Lessons for Europe from Britain’s Imperial Federation League?

Just over one hundred years ago, a relatively influential coalition emerged in the British Empire called the Imperial Federation League. Founded in London in 1884, the League soon established branches in Australia, Barbados, British Guiana, Canada and New Zealand. Recognising the bourgeoning power of the newly integrated Germany, Tsarist Russia, and the United States, many of these early British federalists sought deeper political and economic integration within the British Empire, transforming it from a decidedly imperial and unequal formation into a vast transcontinental union centred around the United Kingdom and the self-governing dominions. There was considerable support for this idea in the highest reaches of the imperial government, not only in London, but also in Canada and Australia. Supporters in the mother country saw the idea of Imperial Federation as a means to expand and sustain the position of the United Kingdom as the world’s dominant power, whereas those in the dominions thought that it would help increase their influence over British political practice and policy.

It should be of no surprise that the imperial federalists emerged when they did. Britain was already past its relative apex by the 1880s, and the nation’s rapidly rising competitors were snapping increasingly at its heels. As Edward E. Morris put it, in a speech advancing Imperial Federation, in Melbourne, on 28th August 1885:

The future belongs to the big states. Over fifty years ago De Tocqueville prophesied in a passage which deserves to be remembered that Russia and the United States would be the two great powers of the world, and Professor Seely points out that it depends on the solution of the question now under discussion whether England shall be their peer or only half their importance…If we look forward fifty years, I would put it, we shall find three great empires—the United States and Russia, with Germany not behind them.

We can see here remarkable similarities between these British imperial federalists and modern proponents of European integration. Today, apprehension over the overbearing influence of Washington, the aggressive resurgence of Russia, and of the rise of new Asian powers like China and India, concern many Europeans. Indeed, the challenges and threats presented by these continental giants and the struggles likely to break out between them in the near future for dwindling resources, and competing national ideologies, must be a prime motivator for a more efficient and credible European foreign, security and defence policy. Alone, European countries will be dwarfed by tomorrow’s China and India, just as they become increasingly irrelevant to the United States as each year passes. This applies as much to Britain and France as it does to Sweden and Luxembourg. Like zebras on the African savannah, European powers must group together like a herd for protection in order to save individual Member States from getting picked-off by hyenas and jackals. Without deeper cooperation, we Europeans will count for less and less in the world if we remain a relatively loosely integrated union of Member States; integration within the European Union offers the chance to remain important. The British imperial federalists like Morris also realised the importance of aggregated power, and provide a helpful reminder for us today:

The question in the present day…is—Whether small States can co-exist with large States, or can only co-exist at the price of complete effacement. Sweden and Holland once held great places in Europe; but their neighbours then were nothing like so powerful as the great States are now, and now even the separate existence of Holland is threatened. Compare Sweden and Russia now, and it is difficult for us to bear in mind the fact that less than two centuries ago Sweden was considered the equal of Russia, and that on the mourning of “Pultowa’s Day, when fortune left the Royal Swede”,[1] it was doubtful which was stronger. The small states of Greece were able to hold out against Persia; but that was the triumph of civilisation. Give equal civilisation to a big State, and it must conquer. If Xerxes was beaten, Philip of Macedon prevailed. Let us remember Napoleon’s saying, that Providence is on the side of the stronger battalions.

To sustain British influence, and prevent imperial fragmentation, the Imperial Federation League advocated that Westminster Palace be transformed into a truly imperial parliament, where representatives from across the Imperial Federation would have sat to represent their constituencies. While all dominions would have had domestic parliaments of their own, to deal with home affairs, the role of the imperial parliament in London would have been to take care of defence and security, foreign policy and colonies not yet with dominion status—that is, those not then self-governing themselves. Morris put it like this:

The Imperial Parliament would have foreign affairs, the army and navy, India and the colonies…To the local governments would appertain all the work of the Home Office, all internal police, and questions touching education.

In some ways, this is how the contemporary European Union should work. Nobody wants a meddling Brussels, streamlining and harmonising every little disparity between the current twenty-seven Member States of the European Union. This would reduce one half of our European motto—‘Unity in Diversity’—and create a stale environment where cultural differences and peculiarities would be ironed out. In turn, this would provoke resistance, endangering the entire European edifice itself. In a more deeply integrated Europe, the Member States should retain self-government for almost all domestic affairs, with only the most delicate touch from the centre. The need for such a high level of light-handedness was also recognised by the imperial federalists. As Morris suggested: ‘What is wanted, in fact, is perfect and complete local liberty for each part of the federation to manage its own affairs without interference.’

Defence and foreign policy, however, thought the imperial federalists, would by nature have to be moved up to the imperial parliament in London; that is to say, centralised. Poorly integrated armed forces do not good comrades make. Morris put this quite firmly and succinctly in his lecture:

Defence should be in the hands of the Government as a whole, not of the parts. The creation of separate colonial armies and navies seems like a frittering of force, as well as an invitation to separation. The withdrawal of English troops some years ago was a part of the plan for education for the independence which we don’t desire. In military matters, strength depends on unity of design.

The European Union faces an even bigger struggle to become a credible military power than did any potential British-centred Imperial Federation. The United Kingdom already had extensive—indeed, almost indefatigable—armed forces, including advanced metal battleships, mobile forces and long-range artillery. It had a chain of global coaling ports, and an integrated network of telegraph wires and stations. Much like the United States today, Britain held mastery of all the seas and oceans, and much of the world’s littoral regions, while gunboats could be sent far inland via rivers. All what was needed was to bring greater numbers of overseas British subjects into the command chains of the British Armed Forces, while simultaneously extending the franchise of their use to the Imperial Federation as a whole. But in our case, the European Union has to synthesise twenty-seven different militaries in as many Member States, creating ‘convergence’ towards the style of military doctrine and capabilities deployed by Britain and France. Given that several Member States still operate archaic conscript armies, which are paid for by feeble defence budgets, the task is truly immense. Worse, there is not yet any centralised joint operations headquarters or democratic decision making process, should European forces be deployed in battle or peace-enforcement operations. Here, Morris’ words on the matter of integrated armed forces could be applied even more appropriately to the European Union as they were to the potential Imperial Federation:

A comprehensive scheme seems needed, especially to protect the colony, coaling stations, and various points of connection in our steamer routes, and an opportunity is offered for a statesman to come forward with a real turn for construction.

While the Treaties of Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice laid the foundations of the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the later European Security and Defence Policy, a comprehensive set of proposals for taking forward the European Union’s developing security and defence arms has still to be worked out. While the Union has undertaken sixteen different security and defence operations since 2003, crafted a Security Strategy, and put in place several different institutions—which were to be enhanced by the Constitution for Europe, and also by the prospective ‘Reform Treaty’—significant differences remain between Britain, Germany and France over the shape the European Union should take in this area. Fading alliances like NATO still capture the imaginations of the British, while Germans still seem unwilling to engage in any serious military interventions overseas, still having not cast aside the baggage of their increasingly distant past. While Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac injected some fresh blood through the concept of European security and defence in 1998 at St. Malo, it will remain for others to take the process forward. Here, the statesmen capable of the task might be a troika of Gordon Brown and Angela Merkel, pushed along by a dynamic Nicolas Sarkozy, who seems the most eager to give ‘new impetus’ in building up the European Union as an autonomous global power, set free of foreign interests and demands, like those of the United States.

What is essential, however, is that all Europeans take part in the European Union’s security and defence. As was noted in the last post on Global Power Europe, some Member States like Spain are not pulling their weight, while others remain self-referentially ‘neutral’, and accordingly trapped in a Cold War-era time warp. The imperial federalists offered some useful words for free-riders too. Responding to Australian arguments that Britain should bear the burden for Australia’s defence, Morris retorted:

I cannot agree…that the whole burden of a strong Australian fleet of men-of-war should be left upon England upon the ground that it is England’s commerce which is protected.[2] Australia reaps quite as much from the protection as England, and might fairly share in the expense. But it would be better still that the task of defence of every part of the Empire shall fall upon the imperial Government…and every part of the Empire should help to bear the burden of the common defence.

Likewise, all European Union Member States are so heavily entwined with one another than insecurity in one means insecurity in all. Should something foul occur to France or Germany, Britain and the Netherlands would be severely harmed. Should a ‘dirty bomb’ go off in Amsterdam or Frankfurt, Britain, Belgium and France would feel the consequences. The security concerns between the Member States of the European Union are far more tighter than any that exist between, say the United States or Australia and Britain, or France and North Africa. Those concerns between certain Member States and third countries are trivial in comparison, and old fraying alliances like NATO need to be rethought or given a new purpose.

Finally, in his speech on Imperial Federation, Morris asked:

Whether England shall be in a line with these three powers [America, Russia and Germany], or have falled behind them, depends upon the decision of the English peoples (a decision which must be arrived at before it be too late) whether the colonies shall form a part of the Empire or stand independent. British unity in some shape or disintegration—which shall it be?

Today, over a century later, the Member States of the European Union face an identical dilemma. We now know that the British Empire did not federate and that colonial nationalism and dangerous autocracies grew and challenged British authority, which helped destroy the Empire, leaving Britain in a much reduced state as a global power. Will we as Europeans make the same mistake? Will we be challenged and overcome by potentially dangerous regimes and malign forces in the years ahead, and without the unity or means to respond? A lot rests in the balance if we do not make the right decisions.

[1] Pultowa’s Day is mentioned in a poem by Lord Byron, which was set during the Great Northern War between Russia and the Swedish Empire. The Battle of Pultowa, on 28th June 1709, was a decisive Russian victory, and led to the start of the decline of Sweden as the greatest power of Northern Europe.

[2] Men-of-war is an archaic term for any group of major warships, but is still applied to wooden sailing ships armed with cannon.

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