What IS the British Empire?

"For the best part of a century the British Empire has been abolishing itself . . . evolving into a partnership of equals"


What IS the British Empire?

"For the best part of a century the British Empire has been abolishing itself . . . evolving into a partnership of equals"


WHEN Winston Churchill announced he had not become the Chief Minister of the Crown in order to preside at the liquidation of the British Empire, a great many in the United States were deeply shocked, particularly the Leftist groups. How could this war be a war for the preservation of freedom if empires (which means “imperialism”), British or other, were to be preserved? Eminent political leaders in the United States bluntly announced that “imperialism had to go,” that the preservation of the British Empire was incompatible with the purposes of freedom for which the war was being fought.

The public of the United States, as of the United Nations generally, is, of course, quite entitled to discuss the subject of the Empire and its future. The matter bears directly upon the purposes for which we fight and the principles of the settlement after the war. No sensible citizen of the Empire will resent in the smallest degree United States’ concern in imperialism. Indeed if that word, as applied to the British Empire, really meant what the critics evidently take it to mean, they would be extremely remiss if they did not raise the matter. It is common ground that the aims of any one member of the United Nations concern the others. There can be no question in a matter of major policy of “each minding his own business.” Experience proves that the business of one, particularly when it is dubious business, is very often the business of all.

Much misgiving about what is called “British imperialism” is due to sheer misapprehension concerning actual facts, and confusion as to the meaning of the words we use. The blame for some of this misapprehension rests in part upon those of us who live within the Empire and have failed to make the facts known to our neighbors. When, for instance, we learn from the Gallup Boll that 50% of the United States public—one half of the whole people are completely unaware that the Irish Free State is neutral in this war, we should blame ourselves rather than that public.

It was our business “out of decent respect for the opinion of mankind” to make known the nature of this thing we call the “Empire,” and the great transformations it had been undergoing these last few generations. Obviously we have not done so when half the American public is unaware that in the matter of the Irish bases the rights inherent in Dominion status have been respected by Britain.

By so scrupulous a respect for Eire’s neutrality, Britain may even jeopardize her own national existence, for she is adding thereby to the mortal perils of the submarine war.

When a fact of such simplicity remains so little known, we can be sure that matters far less simple, but every bit as important, concerning the British Empire, its place in the world, its trends and tendencies, are not likely to have received adequate attention. Yet an understanding of the facts is indispensable. Otherwise we may bring about the very condition upon which Hitler now bases his main hope of avoiding defeat—a deep cleavage between Britain and America arising out of this question of “imperialism.” German propaganda has already helped to impose one grave political defeat upon the Allies—the rupture of Polish-Russian relations. Continued public ignorance about the Empire might well help Hitler toward an immeasurably greater triumph.

Definition of Empire

TO EMPHASIZE the scope of the problems involved in this empire problem, and the urgency of a fresh stocktaking, I would beg the reader to weigh these propositions:

(1) Much criticism of “British imperialism” is due to giving the word “Empire” a meaning it may properly have had in the past but which no longer describes the greater part of the area to which the word is still applied.

(2) But for the existence of the overseas British Empire as we now know it, the present war would long since have gone in favor of Nazi Germany. The Empire has been an instrument for the prevention of Nazi triumph, Hitlerite domination of the world.

(3) The form of political association which we call the British Commonwealth of Nations (as distinct from the Empire) has come nearer than any previous political device to solving the age-old problem of reconciling freedom and order, of making the maximum of liberty compatible with the security of those who enjoy it.

First, as to the meaning of the words we are using. “Empire” in its original political sense meant the government of subject peoples by a central authority, by an imperium; the rule of one people imposed upon another. Clearly “Empire” in this sense is inapplicable to most of the area marked in red upon our maps.

It does not describe, for instance, the position of the Dominions—as those who live in any British Dominion know full well. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the South African Union, Eire are certainly not governed from a supreme imperial centre. They are independent nations. The supreme authority in a Dominion is not to be found in the British Parliament, but in the Dominion’s own Parliament, elected by its own people.

Now a glance at the map will show that these independent nations, the Dominions, constitute in geographical area by far the greater part of the Empire. That word, therefore, used in its original sense, is a misnomer. Some try to avoid a misuse of terms by distinguishing between Commonwealth and Empire: the former term applying to the Dominions and the latter to those areas not yet independent or as fully self-governing. But everyday needs, sheer convenience, so often compel the use of the term “Empire” as descriptive of the whole.

When we desire to include the Governments of say, the Rhodesias, Jamaica and Bermuda, as well as, say, Australia and New Zealand, we need an inclusive term. We need something which is a little less of a mouthful than “the nations of the British Commonwealth now independent and all the other states linked together by the Crown which have attained varying degrees of self-government, but to which the Statute of Westminster does not yet in every respect apply.”

Obviously it is simpler to say “the Empire”—as both the Prime Minister of Britain and the Prime Minister of Canada have had occasion recently to explain. The use of the old term does not matter if we realize that it no longer describes the old conditions.

Just as a reminder, let us recall certain of the terms of the Statute of Westminster:

“No law hereafter made by the Parliament of the United Kingdom shall extend to any of the Dominions as part of the law of that Dominion. ... No law, and no provision of any law, made after the commencement of this Act by the Parliament of a Dominion shall be void or inoperative on the ground that it is repugnant to the law of England, or to the provisions of any existing or future Act of Parliament, of the United Kingdom, or to any order, rule or regulation made under any such Act, and the powers of the Parliament of a Dominion shall include the power to repeal or amend any such Act, order, rule or regulation in so far as the same is part of the law of the Dominion.”

No War of Independence

NOW, obviously, this is a Declaration of Independence. It is the Declaration of Independence of five nations (in addition to Britain) now girdling the globe. Moreover, it is an independence achieved peacefully by civilized agreement, without wars of independence—which accounts for the fact that the world does not yet realize its significance. Had each Dominion engaged in a bitter war of independence, the story would have resounded throughout the world. As it is, most people outside the Commonwealth have never heard of the statute.

A recent informal poll of United States college students revealed that less than one in 200 had heard of it. Yet it is one of the great documents of history, referring to the freedom of populations numbering about ten times as many as those to which the American Declaration of Independence of the 18th century referred. And the fact that the independence of the Dominions was achieved peacefully instead of by war does not make it less significant historically and politically; it makes it very much more significant.

The document just quoted means that the last word as to what a Dominion does, whether in foreign or domestic policy, rests with the Dominion Parliament and Government; not with the Parliament or Government of any federal or imperial central authority. Whether a Dominion enters a war, as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa have done in the case of the present war; or stays out, as Eire has done, is entirely its own affair, to be decided by itself, its own Parliament and its own Government.

Decisions as to whether its armies are to be voluntary or conscripted, whether the draftees shall be sent overseas or not, are made by each Dominion for itself. If a Dominion decides to withhold from Britain or her Allies the use of ports or bases (as Eire has done) Britain accepts that right of neutrality (as she has done in the case of Eire). Britain accepts that right even though that refusal may cost Britain—and other members of the United Nations, including the United States—very dear in ships and lives, and may add enormously to the difficulties of fighting the submarine.

If a Dominion decides to abolish the symbol of the Crown (as Eire has done for internal affairs) Britain has no right under the statute to forbid it. If a Dominion decides to secede “partly” from the Commonwealth (as Eire seems to have done for internal affairs) and keep within the Commonwealth for external affairs, enjoying, that is, the protection of the British Navy (as Eire has done), it is free so to do.

Finally, if a Dominion decides to secede from the British Union altogether, and to become an independent republic, it has that right under Dominion status, as the offer made to India makes quite clear. The Dominion Government is supreme master, at home and abroad.

Yet despite this degree of freedom enjoyed by each member, this Commonwealth, or League, or Society, of nations had cohesion enough to present a united front to aggression. Where the Geneva League failed, the British League succeeded. And there has been nothing in history quite like it.

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To say that Canada is just as independent as Brazil or the Argentine or Sweden or any other sovereign state is not to say that there is no difference in the political relation ships, in the foreign policies, that is, of a British Dominion and those other independent states. There is a great difference of which the world would do well to take note.

Not so long ago a critic of British imperialism said that the world would never believe in the sincerity of Britain’s repentance of imperialism until Gibraltar had been returned to Spain, Malta to Italy, the defense of the Suez Canal had been handed over to Egypt, British troops had been withdrawn from India, its Government handed over to Gandhi’s Party and the British Dominions been turned into independent republics, freed of all and any of the political implications which might attach to retaining the symbol of the Crown.

Let us suppose this advice had been taken on the morrow of the last war, say at about the time that the Irish Free State was given Dominion status. What would have been the result in the present war?

That at least is easy to answer. Hitler’s gauleiter would now be ruling in London as his gauleiter is ruling in Paris; and in all human probability the war would have ended long since in a complete Hitlerite victory.

Recall the situation in July, 1940. France had surrendered and Britain had lost nearly the whole of her available military equipment in France. Practically every military expert in the world, including the members of the French and the German General Staffs, believed that the fall of Britain would follow that of France within weeks.

How, indeed, could the British people have maintained their resistance during the year following the fall of France and before either Russia or the United States had entered the war, if there had been no Commonwealth in the background? What would Britain have done if there had been no Canada, to which the fleet might go if the worst came to the worst; no hope of training pilots in Canada, no Australian and New Zealand troops to help hold the Suez Canal? There are some questions about the war which are very difficult and complex. Here is one which is very simple. If there had been no British Commonwealth and no British Empire, Britain would have been forced to follow France in the dread path of surrender, and Germany would have won the war.

Unity Never Found

HITLER’S plan of victory by sudden onslaught, before his victims could get their breath—before they could decide to join together to fight him as a unit—was prevented by the existence of that political association of independent states and their supporting outposts which we call the British Empire or the British Commonwealth.

Sometimes it is argued that if the Empire had been dissolved and all its various parts made completely independent, those independencies would somehow have found means of coming together for common defense against aggression. For, of course, defense in the case of a number of lesser states threatened by a greater involves a great deal more than the readiness of each to fight for himself. They must somehow he capable of fighting together. But the expectation that small independent states—like those of India or Malaya—would know how to come together and combine, once all were freed of “imperial domination” and were completely independent, is not borne out by experience.

Rather is it completely denied thereby. The lesser states of Europe were completely “free.” But about twenty of them fell so easily to Hitler because they had never been able to create any sort of defensive union. He was able to pick them off one by one. The only time that Europe had effective unity and the only time indeed that it had prolonged peace was when it constituted the Roman Empire. And when that Empire went to pieces it was followed, not by something better, but by something much worse, the Dark Ages. It has never since found unity.

Critics sometimes insist that India would fight more effectively if the Government weie handed over entirely to the majority party, the Hindu Congress Party. This idea is urged even though that party has always been dominated by Gandhi, who claims that the best defense for India against the invader would be “nonviolent non co-operation.”

The same critics have also insisted that the divisions between Indian parties are due to the presence of an imperial power, and that if that power were withdrawn there would be no danger of civil war. They can see no danger of party conflict resulting in a Quisling or “Vichy” Government prepared to negotiate with the enemy, no danger, that is, of there happening what actually did happen in France. Yet France has more experience of democracy than India. The divisions between the various nations, races and creeds in India are deeper than the divisions of Europe. Why should we assume that there could not happen in a “free” India what actually did happen in a free France and a free Europe?

In the long twenty-year armistice between the two phases of the war—the 1914 phase and the renewal in 1939—the European nations found co-operation even for sheer national survival quite impossible. Even the Scandinavian States, even the Low Countries, even the racially allied »Slavic countries could not achieve the unity of action necessary for mutual defense. But the nations of the British Commonwealth, with the exception of Eire, did manage to achieve unity of defensive action.

In two world wars the Empire has acted in unison despite vast disparities of cultural and linguistic backgrounds — French, Dutch, Welsh, Gaelic, Catholic, Protestant, Episcopal, Non-Conformist, black, white, Radical, Tory, Liberal, Conservative, Socialist, Capitalist. If we go outside the Dominion area into fields where for one reason or another Britain still retains some political control—to the lands of the Mediterranean, Malta, Cyprus, Palestine, Egypt; to African territories, to India—we realize what “Empire” has meant in the rallying and mobilizing of people of almost every race, creed, color, which the earth can show. In India alone, despite all the criticism, we have seen created the largest volunteer army in the world—1,500,000 men, including some of the very finest fighters.

When recently Britain was urged to “cease fighting for the British Empire,” the critic was asked where he would like the British to stop defending the Empire. In Australia? In the Solomons? In Guadalcanal? In Malta? Gibraltar? On the Suez Canal? In India—so that the Japanese could freely enter, enabling them to divide the Allied forces and to organize the resources of 400,000,000 wherewith to fight those forces? In South Africa? In East Africa? In West Africa? Just where would the critic have liked the Empire to pass into enemy hands—which it would almost certainly have done if it had merely been dissolved without reference to what would follow dissolution?

Not Without Friction

OF COURSE this rallying of a quarter of the earth, while there was yet time, has not been done without friction, without serious clash of wills, without some conflict. Has human government ever been carried on without those things? Certainly Indian policy has been open to criticism. Yet, when all is said and done, I do not think the Viceroy has ever had to face resistance to his Government as grave as that which Chiang Kai-shek has had to face from Communist armies still fighting the Chinese Government armies in Shansi. India has nit had to endure the bitter civil wars which have racked and devastated China intermittently during the last 3 years; and I doubt if she has ever been compelled to resort to the severity of repression which quite recently marked the rule of Stalin in Russia.

At the very height of the Indian disturbances Mr. Edgar Snow, the distinguished American correspondent, was able to write that under the British Government the Indians enjoy “infinitely more freedom”— freedom of organization, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly —“than the Chinese possess in Free China.” He goes on to detail the astonishing degree of freedom of expression enjoyed by the press, of oppositional organization, in India as compared with anything which exists in China (or, he might have added, in Russia). Yet this freedom has not prevented the steady growth of Indian military and industrial power, pledged to the defense of democracy.

If 20 nations in Europe have been overcome by one it is because the 20 refused to co-operate for mutual defense. Each would fight only for himself. As it was quite clear that a Norway or a Greece or a Denmark, a Holland or a Belgium or a France could not possibly defend itself by its own power against a Germany of 80,000,000, they were all at Germany’s mercy. Because they would not hang together it was quite simple for her to hang them separately.

* * *

All experience, all history, shows clearly that mankind finds enormous difficulties in this task of common action for common defense against violence. There are plainly strong natural tendencies toward disintegration, fragmentation. The United States was subjected to that same tendency when the South proposed to split the Union. Lincoln launched one of the bloodiest wars of history in order to maintain it, on the ground that if the Union went to pieces, the country would be at the mercy of the enemies of democracy.

The fact that Lincoln, the great democrat, was ready to enforce union by war suggests, what all experience confirms, that the co-operation by which alone the right of each to life can be secured cannot be carried on without a measure of coercion. Taxation, for instance, which makes so much of social co-operation possible, is compulsory; it is extremely doubtful whether it could be made to work on a purely voluntary basis. Military service in nearly all modern states is now compulsory.

No society able to ensure peace, order, law, peaceful change, has ever been able to dispense with force as the instrument of authority and power. Why should we suppose that in the most difficult form of society— a society of nations—force can be entirely dispensed with? Why should we suppose that we can leave each nation to do exactly as it pleases, whether what it pleases endangers its neighbors or not? Why should it be assumed that Britain has no moral right in the case, say, of India, to declare: “You shall be free to secede after the war, but during the war we refuse to give you the right to go out of the war, or to negotiate with our enemies?”

Certainly such a right of coercion should be used with the greatest possible caution and sense of responsibility. For the main problem of human government throughout the ages has been to keep enough authority in the hands of society to ensure defense against violence and the necessary social co-operations without encroaching on the freedom of the individual.

Freedom With Restraint

I BELIEVE the British Commonwealth of Nations has managed to combine the maximum of freedom for each unit with the minimum of restraint at the centre. For the British Commonwealth has no government; no central authority covering the whole. Its unity does not derive from compulsion by a super-government, but only from the sense of responsibility of each of its members. There was no statutory obligation resting upon any Dominion to come instantly into the war; but all save one did so.

There is no need to pretend that the Empire has been without faults. It has, heaven knows, revealed many. But does a union have to be free from all human imperfections in order to be worth preserving in this world where free and humane civilization has been imperilled mainly because men could not unite sufficiently to defend it?

Perhaps the main virtue of the Empire is that for the best part of a century it has been abolishing itself, going through a process of de-imperialization, evolving into a partnership of equals. On a basis of free and equal co-operation it has been able to secure that unity of defense which sheer survival demands. This record surely proves that the way to cure the evils of imperialism is not simply to abolish an imperial union, to dissolve it, allow it to disintegrate, but to transform it into a progressively freer form of co-operation. Let us by all means hasten that evolutionary process, but in doing so be careful we do not bring it to an end, and jump from the frying pan of “imperialism” into the fire of anarchy and defeat.