The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 57
"The Conference which assembled yesterday at the Westminster Palace Hotel to consider the question of Imperial Federation is a remarkable sign of the times. It included representatives, official and unofficial, of all the more important page 70 colonies, and conspicuous members of both political parties at home. Mr. Forster was in the chair, and was supported by Lord Rosebery,. Lord Wemyss, Mr. W. H. Smith, Mr. Gibson, Mr. Stanhope, Sir Henry Holland, Mr. Cowen, Mr, Bryce, and other public men of every shade of political opinion. Ex-Governors of the principal dependencies of the Crown, such as Lord Normanby and Sir Henry Barkly, were there, as well as military and naval officers of distinction to whom the defence of the Empire is a problem of the highest practical interest, and Colonial High Commissioners, Agents-General, and Ministers in large numbers. Mr. Forster's earnest and energetic speech at the opening of the proceedings was followed up by Mr. Smith and Lord Rosebery, who respectively proposed and seconded the first resolution, affirming 'That the political relations between Great Britain and her Colonies must inevitably lead to ultimate federation or disintegration,' and 'that in order to avert the latter and to secure the permanent unity of the Empire some form of federation is indispensable.' It is no exaggeration to say that a dozen years ago such a movement as that initiated yesterday would have been absolutely impossible. The ideas of Mr. Cobden were then in the ascendant. The dominant party in the State was powerfully influenced by the ingenious and passionate arguments of writers like Mr. Goldwin Smith, and by a reaction against the policy of Lord Palmerston. There were some even then who contended for the principle of a federal union between the mother country and her Colonies, but the question was not regarded as a practical one, and it would have been difficult to induce any politician of mark to identify himself with a project which seemed likely to remain a splendid but impracticable Utopian dream. To day the conditions are very different. The Colonies are no longer looked upon with cool indifference or ill-disguised dislike. We are proud of them, and we have confidence in them. We have no excuse for treating them as poor relations, importunate and exacting and not to be trusted in time of need. Our Colonial fellow-subjects, with few exceptions, have developed and given ample proof of a self-reliant and manly temper which, instead of leading, as Mr. Goldwin Smith anticipated, to a demand for political independence, page 71 has been concurrent and incorporated in its growth with a spirit of devoted loyalty to the British Crown and the British Flag. Whenever danger has threatened, or seemed to threaten, the Empire the Colonists have been forward, not, as 'sophisters and economists' had calculated, to shelter themselves from risk by separating their fortunes from the mother country, but to offer—nay, to press upon—the Imperial Government their moral sympathy and their material support. Social intercourse between Great Britain and Greater Britain has become closer every year; trade, letters, arts, even sport, have been incessantly forging new links between them, and it would now be impossible to sever the connection without a wrench which would be felt in every part of the body politic. So it happens that in the present day the problem of Imperial Federation presents itself to the minds of statesmen, not only as a practical, but as an urgent one. Those who have been and will be again Ministers of the Crown, Liberals as Well as Conservatives, have been convinced that the difficulties of action—and no one who understands the question underrates those difficulties—are outweighed by the dangers of inaction
"The Conference agreed yesterday, very wisely, to drop from the first resolution the statement that unless federation in some form be adopted, disintegration must ensue. That proposition is argumentatively defensible, and probably the conviction underlying it is among the strongest, of the motives which brought the promoters of the movement together. But as Sir Charles Tupper, the High Commissioner for the Canadian Dominion, pointed Out, to affirm that disintegration can only be averted by the adoption of a federal scheme must, if such a scheme be long delayed, only tend to strengthen the advocates, at present few and feeble, of separation. It would be rash to predict that a federal union of the Empire will be carried into effect without hesitations and controversies, or that even those, associated at the Conference can be brought easily to an agreement on the bases of the project to be offered for the acceptance of the people of the mother country and of the Colonies. While the federal policy remains in abeyance the Separatists must not be allowed to argue that, by the admis- page 72 sion of the Unionists themselves, the existing state of things cannot endure.
"We have no doubt that, inconvenient and unsatisfactory as the present system is, the loyalty of the Colonists is capable of bearing even a greater strain, though it would be inexpedient as well as unfair to subject them to it. The Conference, however, has been content to affirm the general principle of federation and to appoint a committee with a view to future inquiry and discussion. The vagueness of the question in this form provides a security against divisions of opinion within the movement, but it weakens the force of the appeal made by the Conference to public opinion. Still it is clear that the subject must pass through the present phase before any particular scheme of federal co-operation, such as that which Lord Wemyss suggests in a letter we print elsewhere, can be usefully considered in its details. When the English people have made up their minds—as we believe they are fully prepared to do—that it is worth while entering into close relations with the Colonies, the practical qualities which are characteristic of English statesmanship will surely be able to overcome the superficial difficulties of the problem.
"The obstacles to union interposed by distance and extent of territory have vastly diminished, and are diminishing from day to day. Steamships and railways, postal organisation and, above all, the electric telegraph, have brought the most distant provinces of our Colonial Empire at the present day into intimate connexion with the mother country. Australians and Canadians are, in every real sense of the word, nearer to the centre of English social life and political activity than the country people of Scotland or Ireland, or even of England, a century and a half ago. Moreover, we must reckon with a new distribution of population and of power in the next or the succeeding generation. France and Germany, if the present movement of population continues, will then have fallen back into the second rank as compared with Russia on the one side and the United States on the other, and if England is satisfied to remain a purely insular State she, too, will have to recede before younger and stronger communities.
"But it will be her own fault if she breaks the ties which page 73 bind her daughter nations to her. No doubt there are and will be points of difference between the mother country and the Colonies, and a premature and ill-considered scheme of federation would be specially dangerous for this reason, be-cause, unless the machinery worked well, it would inevitably lead to friction and irritation. As Lord Rosebery, however, observed in his interesting speech at the Conference, some supposed difficulties are imaginary rather than real. The Colonists are quite; prepared to pay their fair share of any expenditure incurred for the common benefit, if they be allowed by some means to have a voice, however limited, in determining the policy of the Empire. There is no fear that federation will be made a pretext for diminishing the local self-government of the Colonies; on this both Mr. Smith and Lord Rosebery were very decided. It is no less clear that Colonists cannot intervene in the domestic concerns of the United Kingdom. But there is a wide circle of interests common to the mother country and the Colonies. Lord Rosebery mentioned the Egyptian question, which is one of paramount importance to the people of Australia, though in determining what the policy of the Empire shall be in regard to it they have no voice. Another subject on which the Australians have effectually, though somewhat irregularly, made themselves heard is the conduct of Fiance in exporting her 'incorrigible criminals' to the Pacific, disregarding its overflow upon the shores of Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria. We welcome, in the answer given by the Under-Secretary for the Colonies, on Monday night, to a question whether the Colonists would be allowed to legislate for their own protection, a proof that Lord Derby's frigid indifference has been thawed by demonstrations the warmth of which cannot be ignored. Mr. Ashley said that if the necessity arose the Imperial Government would not interfere with well-considered legislation by the combined Colonies against the intrusion of criminal aliens. At the same time, the Foreign Office has been using its utmost endeavours to induce the French Government to prevent the question from becoming a serious one, as it might well become if the Colonists were driven to act for their own protection. We understand that page 74 Lord Lyons has urged most strongly that the objections of the Australians to the Recidivist Bill would not he removed by any code of regulations or restrictions to be enforced in New Caledonia. The only assurance which will satisfy the Colonists is that no Recidivists are to be sent out to the Pacific at all. M. Ferry's reception of the representations of the British Ambassador was considerate and encouraging. The progress of the Bill will be almost certainly delayed till after the recess; the report of the Committee was only laid before the Senate yesterday, and in the existing state of French politics it is improbable that much business will be done before the close of the Parliamentary session. The chances of the ultimate abandonment of the Bill are increased by this delay. It is quite certain, however, that, as Lord Rosebery put it, if Australia had been an integral part of the British Empire, it would never have been seriously proposed, even in France, to poison the country with 'criminal refuse.'"