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Will the Empire Live?

What will hold such an Empire as the British together, this great, laxly
scattered, sea-linked association of ancient states and new-formed
countries, Oriental nations, and continental colonies? What will enable
it to resist the endless internal strains, the inevitable external
pressures and attacks to which it must be subjected This is the primary
question for British Imperialism; everything else is secondary or
subordinated to that.

There is a multitude of answers. But I suppose most of them will prove
under examination either to be, or to lead to, or to imply very
distinctly this generalisation that if most of the intelligent and
active people in the Empire want it to continue it will, and that if a
large proportion of such active and intelligent people are discontented
and estranged, nothing can save it from disintegration. I do not suppose
that a navy ten times larger than ours, or conscription of the most
irksome thoroughness, could oblige Canada to remain in the Empire if the
general will and feeling of Canada were against it, or coerce India into
a sustained submission if India presented a united and resistant front.
Our Empire, for all its roll of battles, was not created by force;
colonisation and diplomacy have played a far larger share in its growth
than conquest; and there is no such strength in its sovereignty as the
rule of pride and pressure demand. It is to the free consent and
participation of its constituent peoples that we must look for its
continuance.

A large and influential body of politicians considers that in
preferential trading between the parts of the Empire, and in the
erection of a tariff wall against exterior peoples, lies the secret of
that deepened emotional understanding we all desire. I have never
belonged to that school. I am no impassioned Free Trader--the sacred
principle of Free Trade has always impressed me as a piece of party
claptrap; but I have never been able to understand how an attempt to
draw together dominions so scattered and various as ours by a network of
fiscal manipulation could end in anything but mutual inconvenience
mutual irritation, and disruption.

In an open drawer in my bureau there lies before me now a crumpled card
on which are the notes I made of a former discussion of this very issue,
a discussion between a number of prominent politicians in the days
before Mr. Chamberlain's return from South Africa and the adoption of
Tariff Reform by the Unionist Party; and I decipher again the same
considerations, unanswered and unanswerable, that leave me sceptical
to-day.

Take a map of the world and consider the extreme differences in position
and condition between our scattered states. Here is Canada, lying along
the United States, looking eastward to Japan and China, westward to all
Europe. See the great slashes of lake, bay, and mountain chain that cut
it meridianally. Obviously its main routes and trades and relations lie
naturally north and south; obviously its full development can only be
attained with those ways free, open, and active. Conceivably, you may
build a fiscal wall across the continent; conceivably, you may shut off
the east and half the west by impossible tariffs, and narrow its trade
to one artificial duct to England, but only at the price of a hampered
development It will be like nourishing the growing body of a man with
the heart and arteries of a mouse.

Then here, again, are New Zealand and Australia, facing South America
and the teeming countries of Eastern Asia; surely it is in relation to
these vast proximities that their economic future lies. Is it possible
to believe that shipping mutton to London is anything but the mere
beginning of their commercial development Look at India, again, and
South Africa. Is it not manifest that from the economic and business
points of view each of these is an entirely separate entity, a system
apart, under distinct necessities, needing entire freedom to make its
own bargains and control its trade in its own way in order to achieve
its fullest material possibilities?

Nor can I believe that financial entanglements greatly strengthen the
bonds of an empire in any case. We lost the American colonies because we
interfered with their fiscal arrangements, and it was Napoleon's attempt
to strangle the Continental trade with Great Britain that began his
downfall.

I do not find in the ordinary relations of life that business relations
necessarily sustain intercourse. The relations of buyer and seller are
ticklish relations, very liable to strains and conflicts. I do not find
people grow fond of their butchers and plumbers, and I doubt whether if
one were obliged by some special taxation to deal only with one butcher
or one plumber, it would greatly endear the relationship. Forced buying
is irritated buying, and it is the forbidden shop that contains the
coveted goods. Nor do I find, to take another instance, among the hotel
staffs of Switzerland and the Riviera--who live almost entirely upon
British gold--those impassioned British imperialist views the economic
link theory would lead me to expect.

And another link, too, upon which much stress is laid but about which I
have very grave doubts, is the possibility of a unified organisation of
the Empire for military defence. We are to have, it is suggested, an
imperial Army and an imperial Navy, and so far, no doubt, as the
guaranteeing of a general peace goes, we may develop a sense of
participation in that way. But it is well in these islands to remember
that our extraordinary Empire has no common enemy to weld it together
from without.

It is too usual to regard Germany as the common enemy. We in Great
Britain are now intensely jealous of Germany. We are intensely jealous
of Germany not only because the Germans outnumber us, and have a much
larger and more diversified country than ours, and lie in the very heart
and body of Europe, but because in the last hundred years, while we have
fed on platitudes and vanity, they have had the energy and humility to
develop a splendid system of national education, to toil at science and
art and literature, to develop social organisation, to master and better
our methods of business and industry, and to clamber above us in the
scale of civilisation. This has humiliated and irritated rather than
chastened us, and our irritation has been greatly exacerbated by the
swaggering bad manners, the talk of "Blood and Iron" and Mailed Fists,
the Welt-Politik rubbish that inaugurated the new German phase.

The British middle-class, therefore, is full of an angry, vague
disposition to thwart that expansion which Germans regard very
reasonably as their natural destiny; there are all the possibilities of
a huge conflict in that disposition, and it is perhaps well to remember
how insular--or, at least, how European--the essentials of this quarrel
are. We have lost our tempers, but Canada has not. There is nothing in
Germany to make Canada envious and ashamed of wasted years. Canada has
no natural quarrel with Germany, nor has India, nor South Africa, nor
Australasia. They have no reason to share our insular exasperation. On
the other hand, all these states have other special preoccupations. New
Zealand, for example, having spent half a century and more in
sheep-farming, land legislation, suppressing its drink traffic, lowering
its birth-rate, and, in short, the achievement of an ideal preventive
materialism, is chiefly consumed by hate and fear of Japan, which in the
same interval has made a stride from the thirteenth to the twentieth
century, and which teems with art and life and enterprise and offspring.
Now Japan in Welt-Politik is our ally.

You see, the British Empire has no common economic interests and no
natural common enemy. It is not adapted to any form of Zollverein or any
form of united aggression. Visibly, on the map of the world it has a
likeness to open hands, while the German Empire--except for a few
ill-advised and imitative colonies--is clenched into a central European
unity.

Physically, our Empire is incurably scattered, various, and divided, and
it is to quite other links and forces, it seems to me, than fiscal or
military unification that we who desire its continuance must look to
hold it together. There never was anything like it before. Essentially
it is an adventure of the British spirit, sanguine, discursive, and
beyond comparison insubordinate, adaptable, and originating. It has been
made by odd and irregular means by trading companies, pioneers,
explorers, unauthorised seamen, adventurers like Clive, eccentrics like
Gordon, invalids like Rhodes. It has been made, in spite of authority
and officialdom, as no other empire was ever made. The nominal rulers of
Britain never planned it. It happened almost in spite of them. Their
chief contribution to its history has been the loss of the United
States. It is a living thing that has arisen, not a dead thing put
together. Beneath the thin legal and administrative ties that hold it
together lies the far more vital bond of a traditional free spontaneous
activity. It has a common medium of expression in the English tongue, a
unity of liberal and tolerant purpose amidst its enormous variety of
localised life and colour. And it is in the development and
strengthening, the enrichment the rendering more conscious and more
purposeful, of that broad creative spirit of the British that the true
cement and continuance of our Empire is to be found.

The Empire must live by the forces that begot it. It cannot hope to give
any such exclusive prosperity as a Zollverein might afford; it can hold
out no hopes of collective conquests and triumphs--its utmost military
rôle must be the guaranteeing of a common inaggressive security; but it
can, if it is to survive, it must, give all its constituent parts such a
civilisation as none of them could achieve alone, a civilisation, a
wealth and fullness of life increasing and developing with the years.
Through that, and that alone, can it be made worth having and worth
serving.

And in the first place the whole Empire must use the English language.
I do not mean that any language must be stamped out, that a thousand
languages may not flourish by board and cradle and in folk-songs and
village gossip--Erse, the Taal, a hundred Indian and other Eastern
tongues, Canadian French--but I mean that also English must be
available, that everywhere there must be English teaching. And everyone
who wants to read science or history or philosophy, to come out of the
village life into wider thoughts and broader horizons, to gain
appreciation in art, must find ready to hand, easily attainable in
English, all there is to know and all that has been said thereon. It is
worth a hundred Dreadnoughts and a million soldiers to the Empire, that
wherever the imperial posts reach, wherever there is a curious or
receptive mind, there in English and by the imperial connection the full
thought of the race should come. To the lonely youth upon the New
Zealand sheep farm, to the young Hindu, to the trapper under a Labrador
tilt, to the half-breed assistant at a Burmese oil-well, to the
self-educating Scottish miner or the Egyptian clerk, the Empire and the
English language should exist, visibly and certainly, as the media by
which his spirit escapes from his immediate surroundings and all the
urgencies of every day, into a limitless fellowship of thought and
beauty.

Now I am not writing this in any vague rhetorical way; I mean
specifically that our Empire has to become the medium of knowledge and
thought to every intelligent person in it, or that it is bound to go to
pieces. It has no economic, no military, no racial, no religious unity.
Its only conceivable unity is a unity of language and purpose and
outlook. If it is not held together by thought and spirit, it cannot be
held together. No other cement exists that can hold it together
indefinitely.

Not only English literature, but all other literatures well translated
into English, and all science and all philosophy, have to be brought
within the reach of everyone capable of availing himself of such
reading. And this must be done, not by private enterprise or for gain,
but as an Imperial function. Wherever the Empire extends there its
presence must signify all that breadth of thought and outlook no
localised life can supply.

Only so is it possible to establish and maintain the wide
understandings, the common sympathy necessary to our continued
association. The Empire, mediately or immediately, must become the
universal educator, news-agent, book-distributor, civiliser-general, and
vehicle of imaginative inspiration for its peoples, or else it must
submit to the gravitation of its various parts to new and more
invigorating associations.

No empire, it may be urged, has ever attempted anything of this sort,
but no empire like the British has ever yet existed. Its conditions and
needs are unprecedented, its consolidation is a new problem, to be
solved, if it is solved at all, by untried means. And in the English
language as a vehicle of thought and civilisation alone is that means to
be found.

Now it is idle to pretend that at the present time the British Empire is
giving its constituent peoples any such high and rewarding civilisation
as I am here suggesting. It gives them a certain immunity from warfare,
a penny post, an occasional spectacular coronation, a few knighthoods
and peerages, and the services of an honest, unsympathetic,
narrow-minded, and unattractive officialism. No adequate effort is
being made to render the English language universal throughout its
limits, none at all to use it as a medium of thought and enlightenment.
Half the good things of the human mind are outside English altogether,
and there is not sufficient intelligence among us to desire to bring
them in. If one would read honest and able criticism, one must learn
French; if one would be abreast of scientific knowledge and
philosophical thought, or see many good plays or understand the
contemporary European mind, German.

And yet it would cost amazingly little to get every good foreign thing
done into English as it appeared. It needs only a little understanding
and a little organisation to ensure the immediate translation of every
significant article, every scientific paper of the slightest value. The
effort and arrangement needed to make books, facilities for research,
and all forms of art accessible throughout the Empire, would be
altogether trivial in proportion to the consolidation it would effect.

But English people do not understand these things. Their Empire is an
accident. It was made for them by their exceptional and outcast men, and
in the end it will be lost, I fear, by the intellectual inertness of
their commonplace and dull-minded leaders. Empire has happened to them
and civilisation has happened to them as fresh lettuces come to tame
rabbits. They do not understand how they got, and they will not
understand how to keep. Art, thought, literature, all indeed that raises
men above locality and habit, all that can justify and consolidate the
Empire, is nothing to them. They are provincials mocked by a world-wide
opportunity, the stupid legatees of a great generation of exiles. They
go out of town for the "shootin'," and come back for the fooleries of
Parliament, and to see what the Censor has left of our playwrights and
Sir Jesse Boot of our writers, and to dine in restaurants and wear
clothes.

Mostly they call themselves Imperialists, which is just their harmless
way of expressing their satisfaction with things as they are. In
practice their Imperialism resolves itself into a vigorous resistance to
taxation and an ill-concealed hostility to education. It matters nothing
to them that the whole next generation of Canadians has drawn its ideas
mainly from American publications, that India and Egypt, in despite of
sounder mental nourishment, have developed their own vernacular Press,
that Australia and New Zealand even now gravitate to America for books
and thought. It matters nothing to them that the poverty and insularity
of our intellectual life has turned American art to France and Italy,
and the American universities towards Germany. The slow starvation and
decline of our philosophy and science, the decadence of British
invention and enterprise, troubles them not at all, because they fail to
connect these things with the tangible facts of empire. "The world
cannot wait for the English." ... And the sands of our Imperial
opportunity twirl through the neck of the hour-glass.

H.G. Wells