The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 57
"The remarkable gathering that assembled yesterday at the Westminster Palace Hotel to discuss the propriety of Imperial Federation was in itself the best evidence that this question has emerged from the regions of patriotic dreamland to the sphere of actual politics. It is rare in these days to find representative men of all parties uniting in the promotion of a political movement, and though probably an attempt to give practical application to the views propounded at yesterday's Conference would disclose many diversities of opinion, the absolute unanimity which has now been obtained as to the principle of the scheme will prepare the way for a solution of the problem when a suitable time arrives. The advisability of retaining our Colonies is a question which, as Mr. Forster remarked, has been finally disposed of. We have now to consider how we can best organise that union which both the mother-country and the Colonies are resolved to maintain. It was no part of yesterday's proceedings to suggest any plan, nor is the scheme yet ripe for practical elaboration. Nevertheless, the supporters of this movement have no reason to be dis- page 75 satisfied with the progress of their views in the public mind. A dozen years ago the idea of Imperial Federation hardly existed except in name; or, if it did, it was subscribed to only by some hardy patriots and a few supposed crotcheteers. The Government of the day was known to be resigned to disintegration, and some of its prominent members were strenuous advocates of separation. The world was still oppressed by the idea of remoteness, and but imperfectly realised that by the scientific achievements of our own era distance had been virtually abolished. Dissolution was accepted as the inevitable fate of empire, and we were supposed to be exhibiting our enlightenment by promoting our own dismemberment. More-over, Federation—the then doubtful experiment of the United States apart—was somehow associated with Centralisation; with "Imperialism," with military despotism, and with a host of other more or less obnoxious doctrines, and was, therefore, supposed to be inimical to liberty. The conception of free States combining for self-protection on a grand scale was not yet understood. A great Party was dominated by parochial notions, and a Federation of the Colonies was, in spite of the development of political organisation, as inconceivable to many people as a Kingdom of the Middle Ages would have been to the Municipal Statesmen of Attica. To equally erroneous, if more excusable, sentiments, was added a perverted notion of our material interests, which, from its very selfishness, inspired a popular reaction that sensibly facilitated the progress of the Imperial idea. But even a more important agency than a growing appreciation of our national duty was the centripetal influence of the Colonies themselves. In Australia, in South Africa, in America, our kinsmen caught up the Imperial tradition with all the fervour of national youth, and not only refused to separate individually from the mother-country, but collectively interdicted the dislocation of an Empire in which they claimed an inheritance. This movement in the Colonies demolished at once the foundation of all the theories of Separatists. It was found that a tendency towards disintegration was not inevitable; that the action of our North American Colonies-last century, which, till then, was held to govern all similar connections, was due to special and temporary causes; page 76 and that the force of cohesion in politics might, under certain circumstances, be more powerful than that of dissolution. Nor has the selfish notion of a burdensome connection been less effectually controverted. The incidence of Imperial liability may not be yet scientifically adjusted, but the indirect advantages accruing to us are now admitted to compensate for much of our direct outlay, and the recent action of the Australasian Colonies respecting the administration of the Pacific proves that they would be by no means unwilling, under an organised Federation, to contribute their quota towards Imperial expenditure.
"Although the Conference avoided a formal discussion of details, and left over these matters till the means and the opportunity arose for profitably entertaining them, it was impossible to avoid reference to what might be the real outcome of the movement. Several suggestions were hazarded, notably by Lord Rosebery, who, fresh from his visit to the Antipodes, rather shares the impatience of the Colonists for participation in Imperial affairs; but no one eared to anticipate the solution to be provided by the growth of public opinion and the force of events. It is contrary to the genius of the Anglo-Saxon race to project cut-and-dried Constitutions. An experiment in the present case would be the less happy, because the circumstances cannot be governed by any historical example. Not so long ago commercial intercourse was supposed to precede political unity. Experience has shown that, however excellent fiscal freedom may be, its political influence has been over-estimated. The German Customs Union was certainly the forerunner of the Empire, but it was little more. The Latin Monetary Union, which, in the imagination of Napoleon III., was to have been the basis of an undefined political and commercial superstructure, has produced no effect whatever, beyond the restricted purpose to which it was originally applied. On the other hand, we find in America an ill-assorted Customs Union maintained only by the intense political sympathy of the Federated States; and in India the commercial relations with the foreign settlements are closer than with native States, such as Indore and Gwalior, whose fiscal methods are altogether at variance with the system obtaining in the Empire, to which page 77 they are united by the closest political, religious, and social ties. But whatever may be the effects of a Zollverein—and at one time it was supposed to be the only possible bond in the British system—its application is now admitted to be out of the question. Not only are the Colonies at issue with the mother-country on this subject, but they are hostile to one another. Since, however, it has been proved that a Customs cordon between Victoria and New South Wales as rigid as that along the Pyrenees is no barrier to cordial political co-operation in inter-Colonial matters, there is no reason to believe that a mere conflict of tariffs—much as this might be deplored by sensible people on economical grounds—would impair the sentiment of Imperial unity. Nay, so little importance is placed upon the reaction of different political and economical unions, that both the French and Portuguese have united their Indian Possessions to the fiscal system of British India, and some strictly loyal Canadians are now found advocating a commercial union with the United States. If a Zollverein is harmless for discord, it is evidently useless for political union. Other expedients must be found—or, rather, allowed to declare themselves. Any interference with our insular Parliamentary system would at this moment be repugnant to the people of the United Kingdom. Our political system in its present development offers no room for an Imperial Senate. But possibly the germ of a Federated Administration will be found in a representative Colonial Council to advise the Secretary of State on matters of common interest. The materials for such a body are already at hand, and its influence would develop in the ratio of its usefulness.
"But the Colonists and supporters of Federation generally will have reason to be satisfied if yesterday's Conference should lead to no more visible result than the affirmation of the principle contained in the Resolution moved by Mr. W. H. Smith, that "some form of Federation is indispensable," and to the formation of the Committee suggested by Mr. Stanhope, for the purpose of influencing and enlightening public opinion on the advantages to be derived from a closer union with our Colonial possessions. They have already to congratulate themselves on the conversion of all Parties in this country, and on page 78 obtaining material concessions from their old opponents. It is something to have extorted from the Liberal Party, which so ostentatiously offered them the cold shoulder when last in power a sincere recognition of their "manifest destiny." The result is due not only to the prevalence of more enlightened ideas at home, but in an especial manner to the energy of the Australian Colonies themselves. The persistency with which these Colonies have asserted their right to be heard in Imperial matters connected with their own regions has secured them a footing in Imperial Councils that scarcely requires the formal recognition of legislative enactment. The creation of an 'Australasian Dominion' will almost necessarily involve the transfer of the direction of the affairs of the Pacific to Sydney or Melbourne, as matters connected with the North-American Continent are now practically concentrated at Ottawa. With this acquisition, the Colonies may reasonably allow the project of an elaborate Federal Constitution to stand over. The Federation, like our own national institutions, will probably exist in fact long before it is admitted in theory. Its influence may be already traced, and in due course provision will be made for a fuller allocation of Imperial responsibilities. It is something to have destroyed the disintegration theory; it requires only a continuance of the efforts of the past few years to convince the population of every possession of the Crown that a Federated British Empire would be an immense material advantage to ourselves, and a guarantee of peace and progress to the world."