Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 16: What Makes the British Commonwealth Hold Together? (1946)

Having traced the growth of the second British Empire, our next job is to see how its political features developed. Our thirteen colonies gained a good deal of self-government by peaceful development and then won the last bit by fighting the mother country. The young nations in the Commonwealth got most of theirs by similar peaceful steps and then won the last part by fighting Germany in World War I. The story is too long to be told here, but one or two highlights are important parts of the history of democracy. When some British writers tell the tale, one gets the impression that there was an inscription carved in stone over the door of the Colonial Office, which said “Ask and ye shall receive!” If one reads some dominion historians, one concludes that the words are “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!” But if an outsider surveys the story he may decide that the inscription is “Make haste not too slowly!”

Of course the colonists had to agitate, to speak long and loudly, to forecast all sorts of dire consequences if their demands were not granted, and to refer darkly to the precedent of our Revolution. But when we remember how long it took and how much opposition had to be overcome to get such political changes in the United States as votes for women, the abolition of slavery, or the establishment of a civil service system, then the coming of self-government in the British colonies seems relatively rapid.

The story goes in two chapters. The first has to do with the kind of government the colonists wanted and got. The second concerns the kind of things this government gained power to deal with. Since the early days of Virginia and Massachusetts it had become the practice to let British colonists make laws, or help make them, in representative assemblies. Some subjects were “reserved” for legislation by the mother Parliament; however, administration of the imperial and colonial laws alike was kept in the hands of a governor sent out from London. He was aided by officials who were responsible to him and not to the colonial assemblies, just as he, in turn, was responsible to London and not to the representatives of the people under his care.

This system was quite satisfactory to some Canadians and Australians, just as it had been to some Americans. But it annoyed others—who became eager for a change. In 1837 some Canadians so far lost their patience that they staged small revolts in Montreal and Toronto. These outbursts, though futile, worried the British. Was Canada going the way of the United States? Lord Durham was sent out to see what was wrong and to suggest what should be done.


Lord Durham’s report

In his famous report of 1839 Durham said that the discontented groups did not want to follow the example of the thirteen colonies and had no desire to break away from the Empire. But if Britain refused them freedom to govern themselves for fear that they would break away, they would assuredly revolt. If, however, they had the same liberty to rule themselves that the people of Britain enjoyed, and if their elected representatives could control the administration as the members of the British House of Commons controlled their prime minister and cabinet, they would, Durham said, have no reason and no wish to break away. He therefore urged that a policy of freedom inspired by faith should replace that of unfreedom inspired by fear.

Durham’s plea was soon accepted. Representative responsible government was introduced into the Canadian provinces about 1846, into the Australian colonies in the 1850’s, and later into Newfoundland, New Zealand, and the two British colonies in South Africa—Cape Colony and Natal. Thereafter the leader of the party which won most seats in an election was invited by the governor to become premier and form a cabinet. He chose his chief supporters in parliament to be his fellow ministers. His cabinet carried on the administration so long as the bills it submitted or the things it did were approved by a majority of the legislators. If the ministers lost that approval and a majority in the legislature voted against them, they were called upon to resign. The governor would then ask the leader of the opposition party to form a ministry, or he would order a general election to see what the people at large thought of the situation.

Responsible self-government worked so well that it more than justified Durham’s faith. Little was now heard of secession or of infant republics. What could independence give that was not already enjoyed, and how could it be defended without the British navy? The colonists were enthusiasts for the Empire and its expansion when most Britons were indifferent. Hence the Durham formula became almost a standard prescription. It has been applied in installments to India, we shall see later. Its most venturesome application was in South Africa after the Boer War of 1899–1902.

The crucial test

The Boer War was the outcome of long-standing friction between the British South Africans who lived in Cape Colony and Natal and the Dutch Boers (or Afrikanders) who had migrated northeastward from the Cape to set up two inland republics. The friction came to a head over the treatment of miners who had entered the Transvaal—one of the Boer republics—after gold was discovered there in 1886. The miners appealed to the Cape government for redress, and then to London.

They had a very good case, but the real issue was: Should the Boers or Britain dominate South Africa? Since neither side would or could give way, agreement was impossible. In the words of one prominent Boer, “The British government had made up its mind to force the issue and was the chief culprit, but the Transvaalers were spoiling for a fight … and would in any case have insisted on a rupture.” They had beaten British troops once before, they had used a lot of the taxes collected from the miners to buy weapons, and in the end it was they who delivered the ultimatum and began the war.

At first they were immensely successful. Long after the tide had turned against them, they continued to wage skillful guerrilla war. The British were humiliated by the prowess of their tiny opponent and might have felt justified in imposing a harsh peace. Instead, the terms were generous in comparison with those that have ended many modern wars. The two republics were annexed. In 1905, however, the Conservative British government, which had waged the war, was overwhelmingly defeated in a general election, and the Liberal government that replaced it promptly took the statesmanlike step of granting the Boers representative responsible government.

The first premier of the new Transvaal government was General Botha, the man who had commanded the Boer armies during most of the war. In 1908 representatives of the two Boer and the two British colonies worked out a plan for the union of the four, and the British Parliament accepted it, in spite of the fact that the Afrikanders were more numerous than the British and would therefore control the government all the time.

As one leading Boer put it, the British “in effect not merely gave us back our two republics, but they threw in the Cape Colony and Natal for good measure, and today we who fought against the British in the old days realize that we enjoy a greater measure of liberty and security than we had under our Republics.” This act of faith had its reward, for when war came in 1914 Botha, then prime minister of the Union of South Africa, and Smuts, his right-hand man, crushed a Boer rebellion staged by men alongside whom they had fought a few years before. Both men then went on to play a great part in the wider war and in the peace settlement.

The scope of self-government

The second part of the colonial self-government question concerned what things the overseas governments did with their powers. They quickly took over all internal affairs. The colonies made their own tariffs and soon imposed duties on imports, even those from Britain. They took possession of their public domains, shouldered the job of looking after their own local defense, and had power to tax or borrow and spend as they wished. They could make voting as democratic as they liked. They could come together in wider federal unions, as they did in Canada in 1867 and in Australia in 1901.

The governor was still appointed from London to represent the crown. He signed whatever bills were sent him by the legislature, however, unless he felt they conflicted with treaties between Britain and foreign powers. In that case he would send them to London for an opinion. In short, the colonial governments were masters in their own houses, and their federal or united groups were coming to be called “dominions,” which sounded much more adult than “colonies.”

Until the first World War came, the dominions were interested chiefly in problems within or adjoining their own borders. Canada wanted a greater part in deciding relations with the United States instead of leaving them to be settled by London and Washington. South Africans wanted to expand their territory and to check the growth of German influence in their part of the continent. Australia and New Zealand were occasionally stirred by the growth of the German Empire in the West Pacific and the rise of Japan. In general, however, the dominions gave only fitful thought to the Empire’s foreign policy or to their own place in the wide world.

The British navy, paid for by the British taxpayer, protected the Empire. The British Foreign Office handled all diplomatic relations. When Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, the whole Empire was automatically involved. Of the 9,000,000 men it mobilized, about 3,000,000 lived overseas. One-thirteenth of the whole population of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand wore uniforms; nearly 900,000 of them crossed oceans to fight, and 125,000 of them were killed. The cost in material and money was proportionately enormous.

The right to be heard

This contribution made the dominions feel they were entitled to a voice in the waging of the war and the shaping of the peace. Their prime ministers were often in London and sat in the imperial war cabinet. They began to think of themselves as heads of grown-up nations, and of the Empire as a Commonwealth of Nations. In that association they were bound together by a common history, loyalty, purpose, and danger. Nevertheless, they did not intend that Britain should make all the vital decisions of war and peace and then expect them to accept whatever London thought best.

As for the outer world, the dominions had fought and suffered more than many of the countries on the Allied side. If a people win nationhood by fighting for it, the dominions had indeed paid more than the full price. Canada alone had lost more men than Portugal put into the field. If Portugal was a nation with a right to claim a place at the peace table, then every dominion was justified in claiming the same right.

Next section: Are the Dominions Really Independent?