ALMOST universal approval, in Great Britain and all the self-governing dominions, has greeted the conclusions of the Imperial Conference; and this on the part both of those who desire to increase and of those who desire to lessen the solidarity of the Empire. By many commentators the report adopted by the Conference is thought to be merely a statement of existing relations; by others it is regarded as another step in a progress that has long been going on. To appreciate how far each of these points of view is true, one must be acquainted with the history of self-government in the colonies and of their relations to the mother country. Treating the subject in his lectures on the third British Empire, Mr. Alfred Zimmern[i] is quite right in saying that this history is better traced in the case of Canada than elsewhere, because there the process began earliest, has been most continuous, and whatever was achieved in her case has been adopted later elsewhere.

Thirty years after the conquest of Canada in the Seven Years' War, representative assemblies were created in the two provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, the people of the former being English, those of the latter mainly French; but in each of these provinces the governor, appointed by the Crown, and the elected assembly failed to work in harmony, and there resulted the friction which is ordinarily produced by that method of constituting the executive and legislative organs in a dependency. It continued until in 1837 rebellions broke out in both provinces. These were in each case easily suppressed, but led to Lord Durham's famous report, in which he urged that the ministers of the royal governor should be responsible in domestic matters to the Canadian assemblies, as the King's ministers are to Parliament. The principle was adopted gradually and it was not until ten years later that Lord Durham's son-in-law, Lord Elgin, carried his suggestion fully into effect. Save for the possibility of having an act disallowed by the Crown -- that is by the Cabinet in England -- Canada thus acquired substantial control of its own internal affairs; the same practice being later extended to Australia and New Zealand, and finally to the Union of South Africa.

One cannot, however, draw an absolute line between what is domestic and what is foreign. In 1859 the United Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada passed an act for a protective duty on foreign goods, including those coming from Great Britain; and this of course affected not only the people of Canada but also the trade of other places. In spite, however, of opposition by British manufacturers, the home government yielded, and the right of a self-governing colony to place a tariff on both foreign and British goods was thereby established.

A still wider extension of control over foreign relations was just beginning. A reciprocity treaty had been made between Canada and the United States in 1854, and the principle of leaving the self-governing colonies free to manage their own trade relations was gradually enlarged until by the time of the Great War it had come to be the habit not to include them in British commercial treaties without their own consent. Obviously these colonies had outgrown the condition where each of them could be regarded as an isolated community, entrusted with the management of its own local affairs, but having no direct relations with the rest of the world. There were common interests in the Empire to be considered, and from 1887 a series of colonial conferences was held in Canada. In 1907 the title Imperial Conference came into use for these meetings, which became more important, more truly consultative, and took place in London. In that of 1911 the Government of Great Britain suggested contributions to its navy; but Canada and Australia preferred small navies of their own. Three years later came the war.

This brief sketch may be summarized by saying that Canada, followed by the other self-governing colonies, had from time to time been asking for a greater degree of autonomy, which was always granted when the demand appeared to be serious. In fact, while it was possible to describe with some accuracy the relation of each of these colonies to the mother country at any one time, the practical situation was that they could obtain any amount of autonomy that they earnestly desired. It was perfectly understood that neither the Cabinet nor the Parliament at Westminster would resist such a demand, and hence that the nature of the connection with the mother country would be determined by the progressive wishes of the colonies. A symptom of the adolescence of these communities appears in the fact that about this time they preferred to be called dominions, taking the name used for Canada in the British-North American Act of 1867, which is in effect the present constitution of Canada. It may be observed, also, that there was no general desire on the part of either British or dominion statesmen to form a federation, or set up a common political organ. The control of the government at Westminster was slackening, and nothing was being prepared to take its place.

The war showed the magnificent readiness of the dominions to play their part, and stand beside the mother country, in her great struggle; but at the same time it developed a stronger sense of nationality in each of them. This was shown at the Imperial Conference of 1917, where Resolution IX, after declaring that the constitutional relations of the component parts of the Empire should form the subject of a special Imperial Conference after the war, went on to say --

"They deem it their duty, however, to place on record their view that any such readjustment, while thoroughly preserving all existing powers of self-government and complete control of domestic affairs, should be based upon a full recognition of the Dominions as autonomous nations of an Imperial Commonwealth, and of India as an important portion of the same, should recognize the right of the Dominions and India to an adequate voice in foreign policy and in foreign relations, and should provide effective arrangements for continuous consultation in all important matters of common Imperial concern, and for such necessary concerted action, founded on consultation, as the several governments may determine."

It may be observed that the dominions are spoken of as "nations" with their "several governments," but although something was said by Borden of Canada, Smuts of South Africa and Ward of New Zealand about the equality of the nations composing the Imperial Commonwealth, there is no such statement in the resolution; and, indeed, it conveys the impression of autonomy in domestic matters and an adequate, but not necessarily equal or independent, voice in foreign affairs. Apparently it was understood otherwise in the dominions, for in March, 1919, when the Treaty of Peace was being discussed and they were claiming the right to become parties thereto, they declared that: "The Crown is the Supreme Executive in the United Kingdom and in all the Dominions, but it acts on the advice of different ministries within different constitutional units; and under Resolution IX of the Imperial War Conference, 1917, the organization of the Empire is to be based upon equality of nationhood." Acting on this principle, the dominions signed the peace treaties and became members of the League of Nations as distinct and separate states.

From this time the leading dominions were anxious to establish fully the international character of their autonomy and equality of nationhood. Canada asked, and obtained, the right to send a minister of her own to Washington, a privilege which she is acting upon only at this moment; while the Irish Free State, when given the same position as Canada, sent her minister at once. The consequences of the status attained began to be rapidly drawn. When the Great War broke out, every foreigner would have assumed that Great Britain being at war, all parts of the Empire were so likewise; but when, after it was over, the question arose of preventing by force the Turks from crossing into Europe, the Premier of Canada said that her Parliament must determine whether the country should take part in a war in which other parts of the British Empire might be involved. Later, when the treaty was made with Turkey at Lausanne, he took the ground that the Canadian Government assumed no responsibility for treaties which it did not help to negotiate; and the treaty has remained unratified by Canada. Again, the failure of the Protocol was due to the refusal of the dominions to accept it, a policy of aloofness which they maintained in the case of the Locarno Pact, while approving of Great Britain's binding herself thereby. So much for the right of the dominions to refuse to be bound by treaties made by the mother country.

Meanwhile, Canada had gone a step farther in claiming the right to make treaties by herself, without the interference of Great Britain. In 1923 the treaty regulating the halibut fishery on the Pacific coast was negotiated between Canada and the United States; and the method of its execution was felt to present a test case. Canada asked that it should be signed by her representative alone. This the British Ambassador at Washington, acting evidently under instructions from the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, refused. The Canadian Cabinet insisted, and finally, after obvious disagreement between the colonial and foreign offices in Downing Street, the latter gave way, and the treaty bore the signature of the Canadian agent alone. At this point the United States Senate, quite unconscious of Canada's object, curiously blind to its aspirations, and fearing that the treaty would not prevent the taking of halibut by fishing boats belonging to inhabitants of the British isles, inserted in the ratification an understanding "that none of the nationals and inhabitants and vessels and boats of any other part of Great Britain shall engage in halibut fishing contrary to any provisions of this treaty;" a reservation that would, of course, necessitate the signature of the treaty by the British Ambassador. Thereupon Canada waited, the matter was explained, the Senate withdrew its reservation, and the treaty was ratified. At the Imperial Conference that same autumn the question of the making of treaties of course came up, and characteristically enough, without any express declaration on the subject, the Conference passed a resolution which assumed the right of each dominion to make its own treaties and provided for the forms of signature.

Such was the situation at the time the recent Imperial Conference met on October 19, 1926. One of its first acts was to refer the question of inter-imperial relations to a committee which included the Prime Ministers of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Newfoundland, the Vice President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, the Secretary of State for India, and the British Secretaries of State for foreign and for dominion affairs, with Lord Balfour as Chairman. The committee made on November 18 a report, which was unanimously adopted by the Conference the next day. It is not a statute or treaty, much less a constitution, and some of its recommendations will require legislation to give them effect; but as a declaration of the relations between the self-governing members of the Empire it may be regarded as conclusive; and here it may be well to observe that the term Empire includes all the dependencies, whereas the group of self-governing portions thereof is now known as the British Commonwealth of Nations.

The Report begins by saying that "nothing would be gained by attempting to lay down a constitution for the British Empire," which "bears no real resemblance to any other organization which now exists or ever has been tried." It goes on to define the position and mutual relations of Great Britain and the dominions as follows: "They are autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinated one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations." Commenting on this, the committee remarked that geographical and other conditions made federation impossible, and the only alternative was autonomy; that free institutions are the lifeblood of the British Empire, free coöperation its instrument, and "though every dominion is now, and must always remain, the sole judge of the nature and extent of its coöperation, no cause will, in our opinion, be thereby imperiled."

To satisfy the Irish Free State, the Report proceeds to advise that in the royal title the words "of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British Dominions beyond the seas King," etc., should be changed to "of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the seas King," etc. This has provoked objection from Ulster, but has no significance for the relation between the mother country and the dominions. The next clause deals with the position of the governor general, and is of much greater importance. It declares that this officer holds "in all essential respects the same position in relation to the administration of public affairs in the dominion as is held by His Majesty the King in Great Britain, and that he is not the representative or agent of His Majesty's government in Great Britain or of any department of that government. . . . It was thought that the recognized official channel of communication should be in future between government and government direct." That is certainly an innovation, but it follows logically from the equality of status, for it means that the representative of the Crown in a dominion shall be advised wholly by the Cabinet there, and shall be in nowise responsible to the Cabinet in Great Britain. The same principle applies to legislation and the royal disallowance of dominion acts. The committee, therefore, proposed to place "on record that, apart from provisions embodied in constitutions or in specific statutes expressly providing for reservation, it is recognized that it is the right of the government of each dominion to advise the Crown in all matters relating to its own affairs. Consequently, it would not be in accordance with constitutional practice for advice to be tendered to His Majesty by His Majesty's government in Great Britain in any matter appertaining to the affairs of a dominion against the views of the government of that dominion;" and "the constitutional practice is that legislation by the Parliament at Westminster applying to a dominion would only be passed with the consent of the dominion concerned." The details are to be worked out by a committee, -- the appointment of another committee being recommended to consider uniformity in shipping legislation.

The thorny question of appeals to the judicial committee of the privy council was left to each part of the Empire primarily affected, with the proviso that where issues were raised in which other parts were also concerned, changes in the present system should be carried out only after consultation and discussion.

A larger part of the Report is devoted to relations with foreign countries than to any other subject, and, as the Conference of 1923 assumed the right to make separate treaties, so this one assumes the right of separate negotiations of all kinds; recommendations, however, being made about giving notice of any matters that might interest other parts of the Empire. Standard forms of treaties are set forth, to conform more than those hitherto in use to the principle of equality among the members of the British Commonwealth of Nations. In regard to the general conduct of foreign affairs, it "was frankly recognized that in this sphere, as in the sphere of defense, the major share of responsibility rests now, and must for some time continue to rest, with His Majesty's government in Great Britain. Nevertheless, practically all the dominions are engaged to some extent, and some to a considerable extent, in the conduct of foreign relations, particularly those with foreign countries on their borders. . . . We felt that the governing consideration underlying all discussions of this problem must be that neither Great Britain nor the dominions could be committed to the acceptance of active obligations except with the definite assent of their own governments." "In cases other than those where dominion ministers were accredited to the heads of foreign states, it was agreed to be very desirable that the existing diplomatic channels should continue to be used as between the dominion governments and foreign governments, in matters of general and political concern." In short, the dominions can, if they choose, send ministers of their own to foreign countries, but until this is necessary they are advised to use the diplomats of Great Britain.

The Conference discussed also matters relating to coöperation in defense, to registry of British nationality, to economic questions, etc.; but none of these affect the autonomy, or equality, of the members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

The results of the Conference may be considered under three aspects, -- legal, political and coöperative.

The legal may prove to be the least important, and it is certainly the simplest. Assuming that the statements in the Report are final and will be carried into effect, the dominions are no longer to be in any way under the control of Great Britain, or subject to her authority. She stands only in the position of a primus inter pares, for all are equal. The sole legal bond is the King. It is more accurate to say the King than the Crown, for the latter in Great Britain includes all the functions vested therein by acts of Parliament, which are not always the same in the dominions. Again, it might be misleading in this connection to speak of the King as the Sovereign, for the British use that term in two different senses. Popularly it is used for the wearer of the Crown; but among political philosophers it means the ultimate source of authority, and in that sense the sovereignty in Great Britain, although delegated to Parliament, resides in the last resort in the electorate, as from this time forth it will also in the dominions.

The only bond, then, is the King; not the King in council or in Parliament, but the King in person. It has been suggested that, as in the United States two flags are habitually used on public occasions, -- the Stars and Stripes and the ensign of the state in which the function takes place, -- so a similar practice might be adopted in the British Empire, and in that case the logical flag common to all would be the royal standard. Legally the condition is the same as when William the Third was also Staathalter of the United Netherlands, and when the four Georges were Electors of Hanover. In these cases the personal authority of the monarch was different in the two countries. Moreover, as head of the state he might be at war in one of them and not in the other; and his ministers in one had no control over his actions in the other. The present situation is in many respects quite unlike that at the time of William the Third or of the Georges; but legally the position is the same, notably in the fact that, as a common head did not make Great Britain and the Netherlands or Hanover a single state or prevent their being constitutionally independent, so does it not in the case of Great Britain and the dominions. States, indeed, bound together in an association of any kind, without a common organ of government, must in the nature of things be legally and politically independent; because the very definition of independence is not being subject, wholly or in part, to any control by an external authority.

At the time of the halibut treaty between Canada and the United States, Professor Arthur Berriedale Keith, the great authority on responsible government in the dominions, remarked in a letter to the Times that without an imperial government there could be no Empire. That depends on what is meant by a government, or an organ of government, and what by Empire, and these are political rather than legal questions. Coming, therefore, to the political aspect of the question, we must ask ourselves, is the King personally an organ of government? In the sense of a ruler who has authority, legal or practical, to ordain what he thinks best, he certainly is not. He is one of the organs of government, but not the final one, and such powers as he possesses he must use on the advice of the cabinet in that member of the British Commonwealth of Nations to which the matter pertains. In Great Britain, indeed, his personal views, as expressed to his ministers, are not negligible, and may be important; but by no means to such an extent that he could be regarded as the common ruler, or political head, of Great Britain and other countries in a similar condition. Are his personal views likely to carry more weight in the dominions where he is at a distance and less familiar with the conditions? His powers there are delegated to a governor general, presumably appointed and removable on the advice of the local cabinet, for although this is not expressly mentioned in the Report it follows from the principle that all the King's acts are to be performed on the advice of the cabinet in the place to which they relate. In any case he is not an external authority in the dominions. He is a part of the mechanism of government there as in Great Britain. The fact that he habitually resides elsewhere is constitutionally unimportant, for his position is not unlike what it is in England when he happens to travel abroad.

The dominions would appear to be hereafter wholly free in the matter of legislation. Mr. Baldwin, indeed, has stated in the House of Commons that the right of veto on dominion legislation is not affected. Legally that is true. Even in Great Britain the legal right of the King to refuse assent to bills passed by Parliament still exists, but it has not been used since the reign of Queen Anne; nor is it likely to be capable of being practically used in the dominions, for, as intimated in the Report "through the Secretary of State for dominion affairs," "His Majesty will not be advised to exercise his powers of disallowance with regard to" acts of the dominion parliaments. Another of the attributes of independent nations, that of making treaties and negotiating on all subjects with foreign states, has now been conceded. In fact, Canada and the Irish Free State have already appointed their ministers to the United States. Moreover, the dominions being no longer subordinate, and the governors general no longer agents of the government at Westminster, there will be need of some kind of diplomats like those exchanged between independent states. It was therefore proposed in the Report to appoint representatives of Great Britain in the dominions and vice versa. Hence the latter would appear to have become, legally and politically, in both domestic and foreign matters, independent states.

But the legal and political aspects are not all. There are great possibilities of coöperation; there is a strong sentiment for the Empire; and at the recent Conference arrangements for common action were proposed, and a cordiality of spirit was shown, which has made people believe that the cohesion of the different parts of the Empire will become stronger rather than weaker. To discuss that question would be in the nature of prophecy. Yet it may be noted that three forces which draw peoples strongly together are only in part present. Anything in the nature of a common tariff is wholly out of the question, because the principal dominions are protectionist, and while willing to give preferences to British over foreign goods, are by no means prepared to forego protective tariffs against British competition with their own industries. Great Britain, also, although ready to favor some of the less important raw products of the colonies, cannot contemplate a general tariff on foodstuffs in their favor.

Another force that draws peoples together is the need of common defense, but while for military and naval objects Great Britain is far more powerful than the dominions, they are not all in need of her help. The United States would never permit any hostile army to land on the shores of Canada; and without first crippling the United States, no hostile army would venture to do so, thereby subjecting itself to attack from the south on the long frontier. Canada, therefore, is absolutely protected from invasion by what, for that purpose, is the most powerful nation in the world. There is, in fact, no country quite so safe as Canada. Save for her shipping, she has no need of defense by the British army or navy, and in her present international position she cannot be brought into a foreign war without her own consent, -- this last being true also of the other dominions.

A third influence that binds peoples together is that of a common citizenship, with a right to travel and settle freely in any part of their domain, but this is by no means true of the British Empire. Not only are British subjects of oriental race more or less completely excluded from the dominions, but residents of England are subject in Canada to immigration laws that do not apply to her own native born. In touching at Halifax four years ago the writer was impressed by the division of the passengers about to land into Canadians, other British subjects and foreigners, each group being treated in a different way. It was a striking example of the absence of unity in citizenship even among the white subjects of the King; but the English passengers did not appear in the least surprised or offended.

The absence of these three forces of cohesion, although tending to reduce, does not exclude a sense of imperial unity and a desire to cling together. The combination of legal independence and a spirit of coöperation is perhaps the reason that those persons who have desired greater autonomy, and those who have desired to perpetuate and strengthen the Empire, are both pleased with the results of the Conference. This is well illustrated by the immediate effect of the announcement in South Africa, where the two political parties had been sharply at odds over the relations to the Empire; the South African party -- mostly English -- desiring to maintain, if not strengthen, the imperial ties; while the Nationalist party -- mainly Dutch -- of which General Hertzog, Prime Minister and delegate to the Conference, is the leader, have been anxious to achieve independence. Article IV of their program stated their wish for sovereign independence, and they have been advocating a bill for a separate flag. When the news of the result of the Conference came, both parties accepted it with joy. General Hertzog was reported as saying that what had been achieved would satisfy the people of South Africa, both Dutch and English-speaking; and General Smuts, the leader of the South African party, who desired autonomy and international recognition thereof, while opposed to separation from the Empire, was also pleased, but remarked that the acid test for the good faith of General Hertzog would be found in the dropping of Article IV from the program of the Nationalist party. At the same time others called upon that party to give up the demand for a separate flag. On the other hand, Mr. Roos, the acting Prime Minister, though highly approving of the Report of the Conference, remarked, "If we have got greater independence than the Article calls for, it can remain because it can do no harm; if we have got the same independence the Article demands, it can remain; if we have not yet reached the goal, the Article can remain as an ideal for the future." Dr. Malan, another member of the Cabinet, also believed in retaining Article IV, and added that "a free, independent South Africa without our own flag would be so unnatural that we ourselves would appear foolish in the eyes of the world if we decided not to have our own flag. I believe that all sober-minded sections will now be prepared more than ever to have this flag." The newspapers have rung the changes on these questions, each side insisting that it had won what it was after, -- one the attainment of independence, the other that of remaining within the Empire.

In fact a divergence of opinion on the achievements of the Conference may easily be the result of regarding them from different standpoints. Great Britain is a world power, and also essentially a European nation. Her statesmen are constantly obliged to face, often not without anxiety, problems that arise among their continental neighbors; and at the same time others in the Near East, in India or in China. They must consider how a course of conduct toward the Turks, for example, will affect the sentiments of Mohammedans in various parts of the Empire. But in most of these things the dominions are little interested, for they are neither European nor world powers. Their aims are for the most part centred in their problems at home, or with their immediate neighbors. Hence the government in London thinks more about quiet and coöperation throughout its vast field of contacts than of its precise relation to far away dominions; while these are more concerned with the right to manage their own affairs in their own way. They do not feel bound to assume obligations in which they have no interest, and Great Britain with its wide and complex connections cannot limit its engagements to what they will accept.

The right of independence seems certainly to have been attained, under the mantle, or the shadow, or in the light of the Empire. Metaphors are dangerous, for they are sometimes misleading. No one of the dominions can now be constrained to adopt, or compelled to abstain from, any policy contrary to its wishes. It is free to coöperate with other parts of the Empire or not; but so long as the sentiment for that Empire is strong, and conflicting interests do not oppose it, the cohesion is likely to remain. The independence of the dominions, the absence of authority over them by Great Britain, are real, and some people will say that having obtained legal and political independence, the question whether this is enjoyed within or outside of the Empire is merely one of name. Others will urge that it is a substantial matter of attitude, and that the name helps to maintain the attitude of mind. So far as the dominions are concerned the British Empire has become, legally and constitutionally, little, if anything, more than a name. Its real bond is that of tradition and sentiment; a desire for harmonious action with very imperfect instruments for the purpose, and with the handicap of long distances and comparatively slight common interests. In the absence of any attempt at federation, which has of late been out of the question, the evolution of self-government has borne its logical fruit. It has brought the dominions to a condition of full constitutional independence. No doubt the powers that appertain to such a condition will be used sparingly at first, but they can hardly fail to be applied more and more freely as the larger dominions become more conscious of nationhood, and come into more direct relations with other countries. The process of development that has produced the present situation has been continuous and may be expected to continue.

Meanwhile, one or two matters are worthy of notice. It has already been remarked that the British Commonwealth of Nations means Great Britain and the self-governing dominions. With a few small exceptions, like the mandates of Australia and New Zealand over certain islands, the rest of the Empire, which has not self-government, is under the direct control of Great Britain. In it the dominions have no share except so far as Great Britain chooses to accord it to them. Just as she has no claim to the wheat of Canada, the wool of Australia or the gold of South Africa, and no right which cannot be cut off to sell her manufactures in those countries; so they have no right to the rubber and tin of the Federated Malay States, or to the products of India and tropical Africa, which are under her control.

To Americans another matter of interest is how, if at all, the development in the status of the dominions should affect the conduct of our country. That we should send diplomatic representatives to Canada and the Irish Free State in return for those they have sent to Washington would seem to be merely a matter of common courtesy; and of course we should do the same if any other of the dominions should want to send ministers to us. If we are to negotiate with Canada in future it should be directly with her representative, without seeking the intervention of the British Ambassador. The Canadian minister ought to inform him if the matter interests other parts of the Empire, but that is his affair, not ours. If, on the other hand, we wish to deal with Australia alone, there being no interchange of diplomats between us, we must do it through the British Ambassador. In doing so, however, we are not dealing with the government of Great Britain, but through the Ambassador solely for, and under the instructions of, the government of Australia; and, in accordance with the forms approved by the Conference, the agreement reached is to be signed by him on behalf of His Majesty the King for the Commonwealth of Australia. Such an agreement would not bind, or in any way commit, Great Britain. As our trade and that of the dominions grow greater, the need of direct diplomatic intercourse with them will increase, to say nothing of the fact that they are sure to apply to American bankers for loans more than in the past.

Whether the Report of the Conference is an authoritative statement of the existing international position of the members of the British Commonwealth of Nations, or marks a further step in the progress that has long been going on, it is a pronouncement to all men of the condition that must henceforth be accepted by other nations. To us it is a notice that the dominions have come of age, have full rights of citizenship among the states of the world, and are to be treated accordingly. Like ourselves, their people are in the main descended from settlers in a strange land; in many ways their interests, their hopes, their political ideas, are similar to ours, and their language is for the most part the same. Whether geographically near or far we should play the part of a friendly neighbor, welcome them into the family of nations, and on all occasions seek to cultivate with them the most cordial of relations.

[i] "The Third British Empire," by Alfred Zimmern. 1926.

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