New Zealand in the World
6 — The Silken Bonds of Empire
The Silken Bonds of Empire
This co-operation was, of course, based on technical plans laid in the last few years of peace. With the outbreak of war New Zealand's very rudimentary naval organisation was at once handed over to the Admiralty, nor did the army cause much greater difficulty. The compulsory training for home defence enacted in 1909 was organised by British officers, and in 1913 the Minister of Defence discussed with the War Office the kind of expeditionary force which New Zealand should provide in the event of war. Thus in 1914 everything had been prepared. Compulsory service had been in force long enough to provide a solid basis for an expeditionary force, and plans were laid to fit that force into a general imperial scheme. From the first, volunteers for foreign service were not lacking, but in 1916, with the increasing demand for man power, it was decided to introduce conscription. By the end of the war 117,175 men had volunteered or been called up for overseas service—that is, well over ten per cent of the total population; and this total included a considerable number of Maoris and natives from those islands in the Pacific administered by New Zealand.page 96
The details of New Zealand's war effort do not concern this study, except to note that she shared with her fellow Dominions a new sense of nationhood, based on the consciousness of a great national effort, and fortified by the solid internal prosperity arising from war prices. The sudden maturity of national consciousness, together with frank recognition of the help given to Britain by her Dominions led to a revolution in Dominion status. During the first two years of the war an outstanding fact burnt itself into the minds of those concerned with imperial problems: that the Dominions were involved in a war to the death by a decision over which they had no influence whatever. In all parts of the Empire this situation was seen to be intolerable, and the conclusion was drawn that some device must be found whereby Dominions—now shouldering the burdens of nationhood—should be given some influence in the vital decisions of peace and war.
Particularly in England ingenious minds, in search of such a device, turned again towards imperial federation, this time more clearly conceived as a constitutional arrangement. In 1916 this line of argument was brilliantly expounded by Mr Lionel Curtis, founder of the Round Table movement, in a little book called The Problem of the Commonwealth, which had a deep influence over British statesmen, and over individuals throughout the Empire. But the case for imperial federation, however logically sound and page 97persuasively argued, found no support among Dominion statesmen. In 1917 even the spokesman of New Zealand, Mr Massey, while remarking that 'in theory there is not a very great deal to be said against it', urged caution in the matter, and praised enthusiastically a rival device which appeared to have brought at least a temporary solution to the fundamental problem.* This was the Imperial War Cabinet, an institution which showed the soundness of the favourite argument of early New Zealand federationists; that given a genuine will to imperial co-operation constitutional difficulties would vanish. It was composed of five members of the British War Cabinet together with the five Dominion Prime Ministers, and met over two long periods—March to May 1917 and June to August 1918. It was a constitutional monstrosity, for a 'Cabinet' without joint responsibility defied the most sacred principles of parliamentary government, but it was completely justified by its success. Like the equally anomalous Committee of Imperial Defence (a council of key ministers and officials with occasional Dominion representation) it enabled men who agreed on objectives to hammer out means without worrying about constitutional formulae.
Dominion statesmen took part in that conference as part of the British delegation: that was a natural extension of the Imperial War Cabinet procedure. But in addition they sat at the conference in their own right on the same footing as small belligerent nations; and in the end they signed the treaty separately and became independent foundation members of the League of Nations. This was due to energetic pressure by fellow-Dominions, notably Canada, who was determined that 'her title-deeds of nationhood' should be endorsed in this way. New Zealand did not share page 99in this campaign. Massey signed with the rest of the Dominion Premiers without deep thought on the significance of his action, for it was to him simply a continuation of war-time imperial partnership. It had a sentimental and not a legal significance, and the fact that each Dominion had individually signed the Treaty demonstrated that 'one of the greatest results of the war is that … it has cemented the British Empire into one complete whole—into a unity that can not be destroyed, and which I believe will stand the test of time.'
Thus did Massey misinterpret the events in which he had taken part. To him the free decision of the Dominions to act in unison demonstrated the permanent fact of imperial unity. To his Canadian and South African colleagues the implication was rather that their freedom of choice had been recognised in principle; this time they freely chose to act with Britain, but on a future occasion they might with equal right stand aloof. And they promptly pressed the advantage that had been gained. In the twelve years that followed the Peace the task of imperial statesmanship was not (as Massey had hoped) to consolidate the warm comradeship of the Great War and embody it in a constitution. Rather it was to define Dominion status in such generous terms as to convince South Africa, Canada, and Ireland that they would be even more free within the Empire than as independent states. Therefore the historic forms of page 100Empire were quickly modified so as to remove (or obscure) constitutional differences between the 'Dominion' of the United Kingdom and any other Dominion. Signs of British dominance were carefully eliminated, and Dominion statesmen could claim that they had all the independence they desired. In fact, Britain demonstrated clearly that she was willing to concede to any Dominion as much practical independence as it was determined to claim and exercise. This extended even to the appointment of ministers to foreign countries, and the negotiation of treaties.
Massey, who was a farmer and not a lawyer, could only reply that in signing the Treaty he had no such ideas in mind, and that the constitutional revolution desired by Mr Stewart had already been carried out with the formation of the Imperial War Cabinet. This act had, to his mind, created a partnership which was none the less genuine because not expressed in legal documents. He hoped that legal definition would soon follow, but meantime, he claimed, the position was clear. The Dominion delegates did not sign the Treaty 'as independent nations in the ordinary sense of the term. We signed it as representatives of self-governing nations within the Empire—partners, with everything that the name implies.'
Massey's argument depended on his belief that the partnership of the Imperial War Cabinet was to be continued indefinitely, but when the long-awaited page 102Imperial Conference met in 1921 he realised (as perhaps Stewart had suspected in 1919) that this was not to be. There was a ring of distress in his complaint at that conference* that the Empire had gone backwards in the last two years. The Dominions had gained in status, he admitted, but they had lost the solid organic structure of the Imperial War Cabinet and relapsed into 'consultation and consultation only'. Thus early did New Zealand state her dissatisfaction with the general trend of imperial development and, as Dominion status was more elaborately defined, dissatisfaction (or apprehension) led New Zealand to express minority views with all the energy permitted by an increasingly modest sense of her own unimportance.
* Keith, Speeches and Documents on the British Dominions, pp. 59-62.
* Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 208, p. 772.
Satisfaction with the 'silken bonds' of Empire and the will to 'trust Britain' in foreign affairs just as in pre-war days she had trusted the Admiralty, led New Zealand to resist to the best of her ability those moves which she regarded as undermining the Empire's unity and strength. Massey in 1921 denounced the view that Dominions could negotiate treaties directly with foreigners, except on matters of commerce. The Balfour declaration of 1926 which described Dominion status in terms that were generous but cautiously vague was met, said an observer, 'with rabid and almost uncontrolled objections by New Zealand.' In the same year she made the characteristic gesture of promising to contribute £1,000,000 towards the Singapore Base, and declined to alter the status of her Governor-General, who remained in small but significant ways the formal representative of the Imperial Government. When her fellow Dominions were concerned with the attempts to define Dominion status which led to the Statute of Westminster (1931), her page 106Prime Minister said with truth 'New Zealand has not been concerned with the recent developments in the constitutional relations between the members of the British Commonwealth of Nations. We have felt at all times within recent years that we have had ample scope for our national aspirations and ample freedom to carry out in their entirety such measures as have seemed to us desirable.'
New Zealand's marked 'mother complex' developed strongly between 1919 and 1935. There were, of course, protests against it. Leaders of the Labour party, for example, feared lest the Dominion should be bound too closely to the 'Imperial chariot', and deplored the current assumption that New Zealand was still 'in a state of tutelage' so far as foreign affairs were concerned. A thoughtful minority claimed that New Zealand should stand more firmly on her own feet, acclaimed the more virile attitude of other Dominions, and grieved 'that in this country we should take a pride in our insufficiency.' Such views, however, could not rouse the country, for sentiment ran strongly in the other direction. The forces which led to Dominion nationalism elsewhere were lacking in New Zealand. Unlike Ireland and the Irish element in Australia, she had no deep-seated resentment against Britain's past conduct. There was no powerful non-British element which like the Afrikanders in South Africa could press for national independence, or like the French Canadians at least be eternally page 107suspicious of British dominance; nor did she share with Canada the sense of America's powerful and friendly presence. Finally she had least of all the Dominions the feeling of unchallenged security which had made possible the development of colonial autonomy.
As a whole the Dominions after the war faced the future with full nineteenth-century confidence in the permanence of that security and prosperity to which they had become accustomed. Yet among them there was a vital difference. To some—such as Canada and Ireland—security was not bound up with the British connection. Whatever might be the political position, the United States of America could never allow Canada to be over-run, nor could Britain see Ireland conquered by an enemy. As against their only conceivable enemies, therefore, these Dominions enjoyed protection without having to make a political bargain. To New Zealand, however, security meant the British navy; and there was little reason why the navy should fight in the Pacific except in order to honour an imperial obligation. New Zealand was conscious of her smallness and isolation; and, though the war naturally stimulated her sense of nationhood, her ultimate reaction was not so much a consciousness of her efforts as an independent individual as that she had a worthy share in the greater glory of an imperial achievement. She had realised Vogel's vision: she felt herself to be in fact and in sentiment part of a great page 108world power, and not living isolated in dignified but risky obscurity. In the imperial connection, then, New Zealand found security and glory in a way which was unique among the Dominions.
She also found a measure of economic security. New Zealand depended on exports as much as any civilised community, and, as an undeveloped country, she needed a steady supply of capital. Britain took three-quarters or more of New Zealand exports, and on the average lent to her Government £5,000,000 each year. Moreover, a considerable part of New Zealand's economic system was organised solely to produce goods which Britain alone would buy, but which (it was perhaps hazily suspected) she could do without; and New Zealand loans were raised under privileged conditions which could easily be withdrawn in the unlikely event of New Zealand doing anything unworthy of a loyal British dependency. These were facts which gave a solid material basis for imperial sentiment, particularly since at that time there were no obvious disadvantages in the British connection. True, it sometimes transmitted European depressions to New Zealand, but these seemed unavoidable; and in matters of policy British dominance seemed to bring no practical inconvenience. Indeed, the evolution of Dominion status, in which New Zealand acquiesced under protest, strengthened her hand in those few matters where she was really anxious to follow an independent line.page 109
For example, in company with Australia, she has continued to follow an immigration policy which to say the least was regarded without enthusiasm by the British Government. All the Australasian colonies shared the nineteenth-century suspicion of the Chinese, who worked too hard on goldfields, and in market-gardens and laundries, and who insisted on following, even in New Zealand, a Chinese way of life. The result was a series of anti-Chinese laws, beginning in 1881, and for a while, it was said, New Zealand led the Australasian world in high-handed action against the Chinese. In 1899, however, she adopted the less discourteous Natal 'education test', suggested by Britain, to avoid or diminish the appearance of race discrimination, and in 1920 her machinery of immigration restriction became even more simple. Thereafter British-Indians and all foreigners had to get individual permits to enter the country, and these could be refused by the Minister of Customs, with no reasons given.
By this time, of course, other factors had influenced New Zealand's attitude, such as the idea of restricting any kind of immigration in order to protect standards of life, and the fear of Japan's military and naval strength. The bogey of the 'Yellow Peril', though much less active than in Australia, had some influence before the Great War in making New Zealand cling to Britain; and in the nineteen-twenties there was uneasiness again, largely because Japan was the only page 110power which could conceivably attack New Zealand. But little rational ground could be produced for suspecting her of wishing to descend upon the Dominion, and by this time public opinion remembered with gratitude Japan's help during the Great War; thus in 1921 New Zealand (in opposition to Canada) wished the Anglo-Japanese alliance to be continued. In general, however, New Zealand opinion about Japan has been a little uncertain, largely, no doubt, because of ignorance. Trade between the two countries was small, and there was little travel. New Zealand looked at Japan through the eyes of London and, provided she was granted her essential demand—independent control of immigration—she was strongly disposed to accept London's point of view, here as elsewhere. Except for her uneasy sense of isolation, New Zealand was in fact forgetting that she was a Pacific country at all.
To some extent the grant of the Samoan mandate was a reminder of her position as a Pacific power, and a further illustration of the fact that, under British dominance, she could realise her national aspirations. However, the privilege of ruling Samoa, once so passionately demanded, has made little mark on New Zealand life. Massey hoped, before the Peace Conference met, that the islands would be simply annexed to New Zealand in the ordinary way, but she loyally accepted the terms of the mandate, and has not, indeed, claimed her full privileges thereunder.page 111
The work of ruling Samoa has been undertaken with the utmost conscientiousness, and New Zealand has honestly striven to justify the claim made in 1919 by a leading Maori* that she was of all countries the best fitted to administer Samoa because of the 'proud record that this country has had with the most active of the Native races inhabiting Polynesia.' 'Our experience,' he said, 'ought to make us extremely proud that this portion of the Polynesian race has been added, together with the Rarotongans, the Niue Islanders and the Aitutakian Maoris to their brothers and cousins in New Zealand'; and he threw out the suggestion that the profit motive should be kept in the background. 'We might try an experiment in one of the last seats of romance in the Pacific,' he added, 'the experiment of merely bringing up a happy and comfortable people without introducing unduly the element of competition and trade.'