Imperial Federation

Imperial Federation
   Imperial Federation , a term used to define a multitude of political schemes that promoted closer union between the British Empire ’s various constituencies, was an idea that gained support in Great Britain in the late nineteenth century. Its most vocal proponent was The Imperial Federation League, a pressure group that drew support mainly from conservatives and liberal imperialists. Lionel Curtis, a co-founder of the imperial pressure group, the Round Table, proposed an actual imperial federation, with a central imperial parliament in London with representatives from the white settlement colonies. Other schemes were less formal, envisioning an imperial federation working through informal imperial conferences - the first such conference was held in 1887 - common economic policies, a customs union similar to the German Zollverein, or simply the strengthening of social and cultural ties among what some historians have retroactively termed the British world . The motivations for imperial federation were varied. Some advocates of imperial federation wanted to improve imperial defense, some to relieve legislative congestion at Westminster, others still to prevent the secession of colonies after they received responsible government. All, however, shared a desire to strengthen the British Empire as a single geopolitical unit.
   Imperial federation had been discussed periodically from the 1820s, and attracted the attention of writers such as E. A. Freeman and J. A. Froude from the 1850s to the early 1870s. The idea began to attract broader attention in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, reflecting imperial concerns about the rise of new imperial rivals such as the United States and Germany. Both challenged, and sometimes surpassed, Great Britain’s economic supremacy in various sectors, calling into question the British Empire’s position of international hegemony. Supporters of imperial federation argued that Britain could best resist its rivals by more fully mobilizing the resources of empire through closer political union. They also worried about Britain’s increasing isolation from continental affairs and the potential for imperial rivalries to cause war. The latter fear only increased as the “Scramble for Africa” began in earnest in the 1880s. The Imperial Federation League was formed in 1884, with branch associations in the dominions.
   Despite the lobbying efforts of supporters, however, imperial federation never achieved significant political support. While the settlement colonies continued to be loyal to the Empire, they were also developing a separate sense of what the writer Richard Jebb termed “colonial nationalism,” a separate sense of independent identity that precluded membership in a formal political union. In Britain itself, critics were leery of the potentially onerous financial and military responsibilities imperial federation might entail. The Imperial Federation League itself broke up in 1894 over the question of an imperial tariff. The idea of imperial federation continued to have its advocates, notably those members of Alfred, Lord Milner’s “kindergarten,” his group of his young assistants in South Africa, which included Curtis. Imperial federation, however, never received popular support and was never adopted by any major political party. Ultimately, imperial federation was not feasible because the empire was too multifaceted, too diverse, and too widespread to be encompassed in any single, coherent political structure. Imperial federation received no serious discussion in the twentieth century; still, weaker notions of imperial unity did exist, as reflected in large-scale migration within the empire and a shared loyalty to the Crown.
   See also <>; <>; <>.
    Jebb, Richard. Studies in Colonial Nationalism. London: E. Arnold, 1905;
    Kendle, John. Federal Britain: A History. London: Routledge, 1997;
    Martin, Ged. “The Idea of ‘Imperial Federation.’” In Ronald Hyam and Ged Martin, Eds. Reappraisals in British Imperial History. London: Macmillan, 1975.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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