Democracy and Empire do not mix well. People who rule themselves - and make a virtue of doing so - find it embarrassing to rule others when others no longer wish it. So it was for the British, or at least for an increasing number of liberal statesmen from the 1830‘s on. They believed in granting responsible government to colonies which seemed ready for it. Canada was the first in 1849, and later assumed the title of Dominion to mark the difference. By 1918 there were five Dominions (Canada, Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), a white club of Empire increasingly referred to as the British Commonwealth. Other British possessions were anxious to achieve similar standing.
But in the inter-war years, this trend towards co-operation and equal status was resisted by the conservative forces of the old fashioned British Empire. India grew rebellious. The Irish went to war, first with Britain, then with themselves. Moreover, the Dominions began fencing for complete national independence in all but name. These struggles were the birth-pangs of the modern Commonwealth, a new, puzzling entity on the world stage.
Freeborn Britisher's took their rights with them when they left the mother country and established new communities overseas. This simple doctrine shaped the British Empire from the beginning, if only in a modest form. Elaborated later under the pressure of events, it ultimately transformed the British Empire into a Commonwealth of Nations - an outcome perhaps surprising to the colonists and certainly often accepted reluctantly by statesmen in London. The principle proved irresistible
With the march of time, and what had been originally an association of free individuals became an association of free communities.
In the 17th Century the rights which the British took with them to the New World were private rights - the right to English law and at most, to assemblies for their local affairs. One eminent authority compared the colonial assemblies to the corporations of the City of London - bodies clearly with rights, but clearly also not sovereign.
The American colonies were lost. The doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty was not abandoned. It provoked little trouble in the days when Canada was the only remaining colony apart from the West Indies. In 1837, Canada too became restless. British statesmen reluctantly accepted the principle of responsible government, propounded by Lord Durham. The British government surrendered the conduct of domestic affairs to a colonial government responsible to the colonial legislature instead of subordinate to the Colonial Office. This concession was made first to Canada and then to the other British communities which were growing up overseas in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. The change took place without any legislative enactment. It was merely a change of practice on the part of the Colonial Office, and it was meant to apply only to domestic affairs.
Towards the outer world the British Empire remained a united structure, its policy determined solely by the British Cabinet and its defence provided solely by the British tax payer.
Another concession soon followed. The colonies claimed the right to impose duties on imported goods, even f they came from Great Britain. The British government were taken aback. They protested, then acquiesced. The economic unity of the Empire was dissolved.
At the end of the 19th Century Joseph Chamberlain attempted to restore it. He proposed an imperial Zollverien, or customs union, which would lay down a single economic policy for the entire Empire. Underlying this was a mercantilist doctrine which had been outmoded even in the 18th Century: that Great Britain should be the manufacturing centre of the Empire, while the colonies would be content to produce foodstuffs and raw materials. The colonies were determined to promote their own industries and to defend their fiscal autonomy. They offered only imperial preference - voluntary concessions on British goods. Chamberlain’s ambitious plan was laid aside.
The Colonial Conference of 1897 which Chamberlain summoned had another important outcome. It was attended only by representatives of the colonies with responsible government. A clear line was now drawn between them and the colonies, principally in West and East Africa, which did not govern themselves. Two distinct empires came into existence almost unperceived - the self-governing colonies or Dominions as they came to be called, voluntarily co-operating with Great Britain, and the true colonies, administered in authoritarian fashion by the Colonial Office.. There was of course a third Empire, as there had been in practice since the middle of the 18th Century and in law since 1858.
India, ruled by a Viceroy and directed from London by the India Office, not by the Colonial Office. Strictly the King of Britain was Emperor only in India, a title he lost when India became independent in 1947. The British Empire was an Empire without an Emperor so far as the colonies and the self-governing Dominions were concerned.
In 1927 the Duke of York officially opened the last Dominion parliament house in Canberra, Australia. The regal ceremony symbolised the successful transplant of parliamentary democracy, Westminster style to all the self-governing members of the Commonwealth Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the newly fledged Irish Free State. Each of the legislative buildings was a symbol of British power and culture.
All except Australia’s displayed the opulence of Victorian and Georgian architecture, a style described by the English political satirist, George Orwell as the “sheer, vulgar fatness of wealth”.
Even Australia rejected traditional grandeur more by luck than by design. When she became a federal state in 1901, her two largest cities Sydney and Melbourne, both put forward their local legislative buildings as the new federal parliament. After ten years of bickering both lost: a whole new city, Canberra, with a stark modern parliament house, was built midway between the two. Despite its pretty origins, it came to stand for a separate Australian identity, and for rising national feeling in the Empire.
With the approach of the First World War, the British government wished to secure the co-operation and not merely the acquiescence of the Dominions. At the Imperial Conference in 1911, the representatives of the Dominions heard a disquisition on foreign policy from Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary. They were invited to contribute to the Royal Navy and to pool their military resources.
The Dominions would agree only to co-operation without any formal system. Some of the made voluntary contributions to the navy. All agreed to work for uniformity in naval and military equipment. But they refused to surrender any scrap of their independent authority. There was to be no Imperial Army or Navy. The Committee of Imperial Defence might advise. It could not control. The Dominions also refused to encroach on British independence and insisted that foreign policy should remain a purely British affair.
Australian and New Zealand forces served under British command at Gallipoli and later in Mesopotamia(Iraq) and Palestine. Before the war ended, the Australians in France had their own commander, Sir John Monash, probably the ablest general the war produced. In East Africa, however, imperial forces served under General Smuts, the South African Minister of Defence.
The Dominions did not care much about India. They were deeply involved over Ireland. Irishmen were active in Australian politics; the Irish were an important element in the Canadian population; and the Boers of South Africa saw a close parallel between the position of the Irish and their own. Yet in the immediate post-war years the British government was resisting the Irish claim to independence, by violent means. At the end of the war, the Irish set up their own parliament and proclaimed a republic. The British, who were still ruling Ireland, relied on military force and, when this proved inadequate, brought out irregulars, who instituted rule by terror. Civil war raged in Ireland.
Hence in August 1914, the British government declared war on Germany without seeking the agreement of the Dominions or even consulting them. Each Governor-General proclaimed a state of war on the instructions of the Colonial Office. In Canada, the Dominion parliament subsequently expressed its approval. The other Dominions accepted without debate the principle : “When Great Britain is at War, we are at war”.
The 1921 Anglo-Irish treaty aimed to bring peace to Ireland by conferring Dominion status and allowing the Free State and Northern Ireland to govern themselves separately. Instead it added a new dimension to of violence. The treaty was accepted by the majority of Sinn Fein (the Irish Republican Party) and most war-weary southern Irish as a first step towards republican status. But the die-hard Sinn Feiners were appalled. Their dream of an immediate united republic of all Ireland - independent of Crown and Empire - was shattered. For them there was only one answer: to renew the struggle.
At the head of the die-hards was Eamon de Valera, ousted as President of the party for his point-blank refusal to accept the treaty terms.
In his place and now directly opposed to him was Michael Collins, former military leader against the British, but also negotiator of the treaty. It was he, who, in January 1922, formed a provisional government in the new Irish Free State. The lines were drawn for civil war in the south.
THE SHATTERING OF A FRAGILE PEACE.
In April 1922, the split between southern Irish republicans became a military confrontation. Sinn Fein, the party which had spearheaded the independence movement, was already divided over the treaty terms. But de Valera, who led the small anti-treaty faction, was determined to force his vision of an immediate republic on his more conservative countrymen. He won the support of an anti-treaty group in the IRA and on the night of April 13th 1922,, armed men occupied and set up a rebel headquarters in the Four Courts, the home of the Irish Judiciary in Dublin. Soon afterwards, irregulars, as the anti-treaty faction of the IRA became known, infiltrated rural areas, occupying the scores of fortified posts which had been evacuated by British troops at the end of the 1919-21 war. From these positions they robbed post offices, cut off telephone cable and rail services, and murdered anyone they believed to support the 1921 treaty.
Free State forces as yet made no large scale responses.
There was still a chance of compromise. On May 20th Collins and de Valera made a last effort to unify their opposing factions. In June there was to be an election to ratify Collins’ provisional government. In preparation for this, the two men concluded a pact by which pro- and anti- treaty factions would form a coalition government. Peace for Ireland seemed once again a possibility.
THE CONTAGION OF VIOLENCE. June 1922, was a month of extreme anxiety for Michael Collins, leader of the provisional government of the Irish Free State. He snatched an election victory on June 16 but only after repudiating his pact with Eamon de Valera’s splinter group.
Meanwhile the relations between the Free State and Northern Ireland took a disastrous turn. Collins’ northern counterpart, Premier Sir James Craig, had appointed as his military adviser, Sir Henry Wilson former British Chief of General Staff and an arch enemy of Irish republicanism.
Although Wilson personally deplored mob violence, he was unable to do anything about the mounting tempo of sectarian conflict. Between December 1921, and mid June 1922, 264 northern Irish were shot or killed in explosions, two thirds of them Roman Catholic. As a result, Catholic refugees streamed south in their thousands.
This brutal treatment led to a retaliation. On June 22nd, Sir Henry Wilson was shot dead outside his London home. The assassination was carried out by two IRA gunmen who believed they were acting with Collins approval. Both were captured and almost immediately sent for trial, and later convicted and executed. Ironically the British blamed the IRA Irregulars and instructed Collins to move in on their “nest” in the Four Courts. Dublin. As Collins knew this would lead to all out civil war.
BROTHER AGAINST BROTHER. On June 28th 1922, British field guns lent to Collins’ Free State Army, by the British opened fire on the irregulars in the Four Courts, Dublin. After two days they surrendered. Then Free State troops using 10,000 rifles sent by the British, wiped out other Irregular units in Dublin in a ruthless 8 day battle. Sixty people died, many of them Collins’ colleagues from the 1919-21 war.
The victory in Dublin, was, in Winston Churchill’s optimistic view “the salute which celebrated the foundation of the Irish Free State”. As it happened, the Irregulars, far from surrendering turned from guerrilla to conventional warfare. After the defeat in Dublin, they retreated south-west and prepared for a fight to the finish. Collins having made his decision, pursued them with cold-blooded determination. When an old and close friend, Harry Boland, was killed on the rebel side, Collins suppressed all emotion commenting merely, “My condemnation is for all those who would put themselves up as paragons of Irish Nationality and all the others as being not worthy of concern”.
A SULLEN COEXISTENCE . By August 1922, the Free Staters were close to victory over the Irregulars. On the 10th they took Cork, the last major town in rebel hands. Defeated in regular warfare, the rebels returned to guerrilla war in rural areas as a means of fighting a rear-guard action. The last six months were the most bitter. Just when the military balance was turning in favour of the government, a politically calamity occurred which led to a vicious circle of strike and counter-strike. On August 12th Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Fein, and an architect of the Free State, died suddenly. Ten days later, Michael Collins too, was dead, killed in a gun battle near Macroom in his home county, Cork. Weakened by the loss of its two principal leaders, the government took emergency powers. Possession of a revolver was made punishable by death. To this the Irregulars replied with a decree ordering all members of the Free State Government or parliament to be shot on sight. The first killing came in November. In retaliation, the government executed eight captured members of the irregular IRA. By May 1923, there had been 77 executions. On December 7th 1922, the Northern Ireland government had exercised its option under the 1921 treaty to rejoin the United Kingdom. .A united Irish republic was farther away than ever!.
There was no conflict here so long as the Crown rather than the Parliament at Westminster was regarded as the seat of sovereignties. But in the 18th Century sovereignties passed from the Crown to the Crown in Parliament. Parliament claimed an overriding authority to legislate for the colonies just as it could for say, chartered institutions in Great Britain. This claim led to the War of American Independence. The American colonies were willing to recognise the sovereignty of the Crown. They were not prepared to recognise the sovereignty of the British parliament.
The British Empire came out of the First World War with its greatness apparently much enhanced. It had been the chief of the victorious powers. A new Empire, disguised as mandates, came into existence, stretching from Egypt to the confines of India and directed by the Foreign, not the Colonial Office. Against this, the Dominions had acquired a degree of independence and international recognition which would have been inconceivable before 1914. There were further sources of weakness. India had been promised responsible government in some remote future. But when the Congress party led by Gandhi, demanded fulfillment of this promise, the imperial government answered with repression, and the massacre at Amritsar in 1919 set an indelible river of blood between the Indian people and their rulers.
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