John A. Hobson

Imperialism, A Study


Chapter II
Imperial Federation


The imperial policy of Great Britain since 1870, and more particularly since 1885, has been almost entirely absorbed in promoting the subjugation and annexation of tracts of territory where no genuine white settlement of any magnitude is contemplated. This policy, as we have seen, differs essentially from colonisation; and from the standpoint of government it implies a progressive diminution of freedom in the British Empire by constantly increasing the proportion of its subjects who are destitute of real power of self-government.

It is important to consider how this new Imperialism reacts, and is likely in the future to react, upon the relations between Great Britain and her self-governing colonies. Will it stimulate these colonies to an assertion of growing independence and final formal severance from the mother country, or will it lead them to form a closer political union with her upon a basis, no longer of Empire, but of a Federation of equal States? This is a vital issue, for it is quite certain that the present relations will not be maintained.

Hitherto the tendency has been towards a steady consistent increase of self-government, and a growing relaxation of Empire in the shape of control exercised by the home Government. In Australasia, North America, and South Africa seventeen self-governing colonies have been established, endowed with reduced types of the British constitution. In the case of Australia and of Canada the growth of self-government has been formally and actually advanced by acts of federation, which have, in fact, especially in Australia, compensated the restriction of the power of the federated States by a more than equivalent increase of governing power vested in the federal Government.

Great Britain has in the main learned well the lesson of the American Revolution; she has not only permitted but favoured this growing independence of her Australian and American colonies. During the very period when she has been occupied in the conscious policy of extending her Empire over lands which she cannot colonise and must hold by force, she has been loosening her “imperial” hold over her white colonies. While 1873 removed the last bond of economic control which marked the old “plantation” policy, by repealing the Act of 1850 which had forbidden Australian colonies from imposing differential duties as between the colonies and foreign countries, and permitting them in future to tax one another’s goods, the Australian Commonwealth Act of 1900 has, by the powers accorded to its Federal Judicature, reduced to the narrowest limits yet attained the constitutional control of the Privy Council, and has by the powers enabling the Federal Government to raise a central armed force for defence obtained a new substantial basis for a possible national independence in the future. Though it is unlikely for some time to come that the federal Government which is contemplated for British South Africa will be accorded powers equivalent to those of the Australian or even the Canadian Federations, the same tendency to increased self-government has in the past steadily prevailed in Cape Colony and Natal, and it is tolerably certain that, if the racial animosities between the two white races are abated, a South African Commonwealth would soon be found in possession, of a far larger measure of real self-government than the British colonies which enter it have hitherto possessed.

But while the trend of British colonialism has uniformly been towards increased self-government or practical independence, and has been appreciably strengthened by the process of federating colonial States, it is evident that the imperial statesmen who have favoured most this federation policy have had in view some larger recasting of the political relations with the mother country, which should bind parent and children in closer family bonds, not merely of affection or of trading intercourse, but of political association. Though imperial federation for British purposes is no modern invention, Lord Carnarvon was the first Colonial Secretary to set it before him as a distinct object of attainment, favouring federation in the various groups of colonies as the first step in a process which should federate the Empire. The successful completion in 1873 of the process of federation which formed the Dominion of Canada doubtless stimulated Lord Carnarvon, entering office the next year, to further experiments along similar lines. Unfortunately he laid hands upon South Africa for his forcing process, and suffered a disastrous failure. Twenty years later Mr. Chamberlain resumed the task, and, confronted by the same essential difficulties, the forcible annexation of the two Dutch Republics, and the coercion of Cape Colony, has brought his federation policy in South Africa towards completion, while the federation of Australian States marks another and a safer triumph of the federation principle.

The process of federation, as bearing on the relations of the federating colonies, is of course a triumph for the centripetal forces; but, by securing a larger measure of theoretical and practical independence for the federal Governments, it has been centrifugal from the standpoint of the Imperial Government. The work of securing an effective political imperial federation implies, therefore, a reversal of hitherto dominant tendencies.

It is quite evident that a strong and increasing desire for imperial federation has been growing among a large number of British politicians. So far as Mr. Chamberlain and some of his friends are concerned, it dates back to the beginning of the struggle over Mr. Gladstone’s Home Rule for Ireland policy. Speaking on Mr. Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill in 1886, Mr. Chamberlain said: “I should look for the solution in the direction of the principle of federation. My right honourable friend has looked for his model to the relations between this country and her self-governing and practically independent colonies. I think that is of doubtful expediency. The present connection between our colonies and ourselves is no doubt very strong, owing to the affection which exists between members of the same nation. But it is a sentimental tie, and a sentimental tie only ... It appears to me that the advantage of a system of federation is that Ireland might under it really remain an integral part of the Empire. The action of such a scheme is centripetal and not centrifugal, and it is in the direction of federation that the democratic movement has made most advances in the present century.“

Now, it is quite true that the democratic movement, both now and in the future, seems closely linked with the formation of federal States, and the federation of the parts of the British Empire appears to suggest, as a next step and logical outcome, the federation of the whole.

Holding, as we must, that any reasonable security for good order and civilisation in the world implies the growing application of the federation principle in international politics, it will appear only natural that the earlier steps in such a process should take the form of unions of States most closely related by ties of common blood, language, and institutions, and that a phase of federated Britain or Anglo-Saxondom, Pan-Teutonism, Pan-Slavism, and Pan-Latinism aright supervene upon the phase already reached. There is perhaps a suspicion of excessive logic in such an order of events, but a broad general view of history renders it plausible and desirable enough. Christendom thus laid out in a few great federal Empires, each with a retinue of uncivilised dependencies, seems to many the most legitimate development of present tendencies, and one which would offer the best hope of permanent peace on an assured basis of inter-Imperialism. Dismissing from our mind the largest aspect of this issue, as too distant for present profitable argument, and confining our attention to British imperial federation, we may easily agree that a voluntary federation of free British States, working peacefully for the common safety and prosperity, is in itself eminently desirable, and might indeed form a step towards a wider federation of civilised States in the future.

The real issue for discussion is the feasibility of such a policy, and, rightly stated, the question runs thus: “What forces of present or prospective self-interest are operative to induce Great Britain and her colonial groups to reverse the centrifugal process which has hitherto been dominant?” Now there are many reasons for Great Britain to desire political federation with her self-governing colonies, even upon terms which would give them a voice proportionate to their population in a Parliament or other council charged with the control of imperial affairs, provided the grave difficulties involved in the establishment of such a representative, responsible governing body could be overcome. The preponderance of British over colonial population would enable the mother country to enforce her will where any conflict of interest or judgment arose in which there was a sharp line of division between Great Britain and the colonies: the distribution of imperial burdens and the allocation of imperial assistance would be determined by Great Britain. If the Crown colonies and other non-self-governing parts of the Empire were represented in the imperial council, the actual supremacy of the mother country would be greater still, for these representatives, either nominated by the Crown (the course most consonant with Crown colony government), or elected on a narrow franchise of a small white oligarchy, would have little in common with the representatives of self-governing colonies, and would inevitably be more amenable to pressure from the home Government. A chief avowed object of imperial federation is to secure from the colonies a fair share of men, ships, and money for imperial defence, and for those expansive exploits which in their initiation almost always rank as measures of defence. The present financial basis of imperial defence is one which, on the face of it, seems most unfair; Great Britain is called upon to support virtually the whole cost of the imperial navy, and, with India, almost the whole cost of the imperial army, though both these arms are at the service of any of our self-governing colonies that is threatened by external enemies or internal disorders. In 1899, while the population of these colonies was close upon one-third of that of the United Kingdom, their revenue nearly one-half, and the value of their sea-borne commerce one-fifth of the entire commerce of the Empire, the contribution they were making to the cost of the naval defence of the Empire was less than one-hundredth part. [25] These colonies raise no regular or irregular military force available for the general defence of the Empire, though they have supported small contingents of imperial troops quartered upon them by the Imperial Government, and have maintained considerable militia and volunteer forces for home defence. The colonial contingents taking part in the South African war, though forming a considerable volunteer force, fell far short of an imperial levy based upon proportion of population, and their expenses were almost entirely borne by the United Kingdom. From the standpoint of the unity of the British Empire, in which the colonies are presumed to have an interest equivalent to that of the United Kingdom, it seems reasonable that the latter should be called upon to bear their fair share of the burden of imperial defence; and an imperial federation which was a political reality would certainly imply a provision for such equal contribution. Whatever were the form such federation took, that of an Imperial Parliament, endowed with full responsibility for imperial affairs under the Crown, or of an Imperial Council, on which colonial representatives must sit to consult with and advise the British ministry, who still retained the formal determination of imperial policy, it would certainly imply a compulsory or quasi-compulsory contribution on the part of the colonies proportionate to that of the United Kingdom.

Now it is quite evident that the self-governing colonies will not enter such an association, involving them in large new expenses, out of sentimental regard for the British Empire. The genuineness and the warmness of the attachment to the British Empire and to the mother country are indisputable, and though they were not called upon to make any considerable self-sacrifice in the South African campaign, it is quite evident that their present sentiments are such as would lead them voluntarily to expend both blood and money where they thought the existence, the safety, or even the honour of the Empire was at stake. But it would be a grave error to suppose that the blaze of enthusiastic loyalty, evinced at such a period of emergency, can be utilised in order to reverse the general tendency towards independence, and to “rush” the self-governing colonies into a closer formal union with Great Britain, involving a regular continuous sacrifice. If the colonies are to be induced to enter any such association, they must be convinced that it is essential to their individual security and prosperity. At present they get the protection of the Empire without paying for it; as long as they think they can get adequate protection on such terms, it is impossible to suppose they would enter an arrangement which required them to pay, and which involved an entire recasting of their system of revenue. The temper of recent discussions in the Australian and Canadian Parliaments, amid all the enthusiasm of the South African war, makes it quite clear that no colonial ministry could in time of peace persuade the colonists to enter such a federation as is here outlined, unless they had been educated to the conviction that their individual colonial welfare was to be subserved. Either Australia and Canada must be convinced that imperial defence of Australia or Canada upon the present basis is becoming more inadequate, and that such defence is essential to them, or else they must be compensated for the additional expense which federation would involve by new commercial relations with the United Kingdom which will give them a more profitable market than they possess at present.

Now the refusal of the self-governing colonies hitherto to consider any other contribution to imperial defence than a small voluntary one has been based upon a conviction that the virtual independence they hold under Great Britain is not likely to be threatened by any great Power, and that, even were it threatened, though their commerce might suffer on the sea, they would be competent to prevent or repel invasion by their own internal powers of self-defence. The one exception to this calculation may be said to prove the rule. If Canada were embroiled in war with her great republican neighbour, she is well aware that though the British navy might damage the trade and the coast towns of the United States, she could not prevent Canada from being over-run by American troops, and ultimately from being subjugated.

But, it may at least be urged, the importance of maintaining a British navy adequate to protect their trade will at least be recognised; the colonies will perceive that in face of the rising wealth and naval preparations of rival Empires, in particular Germany, France, and the United States, the United Kingdom cannot bear the financial strain of the necessary increase of ships without substantial colonial assistance. This is doubtless the line of strongest pressure for imperial federation. How far is it likely to prove effective? It is certain to educate colonial politicians to a closer consideration of the future of their colony; it will force them to canvass most carefully the net advantages or disadvantages of the imperial connection. Such consideration seems at least as likely to lead them towards that definite future severance from Great Britain which, during the last half-century, none of them has seriously contemplated, as it is to bring them into a federation. This consummation, if it ultimately comes about, will arise from no abatement of natural good feeling and affection towards the United Kingdom, but simply from a conflict of interests.

If the movement towards imperial federation fails, and the recent drift towards independence on the part of the self-governing colonies is replaced by a more conscious movement in the same direction, the cause will be Imperialism. A discreet colonial statesman, when invited to bring his colony closer to Great Britain, and to pay for their joint support while leaving to Great Britain the virtual determination of their joint destiny, is likely to put the following pertinent questions: Why is Great Britain obliged to increase her expenditure in armaments faster than the growth of trade or income, so that she is forced to call upon us to assist? Is it because she fears the jealousy and the hostility of other Powers? Why does she arouse these ill feelings? To these questions he can hardly fail to find an answer. “It is the new Imperialism that is wholly responsible for the new perils of the Empire, and for the new costs of armaments.” He is then likely to base upon this answer further questions. Do we self-governing colonies benefit by this new Imperialism? If we decide that we do not, can we stop it by entering a federation in which our voices will be the voices of a small minority? May it not be a safer policy for us to seek severance from a Power which so visibly antagonises other Powers, and may involve us in conflict with them on matters in which we have no vital interest and no determinant voice, and either to live an independent political life, incurring only those risks which belong to us, or (in the case of Canada) to seek admission within the powerful republic of the United States?

However colonial history may answer these questions, it is inevitable that they will be put. Imperialism is evidently the most serious obstacle to “imperial federation,” so far as the self-governing colonies are concerned. Were it not for the presence of these unfree British possessions and for the expansive policy which continually increases them, a federation of free British States throughout the world would seem a reasonable and a most desirable step in the interests of world-civilisation. But how can the white democracies of Australasia and North America desire to enter such a hodge-podge of contradictory systems as would be presented by an imperial federation, which might, according to a recent authority [26], be compiled in the following fashion: first a union of Great Britain, Ireland, Canada, West Indies, Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, Newfoundland, Mauritius, South Africa, Malta, to be followed later by the admission of Cyprus, Ceylon, India, Hong-Kong, and Malaysia, with an accompaniment of semi-independent States such as Egypt, Afghanistan, Natal, Bhutan, Jehore, and perhaps the kingdoms of Uganda and of Barotse, each with some sort of representation on an Imperial Council and some voice in the determination of the imperial destiny?

Is it likely that the great rising Australian Commonwealth or the Dominion of Canada will care to place her peaceful development and her financial resources at the mercy of some Soudanese forward movement or a pushful policy in West Africa?

An imperial federation comprising all sorts and conditions of British States, colonies, protectorates, veiled protectorates, and nondescripts, would be too unwieldy, and too prolific of frontier questions and of other hazards, to please our more isolated and self-centred free colonies; while, if these former were left without formal representation as special protégés of the United Kingdom, their existence and their growth would none the less hang like a mill-stone round the neck of the federal Government, constantly compelling the United Kingdom to strain the allegiance of her confederates by using her technical superiority of voting power in what she held to be their special interest and hers.

The notion that the absence of any real strong identity of interest between the self-governing colonies and the more remote and more hazardous fringes of the Empire can be compensated by some general spirit of loyalty towards and pride in “the Empire” is a delusion which will speedily be dispelled. The detached colonies of Australasia may not unreasonably argue that the very anxiety of British statesmen to draw them into federation is a confession of the weakening of that very protection which constitutes for them the chief value of the present connection. “The United Kingdom,” they may say, “asks us to supply men and ships and money in a binding engagement in order to support her in carrying farther the very imperialist policy which arouses the animosity of rival Powers and which disables her for future reliance on her own resources to sustain the Empire. For our increased contribution to the imperial resources we shall therefore receive in return an increase of peril. Is it not something like asking us, out of pure chivalry, to throw in our lot with a sinking vessel?” It will doubtless be replied that a firmly federated Empire will prove such a tower of strength as will enable her to defy the increased jealousy of rival Powers. But this tempting proposition will be submitted to cool calculation in our colonies, which will certainly refuse to be “rushed” into a change of policy implying a reversal of the general tendency of half a century. Admitting the obvious political and military gain of co-operative action in the face of an enemy, the colonists will ask whether this gain is not offset by an increased likelihood of having to face enemies, and when they reflect that they are really invited to federate, not merely with the England whom they love and admire, but with an ever-growing medley of savage States, the balance of judgment seems likely to turn against federation, unless other special inducements can be applied.


There are two special inducements which might bring the self-governing colonies, or some of them, to favour a closer political union with Great Britain. The first is a revision of the commercial and financial policy of the mother country, so as to secure for the colonies an increased market for their produce in Great Britain and in other parts of the British Empire. In discussion of this issue it is customary to begin by distinguishing the proposal to establish an Imperial Zollverein, or Customs Union, from the proposal for a preferential tariff. But very little reflection suffices to perceive the futility of the former without the latter as an appeal to the self-interest of the colonies. Will these colonies assimilate their financial policy to that of Great Britain, abolishing their protective tariffs and entering a full Free Trade career? The most sanguine Free Trader suggests no such possibility, nor indeed would such a course afford any real guarantee of increasing the commercial inter-dependence of the Empire. It would simply force the colonies upon processes of direct taxation repugnant to their feelings. Is Free Trade within the Empire, with a maintenance of the status quo as regards foreign countries, really more feasible? It would simply mean that the colonies gave up the income they obtained from taxing the goods of one another and of Great Britain, each getting in return a remission of tariffs from the other colonies with which its trade is small and no remission from Great Britain, which would continue to receive its goods free as before. Though this same policy would ultimately be beneficial to their commerce, it would only encourage the existing tendency to trade less with the Empire and more with foreign nations, while it would involve a revolution of their fiscal method. No; Free Trade within the Empire is only conceivable upon the basis of Great Britain agreeing to abandon Free Trade with countries outside the Empire. Even were Great Britain prepared to adopt such a course, it would remain most unlikely that the colonies would make the sacrifice of customs income involved by admitting goods from all the Empire free; for this course would entail a sacrifice much greater than at first sight appears, inasmuch as such discrimination would virtually enable the goods admitted free to displace the taxed goods, reducing to quite insignificant dimensions the income still derived from customs.

Engaged as we are now in finding special inducements to draw the colonies into closer political union with Great Britain, we need not discuss the probability of an extension of the policy which Canada initiated by her preferential tariff, according to Great Britain a preferential tariff by a surrender of duties upon British imports amounting to 33 per cent. It is needless to discuss the motives which may have animated this advance. If we look to its result we find that it has been quite inoperative, regarded as a stimulus to British trade. “In spite of the preferential tariff, the percentage of American goods entering Canada has continued to increase and the percentage of British goods to decline.” [27] This is attributed to the “sham” character of the concession, as illustrated by the fact that “before giving a preference to British goods the Laurier ministry was careful to raise the duties on cotton goods largely coming from Great Britain, while lowering or abolishing the duties on raw materials coming from the United States.”

Thus the much-boasted British preference is to a large extent a delusion. In spite of the preference, British goods still pay a higher average tax on entering Canada than American goods. Here are the figures:–


June 30

Average Duty
on British Goods

Average Duty
on American Goods


21.1 per cent

14.3 per cent


18.3 per cent

12.4 per cent

Even if it is claimed that the act was a pure offering of goodwill, it is not contended that the colonies will generally follow the example, making concessions and receiving no preference in return. The only Zollverein proposal which claims serious discussion is one based upon the general adoption of preferential treatment within the Empire, involving on the part of Great Britain herself an abandonment of Free Trade with foreign countries. Here, at least, the colonies would have some quid pro quo, a guaranteed monopoly of the imperial market for their exports, in compensation for their loss of customs revenue from admitting imperial imports free, or at a lower rate of duties. Assuming that the colonies would enter such an arrangement, Great Britain would have to pay a heavy price for the political and military support which such a commercial policy was designed to purchase. Apart from the immediate dislocation of her industries, which would follow this partial abandonment of Free Trade on her part, and which would be more serious than a carefully imposed tariff applied equally to all imports, it would tax all classes of consumers and producers in this country by raising the prices of ordinary necessaries and conveniences of life, and of materials imported from abroad to be employed in home industry. Grain and flour, cattle and meat, wool, timber, and iron would form the chief commodities which, in the supposed interests of our colonies, would be taxed first. Unless it did raise these prices it could have no effect in enabling colonial producers to displace foreign producers: the tariff, to be operative at all, must remove all profit from some portion of foreign goods previously imported, and, by preventing such goods from entering our markets in the future, reduce the total supply: this reduction of supply acts of necessity in raising the price for the whole market. This well-recognised automatic operation of the law of supply and demand makes it certain that English consumers would pay in enhanced prices a new tax, part of which would be handed over to colonists in payment for their new “loyalty,” part would go to the British exchequer, and part to defray expenses of collection.

Nor is this all, or perhaps the worst. By this very method of binding our colonies closer to us we take the surest way of increasing the resentment of those very nations whose political and military rivalry impels us to abandon Free Trade. The vast and increasing trade we have with France, Germany, Russia, and the United States is the most potent guarantee of peace which we possess. Reduce the volume and the value of our commerce with these nations, by means of the re-establishment of a tariff avowedly erected for the purpose, and we should convert the substantial goodwill of the powerful financial, mercantile, and manufacturing interests in these countries into active and dangerous hostility. It would be far worse for us that we had never been a Free Trade country than that we relapsed into a protective system motived by the desire to weaken our commercial bonds with the political and commercial Powers whose rivalry we have most to fear. By the statistics of an earlier chapter [28] it has been shown that not merely is our trade with these foreign nations far greater than the trade with the self-governing colonies, but that it is growing at a faster rate. To offend and antagonise our better customers in order to conciliate our worse is bad economy and much worse politics.

The shrewder politicians in our colonies might surely be expected to look such a gift-horse in the mouth. For the very bribe which is designed to win them for federation is one which enhances for them enormously and quite incalculably the perils of a new connection by which they throw in their lot irrevocably with that of Great Britain. A monopoly of the imperial market for their exports may be bought too dear, if it removes the strongest pledge for peace which England possesses, at a time when that pledge is needed most. Nor would these colonies share only the new peril of England; their own discriminative tariffs would breed direct ill-feeling against them on the part of foreigners, and would drag them into the vortex of European politics. Finally, by distorting the more natural process of commercial selection, which, under tariffs equally imposed, has in the past been increasing the proportion of the trade done by these colonies with foreign countries, and reducing the proportion done with Great Britain, we shall be forcing them to substitute a worse for a better trade, a course by which they will be heavy losers in the long run.

It cannot be too clearly understood that not merely is the natural tendency of development in our self-governing colonies towards a decreasing commercial dependence upon Great Britain, but the same commercial separatist tendency operates among the colonies in their relations to one another. The colonies do not find their interests to lie in increasing the proportion of their trading intercourse with one another. Professor Flux in his close investigation of the statistics comes to the following conclusion:–

“As for the trade between the colonies, the Australian inter-colonial trade, which we have stated at £22,500,000 for 1892-96, was only between £7,000,000 and £8,000,000 at the earlier date here considered. Other inter-colonial trade has hardly grown in value. It was recorded at about £20,000,000 on the import side and £25,000,000 on the export side during the years 1867-71. Thus nearly 76 per cent. of colonial imports were derived from the Empire, and about 73 per cent. of the exports went to the Empire, or about 74 per cent. of the total trade was carried on with other parts of the Empire, as compared with the 65 per cent. at the more recent date, as recorded above.” [29] Why should we persuade our self-governing colonies to reverse the natural tide of their commerce, which flows towards internationalism, and force it into the narrower channel of Imperialism?


In face of such facts it will be impossible for Great Britain to offer the self-governing colonies a sufficient commercial inducement to bring them into imperial federation. Is there any other possible inducement or temptation? There is, I think, one, viz. to involve them on their own account in Imperialism, by encouraging and aiding them in a policy of annexation and the government of lower races. Independently of the centralised Imperialism which issues from Great Britain, these colonies have within themselves in greater or less force all the ingredients out of which an Imperialism of their own may be formed. The same conspiracy of powerful speculators, manufacturing interests and ambitious politicians, calling to their support the philanthropy of missions and the lust for adventure which is so powerful in the new world, may plot the subversion of honest self-developing democracy, in order to establish class rule, and to employ the colonial resources in showy enterprises of expansion for their own political and commercial ends.

Such a spirit and such a purpose have been plainly operative in South Africa for many years past. That which appears to us an achievement of British Imperialism, viz. the acquisition of the two Dutch Republics and the great North, is and always has appeared something quite different to a powerful group of business politicians in South Africa. These men at the Cape, in the Transvaal and in Rhodesia, British or Dutch, have fostered a South African Imperialism, not opposed to British Imperialism, willing when necessary to utilise it, but independent of it in ultimate aims and purposes. This was the policy of “colonialism" which Mr. Rhodes espoused so vehemently in his earlier political career, seeking the control of Bechuanaland and the North for Cape Colony and not directly for the Empire. This has been right through the policy of an active section of the Africander Bond, developing on a large scale the original “trek” habit of the Dutch. This was the policy to which Sir Hercules Robinson gave voice in his famous declaration of 1889 regarding Imperialism: “It is a diminishing quantity, there being now no longer any permanent place in the future of South Africa for direct imperial rule on any large scale.” A distinctively colonial or South African expansion was the policy of the politicians, financiers, and adventurers up to the failure of the Jameson Raid; reluctantly they sought the co-operation of British Imperialism to aid them in a definite work for which they were too weak, the seizure of the Transvaal mineral estates; their absorbing aim hereafter will be to relegate British Imperialism to what they conceive to be its proper place, that of an ultima ratio to stand in the far background while colonial Imperialism manages the business and takes the profits. A South African federation of self-governing States will demand a political career of its own, and will insist upon its own brand of empire, not that of the British Government, in the control of the lower races in South Africa.

Such a federal State will not only develop an internal policy regarding the native territories different from, perhaps antagonistic to, that of British Imperialism, but its position as the “predominant” State of South Africa will develop an ambition and a destiny of expansion which may bring it into world politics on its own account.

Australasia similarly shows signs of an Imperialism of her own. She has recently taken over New Guinea, and some of her sons are hankering after the New Hebrides, quite willing to incite Great Britain to break away from the joint-control over these islands which she holds along with France.

If this is a substantially correct view of Australasian tendencies, it has a most important bearing upon the feasibility of imperial federation, because it indicates another force which might be utilised for a reversal of the centrifugal movement hitherto dominant in colonial policy. If Great Britain is prepared to guarantee to Australasia and to South Africa a special imperial career of their own, placing the entire federal resources of the Empire at the disposal of the colonial federal States, to assist them in fulfilling an ambition or a destiny which is directed and determined by their particular interests and will, such a decentralisation of Imperialism might win the colonies to a closer federal union with the mother country. For Great Britain herself it would involve great and obvious dangers, and some considerable sacrifice of central imperial power; but it might win the favour and support of ambitious colonial politicians and capitalists desirous to run a profitable Imperialism of their own and to divert the democratic forces from domestic agitation into foreign enterprises.

If Australasia can get from Great Britain the services of an adequate naval power to enforce her growing “Monroe doctrine” in the Pacific without paying for it, as British South Africa has obtained the services of our land forces, she will not be likely to enter closer formal bonds which will bind her to any large financial contribution towards the expenses of such a policy. But if Great Britain were willing to organise imperial federation upon a basis which in reality assigned larger independence to Australia than she has at present, by giving her a call upon their imperial resources for her own private imperial career in excess of her contribution towards the common purse, the business instincts of Australia might lead her to consider favourably such a proposal.

How fraught with peril to this country such imperial federation would be it is unnecessary to prove. Centralised Imperialism, in which the Government of Great Britain formally reserves full control over the external policy of each colony, and actually exercises this control, affords some considerable security against the danger of being dragged into quarrels with other great Powers: the decentralised Imperialism, involved in imperial federation, would lose us this security. The nascent local Imperialism of Australasia and of South Africa would be fed by the consciousness that it could not be checked or overruled in its expansive policy as it is now; and the somewhat blatant energy of self-expression in colonial Governments would be likely to entangle us continually with Germany and the United States in the Pacific, while Canada and Newfoundland would possess a greatly enhanced power to embroil us with France and the United States. If it be urged that after all no serious steps in Australian, Canadian or South African “Imperialism” could be taken without the direct conscious consent of Great Britain, who would, by virtue of population and prestige, remain the predominant partner, the answer is that the very strengthening of the imperial bond would give increased efficacy to all the operative factors in Imperialism. Even as matters stand now there exists in Great Britain a powerful organised business interest which is continually inciting the Imperial Government to a pushful policy on behalf of our colonies: these colonies, the Australasian in particular, are heavily mortgaged in their land and trade to British financial companies; their mines, banks, and other important commercial assets are largely owned in Great Britain; their enormous public debts [30] are chiefly held in Great Britain. It is quite evident that the classes in this country owning these colonial properties have a stake in colonial politics, different from and in some cases antagonistic to that of the British nation as a whole: it is equally evident that they can exercise an organised pressure upon the British Government in favour of their private interests that will be endowed with enhanced efficacy under the more equal conditions of an imperial federation.

Whether the bribe of a preferential tariff, or of a delegated Imperialism, or both, would suffice to bring the self-governing colonies into a closer formal political federation with Great Britain may, however, well be doubted. Still more doubtful would be their permanent continuance in such a federation. It is at least conceivable that the colonial democracies may be strong and sane enough to resist temptation to colonial Imperialism, when they perceive the dangerous reactions of such a course. Even were they induced to avail themselves of the ample resources of the Empire to forward their local imperial policy, they would, in Australia as in South Africa, be disposed to break away from such a federation when they had got out of it what advantages it could be made to yield, and they felt strong enough for an independent Empire of their own.

It is no cynical insistence upon the dominance of selfish interests which leads us to the conviction that the historic drift towards independence will not be reversed by any sentiments of attachment towards Great Britain. “My hold of the colonies,” wrote Burke, “is the close affection which grows from common names, from kindred blood, from similar privileges, and equal protection. These are ties which, though light as air, are as strong as links of iron.” [31] But in these ties, save the last only, there is nothing to demand or to ensure political union. The moral bonds of community of language, history and institutions, maintained and strengthened by free social and commercial intercourse, this true union of hearts, have not been weakened by the progress towards political freedom which has been taking place in the past, and will not be weakened if this progress should continue until absolute political independence from Great Britain is achieved.

It is quite certain that the issue must be determined in the long run by what the colonies consider to be their policy of net utility. That utility will be determined primarily by the more permanent geographical and economic conditions. These have tended in the past, so far as they have had free play, towards political independence: they will have a freer play in the future, and it seems, therefore, unlikely that their tendency will be reversed. Though the element of distance between the parts of an Empire is now less important than formerly as a technical difficulty in representation, the following pithy summary of American objections to schemes of imperial federation in the eighteenth century, as recorded by Pownall, still has powerful application:–

“The Americans also thought that legislative union would be unnecessary, inexpedient, and dangerous, because
“(1) They had already sufficient legislatures of their own.
“(2) If the colonies were so united to England they would share the burden of British taxes and debt.
“(3)Representatives in England would be too far from their constituents, and the will of the colonies would, therefore, be transferred out of their power, and involved in that of a majority in which the proportion of their representatives would hold no balance.” [32]

While then it is conceivable, perhaps possible, that, for a time at any rate, the self-governing colonies might be led into an imperial federation upon terms which should secure their private industrial and political ambitions as colonies, it is far more reasonable to expect that Canada would drift towards federation with her southern neighbour, and Australasia and South Africa towards independent political entities, with a possible future re-establishment of loose political relations in an Anglo-Saxon federation.

It is no aspersion on the genuineness and the strength of the “loyalty” and affection entertained by the colonies towards England to assert that these sentiments cannot weigh appreciably in the determination of the colonial “destiny” against the continuous pressure of political, industrial, and financial forces making towards severance. Though a few politicians, or even a party in these colonies, may coquet with the notion of close federation on an equal basis, the difficulties, when the matter is resolved, as it must be, into financial terms, will be found insuperable. The real trend of colonial forces will operate in the same direction as before, and more persistently, when the nature of the burdens they are invited to undertake is disclosed to them.

The notion that one great result of the South African war has been to generate a large fund of colonial feeling which will materially affect the relations of the colonies with Great Britain is an amiable delusion based upon childish psychology. While the rally of sentiment has been genuine, so has been the discovery of the perils of the mother country which have made colonial assistance so welcome and caused it to be prized so highly that imperial statesmen essay to turn the tide of colonial development by means of it.

Reflection, which follows every burst of sentiment, cannot fail to dwell upon the nature of the peril which besets an empire so vast, so heterogeneous, and so dispersed as the British Empire. When the glamour of war has passed away, and history discloses some of the brute facts of this sanguinary business which have been so carefully kept from the peoples of Australia, New Zealand and Canada, their relish for the affair will diminish: they will be more suspicious in the future of issues whose character and magnitude have been so gravely misrepresented to them by the Imperial Government. [33] But the discovery likely to weigh most with the colonial democracies is the unsubstantial assets of the new Imperialism. It is one thing to enter a federation of free self-governing States upon an equal footing, quite another to be invited to contribute to the maintenance and acquisition of an indefinitely large and growing number of dependencies, the property of one of the federating States. The more clearly the colonies recognise the precarious nature of the responsibilities they are asked to undertake, the more reluctant will they show themselves. Unless the democratic spirit of these colonies can be broken and they can be driven to “Imperialism” upon their own account, they will refuse to enter a federation which, whatever be the formal terms of entrance, fastens on them perils so incalculable. The new Imperialism kills a federation of free self-governing States: the colonies may look at it, but they will go their way as before.

The sentimental attractions which the idea may at first present will not be void of practical results. It may lead them to strengthen their preparation for internal defence, and to develop, each of them, a firmer national spirit of their own. The consciousness of this gain in defensive strength will not the more dispose them to closer formal union with Great Britain; it is far more likely to lead them to treat with her upon the terms of independent allies. The direction in which the more, clear-sighted colonial statesmen are moving is and always has been tolerably clear. It is towards a slighter bond of union with Great Britain, not a stronger. The near goal is one clearly marked out for the American colonies by Jefferson as early as 1774, and one which then might have been attained if England had exercised discretion. Jefferson thus describes his plan in the draft of instructions to delegates sent by Virginia to Congress: “I took the ground that from the beginning I had thought the only one orthodox or tenable, which was that the relation between Great Britain and those colonies was exactly the same as that of England and Scotland after the accession of James and until after the Union, and the same as the present relation with Hanover, having the same executive chief, but no other necessary political connection.” [34] This same project, that of narrowing down the imperial connection to the single tie of a common monarchy, was avowed by the “Reformers” who in Upper Canada usually made a majority of the Legislative Assembly during 1830-40, and underlies the conscious or unconscious policy of all our self-governing colonies when subject to normal influences. Brief, temporary set-backs to this movement under the stress of some popular outburst of enthusiasm or some well-engineered political design are possible, but unless the real forces of colonial democracy can be permanently crushed they will continue to drive colonial policy towards this goal. Whether they will drive still farther, to full formal severance, will depend upon the completeness with which Great Britain has learnt during the last century and a half the lesson of colonial government which the American Revolution first made manifest. At present, owing to our liberal rendering of the term “responsible self-government,” there exists no powerful set of conscious forces making for complete independence in any of our colonies, save in South Africa, where our exceptional policy has given birth to a lasting antagonism of economic interests, which, working at present along the lines of race cleavage, must in the not distant future arouse in the people of a federated South Africa a demand for complete severance from British control as the only alternative to a control which they, British and Dutch, will regard as an intolerable interference with their legitimate rights of self-government.

This forcible interference of the Imperial Government with the natural evolution of a British South Africa, accompanied by a direct attack upon colonial liberties and a substitution of mechanical stimulation for organic growth in the process of a South African federation, will come home later to the other self-governing colonies through its reaction upon British policy. The legacy of this disastrous imperial exploit is enhanced militarism for Great Britain, and the rapacious dominance of armaments over public finance. These considerations almost inevitably goad public policy in Great Britain to make eager overtures to the colonies which will be rightly understood as an invitation to share risks and burdens in large excess of all assured advantages. The endeavours on our part to secure the closer political connection of the colonies are more likely than any other cause to bring about a final disruption; for the driving force behind these endeavours will be detected as proceeding from national rather than imperial needs. Australia, New Zealand, Canada have had no voice in determining recent expansion of British rule in Asia and Africa; such expansion serves no vital interest of theirs; invited to contribute a full share to the upkeep and furtherance of such Empire, they will persistently refuse, preferring to make full preparation for such self-defence as will enable them to dispense with that protection of the British flag which brings increasing dangers of entanglement with foreign Powers.

The new Imperialism antagonises colonial self-government, tends to make imperial federation impracticable, and furnishes a disruptive force in the relations of Great Britain with the self-governing colonies.












United Kingdom





Self-governing Colonies





26. Sir H. H. Johnston, Nineteenth Century, May 1902.

27. Harold Cox, The Canadian Preferential Tariff, from which the accompanying figures are also taken.

28. Cf. Part I, chap, ii.

29. Journal of the Statistical Society, vol.lxii, p.498.

30. In 1900 the public debts of the Australasian colonial Governments amounted to £194,812,289 for a population of 3,756,894, while the New Zealand debt was £46,930,077 for a population of 756,510 (Statesman’s Year-book, 1901).




New South Wales






South Australia


West Australia






31. Conciliation with America.

32. Holland, Imperium et Libertas, p.82.

33. Public feeling in Australia and New Zealand was of a particularly simple manufacture in the autumn of 1899. Mr. Chamberlain communicated the “facts” of the South African war to the Premiers of the colonies and they served them out to the press. This official information was not checked by any really independent news.

34. Quoted Imperium et Libertas, p.70.

Last updated on 12.11.2006