The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 57
Mr. W. E. Forster*
Mr. W. E. Forster*
Again rose and said:—As a member of the Provisional Committee which drew up this Report, I think the time has come when I may offer some remarks upon the resolution. What Mr. Merriman says deserves our closest attention, but I still am of opinion that it would be premature for us to bring forward any detailed plan of federation at this time. (Hear, hear.) If you read the resolutions of the Provisional Committee, you will see that we declare what federation must not do, and what it must do. It must not interfere with the existing rights of local Parliaments as regards local affairs; but in any scheme of Imperial federation we should combine on equitable bases the resources of the Empire for the maintenance of common interests, and adequately provide for an organised defence of common rights. I am well aware that this statement is open to objection on both sides. We have our friends here, and I rejoice in having so many friends favourable to our object. But we must expect criticism from the Press and from other quarters, and I have no doubt that we shall be criticised from two directions, and that we shall be, as it were, between two tires. On the one hand, there will be a strong opinion, in which I agree, that any detailed plan of federation would be pre-mature; and on the other hand, there will be a statement to this effect: "Well, if you meet together and declare that it is a good thing that there should be an united Empire, what is that but mere talk?" Well, I think the more we look at it the more we shall see that the formation of such a league as we are now forming is anything but mere talk, and that it will have a great effect in substantial action. In the first place, there is no denying that there are disintegrating causes at work. There are difficulties in the present relations between the Colonies and the mother country, and it is required that those persons—those British subjects here and in the Colonies—who are very anxious that unity should be preserved, should be ready to prevent those causes arising if possible, and if they do arise to diminish their effect as much as possible, and to remove them as much as possible. No one doubts for a moment the difficulties which we shall have to meet in forming a lasting federation; but that is no reason why we should not determine page 12 to overcome them, and as the absolute condition of being able to overcome them, we in England must get to know the feeling of the leading men in the Colonies, and we must obtain suggestions from them. I do not think that it follows that it may be years before we arrive at some conclusion; but it would be most unwise to take the thing into our own hands at once and to sketch out any particular plan. Mr. Merriman said a word about a Federal Council. Now a Federal Council—a Colonial Council—would be one form of federation undoubtedly; a Parliament would be another form. There is a good deal to be said for both: but "I repeat I do not think that the time has come to decide upon them. This I think we may very fairly do. We may consider what is the necessary condition of a future federation—what is the necessary condition of the change which we think must take place from self-governing Colonies, having, as I may say, nothing legally to do with the power of the Imperial Government in dealing with foreign States, into a relation in which they will have their share in controlling foreign policy. It is that change which we have to look forward to, and when that change comes, what must be its necessary condition? There is one condition which is absolutely necessary. It is that the union should imply mutual defence—mutual alliance with common citizenship. (Hear, hear.) There is no other condition absolutely necessary but that, though others may be added. Mr. Freeman, the historian, published several years ago an interesting first volume of a work which I trust he will complete—a work upon federation; and in his introduction he defines what he considers federation to mean in these words: "A federal commonwealth in its perfect form is one which forms a single State in its relations to other nations, but which consists of many States in relation to its internal government." (Hear, hear.) Now that admits of a wide margin, but I would reply to Mr. Merriman's suggestion by saying that we are bound by this absolute condition—that there should be this alliance for mutual defence, and that there should be this common citizenship. People may say that after all that means but little. To my mind it means a great deal. (Hear, hear.) It means in the first place peace among all the members of the Empire. It means, I believe, greater strength for each member of the Empire—(hear, hear)—the power of aiding and protecting one another. It next means a common career for every British subject, for every citizen, and that is no slight thing either for the Colonies or for us at home. page 13 At the present moment, perhaps, it is a greater boon for the Colonies that they should have great careers opened for them in England, and also in our dependencies of India and elsewhere; but I am not sure that the time may not come in which it will be felt in England that there would be great careers opened in the Colonies. (Hear, hear.) I am not going into the question of any interference with Colonial tariffs. That is a matter in which we shall do no good by attempting interference, but I have no manner of doubt that such a union as I have described, even with no other condition than I have attached to it, does mean more trade between England and her Colonies than would exist if there was a separation. (Hear, hear.) We Englishmen may lament over some of the Colonial duties, but you may depend upon it that if the Colonies who levied those duties were forced by England to separate from us those duties would be higher. (Hear, hear.) Then there is an advantage on the other side. England is a country of enormous resources and of accumulated capital, and there is great advantage in the great public enterprises which these Colonies undertake in their being connected in common citizenship with a country which is now, and which I trust will long continue to be, able to lend money at the easiest rate of interest—if I may put the other ill a purely business form—of any Power in the world. Again, there are greater facilities of emigration. I think those are all advantages which are worth striving to aim at. They are all advantages which are practical advantages of union, besides that sentiment which we must not neglect and which is a very strong sentiment, the feeling that we are proud of belonging to the greatest Empire that the world ever knew, and that we cannot reconcile ourselves to the thought of its being broken up. (Hear, hear.) Let us consider for a moment what are the possible tendencies towards separation which we should guard against, No doubt that which would be more likely to produce it than any other cause would be an attempt on the part of England to interfere with the Colonies. That we must guard against, and that your committee have felt it was absolutely necessary to put down in the very forefront of our proceedings, that there should be no interference with their local self-government. That is a fear which would be now perhaps more felt by the Colonies; but if the time comes, as I trust it will come, when the union will have lasted until the Colonies shall have become, some of them, almost as powerful and perhaps quite as powerful as England herself, then a fear might be felt by England if there was an attempt to inter- page 14 fere with the self-government of the United Kingdom. Therefore it is a principle which we are obliged to maintain. (Hear, hear.) Then the next danger is the fear on either side of foreign complications. I suppose there are persons in the Colonies who say, "We are in some danger from the action of your Foreign Office in London;" and on the other hand, there are men in England who say, "The Colonies may drag us into disputes which we do not desire." I do not deny that there is a degree of danger on both sides, but I believe that the advantage of their mutual help and alliance is far greater than the danger. (Hear, hear.) If we look first to the United Kingdom, considering how our great Continental neighbours are banding themselves in large nations, with populations constantly increasing, and with their enormous standing armies, while the small nations, I am sorry to say, find greater difficulties in maintaining themselves, I think no one of us can doubt that England would find it hard to maintain her position unless she made use of what I believe no Continental statesman can for a moment suppose she would be so foolish as to neglect, the assistance which she can obtain from her Colonies. (Cheers.) But, again, I do not think that the Colonies ought to consider themselves perfectly safe. (Hear.) Now I am touching upon rather delicate ground; I hope I shall say nothing that will be imprudent. But take Australia itself. Australia may say, "We are on the other side of the world; what matters it what the nations of Europe think? We have a sentimental love for England, but, after all, are we in any danger?" I would ask them just to look at this fact, that the nations of the Continent are now finding out what it is for the English-speaking race to have possession of a very large portion of the temperate regions of the world, and they are wishing—and not unnaturally wishing—to have their share in it; and if the Australian Colonies were left by themselves, I would not guarantee that they would not find that they had foreign complications and had neighbours by their sides which would give them a Foreign Office—(a laugh)—with very much the same difficulty, but without the same power of obtaining assistance, as we have ourselves. Some people say that the Colonies will not enter into relations of mutual defence, and will make no sacrifice for that purpose. I entirely disbelieve that statement. (Cheers.) I see nothing to justify it. As far as I can see from every action in the Colonies, from what they have done as States, as self-governing communities, and from what their leading men say, and from page 15 what we believe to be the popular feeling, they are very anxious to bear their share in mutual defence. We have seen that in what has happened in Australia of late, where the different Colonies have been going to considerable expense in providing ships of war. And just allow me to say that here I think is an opportunity for strengthening the bonds between the mother country and the Colonies, especially with Australia. Advantage might be taken of this fact, and our Government ought to come forward, and I have very little doubt will come forward, with some plan of mutual defence, especially by ships of war; a mutual agreement to find the cost of a navy might be arranged, and put into working detail. (Hear, hear.) But I repeat that we have a great work-to do. We have first to gather together those persons, both here and in the Colonies, who look forward to permanent union, and not to separation. We have to ask them to join together in considering what would ultimately be the best form of that federation, and still more important for the present time, what steps should be taken year by year to make it more probable; and especially we have to ask them to rally themselves together to defeat any disintegrating influence that may be at work. (Hear, hear.) The movement has met with far greater support than some of us here, however earnest in it, had expected. I have rarely known so many noblemen and gentlemen of all parties wishing to aid in our object, and I believe that that arises from this feeling, that none of us who care about political action at all can avoid considering what is to be the future of our country, and that the future of our country depends upon this union. (Cheers.) The right hon. gentleman then read letters from several distinguished persons. Lord Shaftesbury wrote :—"looking to the state of Great Britain externally and internally I see no hope for the future maintenance of this dignity and strength, but in one vast federation." That, he remarked, is not the opinion of a party politician, but of one who, more than any man, in his long and beneficent life, has gauged the influences at work among his fellow-countrymen. Then Sir Lyon Play fair wrote:—"I feel very certain that it is a wise thing to discuss the subject of federating Great Britain with the Greater Britain. The difficulties are no doubt great, but the realisation, though it may be postponed, will add so enormously to the safety and prosperity of the whole Empire, that it is worth while engaging in the work, however postponed may be the consummation of our expectations." Another letter was from Lord Tennyson's son, in which he said, speaking page 16 on behalf of his father, "We earnestly hope that the conference will further the cause. My father and I will be delighted to be on such a committee as you propose." There was another letter from Lord Monck, a late Governor-General of Canada, who wrote :—"I shall be very happy to join the League for Imperial Federation. I have long been of opinion that there are but two courses open to us in connexion with the relation of the Colonies to the mother country—first, to strengthen and develop the connexion with the view of making it permanent; secondly, to gradually relax the connexion with a view to ultimate independence. If we cannot accomplish the first, I think in justice to the Colonies we are bound to adopt the policy of looking to the latter alternative. Your League seems to be the first earnest attempt to connect the scattered elements of our Empire, and, if practicable, to ensure the permanence of the connexion between them." Lord Monck (Mr. Forster continued) exactly puts it as I believe is the real fact. If that opinion is to prevail which was held by not a few influential men a few years ago, that the final relation must be one of perfect Colonial independence, then I think, at whatever sacrifice of sentimental feeling, that we ought to prepare for it. But the great change that has occurred in the last few years is that men do not believe that will be the final result; and if so, then we must work to insure the other result. (Cheers.)
* Liberal Member for Bradford; Under-Secretary for the Colonies, 1865; Member of Mr. Gladstone's Cabinet and Vice-President of the Committee of Council on Education, 1868 to 1874; Chief Secretary for Ireland, 1880 to 1882.