Rise and Demise of Consultative Empire

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Rise and Demise of Consultative Empire
Jackson, Stephen
Harland-Jacobs, Jessica ( Mentor )
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Rise and Demise of Consultative Empire

Stephen Jackson


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-

imperial relations.

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

Balfour Declaration.(25)

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


Primary Sources:

Archival Sources:

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.

1568-1996. (WO)

War Office: Directorate of Military Operations and Military Intelligence, and predecessors: Correspondence

and Papers. 1837-1962


Published Primary Sources

1. Dilke, Charles. Greater Britain: A Record of Travel. (London, England: The MacMillan Co. 1868).

2. Keith, Arthur. Speeches and Documents on the British Dominions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1932).

3. Lower, Arthur. Colony to Nation: A History of Canada. (Longmans, Green & Company. New York, New York: 1946).

4. Milner, Viscount Alfred. The nation and the empire: being a collection of speeches and addresses. (London, 1913.

The Making of Modern Law. Thomson Gale. 25 May 2006

5. Samson, Jane. The British Empire. (New York, Oxford University Press: 2001).

Excerpts include:

Crowley, FK. 1916.

Hobson, JA. Imperialism: A Study. 1902

Steyn, Martinus. "Appeal to Afrikaners." October, 1899.

White, Ernest. March 13, 1915

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Press 1992).

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Imperial Conference" taken from Studies in British Imperial History. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986).

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Toronto Press. Toronto, Canada: 1989).

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