Problems of Empire/Federal Government for the United Kingdom and the Empire

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Reprinted from 'Nineteenth Century,' August, 1901.

Definition of Federal Government. Federal government implies local autonomy Home Rule in the several States comprising the Federation. In this country Home Rule has been generally discussed with special reference to Ireland, but in the present article it is proposed to show that the adoption of a Federal form of government is becoming absolutely necessary both for the United Kingdom and the Empire.[1]

First, what was meant by Home Rule? It has suited the Conservative party to describe the Home Ruler as a 'separatist'; but Home Rule, as understood by British Liberals, most assuredly did not imply separation either from Great Britain or from the Empire. It meant the right of Ireland to manage her own domestic affairs in her own way; but it did not mean, as has been sometimes thought, the grant of the same powers of self-government as those conferred with such beneficial results on the great self-governing Colonies. Owing to her geographical position, if for no other reason, it would be impossible to place Ireland in the position of a self-governing Colony such as New Zealand. There are certain matters which always will be of common interest to the several countries of the United Kingdom, and which do not concern the people of Canada, Australia, or South Africa. The relations of the Irish Parliament to the Parliament of the United Kingdom (which is also at present the Imperial Parliament) would therefore be similar to the relations of the Provincial Parliaments to the Dominion Parliament of Canada, and to those of the Parliaments of Victoria, New South Wales, and other Australian Colonies to the newly created Commonwealth Parliament.

Home Rule proposals.Two attempts have been made to devise a satisfactory measure of Home Rule for Ireland. Both have failed. In the Home Rule Bill of 1886, it was proposed to give Ireland the right to manage her own domestic affairs, but no provision was made for giving to Irish representatives a voice in the direction of Imperial policy, or of the affairs of the United Kingdom. By the omission of any such provision one of the fundamental principles of the British Constitution, 'There shall be no taxation without representation,' would have been violated had the Bill become law. Ireland would have been taxed for Imperial purposes, but would have had no voice in the control of the money which she contributed. Before the election of 1892, Mr. Gladstone stated that in any future Home Rule Bill steps would be taken to remedy this objection, and the Home Rule Bill as introduced into Parliament in 1893 contained what was known as the 'in-and-out' plan, by which Irish representatives were to vote on Imperial questions, but were to be excluded from taking part in the decision of purely British questions. During the passage of the Bill through the House of Commons this plan was shown to be utterly unworkable. In the form in which it was finally sent up to the House of Lords, the Irish members were retained for all purposes. The objection to this solution of the difficulty is obvious. The inhabitants of Great Britain were denied the right that Liberals were advocating for Irishmen viz., the right to manage their own affairs in their own way. Irish representatives, on the other hand, would have had the power of interfering in matters which only affected Great Britain. This objection was fatal to the Bill from the British point of view, and alone would have justified the House of Lords in rejecting it. The history of the two attempts of the Liberal party to deal with Home Rule justifies the contention, which the present writer has maintained ever since he became a candidate for Parliament, eleven years ago, that it is impossible to devise a satisfactory measure of Home Rule for Ireland alone. The Home Rule question must be approached from the broader standpoint of Mr. Redmond's remarkable speech in the House of Commons on the 11th of June.

Relations between Imperial and Federal Governments. Under a scheme of Federal Government, which implies the establishment of local legislatures in England, Scotland, and Wales, as well as in Ireland, the difficulties which have been pointed out in devising a satisfactory measure of Home Rule for Ireland only disappear. These local legislatures would deal with the special interests of each country, leaving to the existing Parliament (probably with some reduction in the number of members) the management of questions which are of common interest to the whole of the United Kingdom, and all Imperial business, until the time arrives for establishing a true Imperial Parliament, with Colonial representation. This is the policy which I and others have been urging by every means in our power should be adopted by the Liberal party to-day as the main plank in its platform, and as a remedy for one of the chief features in the political situation, the congestion of business in Parliament. We claim no originality for the idea. A resolution in favour of 'Home Rule all round,' as it is commonly called, was carried in the House of Commons in 1895, on the motion of Mr. Dalziel, seconded by Mr. Augustine Birrell. During the election of 1895 the question was very largely discussed, more especially in Scotland.

Congestion of business in Parliament and proposed remedies. On all hands the increasing difficulty of carrying on the business of the country in the House of Commons is lamented. During the present session it has only been possible to carry it on at all by the most drastic use of the closure; and the use of this engine of parliamentary government is becoming an abuse when it is applied to a vote of 17,000,000l. of public money, after an evening's discussion. Sir Henry Fowler, speaking at the City Liberal Club a few weeks ago, drew a most gloomy picture of the existing condition of things, and suggested as a remedy an autumn session, to be devoted to the reform of parliamentary procedure. Mr. T. W. Russell takes a no less gloomy view of the case. 'The sooner,' he says, 'that the people of this country are face to face with a real and living issue i.e., the preservation of parliamentary government the better it will be for all concerned.' Mr. Russell's remedy is the extension of the principle of Grand Committees; and the burden of his song, as of that of Sir Henry Fowler, is that at all costs the dignity of the House of Commons must be preserved. Either remedy might be of value if the congestion of business could be attributed to the obstruction of the Irish party, the fractiousness of the Opposition, or the multiplication of questions. The real reason lies deeper than this, and was well put by Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman in his address to the electors of the Stirling Burghs, issued in July, 1895. 'The excessive burden of work,' he said, ' now imposed upon Parliament can only be relieved by a large system of devolution. It is for this reason, as well as from a sense of right and justice to the nationalities concerned, that I regard as urgently necessary the creation for the three kingdoms of subordinate legislative assemblies dealing with the distinctive affairs of each.'

Responsibilities of the British Parliament. The House of Commons is the responsible guardian of the interests of the greatest Empire the world has ever seen. It has to deal with questions affecting the United Kingdom as a whole; and it also legislates for the special interests of the several countries of the United Kingdom. The diversity of business is extraordinary, the quantity enormous; and it is not to be wondered at that the House of Commons is unequal to the task now imposed on it. In no other country of the civilised world is such a task attempted. The conclusion is inevitable, that parliamentary government is breaking down because the needs of the Empire, of the United Kingdom as a whole, and of its several parts, have outgrown the existing means for dealing with them. The remedy lies in the recognition of the distinction between the different classes of business which we either attempt to deal with, often very ineffectually, or do not attempt to deal with at all, in the House of Commons, and of the necessity of allocating what may here be roughly described as Imperial business and domestic business to different legislative assemblies.

Local knowledge required for local legislation. To take another point of view-the waste of time and power under our present system, which compels questions of special regard to one part of the United Kingdom or the other to be dealt with in the overworked Imperial Parliament. Much of the legislation passed by the House of Commons is of special application to England, Scotland, or Ireland. We have a recent conspicuous instance in the passing of one Local Government Act for England and Wales, another in a different year for Scotland, and another in a different year again for Ireland. The proportion of statutes which have a special application to one country of the United Kingdom or the other is tending to increase. Excluding from consideration all statutes which apply to India and the Colonies, but including amongst the special statutes those general statutes which have clauses of special application, the proportion of general statutes may be taken roughly as follows: In 1837-46 at two to one; in 1861-70 at six to five; in 1891-1900 at three to five. A more careful examination of the statutes themselves might somewhat alter these figures, but, in any case, the great and increasing waste of time under a system which allows each country of the United Kingdom to meddle in the private affairs of the others is apparent. That Irishmen and Englishmen should be supposed to legislate on the Scotch Crofter question, of which they cannot have the necessary special knowledge, is absurd. That such a question, for instance, as the Disestablishment of the Church in England should be decided partly by the votes of Irish Roman Catholics, Scotch Presbyterians, or Welsh Dissenters, is totally opposed to the right of self-government on which the Empire has been built up, and which the Liberal party has long advocated with reference to Ireland.

Special knowledge for Imperial affairs What has been said with regard to the special knowledge required for the proper conduct of the business of each country of the United Kingdom applies with even greater force if we take a wider survey. Lord Rosebery, in his rectorial address at Glasgow, lamented the want of men of first-class capacity in various walks of life. But, as far as politics are concerned, the field is becoming too vast for the capacity of the ordinary politician. Imperial business and domestic business each require special training, special study, and special aptitudes. The training of the School Board, the County Council, or the Trade Union may be admirable for one who seeks to take part in domestic legislation; but something more is required from the member of a Parliament which deals with the great questions of Imperial and Colonial policy. To those who have travelled much in the Empire, the assurance with which some men speak on the Imperial and Colonial questions, of which they have no special knowledge, is amazing. Nowhere is this more conspicuous than in the treatment of the great question of the moment—the war in South Africa and its conduct. The business of the country will be much better carried on when it is specialised, when Imperial questions are treated in one assembly and domestic business in others by those specially qualified to deal with them.

The position of the Upper House. There are many Liberals who think that it should be the first object of the Liberal party to abolish or restrict the veto of the Upper Chamber. From the rejection of the Home Rule Bill in 1893 to the election of 1895 a strenuous attempt was made to get up an agitation against the House of Lords. That attempt signally failed, and it failed because the people of this country believed that the House of Lords was justified in rejecting the Home Rule Bill. The Bill involved an important change in the Constitution, and a modification (which has already been alluded to) of vital consequence to the people of Great Britain was introduced during its passage through the House of Commons. The main object of the existence of a Second Chamber is to compel the submission to the opinion of the people of any measure involving a change in the Constitution under which they live. If this be admitted it may be asserted that it was the duty of any Second Chamber, however constituted, to have rejected the Home Rule Bill of 1893. But though a good case can be made out for the House of Lords for its action in this matter, all Liberals are agreed that an Upper House, which is practically composed of the members of only one of the political parties in the State, is a bad revising chamber for social and domestic legislation. Under a scheme of Federal government such legislation would for the most part be dealt with in the legislatures of the several countries of the United Kingdom, and would be removed altogether from the control of the House of Lords.

Imperial issues often overshadow domestic questions. There is another important argument in favour of the separation of domestic business and Imperial business, on which a few words must be said. Under present conditions, when an appeal is made to the country, Imperial questions and domestic questions are submitted to the electors in a confused issue. Of recent years, Imperial questions have held the larger share of the attention of the electorate. At the election of 1900 every domestic issue was subordinated to the one Imperial question—the war in South Africa. The result was a crushing defeat of the Liberal party. But from the fact that London, which is represented in the Imperial Parliament by an overwhelming majority of Conservatives, has recently returned a Progressive majority to the London Council, it is not unreasonable to infer that the country would have desired Liberals to manage its domestic business while it believed that its Imperial and foreign interests were safer in the hands of the Conservatives. At some future election the converse of what happened last year might take place. Some question of domestic policy might be to the front, and the party might be returned to power on that issue which perhaps in the opinion of the electorate was the less qualified to carry on the government of the Empire. Then, again, the impotent condition of the Liberal party to-day is due in the main to a division of opinion on Imperial policy, On this rock it may possibly be rent in twain. And yet, as to the necessity for those domestic reforms which have figured in the Liberal programme for so many years, Liberals are agreed, and to secure the passing of those reforms all sections of the Liberal party might work together. Thus from a party no less than from a national point of view it is desirable that domestic questions and Imperial questions should no longer be submitted to the electorate in the same confused issue.

Objections advanced against decentralised Legislatures. To turn to objections which may be urged against the policy here advocated. There is no doubt that if Scotland demanded Home Rule there would be little objection from the average Englishman to meeting her wishes. If there was an effective demand in England for a local legislature to deal with English affairs the demand would be granted to-morrow. But with Ireland the case is different. The present attitude of the Irish party, their openly avowed hostility to this country, especially as regards the war in South Africa, and the fear that the grant of powers of self-government would only lead to disorder, make many Liberals doubtful of the expediency of raising the question of Home Rule. But whether we like it or not the question must be faced. The Irish party is again a united and vigorous Parliamentary force, determined to use every means to compel attention to the Irish demand. No Liberal can contemplate with equanimity the possibility of governing Ireland indefinitely in opposition to the wishes of the majority of the Irish people.

Ireland's suffering under a Free Trade policy. In the utter selfishness of our treatment of Ireland in the past; in the fact that while the reign of Queen Victoria and the era of free trade have been a period of industrial and commercial prosperity for Great Britain, the population of Ireland, under the same free trade policy which has been so beneficial to us, has diminished by one-half, much excuse may be found for the sympathy which Irishmen have expressed with the enemies of this country, and for the attitude adopted at the time of the Queen's death. If the position of the two countries had been reversed, it is certain that the feelings of Englishmen towards Ireland to-day would be not one whit less bitter than those of Irishmen are to us. Owing to the operation of the Land Purchase Acts, the admirable work done by Mr. Horace Plunkett for the organization of the Irish agricultural industry and the community of interest between all classes of Irishmen brought out by the Financial Relations Commission, Ireland is in a better position to manage her own affairs than she was ten years ago.

Irish Local Government. The Act of 1898 placed the power of local government for the first time in the hands of the people. It was a first step in the direction of self-government. The new local bodies are a valuable training-ground for the men who may later feel called upon to serve their country in a wider field. On the whole, the experiment must be admitted to have worked well. Its success will be a fact which will form one of the most powerful arguments for granting to the Irish people that larger power of self-government which they demand.

Irish Land Purhase. The agitation for compulsory land purchase is a factor in the situation which cannot be neglected. The agitation has developed a community of interest between bitter political opponents, even greater than that produced by the Financial Relations Commission, and any movement which has this effect is all for the benefit of Ireland. The fear that an Irish Parliament would deal unjustly with Irish landlords is without doubt at the bottom of much of the objection to Home Rule, and this objection can only be removed by dealing with the remainder of the Irish landlords by land purchase. The exact cost of such a measure has not yet been determined. Mr. T. W. Russell has placed the cost at 120,000,000l. The payments under the existing Land Purchase Acts have been, as a rule, punctually met, and this constitutes a reasonable ground for believing that the principal and interest would be as punctually repaid under a larger scheme. The compulsory principle for which Mr. Russell contends is open to grave objection, but to get rid once for all of the Irish land question, to remove one of the chief objections, if not the main objection, to the grant of self-government to Ireland, and to make of Irishmen loyal and contented citizens of the British Empire, would be worth the addition of 120,000,000l. to the National Debt, and would certainly justify the risk of advancing such a sum under a land purchase scheme.

Another objection that may be urged against the revival of Home Rule at the present time is that neither in Scotland, Wales, nor England does opinion stand where it did six years ago. The election of last year was fought on other issues. With some exceptions the question did not figure prominently in election addresses. Many candidates ignored it altogether. Hence the assertion in some quarters that Home Rule is dead. While it is most unlikely that Mr. Gladstone's proposals for dealing with Ireland alone will ever be revived, the Duke of Devonshire and Mr. Chamberlain made it very clear to the Nonconformist Unionist Association that in their opinion Home Rule was not dead, but dormant. Of Scotland and Wales this is probably true. As regards England the case is different. The seat of government is in London. In the House of Commons England has such a preponderating voice that the necessity for a separate legislature to deal with his business does not come home to an Englishman with the same force as to a Scotchman, an Irishman, or a Welshman. Though there is already a considerable body of opinion in favour of devolution of business from the House of Commons in some shape or other, it is undoubtedly in England that most educational work must be done before there can be a prospect of carrying a measure of Federal government for the United Kingdom. The 'predominant partner' must be induced to contemplate devolution as applied to himself, and to realise that if he wishes proper attention given to the housing question, the problem of the aged poor, temperance, the condition of British industry, the depopulation of the agricultural districts, he must have a Parliament free to devote its wholeImperial Federation League.  time to English business. That this is not a difficult task is the experience of those who have addressed meetings in all parts of the country during the past six months on the necessity of devolution,

We have hitherto been considering the policy of Federal government with special reference to the United Kingdom; but a survey of the subject would be incomplete unless it was also considered in its relation to the constitutional structure of the Empire. Nearly twenty years ago the Imperial Federation League was formed, under the presidency of the late Mr. W. E. Forster, with the object of bringing home to the public mind the fact that the constitutional arrangements under which the Empire was then governed, and is still governed, could not be permanent if the Empire was to remain united. It urged that the resources of the whole Empire ought to be combined for the common defence, and that all those parts which bore their share of Imperial burdens must have a voice in the control of Imperial expenditure and Imperial policy. At the time when the Imperial Federation League was formed this idea of a common citizenship and of common responsibilities was but imperfectly realised, either in the mother country or in the Colonies; and though the League never took up Lord Salisbury's challenge, and was wise enough to abstain from formulating any scheme of Federal government, yet the work which it carried on after Mr. Forster's death under the presidency of Lord Rosebery, and, on his taking office in 1892, under the presidency of the late Mr. Edward Stanhope, had the effect of dispelling the doctrine of the Manchester School, that the Colonies were a burden to the mother country, and would cut themselves adrift as soon as they were able to stand by themselves. Statesmen such as the Duke of Devonshire and Mr. Chamberlain, who took no part in the pioneer work of the Federation League, have been recently amongst the foremost champions of the idea of Imperial unity, which, thanks to the Jubilee celebrations, the centralising influence of the Monarchy, and, above all, to the spontaneous assistance rendered by the Colonies in the South African War, has indelibly impressed itself in the minds of the people of this country.

The feeling of the Colonies on Imperial unity.

In the Colonies the growth of the sentiment of Imperial unity has been no less remarkable. Fourteen years ago, when I first visited Australia, there was great irritation in all the Australasian Colonies, but more especially in Queensland, at the treatment by the Home Government of the New Guinea question, the New Hebrides question, and the transportation of French convicts to New Caledonia. There was undoubtedly a large body of Australians at that time, especially amongst the younger men, who looked forward to the creation of an Australian nation independent of the mother country. Nine years later that feeling had passed away, and opinion was practically unanimous that the true line of Australian national development was consistent with her remaining an integral portion of the British Empire. But even in 1896 there was some grumbling at the small contribution made to the cost of the Australian squadron, and no one could then have ventured to predict the sacrifices that would be made in men and money within four years' time to assist the mother country in her time of stress and trouble, not only in South Africa, but in China.

Canada. In Canada, in the period between the death of Sir John Macdonald and the defeat of the Conservative party in the election of 1896, there was a considerable and perhaps a growing body of opinion that looked to annexation to the United States as the future destiny of Canada, and as offering the best hope for her industrial development and the prosperity of her people. During that election the Conservatives endeavoured to represent that annexation would be the consequence of the victory of the Liberal party. But Sir Wilfrid Laurier was able to make his position perfectly clear, and the result was a great victory for the Liberals. It is impossible to deny that during Sir Wilfrid Laurier's premiership the relations between Canada and the mother country have become closer. As in Australia so in Canada, public opinion is to-day unanimous that the highest aspirations of the Canadian people can be realised within and not without the British Empire:

South Africa. In South Africa the tendency of opinion was until recently in the same direction. Mr. Hofmeyr, the head of the Afrikander Bond, was a leading figure at the first Colonial Conference of 1887, and it was he who brought forward the proposal that the whole Empire should contribute to the maintenance of the Navy by imposing a differential duty of 5 per cent, against non-Imperial goods. At the second Colonial Conference held at Ottawa in 1893, Mr. Hofmeyr again attended as one of the representatives of the Cape Colony, and it is unlikely that he would have done so unless he had represented the feeling of the majority of the Dutch inhabitants, not only of Cape Colony, but of South Africa. But the clouds were looming on the horizon which have burst in the present war. The ideal of a Dutch South African Republic, the realisation of which was only possible through our mistakes has been destroyed by force, and it remains to be seen whether the Dutch will become reconciled to the liberty which every Colonist enjoys under the British flag. In the present state of South Africa it is difficult to gauge the trend of public opinion. The most prevalent feeling amongst British and Dutch alike is probably one of dependence on the Imperial Government; and the best hope for the future lies in the establishment of a Federal Government in South Africa on similar lines to those of the Dominion Government of Canada and the Commonwealth Government of Australia. But for the Jameson raid it is not improbable that the federation of South Africa would have already been an accomplished fact.

Federal government a growing idea. Except in South Africa the sentiment of Imperial unity has been growing. The assistance given from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in this war is the proof, if any is needed, that all parts of the Empire have come to realise the duties and the responsibilities of their common citizenship. This assistance has been given in spite of the fact that no Federal government, no Federal organization for the purposes of defence, was yet in existence. But the time must come ere long when it will be necessary to organize the resources of the whole Empire for the common defence, and to establish a Federal government. Until the present war the burden of defending the Empire has fallen almost wholly on the shoulders of the mother country. While the Colonies were in their infancy it was only natural that this should be so; but the Colonies are now growing from youth to manhood. Their population and resources are year by year increasing relatively to those of the mother country. The population of Canada exceeds that of Scotland, the population of Australia is roughly equal to that of Ireland; while the white population of South Africa will ere long not be incomparable to that of Wales. This means that, in a properly constituted Imperial Parliament, Canada, Australia, and South Africa would carry as much weight as Scotland, Ireland, or Wales, and the control which they would be able to exercise on Imperial policy would not be inconsiderable. This control we must give them when they are prepared to bear their share of the maintenance of the naval and military forces of the Empire. The growth of the ordinary expenditure on the Navy and Army has been very heavy. We have been passing through a period of great commercial prosperity, so that until the imposition of the extra taxation necessitated by the war the burden has been little felt. But it is unreasonable to expect that this prosperity will continue, and when the depression comes we in the mother country shall begin to realise that the cost of defending the Empire is becoming too heavy for the people of these little islands alone. We shall have to appeal to our Colonies to help us to maintain that command of the sea which is being seriously threatened by the shipbuilding activity in Germany, Russia, and the United States, and which is absolutely vital to our national existence.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier's declaration But we cannot expect the help of our Colonies without giving something in return. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, in the Dominion House of Commons on the 14th of March, 1900, said, 'If our future military contribution were to be considered compulsory a condition which does not exist I would say to Great Britain, "If you want us to help, you must call us to your Councils."' This demand can only be met by the establishment of an Imperial Parliament in which every part of the Empire which bears its fair share of Imperial burdens will be represented. But though events are tending rapidly in this direction, neither in the mother country nor in the Colonies are we ripe for so great a constitutional change at this moment, and any attempt to rush the Colonies, and to take undue advantage of the feeling evoked by the danger to our Empire in South Africa, would be a grave blunder. Mr. Seddon's proposal to form an Imperial Reserve in Australasia, the fact that, as the Times Toronto correspondent tells us, the British Budget is looked upon by Canadians not so much as a warning as a suggestion of duty, are indications of Colonial opinion which will bear fruit in due course.

We in the mother country have hardly begun to appreciate the broad distinction between Imperial business and domestic business, and still less to contemplate the possibility of classifying into three divisions the business which we have been always accustomed to see dealt with in the House of Commons. To the Colonial mind, or to the mind of one who has travelled much in the Colonies, such distinctions are easy. Every Canadian has lived for thirty years past (as every Australian will live henceforward) under three Parliaments the Provincial Parliament, the Dominion Parliament, and the Imperial Parliament, in the last of which at present he is not represented. When we have seen that it is possible to distinguish clearly the class of business to be handed over to a Scotch, Irish, Welsh, or English legislature by the existing Parliament, and not till then, shall we be able to grasp what is meant by Imperial Federation.

From the subjoined diagram the steps necessary to complete the constitutional structure of the Empire will be more clearly understood.

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Note 1. The United Kingdom Parliament is at present the Imperial Parliament, and as suggested in this article, and in the resolution which has been carried by a considerable number of Liberal Associations, will remain the Imperial Parliament till the Colonies are ready to bear their share of common burdens.

Note 2. The establishment of local legislatures in the several countries of the United Kingdom, and of a Federal Government in South Africa, are, I believe, necessary precedents to the establishment of a true Imperial Parliament.

Note 3. India and the Crown Colonies would be represented in the Imperial Parliament by nominated representatives.

Note 4. Whether Wales has a separate legislature or is treated as part of England is a question of detail, the settlement of which should depend on the wishes of the Welsh people.

  1. During 1900 and the two following years a very large number of meetings were addressed by Mr. Brassey and others in support of the policy suggested in this paper. The subject was twice brought before the General Committee of the National Liberal Federation.