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Rise and Demise of Consultative Empire
One of the most intriguing, but often forgotten, transitions in the early twentieth century, an era marked by
violent struggle, occurred peacefully within the British Empire. This was the evolution of Anglo-Dominion
relations from a metropole-periphery relationship to full legal equality within the new British Commonwealth
of Nations. Throughout this period the British Empire was the most powerful political and economic force on
earth. The impetus for the transition toward Commonwealth came from the self governing Dominions which
included: Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa (after the Boer War), and Ireland (after the conclusion of
the Anglo-Irish War).
This paper tells the story of Anglo-Dominion relations, focusing primarily on the Dominions of South Africa
and Canada because of the demographic parallels in each country and the internal political similarities of
the countries as they dealt with the changing situation within the British Empire. Canada at the turn of the
century had a population of 5.4 million people scattered over a vast 3 million square mile territory.(1) In 1911
the Union of South Africa had 1.25 million whites and over 5 million blacks. South Africa became extremely
important to the empire because by the 1920's it produced fully one half of the world's gold supply, gold that
was desperately needed by a still war-ravaged European economy.(2) Even though vast distances separated the
two colonies, they both featured ethnic minorities that made maintaining the imperial connection especially difficult
to manage: the French in Canada and the Afrikaners in South Africa. These two groups made Canada and
South Africa's adoption of a purely imperialist stance very difficult, because for the most part these minorities did
not support the empire, preferring their own homelands instead.
The period between Anglo-South African War (1899-1902) and the Statute of Westminster (1931) marked
the watershed in the history of Anglo-Dominion relations and serves as the chronological window of this study.
The Anglo-South African War (also known as the Boer War) and the subsequent Treaty of Vereeniging brought
South Africa in as a Dominion and simultaneously exacerbated the internal ethnic strife in both Canada and
South Africa. The Balfour Declaration of 1926 famously recognized the Dominions as "autonomous
Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of
their domestic or external affairs, (2)... In fact, if not always in form, it is subject to no compulsion whatever."(3)
But this still left some legal matters, such as Parliamentary supremacy, fairly unclear. The Statute of Westminster
in 1931 finally changed the British constitution in order to settle these legal questions that had been plaguing
the British since at least the end of World War I.
In between these two dates the British attempted an experiment designed to increase unity within the British
Empire and even go so far as to create a truly global British government. I call this experiment "consultative
empire," defined as the process whereby the British gave the Dominions a voice in the creation of imperial
policy. Consultative empire was the great goal of all who wished to maintain indefinitely the British Empire.
Lord Milner, a staunch imperialist and one-time High Commissioner for Southern Africa, predicted, "A time
may come- I hope and believe a time must come- when the supreme direction of Imperial affairs will be in the
hands of a Government representative of and responsible to the people of all states of which the Empire
is composed."(4) In a consultative empire Britain would no longer possess a monopoly on political sovereignty.
The Dominions, and only the Dominions, would now have a voice alongside Great Britain in imperial affairs.(5)
Between the 1880s and the 1920s consultative empire won many victories, as centripetal forces wielded the
empire together, but ultimately succumbed to centrifugal forces that came from many fronts. Its history begins
with the Colonial Conferences of Victoria's reign. The Dominion Prime Ministers traveled to London to celebrate
the Queen and to discuss matters of imperial concern. There were many types of Imperial Conferences that
dealt with more ordinary matters of trade and defense, but the Prime Ministers traveled all the way to London
every few years to discuss loftier constitutional issues.
The idea behind these conferences was to effect a dramatic increase in the level of inter-imperial cooperation
that would theoretically weld the empire into an effective and tightly knit political entity prepared for the
twentieth century. For imperialists consultative empire was necessary if the British Empire wanted to compete in
an increasingly competitive international context. Only with the combined might of all the Dominions could
Great Britain confront the growing power of the United States and Germany and maintain its preeminence in the
new century. But for all the increased cooperation that consultative empire meant for the Dominions, it
necessarily implied that they would remain just short of nationhood and never have full autonomy.
The system of increased cooperation evolved slowly, culminating eventually with the Imperial War Cabinet during
the First World War. The Imperial Cabinet was essentially the same thing as an Imperial Conference, except
the Dominion Prime Ministers were now actually formulating policy in conjunction with the British. The
Dominions cooperated intensely with the British Empire during the crisis and the British Prime Minister, David
Lloyd George, thought that the Dominions should be given a voice in the conduct of the war. For the first time in
their history the Dominions had a place in the actual governance of the empire. The imperial conferences were
the crucial engine driving consultative empire, and the Imperial War Cabinet was its highpoint. The incredible
support of the Dominions, especially the people in the Dominions of Anglo descent, buoyed the empire in its
greatest hour of need. These people responded to Britain's call for help in the First World War and were a
powerful force for the realization of consultative empire. In the words of one Anglophone soldier during the war:
We're the same in far South Africa
As you are in London Town,
And We're proud of dear old England
For her feats have won renown.
So we came along to help you
With mingling pride and joy,
And we've tried to do our duty
With our gallant Blighty Boys.
So hands across the sea boys
Feet on British ground.
Motherhood and brotherhood
All the Empire around.(6)
While nationalism on the part of the Anglophone population was a centripetal force, dominion nationalism
worked centrifugally to challenge the empire during the First World War. Attitudes about the empire began to
change and people started to wonder how these attitudes would affect the post-war governance of the empire.
The problems resulting from the Afrikaner and French-Canadian nationalist ethnic minorities would largely
determine how two leaders, William Mackenzie King and Jan Smuts, proceeded with their involvement in the
process of post-war governance in their capacities as leaders of South Africa and Canada.
Although centripetal and centrifugal forces were both at work during the War, the centrifugal forces clearly
became ascendant after the war. Soon after World War I, the Dominions of South Africa and Canada sought
greater autonomy from, rather than integration within, the British Empire. One of the most compelling reasons
for the failure of consultative empire in these two countries is the problem that nationalism posed to integration.
The French in Canada and the Afrikaners in South Africa thought that further integration into the British
Empire meant further sacrifice to national identities. Along with logistical and geographical problems,
nationalism destroyed any chance for consultative empire to succeed.
The problem after the war, as Jan Smuts put it, was "how were they going to conduct the affairs of this Empire
upon a common basis where they had no longer one great Power speaking for the whole, but six independent,
equal, free members of this great League"?(7) The Dominions had been allowed to participate in the signing of
the Versailles treaty as co-signatories with Great Britain- but notably still as members of the British Empire and
not on their own right. Everyone recognized that things had to change, but how would this be done?
After the war the stable relations among the members of the British Commonwealth were strained by a series
of troubling events. Canada offered its first challenge to the principle of consultative empire during the Conference
of 1921. The primary problem was the renewal of the alliance with Japan. This alliance, created just before the
Russo-Japanese War(8) and significantly strengthened thereafter to enhance the British position in China,
also enabled them to concentrate their naval forces in the North Sea where the Germans seemed the
greatest menace. The treaty was dangerous to British interests at this time because Japan was the enemy of
Russia, the great ally of France. This treaty, then, was one of the earliest steps the British made into the
entangling alliances in the European system that eventually drew them into World War I.(9)
The treaty clearly affected the Dominions, especially Australia and New Zealand, for whom the treaty had
"special significance."(10) The treaty, if it were passed in 1921, would have benefited both Great Britain and
those two Dominions by lessening the naval presence that Great Britain needed in the Pacific and by easing the
fears of the Australians and New Zealanders.
Canadians did not wish to keep the treaty because they believed that a renewal would damage relations with
the United States. Arthur Meighen, the prime minister at the time, used the argument that such alliances were
not compatible with the Charter of the League of Nations, saying "to my mind, sub-alliances or groupings of
Powers, under whatever name, are not easily reconcilable with confidence in, or even fidelity to, the
fundamental purposes of the League."(11) In the process of considering the treaty Meighen came to
three conclusions regarding the nature of imperial relations: 1) that there should be regular and
continuous conferences between the Dominions and Britain; 2) that the ministers in Britain advising the King
should also in part be responsible to the Dominions; 3) that in areas of importance to specific Dominions
that Dominion should be given special and weighty consideration.(12) There were revolutionary but
impractical suggestions on Meighen's part. What kind of legislative body would be needed to make the ministers
in Britain responsible to the Dominions? Meighen probably knew that the proposal had no chance of
implementation, but he had still made a routine decision to support a treaty into a decision affecting inter-
The British government of David Lloyd George, however, had no desire to get into a constitutional debate. In
the Conference of 1921 the delegates formed a committee to decide on the constitutional questions set aside
during the war, at least on the short term. The committee concluded that:
a) Continuous consultation, to which the Prime Ministers attached no less importance than the Imperial
War Conference of 1917, can only be secured by a substantial improvement in the communications between
the component parts of the Empire. b) Having regard to the constitutional developments since 1917, no
sufficient advantage is to be gained by holding a special Imperial Conference. c)The existing practice of
direct communication between the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom and the Dominions, as well as the right
of the latter to nominate Cabinet Ministers to represent them in consultations with the Prime Minister of the
United Kingdom, are maintained.(13)
Essentially, they decided to forego discussion of the issues and do nothing to alter the status quo. Luckily,
the President of the United States asked Britain, the Dominions, and Japan to a conference at which these
Pacific matters were settled. The Imperial Conference tabled the issue pending the outcome of the
Washington Conference. Eventually, the alliance came to an end and all parties declared their overall obligations
to the League of Nations.(14)
Consultative empire suffered another traumatic event the following year, after William Mackenzie King rose to
power in Canada: the Chanak Crisis of 1922. After World War I Lloyd George embarked upon a policy of
enhancing Greek power vis a vis Turkey, the newly established nation that had arisen out of the defeated
Ottoman Empire. The Greeks marched on Turkey but in 1922 the Turks routed the Greek army. They pushed them
all the way to Chanak, which was a British position on the Asian side of the Dardanelles. The British
government contacted the Dominions and requested their assistance in shoring up the Greeks. An uproar
Although he eventually received an official telegram from the British government, Mackenzie King first heard of
the whole affair in the newspapers. That telegram asked for Canadian support if the British went to war.
Mackenzie King replied that he needed parliamentary support to offer official support from the Canadian
government. Of course, he said this knowing full well the Canadian parliament was out of session at the time,
and thus effectively denied the British the support they sought.(16) The British government was itself
largely unaware of the significance of its own blunder. Poor communication between the Home Office and the
Foreign Office partially created this confusing situation. War never actually materialized because all parties
concerned were still too drained from the World War and because the British had no critical interests in
further pursuing the matter, but the damage had already been done to imperial relations.(17) Mackenzie King
never forgot this episode.
Chanak troubled Mackenzie King deeply because it starkly revealed the logistical challenges of consultative
empire. During the war the Dominion prime ministers were actually in London making decisions with British
officials. After the war it was impossible for the prime ministers to stay away from their governments
and constituents. Therefore they decided at the imperial conferences that, at each Imperial Conference, the
delegates would set up general foreign policy guidelines that the entire empire would adhere to. They also agreed
to consult one another via telegram (the fastest mode of communication possible) as new situations demanded.
But during the Chanak crisis the Foreign Office put the Dominions back in their pre-World War I position of having
to accept a British fait accompli similar to the declarations of war in 1899 and 1914. Mackenzie King regarded such
an act as an affront to national honor, which was clearly not something that he was willing to accept.(18) As a
result of the Chanak Affair, Mackenzie King was more likely to treat the British with suspicion.
Was Mackenzie King justified in his reaction to the Chanak Affair and in his judgment of British intentions?
John Carland argues that Mackenzie King's perceptions of British intentions were not altogether accurate.
Carland paints a picture of Mackenzie King as a man who believed that problems with consultative empire
would continue to come up because what the British really wanted was Canadian commitments (militarily,
financially, politically) worldwide. He envisioned a vast British conspiracy to force Canada into world politics
where they did not belong. Carland shows convincingly that British intentions were not so sinister. The British
clearly would have liked Canada to take more responsibility in the empire but were unwilling to force them to do
so. Indeed, Carland asserts that "Freedom to maneuver was far more valuable to the British Foreign Office,
and indeed to the British Government, than imperial unity."(19) Carland concludes that Mackenzie King was
a "nationalist with isolationist tendencies."(20)
William Mackenzie King's continued assault on consultative empire was extremely powerful. In the context of
the Imperial Conferences the balance sheet stood as follows: New Zealand and Australia in favor of
continued imperial integration (or at least status quo relations), and South Africa and Ireland (which gained
Dominion status after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922) favoring a gradual devolution of power.
The Canadian approach was important, then, because Canada was essentially the swing vote of empire. The
eldest Dominion no longer needed British protection because U.S. forces now guarded Canadian shores rather
than the British navy.(21) Canada, as a result of this basic power calculation as well as a series of tension-
increasing incidents such as Chanak throughout the early 1920's, was instrumental in hastening the demise
of consultative empire.
Canada's assault on consultative empire reached its zenith at the Conference of 1923. From the beginning of
the Imperial Conference Mackenzie King railed against the uselessness of the imperial conferences. When
Lord Curzon, the Foreign Secretary, merely mentioned the word cabinet in reference to this body Mackenzie
King fired back that "We are here as representatives of Governments, I cannot feel that I come with any right
or power to be a member of an Imperial Cabinet, using the word Cabinet in the sense in which we understand it as
a body necessarily responsible to Parliament and through Parliament to the people."(22) Curzon quickly backed
off the point but the delegates realized that Canada, at least as it was represented by Mackenzie King, was
not interested in pursuing greater imperial integration.
Mackenzie King wanted to limit not only Canadian involvement but that of all the other Dominions as well. "It
is inevitable that each of these communities should seek to control those foreign affairs which concern it
primarily," Mackenzie King explained because, "It is not possible or desirable that Great Britain or other
Dominions should control these foreign affairs which are distinctly of primary concern to one Dominion, so it
is equally impossible and undesirable for the Dominions to seek to control those foreign affairs which primarily
affect Great Britain." He went on to remind the delegates that "were it considered desirable to establish a
unified foreign policy on all issues, it would not be practicable."(23) In this one statement Mackenzie King
declared that he, and by extension the government of Canada, was not committed to consultative empire at all.
The conference ended without making any definitive stand on constitutional issues. One historian of the era
says: "the English cabinet had chosen to preserve the facade of an empire entire and intact, at the cost of
allowing the structure behind it to fall apart."(24) The British now believed that the Dominions were very
much opposed to greater participation in Empire, and thus set up a committee headed up by Arthur Balfour,
a prominent elder statesmen and one-time prime minister, along Dominion representatives to examine
the constitutional question. In 1926 the committee submitted a report that came to be known as the
It is clear that the immediate post-war years saw the end of consultative empire. The Dominions were never able
to communicate effectively enough to establish a viable system of joint foreign policy decision making. So when
the composition of the Conferences changed, it was much harder to keep the Conference system afloat. By this
time the conferences were filled with men who did not typically appreciate the value of empire such as
Mackenzie King, who thought that the British were plotting against Canada; Barry Hertzog, whose South
African Nationalist party plank required a clarification of the constitutional question; and the Irish, who had a
long history of demanding separation from the British. The British were unable to make the system work and
it collapsed in 1923 as a result. The Balfour Declaration (1926) and the Statute of Westminster (1931) can thus
be seen as the death certificate of consultative empire.
1. Robert Bothwell, Ian Drummond, and John English. Canada: 1900-1945. (Buffalo, New York: University of
Toronto Press, 1987) pl
2. Shula Marks. "Southern Africa." In The Oxford History of the British Empire Volume IV: The Twentieth Century.
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) p547-551
3. CAB 32/47 PRO p2-3
4. Christian Science Monitor, April 10, 1917 p2
5. Although the Dominions are the topic of this paper research is still needed to seek out the effect of World War I
on the various Crown Colonies and other imperial possessions of the British Empire. The case of India merits
great attention as well because the jewel in the Crown always had a special place in imperial governance. Ireland
also deserves close scrutiny in this narrative because of its unique relationship with Great Britain.
6. Private Ernest White, March 13, 1915. Quoted from Jane Samson's The British Empire (Oxford, UK, Oxford
University Press: 2001) p229
7. CO 886/8 PRO p30
8. The Treaty was signed in 1902, the War occurred in 1904-1905. The Treaty was renewed in 1905.
9. T.O. Lloyd. The Short Oxford History of the Modern World: The British Empire (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1996) p275
10. CAB 32/2. PRO
11. CAB 32/6, 225 PRO
12. CAB 32/6
13. CAB 32/6 287 PRO
14. CAB 32/6 PRO
15. T.O. Lloyd. The Short Oxford History of the Modern World: The British Empire. p291-292
16. John Carland. "Shadow and Substance: Mackenzie King's Perceptions of British Intentions at the 1923
Imperial Conference" taken from Studies in British Imperial History. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986) p178-200
17. CAB 21/334. PRO
18. John Carland. "Shadow and Substance." p178-200
19. John Carland. "Shadow and Substance." p188
20. John Carland. "Shadow and Substance." p184
21. A.P. Thornton. The Imperial Idea and Its Enemies. p222
22. CAB 32/9 22 PRO
23. CAB 32/9 PRO
24. Correli Barnett. The Collapse of British Power (New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc.. 1972) p195
25. Correli Barnett. The Collapse of British Power. p195
1. Public Records Office (Kew, England)
2. Air Ministry (AIR), Air Historical Branch: 1/231/221/46 11/195
3. The Cabinet Office Records (CAB), Cabinet Office: Imperial and Imperial War Conferences: Minutes and Memorandum
4. Records of the Colonial Office, Commonwealth and Foreign and Commonwealth Offices, Empire Marketing Board,
and related bodies relating to the administration of Britain's colonies. (CO)
Colonial Office and predecessors: Confidential General and Confidential Original Correspondence 1759-1955 537/1022
5. Records created or inherited by the Dominions Office, and of the Commonwealth Relations and Foreign
and Commonwealth Offices relating to British relations with the dominions, and later Commonwealth countries.(DO)
6. Records from the Prime Minister's Office (PREM)
Prime Minister's Office: Correspondence and Papers, 1916-1940
7. Records created or inherited by the War Office, Armed Forces, Judge Advocate General, and related bodies.
War Office: Directorate of Military Operations and Military Intelligence, and predecessors: Correspondence
and Papers. 1837-1962
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