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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 57

A Few more Words on Imperial Federation

page 19

A Few more Words on Imperial Federation.

There has been so noteworthy a progress towards Imperial Federation during the last month that I venture to add a few words to those which I wrote on the subject in the last number of this Review.

No one can deny that the present outlook is dark and stormy. This is a time of trial for the strength and virtue of Englishmen; but these times of trial have not been few or far between in our history, and as before, so now, England will face her dangers and surmount her difficulties. I have hope for my country, because I have faith in my fellow-countrymen. Yet there is ground both for sorrow and anxiety. We have lost our beloved hero, and many of our bravest men; we are engaged in a dangerous and most costly enterprise; the strain upon our army and our navy is severe; and the great Powers of Europe, with the exception of Italy, who has shown that she has not forgotten who was her disinterested friend in her time of need, appear to be considering what advantage they can obtain from our difficulties.

But there are two rays of sunlight across the dark prospect. Our soldiers and sailors have given clear proof that they have the endurance and courage and devotedness of their fathers. This is no new fact, though it is well that other nations should at this crisis be reminded that it is a fact with which any enemy of England will have to reckon; but there is a new fact, and that is, that our colonial fellow-countrymen have proved that they are not only willing but longing to take their share in the defence of our common country. I never doubted this willingness, I was sure that it would be shown; but there is not much heed given to expectations or prophecies until they are realised, and therefore I cannot wonder that these offers of colonial aid have struck the British public with pleased surprise.

A day or two before these offers were made known, a speech was made by the ablest and most respected of the opponents of Federation.

It is to me most painful to differ from Mr. Bright, but I expected his opposition, because in one respect he is the most conservative page 20 of our statesmen. There is no man with any mental power approaching to his to whose mind a new idea has such difficulty of access.

But what did Mr. Bright say on the 29th of January at Birmingham?—'The idea,' he said, 'in my opinion is ludicrous that the British Empire—that is, the United Kingdom with all its colonies—should form one country, one interest, one undivided interest for the purposes of defence.' 'They' (that is the Federation League who proclaim these ludicrous notions) 'must he blind to the lessons of history.'

Yes, but history teaches many lessons now-a-days, and they follow so fast one upon another that it is not always easy to learn them. It may be well for us all, Mr. Bright included, to study this last lesson of history. The Governments of the Dominion of Canada, of New South Wales, of Victoria, of Queensland, of South Australia, have declared that the United Kingdom, with all its colonies, do form one country for the purposes of defence. They have made this declaration on behalf of their people by the offer to give, not only their money but their men, for the defence of the Flag in a war of more than usual danger and privation, and their people have supported their Government in these offers with patriotic enthusiasm.

The union of the mother-country with her children is, thanks to this patriotism, more close and more intimate than it was a month ago.

But is there more probability of its being permanent?

The advocates of disunion, or perhaps it would be more fair to them to call them the believers in necessary disintegration, will tell us that this colonial enthusiasm is a temporary caprice, or at best but a passing feeling, on which no reliance can be placed. I am content to ask those who hold this view to learn the lessons which history will teach them; but may I venture to say one word to the friends of Union? Some of them may perhaps think that this action of the colonies affords an opportunity of securing the permanent unity of the Empire by the immediate elaboration and definition of a scheme of Federation. I would rather venture to say that this colonial action would seem to show that the time has not yet come for such definition, and for this reason, that no scheme which could now be devised, and no system which could now be defined, would adequately express the feelings in men's minds.

The idea of the permanent unity of the realm, the duty of preserving this union, the blessings which its preservation will confer, the danger and loss and disaster which will follow from disunion, are thoughts which possess the minds of Englishmen both here and over the seas. These thoughts are expressing themselves in deeds; let this expression continue; at present it helps our cause far more effectually than any possible scheme. Events march quickly in these times. Last month I gladly supported Lord Grey's and Lord page 21 Lorne's proposal of a Colonial Council or Board of Advice, composed of delegates from the self-governing colonies, but I rejoice to acknowledge that the colonies have now taken a step in advance of a Board of Advice.

The Queen has lost no time in expressing Her Majesty's 'warm and grateful feelings to the colonies for their proffered aid;' and thanks for all the offers have been given in fitting terms by Mr. Gladstone, Lord Granville, and Lord Derby, and by the Duke of Cambridge as Commander-in-Chief.

But the only offer which has been actually accepted has been that made by New South Wales. I think this is a mistake. If for military reasons it is desirable that the departure of the expeditions from the other Australian colonies and from Canada should be delayed, I cannot but think that, instead of informing the respective Governments that the Imperial Government would take their offers into consideration if the Soudan war lasted till the autumn, it would have been better to accept these offers at once, while adding that definite instructions would be sent out with regard to time.

Who expects that the Soudan War will be ended before autumn?

Are we sure that our forces will not need strengthening elsewhere than in the Soudan?

The colonies, as I have said above, have taken a step in advance of a Colonial Board of Advice; but it may be that the Queen's subjects both at home and in the colonies will soon call upon the Queen's Ministers to take a still further step.

The evidence of colonial patriotism may ward off the dangers which exist, but on the other hand those dangers may increase, and it may soon become clear that Englishmen throughout the Empire must rally their forces in defence of themselves and of their common country; and there may well be an irresistible demand both at home and in the colonies for a special conference between the Imperial Government and the Colonial Governments in order to resolve on the organisation of this defence.

This therefore does not seem to me to be a time to postpone the acceptance of any colonial offer of assistance, and merely to state that such offer may be taken into consideration.

Let me mention another recent and encouraging event. No offer of military aid in the Soudan has come from South Africa, nor could such offer have been expected. The Queen's subjects in South Africa have their own work to do at present, but in no part of the Queen's dominions has the determination to maintain her realm unshattered been more clearly shown.

The Cape Colonists, not only of English, but many also of Dutch descent, have supposed that England did not care to keep a South African colony, but only a naval station on the road to India and page 22 Australia. I will not now discuss how far this supposition was warranted by the action or inaction of our Government. Public opinion in England has clearly declared that this supposition is a mistake; but, at any rate, it has served this good purpose; it has called forth the most unmistakable demonstrations of loyalty and of patriotism. This has been shown by the pained indignation with which the notion of English desertion has been received in the colony, by the hearty welcome to Sir Charles Warren, and by the eagerness of volunteers to assist him in Bechuanaland; and by the formation of a powerful and influential association, which, under the name of the Empire League, has held enthusiastic meetings throughout the colony, for the purpose of maintaining the unity of the Empire.

The Federation League has gladly welcomed the offer by this association of affiliation, for, though the names may be different, the aim and principles of the two Leagues are the same. We have thus the most encouraging evidence that Canada and Australia and South Africa have not only no wish for separation, but are prepared to make sacrifices for its prevention; and yet there are disintegrating influences still at work. Do not let us blind ourselves to this fact, but that it is a fact is mainly the fault of us at home.

I rejoiced to read some words spoken a few days ago by the Under-Secretary for the Colonies. Mr. Evelyn Ashley stated at the dinner of the London Chamber of Commerce that the offers which the colonies have made 'of their gallant sons as soldiers for the mother-country realised that Federation was an accomplished fact.'

This is perhaps too strong a statement, though it is most encouraging to find it made by the representative of the Colonial Office; but the fact that is realised is, that the colonies are doing their part towards Federation. It remains for us to do ours.

I will not now repeat the arguments by which last month I endeavoured to show that two conditions must be fulfilled in order that England and her colonies should be permanently consolidated in one realm. The ultimate form of Federation must secure not merely cooperation in defence, but participation in foreign policy.

Mr. Ashley added to the remark I have quoted, that all that we have now to do is 'to clothe this new embodiment of Federation in the garb of formality.' But as yet there has been only the embodiment of the colonial willingness to bear part of the burden of common defence. What is now wanted is the embodiment of our willingness to give them participation in that policy which may involve them in war, and which must often most closely affect their interests.

There is an especial reason why the offer of Australian support should at this time be received with gratitude, and that is, that it is made at a time when the Australian colonies have felt themselves aggrieved by the action of our Government in regard to actual German and possible French annexations.

page 23

I will not now consider how far this aggrieved feeling is justified by facts, but this much I think is evident, that it would not have existed, or would have been much less prevalent, if the Australian Governments had been taken into closer counsel, and at an earlier period.

That this was not done is not so much the fault of the present Government as of our colonial system.

I am not now pressing for a formal scheme of consultation with the self-governing colonies on foreign policy. It may be, it probably will be, best that, as in defence, so in foreign affairs, deeds should precede words; but no Cabinet will in future allow that either Foreign Office etiquette or Colonial Office traditions shall make it possible for the Imperial Government to pledge itself to any foreign Power upon any matter seriously affecting any self-governing colony without previous consultation with the representatives of such colony. May we not then hope that this year of 1885, which has opened so sorrowfully and so anxiously, may be the beginning of a new and glorious chapter in the records of our country, and may mark the era at which history will have declared the true meaning of the British Empire?

W. E. Forster.

London: Printed By Spottiswoode And Co., New-Street Square and Parliament Street