Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

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

Now we can sum up our survey and get back to the question. Perhaps it should be reworded to read: What makes the overseas nations stay in the Commonwealth now that they are free to leave it? They obviously are not kept in by force or by any constitutional bonds, and no war would be waged on them if they wished to secede. They are not tied together completely by a common, national origin. Canada and South Africa have large non-British populations, and even the all-British character of Australia has not prevented the growth of a strong nationalistic spirit and policy or muzzled the cry “Australia for the Australians!”

There is not even complete harmony of economic interests. While the overseas primary producers have looked chiefly to Britain for their market, the young manufacturing industries have regarded Britain as their most dangerous rival. They have built tariff walls to keep British products out of the field. Similarly the British farmer has sought protection against his competitors in the dominions as well as against those of foreign countries.

Yet political, economic, and ancestral factors play some part in keeping the Commonwealth together. The king symbolizes the unity of peoples of many races, creeds, continents, and cultures as no president could ever do. And few of us have reached the point where we can dispense with symbols. The right to leave the Commonwealth may make a dominion willing to stay in, for now the question is no longer “Can I go out?” but “Where do I go?” The choices are limited and unattractive—either to be a powerless small nation or to become attached to some other large power.

The tie of “blood” and traditions is strong for a lot of people, and even those who build their own nationalist dwellings often realize that the foundations are British. There can be conflicts of economic interest, but there are many economic harmonies as well. And even the conquered peoples may sometimes remember that their distinctive characteristics—language, law, religion, and culture—were not destroyed but were officially preserved against any campaign to make them British. Canada and South Africa are both constitutionally bilingual.

The chief tie that keeps the Commonwealth together is the conviction of a common interest in common survival. There is truth in the old jest that those who do not hang together may hang separately. If independence is stamped on one side of the Commonwealth coin, interdependence is the pattern on the other side.

In times of peace, it is all well and good to emphasize independence. But when dangers arise it is better to be in company that has the same ideas and the same interests to protect. The British colonies grew up in a century of peace and had no one to fear. They have reached manhood in a century already marked by two world wars. It was good both for them and for the mother country that they could help each other against a menace which threatened them all.

Until the first World War, few Britons would have put the common interest in survival high on any list of the ties that bind. First place would have been given to the economic benefits. Stress would have been placed on the value of Britain as the chief market, or even the only one, for Canada’s grain, Australia’s wool and wheat and meat, New Zealand’s butter and lamb, Ireland’s butter and bacon, and so forth. Emphasis would have been laid on the abundance of capital in London waiting to be lent to the colonies at a lower rate of interest than they would have to pay in any other money market. Britain’s position as a source of labor supply, an efficient operator of ships, and a world banker would have been mentioned. In return the colonies would have emphasized their value to Britain as buyers of a third of its exports and pointed to the tariff preferences they gave its goods.

This kind of talk would be more common overseas than in Britain. The British knew that their- prosperity rested on a world economy, on buying and selling and shipping everywhere. And they knew that the overseas empire was only part—a third perhaps—of that “everywhere.”


What of “Empire Preference”?

But when war and then depression shrank the world trade area and many foreign markets dwindled, the British got around to believing that the relationship between empire and commerce was a fact not to be ignored. In the Ottawa Conference of 1932 Britain joined with the others in making bargains by which each agreed to give the other preference over foreign competitors. Jointly they sought to compensate for the loss of foreign markets by stimulating markets within the family.

The last ten years, have shown that the Commonwealth as an association of traders and of fighters is not enough. It soon became apparent that trade with the outside world was too important to most of the Commonwealth members to be injured for the sake of preferential deals between the six nations. This realization came just when we were discovering that trade with the Commonwealth was too important to be hit as we had hit it with our high tariff of 1930. The British communities were buying over 40 percent of our exports and furnishing us with 35 percent of our imports. When our tariff cut down their sales to us, it equally damaged their ability to buy from us and helped drive them to seek compensation in the Ottawa pacts. Hence in 1935 we negotiated a trade agreement with Canada and in 1938 one with Britain, by which we made it a bit easier for those countries to sell goods to us and therefore to buy from us. The days of imperial preferences seemed to be coming to an end. The Commonwealth recognized that it lived and traded in the world; and so did we.

World War II has revealed that the Commonwealth is not strong enough to stand alone against all comers. No country or empire is strong enough to do that. No one can say what the outcome of a lone conflict with a Hitler-dominated Europe would have been. Germany ended that phase of the war when it attacked Russia. If Japan had concentrated its attack on the Commonwealth in such a way that we didn’t get into the war, it might have been well-nigh irresistible in campaigns on Australasia and India. The Commonwealth alone would have been no match for the three members of the Axis, any more than we or Russia might have been.

Will the rest of us hang together or separately?

In the light of these facts, the future of the Commonwealth depends partly on internal conditions and partly on the kind of peacetime world we have. On the first count, Eire and India are the uncertain quantities and must make their own decisions. In late 1944 the second largest Irish party endorsed the assertion of its leader that “Everything we have seen in this war should convince us that our security can be planned only in combination with some powerful ally or combination of allies. … The security of Great Britain and Ireland are completely interdependent.”

In India also some new factors may influence attitudes. Industries have developed greatly, production and population have increased rapidly, new methods have been introduced in many places, and vast numbers of natives have learned how to handle machines. Most important of all, the British have had to buy so many goods and services in India that they have had to cash in all the Indian securities they held and on top of that go into debt to India to the tune of over $4,000,000,000. This hard fact may make some Indian political leaders doubt the wisdom of insisting on breaking away from a country which is so heavily in their debt. It might be that once India is free to leave the Commonwealth, the Indians will have no desire to do so or see no advantage to be gained.

For the rest, the future of the Commonwealth is wrapped up in the future of the world. If security against the rise of a new menace is achieved, the Commonwealth can play an important part in preserving that security, for it has fronts on every continent and in every ocean. This last fact is of limitless importance in the light of the coming air age. Quick and easy aerial transportation may do as much as any postwar development to knit the Commonwealth closer together and give its parts a feeling of interdependence.

If we can reestablish international trade on a relatively unhindered basis, the Commonwealth will be a large customer of every continent and a great provider of the things that mankind needs for a richer life.

If neither of these conditions can be created, it scarcely seems worth while trying to peer into the dark future. So we can answer a new question: Will the Commonwealth hang together? by asking yet another one: Can the world hang together?

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