Imperial Federation had nothing to do with Australian Federation, which would occur only 15 years later in 1901. The Imperial Federation movement, which was active from the 1880s for a few decades, was an attempt to form a political and defence alliance between Britain and its colonies of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada.
It is impossible for anyone to visit Australia without speculating upon the future that awaits a country possessing such enormous natural wealth and resources. The rapid development that has taken place in every part of this continent during the past thirty years--a development for which there is no parallel in history--makes it certain that before long Australia will form a very considerable item in making up the balance of political power throughout the world. Already she has become a financial power of the first magnitude, and the annual yield of gold in Victoria alone has no small share in determining the value of money in every market from Hong-Kong to London.
It is obvious that a country with the natural advantages of Australia, inhabited, as she is, by the only race who have ever proved themselves able to rise from a colony into a nation, has before her, if she choose to claim it, an existence as one of the independent powers of the world. The question, therefore, naturally arises as to whether she will elect to remain a portion of the British Empire, or whether she will prefer to sever the connection that binds her to the mother country.
In the whole history of the world there has probably never been a question raised of such stupendous importance. The remarks which apply to Australia apply with equal force to Canada, and the subject involves a consideration of the British Empire as a whole, its possible development, its possible disintegration, and the relation of both these contingencies to the future of England herself, of her colonies, and of the whole world.
Opinion on the subject may be divided into three classes.
Firstly, there is the opinion of those who believe that the existing relations between England and her colonies are sufficiently close to secure the permanent unity of the Empire, in spite of the causes which at present threaten to break it up. This opinion may fairly be taken as an epitome of the ignorance of those who know nothing whatever about the subject.
Secondly, there is the opinion of those who recognise the likelihood of disintegration, but who face it with perfect equanimity, and entirely deny the possibility of framing any scheme of Federation that will avert it. This is a much more comprehensive class of ignorance than the first, a species of perverted knowledge which has been crystallised into drivelling similes. Colonies are compared to children who leave their parents as soon as they are grown up, or to fruit dropping off a tree when it is ripe. It is impossible to condemn too harshly such mischievous fallacies as these. Our Colonies are not the fruit, they are the branches of the tree itself--stalwart limbs of a mighty empire--and they drop off, not when they are ripe, but when the connection between them and the mother country is rotten.
Thirdly, there is the opinion of those who share neither the false security of the optimists nor the apathy of the pessimists, and who, while they see clearly the disintegrating causes that are undermining the fabric of the Empire, have set themselves resolutely to work to elaborate a practical scheme for reconstructing its political organisation upon a permanent basis. These are the men who, with a full recognition of the danger of doing nothing, and of the difficulty of doing anything, have rescued Imperial Federation from the misty regions of dreamland, and brought it within the scope of practical politics.
The standard of Imperial Federation has been set up, and the alacrity with which men of all political parties, in every part of the Empire, have hastened to enlist in the ranks of its supporters, proves conclusively how powerful a hold the idea has over all the leading spirits of the age. The extraordinary support which it has received at the outset has almost entirely silenced the enemies of the [Imperial Federation] League which has now been formed. Here and there some editor of a newspaper, determined to prove that his ignorance does not arise from want of information, but from inability to digest it, exposes the petrifaction of his intellect in the shape of an article sneering at the promoters of Imperial Federation, because they have as yet laid down no definite scheme.
Fortunately it is not by babbling critics such as these that the matter will be decided.
Mr. Gladstone [the British Prime Minister] repudiates the idea of Imperial Federation as "wholly visionary," and declares that the most he hopes for as a statesman is to effect a separation from the Colonies without bloodshed.
Those who imagine that the existing relations between England and her Colonies are satisfactory will do well to study the New Guinea question, for it is one which conclusively proves that the Empire cannot remain united upon its present political basis.
The main facts connected with the case are well known to all. New Guinea is an island off the north-east coast of Queensland. Its southern shores form one side of Torres Straits, which is one of the main approaches to Australia, and altogether the island bears about the same geographical relation to Queensland that Ireland does to England.
For many years New Guinea has always been looked upon as belonging by natural right to the continent of Australia; but it was not until the danger of foreign annexation was felt that Australian statesmen realised the importance of at once securing the island for their country.
So great was the scare lest France should secure a foothold in the island, that even the delay of applying to the English Government was felt to be dangerous, and Queensland annexed the whole unoccupied portion of the island, with the full consent of Australia, and then invited the English Government to sanction the annexation.
The contemptuous incivility with which the Australian proposals were met proves, not only that Lord Derby [the British Colonial Secretary] had no sense of the delicate relations between a mother country and her colonies, but also that he entirely failed to realise the intrinsic importance of the question.
Setting aside any question of good feeling or decent behaviour, so as to bring the matter as far as possible within the scope of the present Foreign Office, it was surely most impolitic to irritate Australia by an uncivil demurrer to her just claims, when there was nothing whatever to be gained by opposing them.
Finding that open opposition was arousing a feeling in Australia which it would be difficult to deal with, Lord Derby then had recourse to treachery to accomplish his object of thwarting the wishes of the Australians. Yielding so far to the pressure which was brought to bear upon him, he annexed a portion of the island, and allayed the fears of Australia on the score of foreign intervention, by giving the most unqualified assurances that no other Power should be allowed to touch New Guinea.
While these very assurances were on their way out to the Colonies, it now transpires that Lord Derby and Lord Granville were engaged in handing over a portion of New Guinea to Germany, for no other conceivable purpose than at once to insult and to injure the most loyal of communities.
We look in vain for the motive which prompted this betrayal of Australian interests, but the result is, unfortunately, only too apparent. The question is not one of sentiment, but of real and tangible interest.
In annexing New Guinea, Australia was simply making a wise and politic effort to avail herself of geographical advantages, to secure a peaceful future. But the presence of the most powerful military nation in Europe, in an island adjacent to her shores, has entirely altered the prospects of Australia, and has inflicted a lasting injury upon her future.
It is not by the geographical advantages of an isolated position, but by an enormous addition to her naval and military force, that Australia must in future be prepared to secure herself from foreign aggression; and for this she has only the English Government to thank.
The surrender of Australian interests to Germany by English statesmen has aroused a feeling of bitter resentment and humiliation throughout the Colonies, and the feeling is not likely to be weakened by the discovery that while the action itself was discreditable to statesmen, the manner in which it was done was unworthy of gentlemen.
There exists in Australia, among all classes, a feeling of loyalty and affection for the old country that has been well described as a passion. To those who look below the surface, there is something very instructive of the sentiment that prompts all Australians, born and bred in the colony, invariably to speak of England as "home," though very possibly they may never have been there, and never intend to go.
It is evident, then, that if the Empire is to hold together, the Colonies must be prepared to contribute their due share towards its defence. That they are perfectly willing to do so there is little doubt, provided that their true position as integral portions of the Empire be recognised. England lost America because in the days of her weakness she never made it worth her while to continue as part of the Empire. She made the fatal mistake of treating her as an outlying estate, from which as much as possible was to be squeezed for her own benefit; and the consequence was, as soon as America was strong enough she severed the connection.
The slightest attempt on the part of England to repeat the same tactics with regard to Australia at the present time, or to treat with her otherwise than as an equal in the matter of Federation, would inevitably be followed by separation. And very justly so; for the question of Imperial Federation, though it is undoubtedly for the advantage both of England and of Australia, is of infinitely greater importance to the future of the mother country than to that of the colony. Both Australia and Canada have before them a glorious future, whether they remain portions of the Empire or become independent. But the future of England herself, deprived of her Colonies, is too gloomy a picture to dwell upon for a moment.
Indeed the Disintegration of the Empire would be a sufficiently deplorable catastrophe, supposing that it were inevitable. It is rendered doubly so by the brilliant prospect that is opened up by the possibility of Federation.
There is now, outside of England herself, a population of 10,000,000 of Englishmen, inhabiting a territory of almost boundless extent, and with unlimited cpabilities for development. In about fifty years these 10,000,000 will have increased to 50,000,000, which, with the population of the mother country, will make a total of at least 100,000,000.
The question, therefore, for Englishmen in every quarter of the globe to ask themselves is this: Are we, by a wise and far-seeing policy, going to unite this enormous nationality in the close relations of an Imperial Federation; or are we, by neglecting the lessons of the past, and by ignoring the warnings of the present, going to allow the vast mass to resolve itself into hostile and helpless fragments, most of which will fall into obscurity among the increasing Powers of the world?
Shall our children and our grandchildren see the sublime spectacle of 100,000,000 of the most highly-civilised race in the world, inhabiting an Empire upon which the sun never sets, united by the bonds of race and religion, and still more closely united by the interests of an inter-dependent trade, secure from the attack of any foe from without, and developing an ever-increasing prosperity within; or shall they be forced to mourn over the ruins of the finest Empire that the world has ever seen, to watch one after another of its provinces detached from the their centre, whether alienated by England's own folly or torn from her by a Power which she can no longer resist; and, finally, to watch England herself, shorn of the strength which her remote Dependencies alone can give her, sinking beneath the burden of a paralysed trade and an enormous population, into an obscurity among the nations from which she will never rise again?
A Federation of all parts of the British Empire would form by far the most mighty Power that has ever existed in the world, and could laugh at any possible combination of hostile nations. England's future as one of the leading Powers depends upon the success of the movement that has now started; and we believe that although an independent existence is open to more than one of her Colonies, they will one and all prefer the still more glorious future that awaits them as portions of the Empire of Greater Britain.
Jim Foley || Email me