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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 57

The Earl of Rosebery:*

The Earl of Rosebery:*

My Lords and Gentlemen,—I regard this meeting as one of very prime and special importance in the history of the Empire of Great Britain. I regard it as important for the reason that it shows that public opinion is awakening in a very marked way to what must be one of the dominant page 36 questions of the future; and in the second place, I welcome it because the presence of the ministers and the ex-ministers, and the ministers to be, at this Conference, shows that the question has been taken out of the hands of some who had dealt with it rather as a crotchet, an idea, and has become a practical and living question in this country. (Cheers.) I believe we have now put our hand to the plough, and are not likely to look back till we have some tangible result, and I view this as the inauguration of a crusade of absolutely vital importance to the future of this country. (Cheers.) Now, I think this is a matter of vital importance now; and let me tell the meeting the one reason why I think it is so at this moment. It is so now because the time will come when we shall all recognise it as a matter of pressing and supreme importance; and when the time comes it will very likely be too late to do what we ought to do now. (Cheers.) We have occasionally seen accounts of two vessels coming into collision. They meet in mid-ocean, and nothing seems to occur to them as to any necessity for avoiding each other till all of a sudden one looms on the quarter of the other, and the catastrophe takes place. My lords and gentlemen, I confess myself very anxious to see all danger to the unity of the Empire postponed by timely action within the Empire itself. (Hear, hear.) Now, my lords and gentlemen, I have had occasion already to make remarks not indirectly affecting this subject, and I have put in the forefront of what I believe to be true policy in this matter one very simple and somewhat selfish consideration, and that is, that I do not care in the future to see these seething populations of ours, these increasing populations, shut up in two islands, one of which does not particularly care about the other. (Hear, hear.) And if you carry out the doctrines which are more or less identified with the names of Sir William Molesworth and Mr. Goldwin Smith, that is the position to which you reduce the Empire of Great Britain. (Cheers.) That is, as I have said, a somewhat page 37 selfish view, but we have to take it into consideration as a practical view, and we can then, beyond the practical view, take what is a much higher view, which is this, that there is in these distant colonies a feeling of loyalty, which can only he described as a passion, which we are not ready to avail ourselves of now, when it is time, and which, when we are anxious to avail ourselves of it, it may be too late. (Hear, hear.) Of course, the question of cost may be urged against any project of this sort, and I can quite understand, with our annually increasing expenses, that the matter of cost is a very great one; but I venture to say, if this were a matter of expense, even that should not be allowed to stand in our way. As a matter of fact, it is no question of expense at all. We have seen, only the other day, the Australian colonists, when they urged a policy on the Imperial Government, which the Imperial Government was somewhat reluctant to adopt, cheerfully offer to bear the whole of the expense; and if there were any such expense involved here, which I do not believe, money would form no difficulty between the mother country and the colonies. (Cheers.) Suppose it did cost money, and this country had to find its proportion. You have had urged on you, very eloquently and impressively, by Mr. Forster and Mr. Smith, what we should get in exchange. We should get breathing space for the Empire, for we cannot say we have any breathing spaces in these islands, and direct this great tide of emigration—this nation which annually leaves our shores—to loyal and attached homes, instead of to countries which are not so attached. (Cheers.) As I believe it is better to-day—and this is a hint which I recommend humbly to the attention of the Conference—to put this Conference on as practical a basis as possible—because we have had discussions in which ideas have been too prevalent, and have been taunted with idealism—let me give two practical illustrations of what I believe the effect of the unity of the Empire will be. There are two questions, both of them page 38 burning questions. One of them attracts much more attention than the other, but in my view both are of imperial importance. There is the question of the French recidivists. Do you believe, my lords and gentlemen, that if Australia had been as integral a part of Great Britain as Kent, it would have been seriously proposed to turn all the criminal refuse of France loose upon an island within a few days of her shores? (Hear, hear.) Do you believe, if Australia had been an integral part of this country, it would have been seriously proposed to poison with this criminal refuse not merely the islands of New Caledonia, but all the adjacent islands of the beautiful Pacific? (Hear, hear.) I believe that is a practical test. That point shows how this question affects the colonies. Let me allude to another question which affects the mother country. We are now all profoundly agitated about who is to have the paramount position in Egypt. I am not going to introduce controverted political matters. But does anybody here Suppose' if Australia and the colonies had the same position to this country that Scotland or Ireland have, that she would not claim to be heard to a very considerable extent as to who should have paramount influence on the banks of the canal, which is the nearest road between Great Britain and her Southern Empire? (Cheers.) I cannot touch any further on the subject; it is like dancing on hot coals. (Laughter.) But I do venture to point out that these two practical points do show the necessity of a united Empire. (Cheers.) Our being present admits the principle, I take it, of the necessity of federation; and therefore, anything said on that point, unless it was practical, would be so much surplusage. Therefore, I do not wish to dwell another moment on that point. One or two words upon a question which is always asked of the advocates of federation—"How are you to manage it?" We never meet with a man in private life who is not convinced of the necessity of imperial federation, but he almost always goes on to say that no scheme was ever propounded, and that page 39 no scheme ever could be propounded No one expects that any scheme will be evolved by this Conference to-day. I should exceedingly regret to see any such scheme evolved, even if it were a practical and workable scheme, because it would have the stamp of haste upon it, and would not commend itself to the country. But there are certain points which no statesman, I think, who wishes to consider this question practically, can afford to disregard. One was stated clearly, and with the cordial assent of the meeting, by the last speaker. He said nothing could affect the local Government of Great Britain by its own Parliamentary institutions. I believe none of her colonies would wish to interfere with her domestic self-government, and I believe any proposition of that sort would be received with an outcry—and a just outcry—among the population of Great Britain. (Hear, hear.) But with regard to this point, I suspect that any proper scheme of federation would lead, not to a diminution of local self-government, but rather to an increase of local self-government. I am not sure that this is not an integral and vital part of any scheme. But in England, as I take it—certainly in the nineteenth century—there are two absolute necessities in any scheme of administrative reform. The first is that it should be preceded by inquiry, and the second—particularly in such a ease as this—is that it should be tentative in its nature. (Hear, hear.) I am perfectly certain that if anybody were to introduce an absolutely perfect and complete scheme to the Parliament of Great Britain for the federation of the Empire, to which no possible objection of time or space could be urged, that scheme would have no chance of acceptance. The British Parliament would say, and wisely say, "We will go gently; we wish to see how this scheme works in minor matters before we proceed to any cut-and-dried Constitution of the British Empire." That has always been the way in the British Constitution, and I do not suppose that on this, the largest of all questions which could occupy Parliament, page 40 they would wish to depart from the traditional rule. (Hear, hear.) In relation to the two points I have urged, I want to say, as regards inquiry, I do think the Government might do two things. I think the Government might appoint a committee, or a royal commission, to inquire into the practicability of any such federal idea. I think they might do so for more than one reason. In the first place, you would get the best men to sit upon such a council—statesmen of tried experience, colonial representatives, and persons who would sift all the claims presented to them, and report exhaustively on them to the British Parliament. In the second place, if it were not able to achieve results such as these, it would, at any rate, have this effect: it would show throughout our vast colonial Empire that the Government of this country are not showing a want of interest in those distant colonies. (Cheers.) And let me remark in passing, it might do one thing more. Even if there was a disinclination to issue a royal commission, or to nominate a select committee, the Government might send out invitations to the colonial governments to ask them if they could suggest any scheme, or what their predisposition towards the idea might be. I believe that would have a healthy influence on the governments of Australia and Canada, because no one can travel in those countries without being aware of the sensitiveness, and just sensitiveness, of the colonists to the attitude of the British Government in relation to their claims. (Hear, hear.) As regards a tentative experiment in the direction we are seeking, I may be considered to be a person of one idea on this subject; but I do believe it might seriously be considered by the House of Lords if delegates from the colonies might not be admitted to sit as do delegates in the Senate of the United States. Of course, that would be a large change, but not so large as it at first appears. The main objection always page 41 urged is that of distance. I think that question has been conclusively dealt with by Mr. Smith, but I would point out an even more recent illustration. I refer to the state of California, which, when a territory, and a distance of weeks from the main seat of government, sent delegates to the Senate of the United States without the slightest difficulty. I do not believe in the difficulty of distance; and I believe a tentative experiment in the House of Lords would not interfere with the financial control of the House of Commons over the affairs of the Empire. (Hear, hear.) I invite consideration to these two or three points. I see it is proposed that a society should be formed with the direct object of bringing this question before the country. I think that a very good idea. There is another idea I have long wanted to lay before such a meeting as this. I cannot see why there should not be formed some sort of vigilance committee; that is a word which explains practically what I mean, although it is not perhaps quite correctly used on this occasion—of members of both Houses of Parliament with regard to colonial questions, for the purpose of ventilating them, and keeping an eye on them in both Houses. (Hear, hear.) At present anybody who wants to take any action with regard to colonial matters, has not much support, simply because he has no means of knowing who are the members of Parliament who are interested in such matters. The other point is of minor importance—namely, that this Conference, if it feels it has done good work to-day, should adjourn to some day during the autumn session, when there will be more leisure for members of Parliament to attend. (Hear, hear.) I have dealt entirely with practical points, and I now come to the most practical of all. It is that you should not postpone this question till it is too late. On both sides the world—across the western ocean and across the southern ocean—you have two page 42 great countries—empires, if you will, stretching forth their hands to you in passionate loyalty and devotion to the country from which they spring. If you will not avail yourselves of that sentiment now, the time may come when you will bitterly repent it; and it is therefore from the timely and practical handling of this question that I hope to see the greatest benefit arise. (Cheers.)

* Under Secretary for the Home Department, 1881, in Mr. Gladstone's Ministry.