J. T. Murphy

After the British Empire Conference

Source: The Communist International, Vol. IV, No. 2, February 15, 1927
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

SINCE the conclusion of the proceedings of the British Empire Conference the British press has been full of praise concerning the strengthening of the “bonds of Empire.” Grand rolling phrases about the “British Commonwealth of Nations” have filled columns upon columns of the newspapers and magazines. The Tories have dined with the Ministers of the Dominions and delivered complimentary speeches to each other. Leading Labour members have dined with the Ministers of the Dominions and joined in the chorus of Empire worship. The leaders of the British Co-operative movement have invited the Dominion Premiers to dine with them and hailed the “new concord.” Such a universal adoration of British imperialism has never been know in the history of Britain. The press has done its work well. Having staged the Empire Conference in the most hypocritical way it is possible to conceive, it has made the great mass of politicians drunk with phrases.

This campaign was conducted with the purpose of glossing over the real state of affairs and spreading illusions among the masses. We will therefore attempt to analyse whether the British Empire Conference has strengthened “the bonds of Empire” or indicated a new stage in the crisis of British imperialism.

The Conference in the main confined itself to the problems exclusively concerning the Dominions, and completely ignored the teeming millions of the Empire who have not the slightest measure of self-determination or independence. These were referred to only as material for exploitation. Where were the representatives of Nigeria, of the Gold Coast, of the masses of India, of Malay, of Burma, of Egypt, of Mesopotamia, of Irak? They were simply not there. They were left to reflect upon the efforts being made to secure their independence, to remember the bombs that had been dropped in Irak, the reply of Britain to the aspirations of, the Egyptians for independence and to contemplate the Amritsar of India and the violence adopted to all uprisings of !he oppressed.

Tory-Labour Praise

Yet this is how the respective parties spoke of the Empire Conference: Tories—“The Conference of 1926 has made explicit and unmistakable the latest stage in the Empire’s evolution. Down to a certain point it was possible to think of the Mother Country and the Dominions linking themselves in a species of Federation with a central authority for certain purposes . . It has long been evident that the political maturity of the Dominions and many other reasons had diverted the stream of destiny from that course, and that the future of the Empire and of all its parts must rest upon a perfectly free co-operation under the stimulus of the common ideals and of common interest.” (“Observer,” December 19th). The Labour Party says in its monthly organ—“The Labour Magazine” for December—that there has been established “a new constitutional relationship between the Dominions and the Mother Country which promises to conserve the unity of the British Common-wealth of Nations far more effectively than appeared once to be possible . . . There will be less reason to tail the anti-militarist cant which pictured the British Empire as a monster of oppression and greed; the Empire has become a voluntary partnership in which no member State can be held against its will.” The accord between the Tory Party and the Labour Party on this question of Empire relations is therefore well established.

Division, Not Unity

But does this fulsome praise of the proceedings and conclusions of the Empire Conference compel us to revise our conclusions concerning the process of disintegration of the British Empire? It is necessary to ask this question in view of the striking contrast of the Comintern estimation of the situation as compared with the estimation of the reformists and bourgeoisie of Britain in respect of the future of the British Empire. The quotations we have made acknowledge that there has been a definite change established by this Imperial Conference. What is this change? For the first time in the history of the British Empire a number of its parts have succeeded in imposing upon the Central Government a degree of independence which leaves the Central Government unable to impose a united foreign policy as hitherto, and deprived the Central Government of the right to interfere in their domestic affairs. It has been asserted that these decisions are only registering what previously existed before the Conference, but this we think is an under-estimation of the situation. Prior to the Conference neither Australia nor South Africa had contemplated appointing foreign ambassadors to other countries, whilst only a few weeks before, the interference of Lord Byng in the domestic affairs of Canada had produced a crisis, brought about the downfall of the Canadian Government and thrust this question to the forefront of the Imperial Conference. General Hertzog, according to the “Times” of December 21st, holds himself free to go ahead with his Flag Bill and for the “people of South Africa to haul down the Union Jack the minute they think fit.” We think it therefore beyond question that the Empire Conference decisions mark a new stage in the internal development of the Empire, and a stage which gives greater freedom to the Dominions to pursue their own political course unrestrained by the British Government. If any doubts exist on this question then they would seem to be disposed of by the action of the Australian trade commissioner to the United States. According to the “Daily Herald” of December 4th, 1926, Sir Hugh Denniston told the New York Chamber of Commerce that “Australia proposes to send a diplomatic representative to Washington to follow the good or bad example of the United States by building a tariff wall, and to let America inside in return for reciprocal privileges.” He further declared that “Australia was the only one of the British Dominions having its own Navy. She was prepared to join hands with the United States in making the Pacific Ocean pacific in fact as well as in name.” Here we conclude, are separatist tendencies, and not unity of Empire.

Nor are these tendencies at all affected by the demonstration of protest against the Mandate Commission of the League of Nations. For whatever there was of a common front on this question was dissipated by the reluctance of the Dominions to have anything to do with the Locarno pact. On this question their views coincided with those of America in their anxiety to be free from the “entanglements of European politics.”

These things, conflicts and changes in diplomatic affairs and constitutional developments only reflect the differences and contradictions in the economic relations of the Dominions and the “Mother Country.” They reflect the fact that Britain is fast losing her economic, financial and, hence, political hegemony over these countries. The separatist tendencies, so clearly manifest in the Conference itself, are related to the decline of British capitalism and the growth of industrialisation of the dominions. There is no need to repeat here a mass of figures to establish the economic decline of Britain. These figures are now well known. Mr. Baldwin himself had to adopt an apologetic tone to the Conference and attempted to console the Dominion Premiers for Britain’s inability to supply capital to-day by reference to the capital she had poured out in the past. But this kind of consolation does not solve present difficulties. The Dominions want capital, population, markets, and Britain is less able than ever to provide these things.

Britain Cannot Export Capital

Mr. Baldwin told the Conference that up to 1925 London had lent 850 million pounds to the Dominions. But he did not remind the Conference of the embargo on capital export from Britain in 1925 and the virtual embargo now existing, or the fact that this year instead of having a surplus for export there would be a deficit of 30 to 40 million pounds in the national balance sheet. At the same time the “Canadian Monetary Times” gives the following figures concerning the sale of Canadian bonds.


Canada Amount UK Amount U.S. Amount Total
1910 39.3 188.1 3.6 231.0
1913 45.6 277.5 50.7 373.8
1919 705.4 5.1 199.4 909.9
1921 213.3 12.2 178.1 403.6
1923 427.9 2.4 84.5 514.8
1924 336.8 3.6 239.5 579.9
1925 234.0 31.0 205.0 470.0
First half 1926 146.7 180.1 326.8

Is there any wonder that Mr. McKenzie King says: “We want capital. We would take it from Britain; but if we cannot get it here, we must find it elsewhere”? And so say all of them, and the reason is quite clear. The industrialisation of the Dominions demands it. The following table illustrates the process:—

CANADA   (a) Manufacture

No. of Manufacturing establishments No. of workers in thousands Total capital in mil. dols. Gross value of production in mil. dols. Total population in mils.
1900 14,650 339 125 480 53
1910 19,218 515 847 1,166 6.9
1915 21,291 512 1,985 1,393 7.9
1923 22,642 525 3,380 2,781 9.1

The above figures show first, an increase in the numbers of factories and of workers, and secondly, an enormous increase in capital invested and value of products. Canadian manufacturing industry has increased 300 per cent. in the last ten years, according to the High Commissioner of Canada (“Manchester Guardian Commercial,” 11.10.23). In 1880, 95 per cent, of the area of Canada was agricultural, in 1920 only 67 per cent.

(b) The development of MINING shows the same tendency:

Value of mineral output, mil. dols.
1913 114.0
1920 217.8
1924 209.5
1925 238.4

Coal output, thousand tons
1914 13,600
1919 13,590
1924 16,991
1925 13,135

Lead, mil. pds.
1914 33.3
1920 34.0
1923 111.2
1925 253.6

Zinc, mil. pds.
1914 7.2
1917 29.7
1922 56.4
1925 111.0

Nickel, mil. pds.
1914 45.5
1920 61.1
1924 69.5
1925 73.1

The same tendencies are to be observed in Australia.


No. of establish-
No. of workers Value of plant machinery
(mils. of pounds)
Value of output
(mils. of pounds)
of horse
power used
1909 13,197 266,661 26.9 106.0
1913 15,550 337,162 37.3 161.6 442,154
1919-20 16,291 276,700 60.0 292.0 660,016
1920-21 17,113 386,639 68.7 324.6 742,481
1921-22 18,023 335,400 78.1 320.3 798,093
1923-24 20,189 429,990 99.6 348.6 1,110,774

(In millions of pounds)

Agriculture Pastoral Dairying,
Poultry, etc.
Mining Manufacturing
(Value of output)
1901 23.8 36.9 21.9
1911 38.8 69.8 23.5 51.3
1921 81.9 69.3 44.4 10.4 20.0 320.3
1924 81.1 145.0 24.7 348.6


No. of workers
(In thousands)
Value of Machinery
(In mils. of pounds)
lbs. of wool used
(In thousands of pounds)
Value of output
(In mils. of pounds)
1901 1,619 214 6,024
1911 3,030 437 8,827
1921 6,101 1,850 26,153 4.1
1924 7,532 3,000 4.9

According to the Department of Overseas Trade of the British Government, in its report for June, 1925, in some cases the establishment of British factories in Australia has not been successful. This, the report says, is partly due “to the fact that the home market has not proved big enough to absorb the product of works whose efficiency demands a considerable output. It will soon be necessary, even if it is not now necessary, for Australian industry in certain sections to find an export outlet in order to overcome this difficulty.”

According to the “Manchester Guardian Commercial,” 21st June, 1923, “Australia in the matter of woollen goods is rapidly becoming self-supporting,” as besides existing firms English firms are rapidly becoming established.

These tables illustrate the rising competition in manufactured goods, and the problem with regard to the export of raw materials from the Dominions. The chronic industrial depression in Britain has caused a decline in the home market, and the Dominions are compelled to sell out of the Empire and therefore also to buy out of the Empire. Witness the statement of the Australian Trade Commissioner already quoted, and the statement of the South African Trade Commissioner in London last year on the demand for new markets to absorb the exports. Whilst the “Times” of December 23rd, 1926, reports the placing of a £400,000 order for locomotives in Germany as against a £100,000 order to the English engineering firm of Beyer Peacock. The question of markets in relation to the developing forces of production is fundamental.

“Flight” of Capital

This problem is not made easier by the export of capital to the dominions, even when there is surplus capital to export. Still less is this the case when the export of capital assumes the form of a “flight of capital” to the dominions or elsewhere. And this is the stage which has been reached in the decline of British capitalism. Leading capitalists now openly propose and are actually beginning to transfer their industrial apparatus to the sources of the raw material, a policy advocated by Sir A. Mond, the head of the new chemical trust, and which has become a feature of leading bourgeois journals (see article by McCurdy in the December 26th “Contemporary Review”). When capital takes flight in this form it is difficult to conceive how it can strengthen the “bonds of Empire,” whatever its effect may be on parasitism in Britain itself. It is not parasitism that stimulates the development of the economy upon which the great masses of Britain depend, but the development of markets, demanding the full utilisation of the apparatus of British industry.

This process, however, whilst moving the capital and industrial apparatus, does not take with it the masses who are thrown out of employment. Only a small proportion of skilled labour is transferred, whilst the army of unemployed swells in Britain itself. The possibility of unloading the millions of unemployed workers on to the dominions is out of the question, whilst in the colonies there is a teeming population to be drawn into industry under slave conditions.

Growing Parasitism of Britain

The growth of parasitism in Britain is therefore not the sign of developing unity within the British Empire, but the very opposite—the hall-mark of decline. For the continuation of the impoverishment of the masses of Britain, the shifting of her capital and industry to other countries does not strengthen Britain’s position as a market, but the very opposite. Colonial development can only strengthen and develop the power of Britain just so long as it takes the form of lending money to an industrially backward country for the purchase of British manufactured products. When the development of colonies has got past this stage, every step forward in the industrialisation of dominions and colonies accentuates the contradictions of the Empire and tends to pull it asunder, as the problem of markets in relation to the forces of production becomes more acute.

Colonies and Markets

Much is made of the high purchase per head of population in the Dominions, and of the fact that 40 per cent. of Britain’s exports go to the dominions, as pointing the way to salvation. It is argued that this proves the correctness of developing Empire trade, forgetful of the fact that the high water marls of purchases has been reached by the comparatively small population. This problem has been stated by the British Shipping industry in a Memorandum submitted to the Board of Trade. It says:

“To find markets for our exports (it is pointed out) the greater the purchasing power of the individual the better it is for us, but we must have a large body of purchasers. For example, New Zealand takes from us, at £16, the highest average value of imports per head of population, but as her population is only 1½ millions she needs and takes under 3 per cent. of the total value of our exports. On the other hand, the United States shows, at 9s., one of the lowest average values of imports per head of population, but as that population is 105 millions, she needs and takes nearly 7 per cent. of the total value of our exports. Again, it is claimed that both Canada and Australia have the land and the climate to enable them to produce all the imported wheat and most of the imported meat and dairy produce consumed in this country; but with a population of under nine millions in Canada, and about 5½ millions in Australia, it is obvious that even if all the imported food we consumed were raised there we would never buy it, as there is not a sufficient number of buyers in those countries to consume the only things we could offer in exchange, namely, our manufactures.”

Insoluble Contradictions

This at once presents us again with the problem of emigration, which Mr. Baldwin declared to the Empire Conference “transcends all others in importance, so far as many of us represented here are concerned . . . .” For six years there have been from one to two millions unemployed in Britain. Nevertheless there is less emigration to-day than before the war, although emigration receives State aid now and did not previously. These facts alone demonstrate that there must be a tremendous obstacle which prevents emigration. What is the obstacle? Plainly it can only be that the Dominions do not want the impoverished masses of Britain, but immigrants with capital, and they neither fall from the skies nor rise from British pauperism.

On every fundamental question before the Conference similar insoluble contradictions were evident.