Problems of Empire/Imperial Government

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Problems of Empire by Thomas Allnutt Brassey
Imperial Government
Speech at Epsom, 1892.


Speech at Epsom, 1892.

Inability of Parliament to cope with the work of Empire. It must be clear to every sensible man that the task imposed on our present Imperial Parliament is absolutely beyond the capacity of a single assembly. The House of Commons attempts to deal with the internal affairs of Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and England. Judging by the time that Irish affairs now occupy in Parliament, when there are so many other important things to be considered, the regulation of the internal affairs of Ireland alone is a sufficient task for any representative body, and I am sure that most people in this room will agree with me when I say that the domestic government of some 30,000,000 of Englishmen, a business which is now very much left on one side, would give ample scope to the energies and talents of any body of legislators, however energetic, and however capable. The House of Commons, again, attempts to supervise the Government of some 250,000,000 of the human race in India. If that supervision is to be effective, and, mind you, it ought to be effective, for we have undertaken in India enormous responsibilities, far more time must be given to Indian questions by people who are far more intimately acquainted with them than the average Member of the British House of Commons. I need not now speak of the Administration of our various Crown Colonies and Dependencies, or of the regulation of the external relations of the great self-governing Colonies; I have said sufficient to show that to no subject which comes before the British House of Commons is it possible at present to give the amount of time and attention which that particular subject demands.

The Imperial Government as it affects— Let us examine how our present system of government affects the various parts of the Empire, and why it is unsatisfactory to each part individually.

Ireland. Ireland suffers most under the present system: let us therefore take the case of Ireland first. I don't intend to enter at any length into the Irish question now, though it still occupies first place in the Liberal programme, because I have dealt with it very fully elsewhere. What are we doing in Ireland? We are persisting in governing the country in direct opposition to the wishes of the people as expressed through their representatives, in refusing to recognise what is, in my opinion, the first principle of Imperial Government, viz., the right of each part of the Empire to manage its own local affairs. Some people will tell us that Ireland is not, and cannot be, a unit in herself, that she is only a portion of the United Kingdom, and that Englishmen and Irishmen can be governed under the same laws and by the same body. That is an argument that has been often put to me, but if it is a sound contention, how comes it that measures are brought in to apply to Ireland, which are not applied to England, how comes it that measures are passed which apply to England and Wales, and which do not apply to Ireland? The truth is that Ireland is a country whose conditions essentially differ from those of England and demand special treatment. Let us recognise in the case of Ireland, that Irishmen know how best to manage their own local affairs, but, while keeping before us the first principle in any future Home Rule Bill, let not the other two principles of Imperial Government be forgotten. Ireland must have a Parliament of her own for the transaction of her own special business, but, at the same time, she must continue to take her proper share in the management of Imperial affairs, she must continue to bear her fair share of the cost of the Army and Navy, which are to defend her as well as Scotland and England.

The Home Rule Bill of 1886 was, in some respects, a retrograde measure, in that it placed Ireland in a position worse than that of a Crown Colony. No taxation without representation is an old axiom of the British Constitution. Under that Bill, Ireland was still to bear her share of the cost of Imperial defence, but she was to have no voice in the control of the expenditure, she was to have no voice in the direction of the foreign policy, which was to affect her as much as England. Sir Charles Russell was one of the very first to point this out, and in any future Home Rule Bill we may rest perfectly assured that this defect will be remedied.

Scotland and Wales. Ireland, as I have said, is the most dissatisfied with the way her affairs are managed by the present Imperial Parliament, but in Scotland and Wales this feeling of dissatisfaction is increasing too. The demand for Home Rule is growing. Surely the Crofter question, or any other purely Scotch question, will be infinitely better dealt with in an assembly of Scotchmen, intimately acquainted with the wants of their country, than in an heterogeneous assembly of people, most of whom take only an indirect interest in the subject. The same may be said of Wales.

England. The consideration of how our system of Imperial Government affects us Englishmen is the most important to all of you in this hall. At present we find that a large proportion of the time of our representatives in Parliament is taken up in dealing with Irish, Scotch, or Welsh business, with matters which only indirectly concern ourselves. We, as Liberals, maintain that purely Irish questions should be decided according to the wishes of Irish people. As a Liberal, again, I have pledged myself to vote on the question of disestablishment in Wales, according to the clearly expressed views of the Welsh people; and I have given a similar pledge with regard to disestablishment in Scotland, when the opinion of Scotchmen on that question is equally clearly expressed. But has it never struck you that these Liberal principles we profess, might be applied even nearer home. If the Irish have a right to manage their own affairs, have not we Englishmen a right to manage our own affairs ? Do we want Irishmen and Scotchmen to help us to decide what form free education is to take in our English elementary schools. Should the question of the disestablishment of the Church in England come up for decision, is that question to be in great part decided by the votes of Irish Roman Catholics, Scotch Presbyterians, and Welsh Dissenters? In my opinion, emphatically No! Questions which affect England alone, should be decided according to the views of the English people. Therefore, I advocate Home Rule for England as well as for Ireland, for Scotland, and for Wales, and in doing so, I no more than follow an accepted principle of the Liberal party. The Self-governing Colonies. Let us turn to the great self-governing colonies in North America, Australia, and South Africa. Surely the issues on which the general election in Canada was fought three months ago, the issue on which the general election in New South Wales has just decided, the visit of the young and able Premier of South Africa to this country, should awaken the most serious attention to the relations between the mother country and her Colonies. The issue in Canada was whether there should or should not be unrestrained reciprocity with the United States. The party led by Sir John Macdonald maintained that complete reciprocity with the United States meant ultimate absorption in the United States. Though his opponents disclaimed any intentional disloyalty to the mother country, the Canadian people decided that Sir John Macdonald was right in his contention. In New South Wales the issue was more direct. Sir Henry Parkes, the G.O.M. of Australia, as he is often called, put forward the proposal for Australian Federation, as a Federation under the Crown; Mr. Dibbs, the leader of the Opposition, went for Federation and Independence. Sir Henry Parkes has been returned with thirty-eight of his supporters; Mr. Dibbs has lost his seat and only nineteen of the opposition have been elected. The results of these elections are satisfactory; but they do not remove the necessity for seriously considering our position.

In each of these groups of Colonies there are responsible legislatures, which make what laws they please for the internal government of their respective Colonies. At the head of each it is true there is a Governor, who acts as deputy of the Queen. The external affairs of the great Colonies are in the hands of the Colonial Office, subject to the more or less imperfect scrutiny of Parliament. We all know that a Government office will do almost anything to avoid inconvenient questions in the House of Commons, and its action is largely governed by the principle of ‘let sleeping dogs lie.’ The Colonial Office is no exception to the rule. Colonists have no constitutional way on ordinary occasions of making their voices heard. If they make representations to the Colonial Office, the Colonial Office will turn a deaf ear until a powerful agitation is got up in the colony interested, until an immense amount of ill-feeling and disloyalty to the mother country is aroused, which has sometimes culminated in the hauling down of the national flag by an excited populace. There have been instances of this in Australia, South Africa, and North America, in the last few years, and in South Africa and North America in the last year. By the time the agitation reaches to the height of lowering the national flag, the attention of Parliament and the electors of this country have been aroused, and the Colonial Office has been convinced that some action must be taken. Many instances could be quoted to show what I mean. One which I often quote, because I happened to be in Australia when the feeling on the subject was at its height, is the way in which the Home Government dealt with the annexation of New Guinea and the transportation of French convicts to New Caledonia, whence they escaped to the mainland of Australia. The feelings aroused at that time in Queensland have rankled ever since, they have borne fruit on more than one occasion, and it will be many a long year before they completely die out.

Newfoundland. There is an excellent illustration of the way in which our Empire is governed at present, which has had a large place in the columns of the daily press and which has, during the present session, occupied the attention of both Houses of Parliament. I refer to the case of Newfoundland. I do not intend to enter into the history of this question. The position may be briefly summarised thus: The French have undoubted Treaty rights on a portion of the shores of Newfoundland which have become absolutely intolerable owing to an expansion of population, which was never dreamt of at the time that Treaty was made, or even at the periods when it has been since confirmed. The way in which these Treaty rights have been enforced (the Newfoundlanders say, exceeded) by both French officers and the officers of H.M. ships has produced the gravest discontent in Newfoundland. More than a year ago that discontent was very serious, but nothing was done. During the winter the situation grew still more grave. Mass meetings were held at St. John's and elsewhere to protest against the action of the Home Government, there was much talk of annexation to the United States, accompanied by the hauling down of the national flag, which is becoming only too common in cases of this kind. At the beginning of this year, the House of Assembly began to pass unanimous resolutions on the subject. The Colonial Office became convinced that something must be done, and within the last few weeks the Premier of Newfoundland has been heard at the bar of one of the Houses of Parliament, and some sort of temporary arrangement has been arrived at. I am now dealing with the Newfoundland question only as incidental to my main argument; but, if I may be allowed to digress, I would say that this question, which has troubled English and French statesmen for more than a century, can only be settled satisfactorily to all parties concerned, on the basis of the complete extinction of the French rights on the shores of Newfoundland, which are almost valueless to the French themselves: but, as I have said before, intolerable to the Newfoundlanders. Sensible Frenchmen take this view of the case; we must be prepared to make considerable concessions elsewhere, but it is worth making a considerable sacrifice for the benefit of 200,000 of our English-speaking fellow-countrymen. Now the history of Newfoundland during the past year is, as I have said, only one instance of many that prove how unsatisfactory our present system is. We are brought to the conclusion that the external relations of Colonies inhabited by 11,000,000 of free self-governing English subjects, nearly 10,000,000 of whom are Englishmen, cannot be managed in a Government office, supervised by an Assembly in which not one of the Colonies, immediately interested, is represented. These relations are too important to be dealt with in this way. They must be dealt with by an Assembly where the Colonies are represented.

India. India is a very important part of the British Empire. We Englishmen have undertaken to govern in India a population about ten times our own number, a population which forms a very large part of the human race. The responsibility is enormous, and yet how much of the time of Parliament is given to the consideration of Indian questions? At most, one or two days, and those at the fag end of a session, when half of the Members have left. Parliament is practically absolute in dealing with India, and considering the imperfect knowledge and the insufficient opportunities of acquiring knowledge of Indian questions possessed by most Members of Parliament, it is perhaps a matter of congratulation that the Government of India is so largely left in the hands of that noble body of civil servants, who do now, as they have done for many years past, constitute one of the finest services that the world has ever known.

Native share in Administration. But there are questions gradually rising above the horizon of Indian politics, too important to be decided by any body of civil servants, however capable, and still less by an Assembly which has not the leisure they demand. The most important of these questions is how far the natives of India are to be admitted to a share in the government of their country. If that question could be decided by applying the principles of English politics to India, the solution would be comparatively easy, but few people who have any knowledge of Indian matters would dream of suggesting such a solution. A movement has been in progress for some years past to urge the claims of the natives of India to representation in the government of their country, and the demands of the supporters of this movement have taken shape in the programme of the so called Native Congress. It is to me clear that, as the logical outcome of our system of education, gradual concessions will have to be made to the demands of the party represented by the Congress; and the representative principle may be partially introduced in the constitution of provincial councils. But any attempt to govern India now or in the near future, through the medium of representative institutions, would, in my opinion, be absolutely impracticable. Those people who have profited most hitherto by our system of education are drawn from the weakest races of India; and if we were to leave India to-morrow, those people who are loudest in their demands for representative Government would be the very first to go to the wall, overwhelmed by the strong fighting races of the north and north-west. The problem is full of difficulty, it demands the closest attention and the deepest study, which, under the present system of Imperial Government, it cannot have from those who are ultimately responsible for the solution. I should look forward with grave apprehension to such a question being decided in an Assembly where votes are mainly governed by considerations of party politics at home. Therefore, in my opinion, for the proper Government of India, as well as for other parts of the Empire, a body must be constituted in which questions of great Imperial interest are decided by representatives from all parts of the Empire.

Crown Colonies. There is another group of British possessions which are peculiarly under the government of the Colonial Office, and which have often reason to be dissatisfied with that Government—I mean the Crown Colonies, the most important of which are the Straits Settlements, Ceylon, the West Indian Islands, and Mauritius. In nearly every Crown Colony, the white population bears a very small proportion to the natives, and is composed mainly of merchants, bankers, a few officials, and, in the West Indies, of planters. If the Colony has a grievance it is exceedingly difficult for it to bring its grievance before the attention of Parliament, which alone has power to remedy it. The Governor is absolute in his Council, which invariably has a majority of official members, and he can compel them to vote against their opinions and in accordance with the instructions of the Colonial Office on pain of dismissal from their offices. Agitation, such as we have seen is so common in the self-governing Colonies, would be too dangerous an example for a handful of Europeans to set to a large native population. The Colonial Office, therefore, can treat the Colony almost as it pleases without fear of the consequences.

Singapore. Let me give one instance which will show you that the authority of the Colonial Office can be pushed to an extent that you may never have realised before. It is a question affecting the defences of the Colony of Singapore. In 1885, as a result of Lord Carnarvon's Committee on the coaling stations, an arrangement was arrived at by which the Colony of the Straits Settlements was to undertake the works of the forts, while the Home Government supplied the armament; 80,000/. was cheerfully voted by the Colony for this purpose, and the works were completed, as I saw with my own eyes, long before the promised armament was ready. Early last year the Secretary for State claimed the following additional contributions:

(a) 29,000l. for loss on exchange.

(b) 60,000l. for five years for barracks.

(c) 100,000l. instead of 50,000l. for military contribution.

When the matter came before the Council the elected members protested against the vote of 100,000/., but expressed willingness to agree to the two first demands. The vote was carried by the votes of the official members, and with regard to their votes the Governor said in his dispatch to the Secretary of State, 'I found myself unable to support all the claims which Her Majesty's Government had made, and the same views which I held were shared by every member of my council. My instructions, however, were perfectly clear, and I had to require each member to vote against his conviction, and in support of the claims of Her Majesty's Government.' That is an instance of the way in which our Crown Colonies may be governed.

It is the interest of few Members of Parliament to move in questions of this kind, because they know full well that few of their constituents have any knowledge of them or pay any heed to them. Therefore, in my belief, our system of Imperial Government is as bad for the Crown Colonies as it is for those other parts of the Empire that we have been discussing.

We have seen that our system of Imperial Government is unsatisfactory to our great self-governing Colonies as well as to India and those parts of Greater Britain which are not able to govern themselves; to the former because they have no constitutional share in that government, to the latter because their affairs are managed without the knowledge and attention which their importance demands.

An imperial Parliament necessary. But is not the Government of Greater Britain as unsatisfactory to us English Liberals as the Government of Great Britain and Ireland. We Englishmen do not wish to shirk our Imperial responsibilities. We know that it would be impossible for our teeming population to exist in this small island if it were not for our great possessions in every quarter of the globe; if it were not for our great over-sea commerce, which brings us the raw materials for our manufactures and the bread that we eat. We wish to see Greater Britain well governed, but we do not wish to have the time of our representatives in Parliament occupied with the better government of Greater Britain to the exclusion of questions which intimately affect ourselves. Irish, Welsh, and Scotch affairs on the one hand, Imperial affairs on the other, will delay for many years those much-needed reforms which form part of the programme of the great Liberal Party (to which I am proud to belong) if our present system is unchanged. I therefore advocate, in the interest of England as well as of the British Empire, that Imperial affairs should be handed over to a body which from its constitution has the power, and from the nature of its functions has the leisure to deal with them. That body must be composed of representatives from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, from Canada, Australia, and South Africa, as well as from England. We must be prepared to give up our exclusive control of foreign affairs and the Imperial army and navy to this body, in which, for a time at any rate, we shall have a preponderating influence. I have shown you that this sacrifice is worth the making, but it can only be made on one condition.

Imperial Defence borne by Great Britain. At the present time practically the whole cost of the army and navy (which not only defend our own coasts and our own commerce, but the shores of our remotest dependencies) is borne by the taxpayers of this country. It is the same with the cost of the diplomatic and consular services of which the Colonies derive the benefit as well as we ourselves. It probably has not struck many of the taxpayers that they are paying for defending people who are better able to pay than they are themselves. This state of things cannot long continue; at any rate, when the British taxpayer comes to realise what an unfair arrangement it is to him. To those who assert that the Colonies will never contribute to the cost of Imperial defence, my answer is they have already begun to do so. Melbourne and Sydney, which are secure bases for British commerce, are amongst the best-defended ports in the Empire. After the Colonial Conference of 1887 the Australian Governments, with one exception, agreed to bear a large proportion of the cost of a British squadron in Australian waters: and while that squadron is avowedly intended to protect, in the first instance, the shores of Australia, it as certainly assists in protecting British commerce in Australian waters.

Commercial Federation. Though a commencement has been made in this direction, it may well be doubted whether the Colonies will undertake their fair share of the burden unless we give them further advantages than a voice in the control of Imperial questions. The self-governing Colonies are nearly all rigidly protectionist, and it is said that all that they hope for from a connection with the mother country is the enjoyment of trade advantages. I am a staunch believer in the economic advantages of Free Trade to this country, even on the present one-sided system; but, in my opinion, it is well worth considering whether we should not gain more than we lose if, by entering into reciprocal trade arrangements throughout the Empire, we induced the Colonies to bear their fair share of the cost of Imperial defence. In the present state of public opinion on fiscal matters in this country such an arrangement may be impracticable. It is a problem which will undoubtedly have to be faced sooner or later, if this Empire of ours is to be kept together, and it is a question on which the electors of this country will have to make up their minds.

Federation for Defence. Lord Salisbury told the deputation of the Imperial Federation League, introduced by Lord Brassey, that it was due to an extravagant modesty on their part, that they had no definite scheme to propose. He then proceeded to state what appeared to him to be the difficulties of the problem. Though I have endeavoured to point out a practical remedy for some of the difficulties of Imperial government in relation to local self-government, for the difficulties indicated by Lord Salisbury I have put forward no practical solution. The Zollverein we have already put on one side. But for a Kriegsverein, or union for the defence of the Empire, we see our way to a practical step partly suggested by the arrangement adopted at the last Colonial Conference of 1887. At another Colonial Conference the following proposals can be made: Delegates to be appointed by the legislatures of the various self-governing parts of the Empire to an assembly which shall have control of (a) foreign relations; (b) India and the Crown Colonies; (c) Imperial defence. Grants to be made by the legislatures of the various self-governing countries for the purposes of Imperial defence, over which the aforesaid Imperial assembly will have absolute control. The amount of representation and contribution to be determined at the conference, and the arrangements to be ratified by the various legislatures. The arrangement to be subject to revision at the end of ten years.

The principles of Imperial Government. Now, in placing the three principles of Imperial government before you to-night, I have shown you that it is not only to the advantage of Ireland but to the advantage of England that the first of these principles–viz., the right of each self-governing part of the Empire to manage its own local affairs, should be adopted. I have shown you that it is not only to the advantage of India and the Colonies, but to the advantage of England as well, that matters of Imperial interest should be managed by a body properly constituted to deal with them. I have shown you that if we do give up our exclusive control in these matters, the Colonies must relieve us of that part of taxation which we bear on their behalf. I have addressed myself mainly to you as Liberals who wish to see Parliament free to devote its attention to English domestic problems. I have been told that the British elector cares for absolutely nothing that does not touch his own immediate interests. It may be the case that the British democracy is in ordinary times the most unpatriotic of people; but I am perfectly certain that there is a deep latent feeling of patriotism which is aroused when the occasion demands it. I am confident that there are few Englishmen who can read the history of the building up of this Empire of ours without a feeling of just pride. Does not the growth of Canada and Australia, the work above all which we have done in India, awaken the most serious consideration as to the moral responsibilities of our race? We have shown we have a genius for self-government, and for the government of native races, which no other nation has possessed; we should not shirk the responsibilities, to the whole as well as to the various parts. We have an immense task to perform for the peace and civilisation of mankind, if we only have the will to undertake it. A united British Empire will represent interests so varied that it will be sincerely desirous of peace. On the other hand, it may in time become so powerful that, as Lord Rosebery has finely said, without its consent no shot will be fired in anger throughout the habitable globe.