of sacrifice” which grew up around the self-imposed exile of the loyalists who refused to live outside the Empire in 1784.
As a result of the importance of Canada as a sanctuary for the threatened British American civilisation, in the minds of many British-Canadians contempt for Catholicism and Frenchness became a sort of patriotic duty – the Loyal Orange Order’s stridency on the subject may have been unusual, but only because it was greater in degree, rather than different in type, from the feelings of ordinary British-Canadians.

Some of the most rabid anti-Catholic tracts one might hope to find – or dread to find – were penned by Canadian imperialists. One, at the height of the Jesuit Estates controversy, believed that “Pope Leo XIII… [is] Governor General and Chancellor of Canada’s exchequer”. It was absurd, the author went on, that the Protestant majority should have to beg their Protestant government for equal rights with papists – if the Quebecois must assert that Jesuitism was a legitimate offspring of Catholicism, then this was a reason to attack Rome, not to leave Jesuits alone. Catholics were guilty of “heinous crimes and worse doctrines…dark, benighted, covetous, false, bloodthirsty, ignorantly superstitious, and anti-Christian”. Thus they had forfeited all their rights in British dominions, and the Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, should be horsewhipped for conniving with traitors. Anti-popery was not intolerance, but merely the refusal to tolerate Catholic intolerance, and impatience with the “known characteristics of the Roman Catholic religion to be not only aggressive, but encroaching”.

Importantly, deranged though this author may have been where Roman Catholics were concerned, his first and only suggestion to neutralise this fifth column was enthusiastically imperial. There “ought to be…[a] Code Victoriana” for citizens of the British Empire, what the Code Napoleon was to France and the canon law of the Jesuits was to the Catholic Church: England and Canada should come together to face the same threat under “the Confederate Union Jack”.

It was not, then, only French-Canadians who noticed the potential of imperial integration to tip the Canadian racial balance in the Anglo-Canadians’ favour. D’Alton McCarthy, Tory MP, Irish Protestant and Orangeman, and inaugurator of the Imperial Federation movement in Canada in 1885, was moved by the passage of the Jesuit Estates Act, by which “Her Majesty’s name is thus to be trailed into the dust”, to list the easy victories which the French Catholic sectarian interest had won in Canada: freedom of religion in 1763; permission to charge tithes and use French civil law in 1774; a legislative assembly, although conducting business in English, in 1791; French permitted in 1840-41; French recognised throughout Canada in 1867; and asking the Pope to administer Crown property in 1888. Wondering where it would end, he accepted that annexation to the USA would “bury the Frenchmen”, but preferred a British solution.

The Equal Rights Association, he went on, was not formed specifically to oppose the Jesuit Estates Act, but to make plain the cunning manipulation of the French-Canadian bloc in the public life of the Dominion, and to encourage British Canadians to seek to ‘bury’ them in Greater Britain rather than the United States. For, “We must not forget – I am afraid that some of my friends from the province of Quebec do sometimes forget – that this is a British country”.

Indeed, the Act had resurrected the debate on the Anglicisation of the Quebecois – an issue which had lain dormant for at least twenty years. Old men in Ontario began once again to remember that Canada was British by conquest, that the French Canadians had subsequently been protected by treaty, and begin to think that “there has been a constant effort on the part of French Canadians principally, to misrepresent and distort and create false impressions…as to the terms of that treaty”. The Proclamation of 1763 had said nothing about their language – only their religion and their laws, as far as they did not oppose British law. Now, the political interference of the Roman Church was being presented as the expression of religious liberties and therefore as a subject for private conscience which must be allowed by the Confederate government.

In actual fact, de Nevers had been quite right: the irrationality of Canada was a constant irritant to British Canadians, a constitutional ulcer under the tongue which offended their sense of reason and homogeneity. For patriotic British Canadians, it was stating the obvious to say that “the best interests of this country are to be served by a unity of language, that the future of this Dominion, with which this parliament is charged, will be best worked out by the people of this country coming together and speaking the language of the majority, the tongue that ultimately must be spoken on all this continent of North America”.

To be sure, there had been many practical elements in the smorgasbord of their support for the Confederation – recognition of the maturity of the colonies, a stronger bloc against American expansionism and so forth – but always, often under the surface, had been the imperative to bring the French Canadians into line, making them a less powerful bloc by making them smaller fish in a larger pond. The Canadian pond had not proved large enough – the Imperial pond was the next logical step. Imperial Federation would consolidate their position within Canada, and so “everyone then who is in favour of preserving the present Union is a Federationist”.

This suggests the serious probability that French-Canadians’ fears about the real agenda of Canadian imperialists were something more than paranoia. Amongst the manifold and diverse motivations for the turn towards an imperial solution to Canada’s future was the explicit desire to carry the Dominion towards the fullest logical conclusion of the events started by the conquest of New France, and the beginning of the process of anglicising the country; i.e., imperial federation for Canada as “the next act in a process of political and historical development that began in 1763, when Canada…was declared to be British”.

The relevance of this quasi case study into Canadian imperialism is that it reveals an aspect of colonial geopolitics which is often neglected by imperial historians. Historically, wherever British colonists have been confronted with a cultural ‘other’ within their colony, they have been both more willing to define themselves as British and more anxious strengthen the bonds between colony and metropole – New York and Pennsylvania with their German and Dutch populations, as against entirely English and enthusiastically rebellious Massachusetts and Virginia, for example; or, in the Imperial Federation period, Canada with its French element, New Zealand and the Maoris, or South Africans and the Volk, as against the bumptious ‘Larrikin Nationalism’ of almost completely British Australia.

As late as the Second World War, one commentator recognised the survival and even flourishing of this tendency towards imperialism in Canada, and specifically linked it to feelings of discomfort arising from Britons having to share their territory with another people. This led to a paranoid fear of losing their majority and control of the reins, and hence periodic calls for British immigration and imperial co-operation: “pour sauveguarder leur suprématie, vous le voyez se cranponner périodisquement à des projets d’immigration britannique massive, mais surtout et toujours l’idée imperialiste”.

Indeed, it was feelings like this which made the British Canadian actually more imperialist even than his cousins in the British Isles, because he was an “imperialiste inquiet”, his racial passions exacerbated by living amongst foreigners. British colonists in Canada – and South Africa – were more inclined to assert their national origins by the mere fact of exposure to a cultural ‘other’, and as often as not this engendered an attempt to “supprimer les diversités”. Imperialism and Imperial Federation, according to this French Canadian model, supplied a psychological crutch to an insecure people.


Charles Gailly de Taurines once boasted that Imperial Federation – a movement which, being “combinés en vue de les isoler et de les absorber au milieu d’éléments anglais plus nombreux”, would destroy all that French Canadians held dear – was being quietly, patiently and, above all, successfully resisted by the people of Quebec, and ascribed the failure of the movement in Canada entirely to their opposition. Some French Canadians might perhaps look back and observe a degree of paradox in the fact that they opposed strengthening the imperial link while supporting that link as status quo in order to prevent annexation to the USA. After all, it was Bourassa himself who coined the famous cliché about the British being further away and slightly less hateable than the Americans.

In this, they failed to see that any status quo is illusory in a field so dynamic as a country’s external relations; they failed, therefore, to look forward to a time in which, by reducing the imperial link to merely a shared Crown, that link would not be strong enough to counterbalance the USA. Gailly de Taurines himself had noted that Canada was already independent in all but name: “l’independence du Dominion existe déjà en fort. C’est une république dont le president est nommé par l’Angleterre”. He and others believed that it was this that gave rise to the British desire to regain a foothold in Canadian affairs through Imperial Federation.

As for Anglo-Canadians, it was the height of vain foolishness that they should cling on to a British Canadian identity rather than accept that they were Canadians: “les Canadiens-Anglais sont Anglais d’abord, Canadiens ensuite. Les Canadiens-français…sont Canadiens avant tout”. This naturally tended the former towards pan-saxonisme, which, whether in its American or British Imperial forms, was the most dangerous enemy of Quebec. This is proof, if proof were needed, that people should be careful what they wish for. The British link had been supported by French Canadians for protection; now they sought to undermine it and promote a more ‘independent’ Canada while simultaneously believing that a completely independent Canada would quickly turn into an annexed Canada, a few new States in the American Union.

Their attitude, then, towards this movement was both a misjudgement and a missed opportunity for French Canadians and for Canada. They never seemed to realise that, without the sense of ‘Britishness’ amongst English-speaking Canadians, Continentalism was likely to succeed through creeping Americanisation rather than by conquest. As a result, they unwittingly worked towards opening up a different means for the US to achieve precisely what they had persistently tried to prevent. It has been rightly said that the separation of British North America from the United States at the forty-ninth parallel was a “triumph of ideology of geography” – and yet they contributed towards the undermining of the very ideology which nourished their treasured separation. With that ideology gone, it is hard for some outside observers not to feel that the separate existence of two predominantly English-speaking, Anglo-Celtic nations side-by-side in North America, with no obvious geographical rift, is sometimes kept alive more by force of habit than any clear idea of what is and is not ‘Canadian’. The probable advent of a Canadian Republic within a generation or so shall only add to the sense, within Canada and in the wider world, that the country’s independent existence on the northern frontier of the United States is a disposable anachronism.

Nevertheless, while French Canadian opposition to the New Imperialism was not insignificant in the failure of the federationists’ campaign in Canada, the Imperial Federation movement as a whole did not fizzle out because of the ne plus ultra in Quebec.

As hinted at above, imperial federation was never a popular movement. Historians, traditionally, have been so carried away by the extraordinary prominence and earnestness of some of imperial federation’s supporters that they have often neglected both the sizeable body of opposition and, more importantly, the massive preponderance of the ‘No Opinion’ party throughout the Empire. In fact, there is an uncanny resemblance between the splendid isolation of federationism’s advocates and the integrationist élite of the European Union today: these people were not debating an issue which had been pushed to the forefront of imperial political discourse by the clamour of their electorates; rather, it was an issue for politicians, dreamed up by the Empire’s most outstanding political leaders amongst themselves, and as such external to the main concerns of the people on whose behalf they were pushing for it.

As a result, therefore, while the IFL and its various successor organisations sought to raise awareness of important issues and to solve significant problems – how to give the Dominions the voice in imperial affairs which they deserved, how to raise interest in the future of the Empire, how to respond to the federations of Germany and Italy et cetera – these issues and problems remained remote from the concerns of the ordinary people of Global Britain.

In addition, there were certain sections of opinion which were hostile to the movement when they thought about it at all, and the federationists never quite overcame their qualms. In Australia in particular, there was a widespread fear that it was an attempt to harness all of Greater Britain for specifically British, rather than imperial, interests, particularly as manpower, and thereby make them pawns in European militarism. Federationists were perhaps not helped in dispelling this impression by the fact that the most ardent Antipodean imperialists were little more than militarists themselves. Sinclair reminds us that New Zealanders were whipped up into storms of imperial patriotism by the fall of Khartoum, the Pendjeh Incident, the Boer War and so on, but notes the sense that, as in the UK, real imperialism and mere militarism were hard to separate around 1890. He suspects that “the poor man’s imperialism was not federalism but jingoism” – a suspicion shared by Liberal grandees in London, as well as proto-socialists who believed that support for imperial expansion in general, and for the Boer War in particular, were whipped up by unscrupulous financiers who were not really thinking of the people of the Empire but of themselves.

In Canada, too, there was an element of this. Colonel Denison, after all, was a military man and was concerned with military matters to the extent that one must suspect that he saw imperial federation first and foremost as a sort of Kriegsverein. He admired Garibaldi and Bismarck as great unifiers perhaps more because of their military campaigns, and he had even won first prize in the Csar’s 1877 competition for the best book on the use of cavalry. Of course, militarism had a different character in Canada from Australia and New Zealand – it was a much more conservative emphasis on martial virtues as a means to attain national maturity and to replace modern, commercial-capitalist virtues with some kind of New Age of Chivalry. Such self-consciously patrician sentiments would clearly have difficulty accommodating the working class militarists of Britain and Australia, “lifting their heads in the stillness to yelp at the English Flag”.

This narrowness of social appeal was, of course, part of the problem. Biggs, quoted above, argued cogently that the conservative ambience of Global British integrationism was “accidental”, a coincidence and a red-herring which distracted Australians from the movement’s socially radical potential. Unfortunately, the very fact that he had to put this argument forward hints at the large body of Australian opinion which felt that the IFL represented quite the reverse. Then as now, some aspects of British society did not appeal to Australians. Titles, for example, exported from Britain and bestowed upon prominent Australians, provoked hoots of derision from the Larrikin Nationalists at the Sydney Bulletin, and even in Canada, where titles and honours per se were considered less obnoxious, there was widespread concern about their potentially negative impact on Canadian politics: Herbert Asquith came in for criticism in the 1900s for allegedly ‘buying’ Canada with this “monnaie de singe: décorations, flatteries, avantages personels”.

This added up to the somewhat bizarre fear that imperial federation meant the replacement of vibrant young democracies with an aristocracy, and that a young, optimistic country would thereby be suborned to an old, cynical one: “such a marriage would be wedding youth and progress – and innocence? – to decrepitude”.

According to Berger, it was this element of federationism which was primarily responsible for its failure, at least in Canada. The appeal of Canadian imperialists’ Romantic conception of society – propagated by people who saw themselves as a Canadian aristocracy and guardians of the new nation’s social idyll – was too narrow, and indeed in opposition to the most powerful forces in Canada around the turn of the twentieth century. For example, for these people, imperial free trade was just a means of imperialism – as good a way as any for consolidating the Empire and for symbolising the British world’s united front contra mundum – but industrial interests in Canada were hardly likely to share their market with more developed British competitors any more than with their American counterparts through Commercial Union with the USA. The Americans had protected their industries and thereby diversified away from the ‘colonial’ economic relationship, i.e., providing raw materials in exchange for manufactures. It was to achieve the same that Canadians wished to diminish the importance of the North-South economic relationship, and so an alternative imperial relationship which would have the same effect was not an attractive option. Canada would, in such a way, perpetuate her subservience, which exactly what the imperialists wanted to prevent. They failed to see that people are not generally inspired by sentiment to material sacrifice, especially when that sentiment is far from universally shared.

Similarly, many commentators in the Southern Dominions have suggested that it was this narrow reliance on militarism and conservatism – as opposed to liberal or socialist pacifism – which caused the failure of imperial federation: the horrors of the Great War made people in the Dominions believe that it was better to be merely Australian or Canadian radicals than to be blown to bits at Gallipoli or Vimy Ridge for being British conservatives. This point of view, of course, is historically problematic: radicals are not necessarily less militaristic than conservatives – one thinks of Joe Chamberlain as against Baldwin; and the Second World War does not easily fit into a model whereby Australian disgust at WWI militarism fed anti-imperialist nationalism. Indeed, Australia in particular went on to support Britain at Suez in 1956, which Canada did not, and the Americans in Vietnam – at which even the allegedly militarist British baulked.

While the Australians had their own particular interests in these conflicts – Pacific security, nuclear technology and so forth – the very persistence of this British imperial enthusiasm in the Dominions, right up to the 1960s, points to a radically different clue to understanding the failure of imperial integration.
Put simply, both the breadth and depth of co-operation between the CANZUK group between the 1870s and 1930s and even later, meant that it was extremely unclear what, exactly, imperial federation was for. The fact that New Zealand was both the most imperially loyal and also the most indifferent colony as far as federation went, and in fact was the only Dominion which never had a branch of the IFL, is a succinct example of the real problem with the movement in these years. While the New Zealand legislature was prepared to pass vague motions of support for imperial federation, as they did in 1883 and again in 1885 when George Beetham proposed and passed a motion for the adoption of the IFL resolutions, the fact that they were also prepared to adopt a resolution for total Anglosphere federation including the USA suggests that they regarded all such resolutions as vague gestures of sentiment which would never come to anything because they did not need to come to anything. Indeed, John Balance, as Prime Minister between 1891 and 1893, thought that the Empire already was a great and permanent federation, and not at the cross-roads as the IFL thought, with one road leading to integration and the other to disintegration.

This is to suggest that the strength of imperial sentiment, in New Zealand at least but also, in fact, more widely, made people much less interested in imperial integration than they might have been The idea that without federation the Empire was on the point of dissolution seemed completely absurd, and as such their imperialism was in fact the opposite of federationism. In Canada and Australia, where the imperial sentiment was perhaps much weaker than in New Zealand, the League was needed precisely because of that weakness, but even in the two larger Dominions it was not weak enough to make federation seem necessary.

Here in New Zealand, then, is the whole problem of imperial federation writ small: the Empire did not need it yet. There was no obvious reason for a military federation at a time when so many Dominion troops were volunteering for the Sudan, South Africa and the Great War that they did not even bother with conscription; there was little point in a commercial or fiscal federation when the Canadians voluntarily gave Britain a 33% preference over other countries, and when the southern Dominions conducted the vast majority of their commercial intercourse with the UK without any such arrangements; the reasons for a political federation seemed rather opaque when the Canadian premier could just call an imperial conference in Ottawa to voice a grievance and find the delegates from the rest of Global Britain more often than not anxious to give him redress; and a symbolic federation to represent the idea of Global Britain as a single trans-continental nation at a time when most, though by no means all, of the people of Britain and the Dominions took that view almost without thinking about it.

There were, of course, substantive reasons for this lack of urgency as well as this false sense of the permanent strength of the imperial relationship, however irrationally that relationship was organised. For example, given the total absurdity of the status quo, which involved independence but with some dependent elements, enough imperial integration to alienate anti-imperial elements but enough disintegration to anger pro-imperial elements, given all these easily remedied anomalies, J.W. Longley in Canada asked why most Canadians were resistant to change. He concluded that the British Empire in general, and Canada in particular, enjoyed prosperity, peace, good government, democratic legislature, expanding commerce et cetera, and that all these things were protected by British money with no Canadian contribution. “Ordinary colonists may be pardoned”, he said, “if they do not agitate their souls over the future so long as the present is made secure”. According to this argument, the abstract injustice of decisions being made for the Dominions over which the Dominions had no power seemed less urgent precisely because its negative effects in an age of progress, prosperity and expansion were less immediately obvious, if they existed at all. Persistent low-turnout at general elections in Britain, Canada and the USA in the twenty-first century suggests that this kind of laissez-faire attitude towards the important question of rights and representation is by no means exclusive to the colonial context.

It was upon this massive rock of unconcern, to which this indifference as well as a false sense of permanent solidarity contributed, that the movement foundered. Indeed, the IFL was dissolved in 1893 – although not, of course, the movement for imperial integration more generally – precisely because general contentment or at least indifference to the status quo made it very hard to translate federationism into terms. This remained true well into the twentieth century, in spite of continued interest in finding some new basis for the constitutional arrangements between the UK and the Dominions. Sir John Quick in Australia, for example, listed in 1908 the various schemes which, over the years, had been mooted amongst imperial federationist circles. The representation of the colonies at Westminster, for example; the creation of a completely new federal parliament; some form of imperial Customs Union or Zollverein; a system of alliances between the countries concerned; W.E. Forster’s mutual alliance with common citizenship; Chamberlain’s Imperial Council with a commercial union and preferential trade; B. Holland’s loose confederation under the Crown, with a council; Jehu Matthew’s idea of a Permanent Alliance; John Deakin’s Co-operative Empire which involved a kind of collective imperialism; F. Pollock’s concept of periodical imperial conferences; and the frequently suggested idea of an Imperial Defence Committee.

It will be noticed that some of these were in fact taken up as and when they seemed appropriate: many saw partial accomplishment under the Sterling Area later in the century, and the Committee for Imperial Defence and the Imperial War Cabinet established a sort of Kriegsverein, at least in wartime. But to emphasise these as successes for imperial federation would be to miss the point, as many anti-imperialists did. Bourassa, for example, saw Joseph Chamberlain, “le Bismarck anglais”, to be taking advantage of British Canadian loyalty to impose a kind of military federation, and thereafter he planned to move by imperceptible stages towards a new imperialist relationship and eventually put constitutional form to his faits accomplis. Indeed, Bourassa believed that these unscrupulous British imperialists won a victory beyond Chamberlain’s wildest dreams, obtaining colonial military assistance with no worthwhile quid pro quo. This was, however, to fail to grasp the essence of what imperial federationists were trying to achieve. The people who suggested these various changes merely wanted to rationalise the Empire and homogenise its political, economic and defence mechanisms. They would have been happy with any innovation which achieved this, and the mixed assortment of measures which the Empire adopted, as and when they seemed useful for this or that particular purpose, manifestly failed to put the Empire on the rational footing which the federationists sought.


Around the turn of the twentieth century, British premonitions of relative decline were coupled with the hubris of a country at the zenith of its world influence – not necessarily paradoxically, since from a high peak the only way is down, as Kipling recognised in his Jubilee poem Recessional in 1897. British perspectives, carried by these twin political sensations, turned towards the far-flung fenceless prairies of the settler Empire both as props for British power and with pride in these momentous achievements of the British people – surely, by any objective calculation, amongst the most significant achievements of any Great Power in the modern world, since the creation from scratch of whole new nations at least as advanced as the creator-nation itself is unparalleled in modern history.

Of course, most British people today take a similar pride in this aspect of their country’s history – as opposed to the Middle Passage and the Amritsar massacre and so forth – as one of the few facets of British history which is not easily denigrated by post-colonial historiography. What was different in the period 1870 to 1914, and to a certain extent to 1931 and even later, was that this pride coincided with developments in the Dominions to foster a kind of imperial solidarity, one of whose expressions was a co-ordinated pan-Britannic movement for political integration. As expatriate Britons, colonial settlers could take pride in the super-power status of Britain which they could not as citizens of independent republics; as their new countries grew, they became impatient at the sense of subordination to British imperial legislation in which only representatives of United Kingdom voters had a say and sought new mechanisms by which their voice might be heard in imperial affairs; as the growing Dominions bumped up against the ambitions of rival powers in their respective regions, a stronger connection with the world’s greatest power made sound geopolitical sense; as Canada continued to work out a modus vivendi not with an easily displaced native population, but with a pre-existing European colonial population, burying the French element in a worldwide Anglophone federation seemed, for some Canadians, to have more pros than cons; as Australians and Canadians looked for answers to the question of what exactly they wanted their country to be, the maturity of the old country appeared an attractive counterbalance to the bumptious vitality of the new country; and as New Zealanders wondered how such a small country could strengthen its ability to influence its own destiny, they believed that an imperial council with New Zealand members, with powers in spheres where New Zealand did not yet possess authority, would be a beneficial institutional innovation.

Whether the United States will seek to consolidate their position in the same way, when their own world system enters its inevitable period of relative decline, remains to be seen. In all likelihood, any such attempt would be met with even less success than its British predecessor. Their Revolution disconnected them from the rest of the English-speaking world in a way which was never true for the UK. In fact, it was been rightly said that America “appears less as the mother of democracy than as a precocious child of Britain by a difficult first marriage to mercantilism”. Thus the American model of government has not produced its own heirs, whereas, to extend the metaphor, Britain’s second marriage to economic laisser-faire has produced political offspring around the globe, most notably, but not exclusively, in the CANZ group. Consequently, the fundamental difference between the United States and these other former British colonies is their continued, albeit precarious, loyalty to the British Crown – largely the legacy of British colonial attitudes and policies which were shaped by the imperial crisis of the 1770s. In a way, then, “the American Revolution has severed the United States from its most conspicuous social analogues around the globe without linking it very usefully with the rest of the world”. This is to say, that later British governments were willing to accept the evolution of distinct regional loyalties within the Empire as the best means of maintaining the link between metrolpole and colony, and it was unfortunate for the Empire that this valuable lesson had to be learnt through the loss of perhaps its most valuable member.

Be that as it may, even with the inestimable advantages which late nineteenth century Britain had over twenty-first century America in terms of seeking an institutional basis for Anglosphere co-operation, the Imperial Federation Movement still failed completely. While there were complex and interrelated reasons for this failure, the principle problem was quite simply that the unofficial intimacy of the imperial relationship in the generation or so before the Great War allowed the Dominions to dodge the independence/federation dilemma, confident in the belief that it did not exist. The strength of imperial sentiment, combined with the practical imperatives for co-operation arising from the relative immaturity of the Dominions, gave the illusory impression that institutionalising the relationship was irrelevant. The middle way – neither independence nor federation, but status quo – seemed strong enough to last indefinitely, suggesting that there was no dilemma at all. Sinclair, the New Zealand historian quoted above, still believed this to be true in the 1950s.

Fifty years on, however, it is clear that the dilemma was real enough: sentiments without institutions have proved useless at preventing the drift of the former Dominions not merely from the UK, but also from each other – ANZCERTA notwithstanding, since this treaty between Australia and New Zealand, like NAFTA or the EEC, is generally perceived as a practical arrangement between ‘foreign’ powers rather than an attempt to give practical expression to a relationship of sentiment. Perhaps, however, this is the way forward for the CANZUK group: stripped of the baggage of sentiment, public policy imperative may well have a greater chance of success in re-integrating the English-speaking world than any appeal to emotions above interests. As Donald Mackinnon suggested 99 years ago, “if [imperial federation]…is to be more than a mere desire or ideal, more tangible than such Utopian figments of a romantic imagination as the dream of a Golden Age which from time to time has captivated men’s minds, it must eventually be translated into terms”. In other words, it is necessity, not inclination, which determines international relationships.

Over time, it is not unreasonable to assume that such a practical arrangement between countries which remain so similar in so many respects will lead to the gradual erosion of the sense that these four countries’ interests are incompatible. More than a century ago, the federation of Australia inspired these words, which could plausibly have applied eventually not only to Australia but also to New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom:

“If in years to come Federal Union leads to an abatement of inter-provincial jealousy and suspicion, and to a recognition of the fact that the matters in which the interest of the various States are the same are far greater in number and importance than those in which they are at variance, a stronger national sentiment will be born, which will produce, either by constitutional amendment or judicial interpretation, a development of the Federal Compact or compromise, so as to secure a closer Union, and a broader and fuller national life”.

Whether the English-speaking Commonwealth should choose to make this response to the new imperatives of globalisation, or whether they continue to go down the path of regional integration and inter-industrial trade, these lines, as an expression of the geopolitical optimism of Global Britain in the Federationist period – its ability, if you will, to ‘think outside the box’ – are second to none. Had history been but slightly different, they might be the motto of a great nation which was never, in fact, created. Non queo plura iam scribere; impedit maeror.

St Antony’s College, Oxford.