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1914-1945 - Imperial Commonwealth

The problems of Empire were many and perplexing. With regard to the self-governing dominions, the first question is to devise a method by which they may share in the direction of foreign policy, and may take a fair part in the naval and military defence of the Empire. Since foreign policy may lead to war, which automatically includes the Dominions, they demanded some control. The justice of the demand was admitted, but the question of a working scheme remained.

Next in importance are questions of free-trade, protection or preferential tariffs, within the Empire and as against the rest of the world. The British government accepted the principle of preference, not to include taxes on British food imports. Again there is the question of Asiatic immigration to the Dominions, difficult because the Dominions control their policies, delicate because the Indians are British subjects and the Japanese are allies. Again there is the problem of directing British emigration and British capital to the Dominions.

With regard to the tropical dependencies, other difficulties arose. To what extent were the Dominions to share Britain's control and responsibility? On the whole, the home government had been more careful to protect the rights of natives than had the local self-governing colonies. Increasingly the conscious purpose had been to govern and at the same time wisely educate the native groups, possibly towards more self-government, without premature Europeanizing or loss of what is valuable in their own institutions. Peace, security, and the abolition of slavery have been the obvious results of British rule.

To develop the natural resources with British capital and under British supervision by means of an adequate native labor supply, and all without oppression of the natives, is perhaps the central problem. Lloyd-George demanded for the German colonies that "the inhabitants must be placed under the control of an administration acceptable to themselves, one of whose main purposes will be to prevent their exploitation for the benefit of European capitalists or governments." Similarly Britain felt a sense of trusteeship for her own "backward races".

With regard to India the problems were ever more serious. They centered around the degree to which it was wise and safe to extend self-government to representatives of the Indian population, and the degree and manner in which India was to share with the Dominions in guiding the affairs of the Empire. British policy in India had always professed primary concern with the welfare of the population. England's profit was in trade which benefited both. It had been formally declared, and with increasing definiteness since the outbreak of the Great War, that it was Britain's purpose to grant larger and ultimately complete home rule. But British supremacy would meanwhile remain.

Some steps had been taken towards solving these problems. The Imperial Conference, though an extra-legal body with advisory powers only, accomplished much. The Dominions and the Malay States contributed to naval defense, by ships, money or local navies. The Dominions granted preferential tariffs to English imports. Some efforts were made to bring about a federal union, with a super-parliament and a super-ministry for imperial affairs. There were grave difficulties in this scheme, and the more likely line of development is towards a " Britannic Alliance," in which Britain would be first among equals.

In the words of the Imperial Conference of 1917, there was to be "full recognition of the Dominions as autonomous nations of an Imperial Commonwealth, and of India as an important portion of the same." The policy of Burke was still sound: to hold the Empire together by "the close affection which grows from common names, from kindred blood, from similar privileges, and equal protection. These are ties, which, though light as air, are as strong as links of iron."

Secretary of State Montagu announced on 20 August 1917, in the House of Commons, the policy of the Government with regard to India. "The policy of H.M. Government," he said, "is that of increasing the association of Indians in every branch of the administration and the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire." After stating that the Government bad decided that substantial steps in this direction should be taken as soon as possible, and that he was going to India to examine the matter in conjunction with the Viceroy, he ended with an important caution: "Progress in this policy can only be achieved by successive stages. The British Government and the Government of India, on whom the responsibility lies for the welfare and advancement of the Indian peoples, must be the judges of the time and measure of each advance, and they must be guided by the cooperation received from those upon whom new opportunities of service will thus be conferred and by the extent to which it is found that confidence can be reposed on their sense of responsibility."

The Maharaja of Bikaner's public speeches attracted marked attention, and were collected under the title of India's Imperial Partnership. His warm sympathy with Indian aspirations of self-government within the Empire made the greater impression on public opinion because of the notable moral and material progressiveness and efficiency of his administration in Bikaner, and his constitutional reforms. He was selected to represent the Indian states at the Peace Conference and the Imperial Cabinet meetings in connexion therewith, and at Versailles on June 28 1919 he affixed the first Indian signature to a great international treaty. Keenly concerned to uphold the rights and dignities of the ruling princes, he formulated their views with force and skill, and his was the dominant personal influence in securing the constitution, under royal proclamation, of the Chamber of Princes in 1921 as a deliberative, consultative and advisory body.

The British Government, in its tardy endeavor to stem the rising tide of Indian discontent, had enacted in 1919 a Reform Bill, granting to the Indian people a modicum of self-government through the media of eight Legislative Councils, one for each of the Indian provinces. The first of these Provincial Councils was opened with great pomp on February 8, 1921, by the Duke of Connaught, son of the late Queen Victoria. On this occasion, and for the first time since British rule in India began 150 years ago, the Indian Princes and the British Rulers met as a consultative body. This Legislative Council, though marking an advance toward self-government in India, yet was unacceptable to the masses, who deem it "far behind the political thought of India." The chief defect of the Indian Reform Bill, in the Enlightened British, as in the general Indian view, is that it "enfranchised the land-owner but not the peasant." It appeared that of the 300,000,000 people comprising the population of India, only one in forty, or less than three percent, were declared eligible to vote.




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Page last modified: 03-08-2012 18:34:02 ZULU