The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 57
On the motion of Mr. F. Young, seconded by Captain J. C. R. Colomb, the Right Hon. W. E. Forster, M.P., * was elected to preside.
In opening the proceedings, the Chairman said:—
I hope none of you will think, from my friend Mr. Young having moved that I should take the chair at this preliminary meeting, that I wish to put myself forward as the head of so important a movement as this. This is a preliminary meeting of gentlemen who feel interested in the matter, and I hope will be followed by other much more important, or at least much larger, gatherings when the object for which we have met to-day has been thoroughly discussed by the public. Short speeches are the necessary condition to a successful conference. (Hear, hear.) There are several gentlemen present from the Colonies, as well as others living at home, who, from their study and experience, are well qualified to give opinions upon this important matter. I am sure that you are, as I myself am, most anxious to hear them; and therefore I shall confine my remarks in opening the proceedings to the shortest possible introductory statement concerning the object and aim of our meeting.
We are here to-day because we wish to preserve the unity of the Empire (cheers) by binding the several parts together, and also because we think the time has come page 26 when those who have that wish should meet together to see how they can attain it. I will not take up your time with arguments in favour of this unity of the Empire, or against disruption. You would not be here to-day if you required convincing in that matter (hear, hear); and I think I may go further, and say that outside this room there are not now many Englishmen who believe that England would gain by the loss of her Colonies. (Cheers.) The question now is not is it well to keep the Colonies, but how we are to keep them. (Hear, hear.) It is quite true there have been some gentlemen, and there may still be a few gentlemen—but I believe they are becoming fewer every clay—who try to persuade themselves we should be better off at home if we were left to ourselves, and who look forward with pleasure—perhaps I should hardly say with pleasure, but without pain—to Australians and Canadians and South Africans ceasing to be our fellow-countrymen. Well, to my mind that prospect is unbearable (cheers), and I believe it is to yours also. It means, in my opinion, the weakening of England, the increased probability of war among Christian nations, and—I do not think the words too strong—the throwing back of the progress of civilisation. (Cheers.)
It is sometimes said that England would be richer if she could get rid of her colonial responsibilities. Well, I believe that, as a rule, the material interests of a nation are not best served by making their promotion the sole, or even the chief, aim. (Hear, hear.) The result is national degradation, and with it the loss of power, and even the faculty of making money. But, putting aside this somewhat abstract consideration, there is no fact more proved by practical experience than that the trade does follow the flag. (Hear, hear.) Therefore, we may well believe that, if the flag be lowered, trade will suffer. So much for the English view of the matter, which I have endeavoured to express in a very few words.
There are influential colonists present who can—and I doubt not will—tell us that the prospect of separation is as page 27 hateful in the Colonies as it is here (hear, hear)—that, in their opinion, it means danger to the Colonics themselves, and an arrest of their growth; and I believe they will also tell you that there is no colonial feeling stronger than the longing that there should be such treatment of her Colonies by England as will make separation improbable, or even impossible. (Hear, hear.) We Englishmen, both at home and in the Colonies, have a different future in our mind's eye in this matter than we had a generation ago, or even than we had nine or ten years ago, when I remember trying to impress what were then thought to be rather fantastic views upon the public. But you see the reason why that is the case. The inventions of science have overcome the great difficulties of time and space which were thought to make separation almost a necessity, and we feel now that we can look forward, not to the isolated independence of England's children, but to their being united to one another, and with the mother-country, in permanent family union. I feel certain that, to the public generally, as well as to you, that prospect is as pleasant as the prospect of separation is painful. (Hear, hear.) In private affairs—and I think it is the same in public affairs—plans or hopes for the future greatly modify action in the present; and therefore we naturally are now asking ourselves what can be done to avoid the calamity of separation and insure the fulfilment of this beneficent idea of union. We are met here to-day to answer this question. We want to see how we can make this desire for union a fact, and how we can realise this grand idea, of unity. I believe we must not stand by looking on. We must not suppose that present ties are in themselves strong enough to beat-straining; they require to be pulled and knit together. Difficulties may arise—intercolonial difficulties, and difficulties, perhaps, between England and her Colonies—which might lead to separation if we do not take care to prevent them.
In the words of the resolution which will be submitted to you—simply submitted for discussion—it must be clear that the relations of our Colonies with the mother-country page 28 must ultimately end either in disintegration or in some form of Federation. We have given our Colonies—those of our own race—full self-government. We should have been acting with the greatest possible folly and injustice if we had not done so; but this self-government must, end in one or other of two ways—isolated independence, or some form of general union which is expressed in the common term Federation. (Hear, hear.) What will be the actual form of this Federation is not, to my mind, the question to-day. (Hear, hear.) The word does not necessarily imply a Federal Parliament. It may, for instance, be fulfilled by a council of representatives of the different Colonies. In fact, all that is implied is that there should be some combination together of the Colonies with the mother-country which would bind them so that separation would be felt to be a most improbable result. I think myself that they are the real foes of union—or at any rate the disbelievers or sceptics of its possibility—who would ask us to-day what should be: the form of Federation, or demand at this moment a written Federal Constitution. (Hear, hear.)
As the population and power of the Colonies increase, both absolutely and relatively to the power and population of England, it will every day become more and more clear that the ultimate terms of Federation must in some manner or another be framed on the principles of perfect equality. (Hear, hear.) That will appear more and more clear as time goes on. In the meantime, what is wanted is this—that those who have power and influence in England or in the Colonies should be possessed by the Federal idea, that they should seize every opportunity of working together in good fellowship and sympathy and mutual self-respect; that they should strive to co-operate in common defence, and that they should take counsel together in all Imperial matters, and especially as regards each colony in any relations with any foreign Government. (Hear, hear.) I said persons in power and authority. page 29 I do not by that expression mean simply the members of the respective Cabinets—either the Colonial Secretary in Downing Street, or the Prime Minister of any Colony—nor do I confine the remark to members of the respective Parliaments, but I include all who, by speech or by writing, can influence what now, in our English-speaking races, must be admitted to be the great governing force—the power of public opinion. (Hear, hear.)
The main object of our meeting together to-day, and of the society which we hope to form, will be to keep constantly the idea and aim of Union before all classes of the British public, both at home and in the Colonies—before the people both in Great Britain and in Greater Britain—and especially to show to the masses and to the workmen that it is to their interest as much as to the interest of the capitalists—that we should keep together, so that our rulers, both here and in the Colonies, should let slip no opportunity, as circumstances change from day to day, of developing this idea of union, and of hastening the realisation of this principle of Federation, than which, I believe, there is none more fraught with beneficence to England, and even to the world. (Cheers.)
Mr. F. P. Labilliere, Hon. Secretary of the Conference Committee, read letters from several gentlemen who had been expected to attend.
* Liberal Member for Bradford, Under Secretary for the Colonics 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.