Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sunday Essay - Oliver's Endless Adventure 2

Sunday Essay - Oliver's Endless Adventure 1 began my review of F S Oliver's The Endless Adventure, Volume One, The rise of Sir Robert Walpole to the Head of Affairs, 1710-1727 (MacMillan & Co, London, 1931). At the end of that post I said that I would continue this essay tomorrow, looking at Oliver in the context of his time, at the way in which the book shows how Oliver's own views were shifting in light of events.

It's been quite a long tomorrow - a week in fact! - because of the intervention of the environment and the Copenhagen. I am going to leave any comment on Copenhagen until I have had a chance to read and analyse the actual text.  

All major empires are both creatures of their time and affect their time. 

This sounds a bit like a truism and at one level it is. However, a fair bit of the train reading that I have done over the last year on the long daily journey to and from Parramatta has been concerned in one way or another with questions of empire. Here I have been really struck by the continuing long shadows cast by past empires, whether it be Chinese, Roman, Byzantium, Ottoman or British.

Frederick Scott Oliver was born in February 1864 to Scottish parents and was raised in Scotland’s border region with England. He attended Edinburgh University and then went to Trinity College, Cambridge. After practicing law for three years, but then abandoned this career to marry Katharine Augusta M’Laren. He subsequently joined the linen drapery firm of Debenham & Freebody, becoming a partner in 1904.

The first decades of Oliver's life marked the peak of the British Empire's economic and political power.

Between 1815 and 1914 around 10,000,000 square miles (25,899,881 km2) of territory and roughly 400 million people were added to the British Empire. What was first and foremost a trading empire had developed, almost by accident, into a huge territorial Delhi Durbar 1903 - A Processionentity spreading across the globe.

The great Indian Durbars of 1877, 1903 and 1911 and especially the spectacle of 1903 in many ways marked the symbolic high points of Empire.

This painting  by the Australian painter Mortimer Menpes of the 1903 Durbar gives a hint of the spectacle involved. The painting is taken from a remarkably interesting October 2008 post,  Curzon's Delhi Durbar 1903 & the Photorealism of Mortimer Menpes, by V.Narayan Swami.

Problems of control and governance were central to the maintenance of such a widespread entity. As historian Norman Davies pointed out, even the wealthy empire could not afford to maintain both the huge fleet required to protect the sea lanes and the large standing armies of the European powers. The fleet came first, with the army limited to the minimum size required for internal order and to protect the boundaries. The Empire's survival in fact depended upon avoidance of involvement in major European conflicts. 

Even with the spread of the telegraph, the Empire could not be controlled centrally. The result was a complicated mosaic of direct and indirect rule. The constant challenge lay in defining those elements that must be controlled or guided centrally, those where local autonomy was required.

The last decades of the nineteenth century were marked by the grant of increasing autonomy that saw the emergence of representative government in significant parts of the Empire. Increasingly, the Empire began to behave as a federation. This attracted Oliver's attention.

At Cambridge, F S Oliver had met and became a life long friend of Austen Chamberlain and became a long life friend of he and his imperial-minded father, Joseph. While never entering politics himself, Oliver joined the Unionist Party and began a career as a political writer and pamphleteer.

In one of his first pamphlets, The Statesman and the Bishop, Oliver argued the case for an imperial federation.  Then in 1906 he published the biography Alexander Hamilton, which used the example set by the federalists of the early United States to argue for a federal arrangement for the British Empire. This book, the Times argued in 1934, had probably "more influence than any other political book of the decade".

From May 1910, Oliver also wrote numerous political articles for The Times under the pseudonym “Pacificus ”. These outlined his federalist ideas, including the establishment of separate parliaments in the United Kingdom to deal with purely local issues, with a supreme parliament responsible for national and Imperial concerns.

The publication of Alexander Hamilton drew Oliver the attention of Lord Afred Milner and the members of his kindergarten, the young men who Milner had gathered around him.  Milner and his kindergarten were then engaged in the reconstruction of South Africa after the Boer war (1899-1902); Alexander Hamilton exercised a profound influence on their thinking.

In 1909, most of the members of the kindergarten returned to England where they formed the core of what became The Round Table Movement dedicated to the creation of an imperial federation. Oliver attended the meetings held at Plas Newydd that formed the new movement, became a member of its central committee or Moot and later edited its journal. From the initial meetings, the Movement spread across the self-governing dominions with links into the United States.

At a personal level, I first discovered The Round Table and its influence when researching the biography of my grandfather.

One of David Drummond's favourite authors was the Scottish novelist John Buchan. 160px-Btweedsmuir2 As a child, I loved these books as adventure stories and because of their Scottish connection and could understand why my grandfather liked them. It therefore seemed perfectly reasonable that my grandfather and mother should have visited Buchan in Canada where as 1st Baron Tweedsmuir he had become Governor General (photo) in 1935.

As Canadian Governor General, John Buchan was a considerable success because, among other things, of his concerns for Canadian literacy and the promotion of Canadian culture.

What I did not know at the time I first read his books was that David Drummond was a Round Table member, providing a common link between the two.

There were a number of tensions built into the ideas of Oliver and his Round Table colleagues, tensions that probably would have fore-doomed their more ambitious plans even had other events not intervened.

In constitutional terms, the British Empire was a remarkably ramshackle structure held together in some ways by bailing wire and sticky tape.

The crown remained central as a symbol. However, even here there were great complexities.

At the end of her long life, Queen Victoria's official title read Her Majesty Victoria, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India. So even at this simple level we have three identified entities, Great Britain, Ireland and India. Further, as Crown and thus formal head of state, Victoria was in a formal sense involved in literally thousands if not tens of thousands of individual governance arrangements across the sprawling Empire.

  Victoria may have been Queen, but the central Government was already a constitutional monarchy. But a constitutional monarchy of what?

The three traditional kingdoms - England including Wales, Scotland and Ireland - had direct representation in the House of Commons. The emerging dominions had their own Governments under the crown, operating with powers delegated by the United Kingdom Parliament as the supreme constitutional entity. Beyond this, and like the Queen, the UK Parliament governed over thousands of individual governance arrangements.

In these circumstances, the idea of moving to a Federal structure made a lot of apparent sense if the Empire was to survive.

The first difficulty that the Empire Federalists faced was their emphasis on British and Britishness. They saw Federation as a way of uniting the British peoples. But where, then, did India fit in?

India was the jewel in the imperial crown in a way that Australians, Canadians or New Zealanders with their individual national focuses simply do not understand.

The relationship between Great Britain and the Indian subcontinent is long and complex.

The links began with the East India Company in 1617. By the time that F S Oliver was born in 1864, British involvement with India was almost 250 years old. Generations of British people had lived in India. Many died there, others made their fortune and came home. The term nabob, an Indian term, came into use to describe those who had made their fortune and returned.

In many ways, the British ruled India indirectly and through a light touch.            

 In 1861, the Indian Census recorded that the English population in India was 125,945. Of these only about 41,862 were civilians as compared with about 84,083 European officers and men of the Army. Almost twenty years later, the standing Indian Army consisted of 66,000 British soldiers, 130,000 Natives, and 350,000 soldiers in the princely armies. The British ruled an entire empire with far fewer direct soldiers than the Allies have today in Afghanistan!

The Indian Mutiny of 1857 threatened but did not destroy British control. It did result in major constitutional change. The Indian sub-continent was divided into two, British India or the British Raj and the princely states. In 1877, the whole group was turned into the Indian Empire under Victoria.

The map shows the734px-British_Indian_Empire_1909_Imperial_Gazetteer_of_India Indian Empire in 1909. Huge, isn't it?

In considering the map, it is important to realise that while the Empire may have been finally ruled from London, this was the Indian Empire.

The emphasis that Oliver and his Federalist  colleagues colleagues placed upon Britishness created an obvious problem in integrating India into the scheme of things.

With time, this might have been worked out. Even though muted today, the mythology of India runs deep within the many in the old Empire. However, there was not to be time.

The First World War, a war supported by Oliver and many of his colleagues, marked the deathnell of Empire.

While this was not clear at the time, it was a breach of the fundamental strategic principle central to the Empire's survival: focus resources on sea power and limit continental war.

Discussions on Imperial Federation continued after the war. However, now others forces were working even more strongly against change.

Neither Oliver nor his colleagues were democrats in the modern sense of the word. Oliver himself had a deep distrust of popular democracy. Yet the very principles embedded in the Federalist and parliamentary model guaranteed the the spread of popular democracy and the break-up of Empire. 

Oddly, or perhaps ironically, John Buchan himself marked the change.

In 1937, and as Governor General of Canada, he ruffled many feathers when he said that a Canadian's first loyalty was not to the British Commonwealth of Nations, but to Canada and Canada's King. This was quite a profound statement, for it marked a fundamental shift in views. Canada may be a monarchy, but it is a Canadian monarchy.

By this time, Oliver had died. Yet in the first volume of Endless Adventure he makes a quite profound point that bears upon today. Talking about the maintenance of the balance of power in Europe, he says that the only way to avoid war is to take away national independence. I think that this remains true.

And the Indian Empire?

By the time Endless Adventure was published, forces for change were running strongly on the Indian sub-continent, Indian self government, the establishment of democracy within the Indian Empire, was a clear trend. The thing that worried observers, rightly, was whether India itself could survive the change.

Again, war intervened. There was no time for the processes to work themselves through. Willy-nilly with independence and partition, an estimated twelve million people were forced to shift, perhaps five million were killed.

The Indian Empire was dead.        

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