Decline and Fall of the British Empire: An Australian Nationalist Point of View

by P. R. Stephensen


History is the tale of waxing and waning empires. All empires have waxed before waning. Britain’s Empire has waxed—will it now wane? Yes, inevitably. An empire is no more permanent than an oak-tree: the mightiest oak must fall, rotting hollow at the core. Everything that has life in it has death in it, too. A moment of rapture, or a moment of power, cannot be prolonged unduly beyond its zenith. Where there has been strength and greatness, there must come sequent decline and fall. Without deaths, there would be no births. Death is necessary, to make way for more life. Old empires, old cultures, must crash—and Britain’s Empire with them—to make way for new empires, new cultures. Who would have it otherwise? Only those who object to death’s inevitability and to time’s changes! Let them object—the objection is noted—and history’s blind processes go on.

Britain’s Empire reached its zenith in the time of Cecil Rhodes. On Mafeking Night the Empire stood at the peak of its achievements; and afterwards it began, imperceptibly at first, to decline in power. Almost forty years have gone by since Mafeking Night—are we still to think in Mafeking terms? Elderly people will do so, from the force of their youthful habits; but youngsters, men and women below forty, have thoughts on the subject of Mafeking and of the Empire, half-articulated thoughts, which would appal their seniors of the Grand Tradition. The nineteenth century saw Britain’s Empire rise to the crest of its power. The twentieth century sees Britain’s Empire begin to decline and fall.

Of what use is the Empire to Britain? This is a question for the British of Britain themselves, and not for quizzical colonials, but it is a question that the British will ask themselves increasingly. Decadence in an empire comes from within, as decadence in an oak comes from within, by rotting at the core. The colonial visitor to Britain sees that the population there is stratified, and that the lower stratum comprises many millions of people who are under-nourished, mal-educated, servile, badly housed, and subject to that chronic kind of idleness named "unemployment"; while the upper stratum is also chronically unemployed in another way—grown indolent through passively drawing dividends from overseas. What’s this, then—the workshop of the world?

Bread and circuses—the dole and Wembley Stadium, the dole and Harringay Park dog-track, the dole and the Coronation procession—are we expected to be blind to history’s parallels? And the birth-rate decline in Britain: how can such a portent be ignored? Empires do not fall solely because of foreign attack. On the contrary, this often rallies empires. Empires fall through internal causes: unwieldiness, embarras de richesses, class dissension, weariness of power, desire for peace.

Empires are made by war, and grow by war: Britain’s Empire as much as any other. When the lust for power, for territorial aggrandisement, for political construction and domination, has been thus sated, after a period, and when the desire for peace, "world" peace, comes, as it came to Alexander when he had No More Worlds to Conquer—then it is the beginning of the end for an empire—for Britain’s Empire as much for any other. Why baulk at facts? Britain’s present oft-professed desire for peace is a desire for stagnation, of decadence: for, in the case of an empire, preservation of the status quo means decadence—if empires are to live, they must grow.

Britain’s Empire has been built, and has continually grown, not by peace, but by war. If we are to grant empire-builders this premise of historical fact, then empire-building depends on a constant readiness to wage war, for territorial expansion. When the League of Nations, which was an Anglo-French mechanism for "making Germany pay" for the last "Great" war, first failed in fact to make Germany pay, and then, shortly afterwards, shirked a military contest with Italy on the Abyssinian question, the old power of British diplomacy was on the wane. The previous shirking of a military content with Japan on the Manchukuo question merely makes the matter clear. Empires are based on power-politics: if that power is not used promptly when the occasion warrants it, the empire game is up. Drake and Nelson would have been into Mussolini like a chicken into corn. Baldwin and Anthony Eden allowed their bluff to be called. They shirked a war—perhaps wisely, who knows? for eleven million people in Britain had voted in a straw ballot for peace at about the time of the Abyssinian Crisis—but, whatever the reason, when an empire shirks a war, that Empire is on the chute. Pacifism in Britain may be a sign of a growing humanity there: that is not the only point to consider: it is also a sign of inevitable decline in imperial power. Empire means war—it can mean nothing else. If you support the Empire, you must not shirk war and war-making, ad infinitum. A pacifist empire presents a self-contradictory idea which not even the most ingenious of liberal ratiocinations could explain away.

An empire increases externally by war, and stagnates if it does not increase. There must be new excitements, new conquests, new loot, new structures, to maintain an empire at pitch. The two minor wars being wages by Britain to-day—in North-west India and in Palestine—though they occupy more men than were occupied at the battle of Waterloo, and almost as many men and guns as are now occupied in any major battle in Spain, are suppressed from the news—why? The British of Britain no longer desire war’s excitements: this is a most profound proof of decadence. Forty or fifty years ago, Lord Roberts was regarded almost as a demigod for doing no more on the Indian Frontier than a General, whose name it would require considerable research to discover, is now doing there, in undeserved obscurity. The British of Britain are sick of wars.

An empire, too, must be maintained internally by force. Never mind the moral suasion: that is only the glove on the mailed fist. The last time the British successfully coerced a part of the Empire was in the war against the Boers. Our respected Founder, Cecil Rhodes, had a hand in that; but the British, even then, did not show themselves able to coerce the Boers without Australian and New Zealand aid.

Since that time, the British have failed to coerce Ireland, they have failed to coerce Egypt, and they have more or less failed to coerce India. Through lack of force, lack of imperiousness (imperial aggressiveness) within themselves, the British of to-day have had to make political concessions to Ireland, Egypt and India, which the British of yesterday would never have considered making. The concessions thus extracted must tend to have a disintegrating effect upon the Empire but the real disintegration lies in a lack of imperiousness in the British themselves. I fancy that Rudyard Kipling died a very disappointed man.

To-day, if South Africa were to become really truculent, it is doubtful whether British arms could coerce the South Africans. If Canada were to default on interest-payments, it is doubtful whether the British would dare to send an army of occupation there. If Australia, experiencing a profound change of mind, were to decide on a policy of debt-repudiation (or of making token-payments, as Britain has made to the U.S.A.), it is doubtful whether British arms would be strong enough to coerce this Commonwealth, or to dictate what we should do.

Failing in coercion, the Empire now must be ruled by bluff and moral suasion, or by bluff alone. The other name for this bluff is sentimental propaganda—"blood-thicker-than-water" speeches such as those which were delivered by the Welshman, J. H. Thomas, to the French-Canadians and Dutch-South-Africans at the Ottawa Conference. A different kind of rhetoric would be needed in India; and no argument would avail in Ireland.

If Britain’s leaders of to-day shirk a declaration of war against any first-class power, or group of powers, it is because they realise that imperial sentiment, within the Empire’s many component and disparate parts, is tending to evaporate with the effluxion of time. Britain’s leaders can no longer be sure either how their own people, in Britain, or how the people of the near-flung and far-flung parts such as Ireland, Egypt, India, South Africa, and Canada, would react to a sustained major war. They are fairly sure of the loyalty of Australia and New Zealand, for these two outposts are inhabited by more-or-less complacent colonials; but they could not be sure of the unwavering Empire-loyalty of any other parts of the Empire: even Stow-on-the-Wold might rebel if an attempt were made to conscript Stow-on-the-Woldians for military service abroad.

I put it realistically: let ostriches hide their heads when a storm approaches: the Australian national bird is the inquisitive emu: ought we to be motivated any longer by merely sententious phrases?

When Britain had a two-power standard, and was able to lick any other two (or more) nations combined, at sea, in any part of the world, then, perforce, Britain was duly great and glorious. To-day, does Britannia rule the waves? In particular, does Britannia rule the waves of the Baltic Sea, of the Mediterranean Sea, of the Black Sea, of the Sea of Azov, of the China Sea, or of any of the American Seas? If not, then why go on talking as though things had not changed in forty years? For centuries Britain has been invulnerable at home, isolated by water from all possible enemies. Hearts of Oak were enough to keep all foes away; but Hearts of Oak cannot intercept air-raiders. We live in the age of Air Power, not of Sea Power, paramount. Why avoid the facts, merely because they are unpleasant? Within half-an-hour of the declaration of war, or even before a British "ultimatum" to a foreign power had expired, thermite bombs would almost certainly be raining on London. To pretend otherwise is merely to be blind to these realities, though leader-writers and sermon-spruikers may ignore them.

Because of this new vulnerability of Britain to air attack, the old game of power-politics has lost its sedateness, for Britons. A diplomatic bluff nowadays may be too terribly and quickly called. Diplomacy has lost its finesse. It is because of this new vulnerability that Britain to-day hesitates before engaging in war against any first-class power, or combination of powers. Even if Britain could win ultimately, the game would not be worth the candle. All talk, then, of British "world"-pacification by huge armament is a bluff, a dangerous bluff and a pathetic bluff: a bluff which may be called, no matter how enormous the British armament, or re-armament, may be. This talk of British "world"-policemanship is sad talk to-day: a feeble echo of the erstwhile Pax Britannica, an empty mouthing of old words, faded slogans. Britain alone can do nothing decisive to-day to "pacify" the world by force: the terrible striking power of aircraft has changed the face of diplomacy and has altered the complexion of war.

Britain therefore seeks allies to aid her in policemanship. The aid of France, Russia and the U.S.A. is invoked: aid for Britain in pacifying the world by force—a task now too great for Britain alone. And of these three possible allies, two of them—Russia and the U.S.A.—appear to be more powerful, in arms, industrial resources, equipment, men and wealth, than Britain. Britain seeks aid from stronger nations!

The Russians have never been anything less than treacherous throughout all their history: is it likely that they have changed their natures now, under the rule of the Sultan Stalin? The Slav temperament is subtle, a chess-playing temperament: Russians always want a quid pro quo. What is their quid pro quo to Britain and France for proffered aid? Freedom for communist propaganda, surely—something not exactly helpful to the theory of a Permanent Empire! These be strange stable-companions—capitalistic Britain and sovietistic Russia: how long could they run in double-harness? Or suppose the Russians, in a moody outburst of unpredictable Slav temperament, decided suddenly to join forces with Germany or Japan, or both, in return for a better bargain than Britain or France could offer? Could Britain, then, even if aided by France and the U.S.A., "pacify" a hostile combination of Germany, Russia, Italy and Japan?

Pity Mr. Anthony Eden! He has his work cut out.

Russia is the joker in the pack. The British Empire no longer dominates "world"-politics, as it did forty years ago. Britain to-day is only one of seven "great" powers, each more or less equal in military aggressive strength. If the whole of the other six powers, or any four of them, were to turn against Britain, and were to make thus any strong or united demand, could Britain really say nay? God help Mr. Eden (and Britain) if he fails to maintain France and Russia and the U.S.A. as Britain’s friends! It has come to this: that the perpetuation and maintenance of Britain’s Empire depends on "foreign" aid, and on "foreign" alliances.

To seek for support in the U.S.A. is an extremely dubious expedient. Old sores rankle there: Irish, German and Italian influences are strong: Yankee elements do not forget Britain’s aid to the slavers of the South, and memories go back even to Lord North and the Hessians: all Americans know how callously Lloyd George sidetracked President Wilson’s "idealism" at Versailles; all Americans know and resent the fact that Britain has defaulted on interest-payments of the British war debt to the U.S.A.: most Americans are anti-monarchical, and some have a grudge against the Archbishop of Canterbury because of a recent imagined slur to American womanhood: American oil, cinema, and motor-car exporters have had to fight what they regard as unfair British competition in many of the markets of the world: most Americans since 1914–18 have an ingrained "New World" dislike of interfering in what they regard as dogfights of the Old World. The cumulative effect of all this is America’s recent neutrality legislation.

It is only if civil strife were to become serious at home, in America, that America’s leaders would agree to co-operate with Britain in a foreign war, to create a diversion. But even if they did thus co-operate, they too would want a quid pro quo—cancellation of the Ottawa Agreements, for example, and free entry of American goods into all British markets. This would be almost as bad in the long run for Britain as Russia’s quid pro quo. All Britain’s likely allies will want a quid pro quo—such is the result of being reputed rich and powerful. Pity Mr. Eden! Pray for him. (There is nothing else we can do.)

It is because Britain’s hand in international affairs has become so weakened since the last "Great" war—and particularly by the tremendous growth of strength in Russia, Japan, Germany and Italy: four distinct national renaissances—that Britain to-day so seriously desires peace. But British "re-armament," no matter how colossal, is not in itself enough to ensure "peace" (by force) against the four new-national movements of Russia, Germany, Italy and Japan. In these four countries there is something more than re-armament: there is a zest, a will-to-power, a national re-birth, a resurgence (call it what you will), a new discipline, a new system of life, similar to that which Britain herself once experienced, by spontaneous combustion, in the days of Queen Elizabeth, and a second time in the days of Queen Victoria. The origin of these resurgences appears difficult to define: they are of the biological, rather than of the abstractly political, order: they resemble flowering and fruiting in a plant after quiescence; or, if you prefer it, they resemble plagues of mice, locusts, grasshoppers, conditioned by who knows what impulse of sudden fecundity. The spirit of optimism, and of belief in themselves, is in nations affected by this impulse.

Mere "re-armament" by Britain could not put down this spirit in these inconvenient foreign countries: nor could it be put down by British self-righteousness and pretence of moral rectitude and "pacific-democratic" intention. The only effective answer to such foreign assertiveness would be an even greater assertiveness, of a biological, will-to-power kind, on the part of Britons. But it Britain the population is tending to fall: in these other countries the population is increasing: there is the fact to consider. In Britain industrial effort is slackening, despite the sad stimulus of "re-arming": while, in these other countries, industrial effort has risen to previously undreamt-of heights!

When Britain ceased, under the leadership of Mr. Baldwin, to be a free-trade country, and began to rely on tariffs, bounties, quotas, horsepower taxes, and preferential trade agreements, in order to "protect" British manufacturers against foreign competition, in Britain’s own home market, no less than in the markets of the Empire, that was the beginning of the end, for those who can read writing on a wall. When British industry had to be thus coddled as against "foreign" industry, and when the workshop of the world became the world’s pawnshop, and when the nation of shopkeepers had to bribe customers to buy, and when the Tourist Industry became Britain’s greatest industry (the Land of the Free as a Museum-Piece), and when pomp and pageantry became the main goods for sale in Britain’s shop-window, and when hotel-keeping became the national standby—then is the stage not set for decline and fall?

How can we, with confidence, accept the notion that Britain is the guardian of "democracy" in the world to-day? In Britain’s Empire there are 500 million people: and only 100 million of these are white. Does anybody seriously suggest that the 400 million coloured people in this Empire have "democratic equality" with the 100 million whites? Is it seriously suggested that, say, in New Guinea or India, the coloured people are self-governing and democratic? Why give countenance to such a falsehood? Britain’s Empire is, in fact, governed monarchically, not democratically. It is, in fact, the outstanding example of a survival of the monarchic system in the world to-day. No wonder foreigners laugh at the claim that Britain is democratic! The Coronation of Britain’s monarchy resembles nothing more than an ancient Roman "triumph"—with proconsuls of the imperium, and colonial troops, parading in the train of the Emperor and Empress. And this kind of thing is help up to the world as an example of the "democracy" of which Britain is the divinely-appointed, or self-appointed, guardian in the world to-day! It may be said that this is a mere show, and that the "reality" of "democracy" is in Britain. Oh, yes? Is it seriously suggested that the Monarch, the Privy Council, the House of Lords, and the whole of Britain’s closely-organised minority ruling class, are "democratically elected" to rule Britain and Britain’s Empire?

The objection here taken is not to autocratic rule; for all rule must, at any crisis, be autocratic, as Czar Stalin has recently demonstrated. The objection is taken merely to a logical weakness, which reveals also a psychological weakness, in Britain’s claim to be the world’s champion of democracy. In fact, no country in the world—with the possible exception of India—is so undemocratically ruled and organised as is Britain. There, the caste system, the stratification of the community into strictly defined tiers, and the system of rule by oligarchy and hereditary bureaucracy flourish to perfection. Who denies this? Then why should we be taken in by the claim, so obviously a prevarication, that Britain’s Empire stands for "democracy"? The claim lacks novelty as well as truth; but because of its lack of novelty it is none the less false. An empire must be ruled imperially, and can be ruled in no other way. If Britain’s Empire were, in fact, truly "democratic," it would cease to be an empire. Every pretence to the contrary reveals a weakness, either of conscience or of logic.

The attempt to make it appear, contrary to realities, that the Empire is not an empire, but a democratic benevolent institution, is only another portent of decline and fall. A strong empire need not be afraid to be imperial. Victoria was a Queen and an Empress, without apology; but there have been changes since her heyday. When her great-grandson, Edward the Eighth, came to the throne, the claim was made (not by him) that he was a "democratic" monarch, but no vote of the people was taken on the question of his ascending the Throne, still less was it considered necessary for any vote of the public to be taken on the question of his renouncing that exalted Seat. He came to the Throne, and he left it, by thoroughly undemocratic procedure, as was meet, right, proper and fitting, under the imperial and monarchic system of Britain; but to claim that this imperiousness is not imperial, that this royalty is not royal, and that this Empire is not an empire, but a "democracy," is to make claims which are false, misleading, demoralising, and decadent.

Another false and demoralising claim is made in regard to the political relationships between Britain, as "Motherland," and the outlying parts of provinces of the Empire. In this field of thought it is pretended that the Empire is not an empire, but a Commonwealth. Then can a change of name change the nature of a thing? To pretend that the "Dominions" have, in fact, "equal status" with Britain in matters of foreign policy, declaring war, and collecting dividends, is to pretend a gross humbug. It is another of those manifestations of the Nonconformist conscience which took the world by surprise in the days of Mr. Gladstone, but no longer has power to amaze. Inasmuch as the pretence that the Dominions have "equal status" with Britain is a line of thought that has been put forth by leaders of Britain such as the late Arthur Balfour, it reveals a weakness in them; or, worse, a semi-theological subtlety which maintains that that is not, is. From the strictly imperial point of view, it was bad enough when Britain "granted" the "right" of "self-government" to some of her colonies; but this grant had an excuse in that it cost Britain nothing—and the right was one which in any case would have been taken by the Colonies if it had not been granted. Ultimately, the Colonies so enfranchised were merely granted the right to tax themselves for Britain’s benefit. Britain has reserved, and has exercised, the right to dismiss a Colonial Government reluctant to do this.

But to go further, and to "grant" what is termed "equal status" to these Colonies was, from the imperial point of view, an irrevocable act of weakness on the part of Britain. It implied a recognition either of the growing strength of the "Dominions," or of the growing weakness of Britain, or both; in either case it was an abrogation of the imperial principle, a timidity in grasping the sceptre, which, if genuine, reveals decadence—and, if not genuine, reveals a humbug.

I put forth this analysis in these pages fully cognisant of the fact that very few Rhodes Scholars endorse it, and hereby duly warning readers of that fact. It is nevertheless as well to dispel a possible public illusion that all Rhodes Scholars are of a uniform political pattern, and that all are in the queue for Knighthoods or the O.B.E.

Oxford, thank goodness, is not yet a mental sausage-factory, and Oxford men need not pretend to be academic chain-meat. I have never had occasion, either before, during, or since my tenure of the Scholarship, to believe that there is any obligation upon Rhodes Scholars to think "imperially" in the manner of forty years ago.

Cecil Rhodes was a man of his time, and history did not cease at his death. He made his money as fairly as could be expected in the circumstances, and left it, like a good sport, without attempting to bind the minds of his beneficiaries in any way. He hoped that Colonials, Germans and Americans would learn, at Oxford, to respect some of the good things in English life, as indeed they do under the Scholarship. He might well have foreseen that some of them would make an adverse comparison between conditions in England generally (outside Oxford) and conditions in their native lands. If the Founder were alive to-day, he might be making his will to send selected specimens of beef-and-brain away from England to the Dominions, to America, and to Germany, for an education.

As an Australian, I feel no urge, "moral" or otherwise, in my political thinking, to put the interest and welfare of Britain’s Empire before the interests and welfare of Australia.

I try to be concerned, as a citizen of the Australian community, with the strengthening and development of Australia, rather than with any attempt to strengthen and develop Britain’s Empire—which, scattered as it is over the world and heterogenous in racial structure, has far too many structural weaknesses to be politically permanent. I regard the Empire as an historical patchwork, with a past that was glorious, and a future distinctly dubious.

"World" diplomacy, as practised by Britain’s leaders of to-day, I consider to be nothing but a preliminary to inevitable and futile "world" war—a war which will be caused as much by Britain’s hesitancy in imperiousness, and vacillation in acquisitiveness and possessoriness, as by any other factor. Yet Britain could not be anything other than hesitant and vacillating, for the time has come when Britons are weary of it all. They have sucked the orange dry.

The signs of weakness, in Britain to-day, I consider are most portentous for Australia. We have recently been told, repeatedly, by responsible British authorities, that, in the event of "world" war, Britain’s navy will not be able to guarantee either to defend Australia’s coasts or to keep open Australia’s lines of overseas communication. This throws upon us the onus of self-defence, and of self-dependence.

Australians should grasp the opportunity eagerly. With a population of approximately 6,820,000 persons, living on an island that is genuinely isolated by ocean distances from the nearest possible hostile power, and with a coastline easily defensible by aircraft, and living in a land which cannot be starved out by blockade, Australians ought now to be able to look after themselves. We ought to accept our responsibilities as an adult nation—and to say, "What we have we’ll hold." There is, I believe, no actual serious danger of armed invasion from overseas. The hazards and the cost would be too great for any of the Powers to contemplate—and they all have other pigeons, nearer home.

All that the Powers would be likely to demand from Australia would be freedom of trade, and no discriminatory tariffs against them, imposed to coddle Britain. This fair request Australians, in our own interest, ought to concede: for while the world market is expanding, the purely "British" market for Australian products seems likely to shrink.

If there were such a thing as Australian diplomacy, there would be no need for Australia to become involved in a war. But British diplomacy could lead us, again and again, into that series of enervating wars inseparable from the idea of an empire—particularly of an empire in the phase of decline and weariness.

A new way of thought for Australians, a way of national and self-dependent thought, seems indicated as the way of Australian self-preservation. If Rhodes Scholars are anything more than mere individual careerists, questions such as this will be freely discussed among us: and sincere dissident opinion will be patiently and logically refuted if considered fallacious. If, on the other hand, the sum of £1,200 each is enough to buy our silence when Empire matters are discussed, or, worse, to buy our automatic commendation of the British Conservative Party’s Empire policies, then our price is very low indeed.

Those three years at Oxford were delightful. The English at their best are the best people in the world, the nicest; but when a man has a country like Australia for a motherland, his primary allegiance could not be to any other country, nor could his primary concern be for the welfare of any other country than his own. It was not the grandfathers of the present-day English who pioneered and developed Australia. It was the grandfathers of the present-day Australians who did this far-flung job. The English who live in England to-day are merely the descendants of the stay-at-homes, the unadventurous.

The kindest thought we could have for the Empire is to hope, sincerely, that its demise will be as painless as possible for those charming people who were our hosts during the three most carefree and callow years of our lives.

The Percy Stephensen Collection