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The Empire and the century/The Crown and the Empire

< The Empire and the century



The proclamation of the Imperial title at Delhi in 1876, and the Royal celebrations in London in 1887, 1897, and 1902, together with the magnificent ceremonial at Delhi upon the last occasion, are the most striking symbolical manifestations in British history. They were the outward and visible signs of the magnitude and character of the Empire, and of its oneness m connection with the common centre.

In the days of Henry VIII. the King's dominion was confined within the narrow region which lies between the Scottish border and the English Channel, except that beyond the sea there was an English colony round Dublin, and a loose sovereignty over the natives of Ireland not unlike our earlier forms of Protectorates in Africa. Within this narrow sphere the King governed in every sense of the word, appointed and dismissed his Ministers, and was supreme except for the necessity of having sufficient regard for public opinion, or the strongest section of it, acting inside and outside of Parliament. In the days of Edward VII. the responsibility of government rests with a Prime Minister, who virtually holds his place because the temporary majority in the United Kingdom accept him for the chief manager of their affairs. That is the result of English history during the last three centuries. The system may not be the last word in our political life, but it has proved its merits by success. During the same period the now United Kingdom has become the leading State in the greatest Empire which the world has known. Henry VIII. had fewer millions of subjects than could be counted upon the fingers of one hand. Over four hundred millions in Europe, America, Asia, and Africa, own Edward VII. to be their lord. He is entitled King of all the Britains and Emperor of India. His truest and most all-covering title would be 'British Emperor.' Of this vast population, between fifty and sixty millions live in the home islands or in self-governing States built upon the same model of government. The residue, some three hundred and fifty millions, are governed autocratically—using this word in its correct sense—by Government which, although bound by the laws which itself has made, and although it may, and usually does, take counsel with the governed, does not depend upon their express choice and assent for its existence. Supreme control, in the last resort, rests with the King's Government in London, so that the electorate of the United Kingdom determine by their choice the group of men who not only conduct the internal affairs of that kingdom and manage its forces, but exercise ultimate power over the autocratically ruled part of the Empire.

The King, then, if we compare his position with that in Tudor times, has lost in direct or personal power, but has become the centre point of an Empire of which the area constituting the Tudor's whole domain is, in a geographical sense, but the metropolitan province. In this Empire all power and law proceed in form from the occupant of the throne. It is the English way, as it was the Roman, and as it is that of Nature, to preserve carefully the form of things while the contents change. All legislation in the United Kingdom proceeds in form from the King, and Parliament assents. Monarchy, however much tempered by aristocracy and democracy, is, as it always has been, the essential form of English Government. As Empire has grown, this source of legislation and power has irrigated an increasing and now vast area. Constitutions or systems of government, themselves local reservoirs of executive and legislative power, have been founded in every part of the globe, and often remodelled and amended, sometimes by Acts passed with assent of the Imperial Parliament, but far more often by Letters Patent and Orders in Council which require no such assent. Newly-annexed peoples are governed by proclamations. At a later stage this embryonic form is replaced by ordinances made by Legislative Councils, themselves established by Royal decree. Everything flows directly or indirectly from the power immanent in the Sovereign. Governors and nominated members of Legislative Councils owe their commissions directly, and officials below them indirectly, to his delegation of power. In all these matters the assent of the King is not absolutely formal. The position has never been accepted that he is a mere 'signing' machine; yet his personal responsibility is disengaged, and precisely for that reason the real greatness of his position has risen.

If Tudor and Stuart Kings had the powers, they also had the cares and labours of Prime Ministers. They needed support in order to carry on government, and were therefore driven to be the leaders of political or religious parties. Charles I. owed his misfortunes to the fact that, in untoward times, he occupied the position of a Prime Minister who was in a permanent minority in the House of Commons, yet could not lay down his office. Now, the Sovereign is above party. If those who hold the reins direct affairs badly, or if, which is more usual, they direct them well but in opposition to erroneous and ill-informed popular feeling, the censure neither of the wise nor of the foolish any longer touches the throne. The monarch, no longer compelled to assert and defend power, can have no object of ambition save the love of his subjects and the good of his country. Should factious violence degrade the tone of politics, the higher by contrast stands that which is above party. The King can speak neither for a majority nor for a minority; he can and does speak for the nation where it is unanimous, or nearly unanimous, in feeling. Queen Victoria almost created a style for this purpose, combining with singular felicity the personal and the Royal, and she never forgot the Queen in the woman or the woman in the Queen. During her long reign the sphere of the Crown became fully defined. It is easier now to fulfil the character of a 'patriot King' than when it was delineated by Lord Bolingbroke. The part has, as it were, been created by history, and is assumed by the reigning King at his accession. If one side of the King's activity consists of the discharge of official acts whereby the unity, in form, of power throughout the Empire is maintained, on the other side he maintains a unity in personal relations. In touch with statesmen of both parties in England, he insures a certain degree of continuity in the tone of administration; he receives Viceroys and Governors when they leave for their governments or return from them. Colonial Prime Ministers when they are in England, Indian Princes, and great African Chiefs. It is difficult to measure the political value of such receptions by the Sovereign as those given to the chiefs of Bechuanaland, Barotseland, and Abeokuta.

The rise of the British Empire has immensely increased the significance and importance of these functions, formal and personal, of the Crown. This vast aggregation of sea-divided races, religions, languages, degrees of civilization, laws, and customs, does not rest upon those natural foundations upon which States like England, France, or Germany have been built. Force can annex territory or coerce rebellious minorities; it cannot by itself hold together an empire. If a people, or at any rate the great bulk of a people, is descended from the same ancestors, or follows the same religion, or speaks the same language, or is not divided by the sea or by high mountains, it has the something in common upon which a political union may arise. If it has all these conditions, a nation of the strong kind will be formed. Strong nations arose early in Western Europe because its sea-bounded and well-defined countries were like so many moulds in which raw material could be pressed into shape. The British Empire, regarded as a whole, has none of these bonds of union. There is, indeed, diffused through the world, the race of British breed, settling and colonizing in some lands, ruling and trading in others, and held together by kinship and correspondence and newspapers and literature and societies and sports and temperament. But in lands where it trades and rules, this race is an infinitesimally small part of the population. Where it colonizes it tends to break up, as the British-born grow few in proportion to the colonial-born, into distinct nations, with distinct characters and feelings. Contemporary individuals, as they grow older, grow less like each other, and so do nations. The interest of the Australian in British politics, and even in British sport, becomes dim beside the more vivid interest of the close-at-hand. Churches do something—Anglicans and Wesleyans maintain communications; and there is, indeed, every appearance of the rise of an Imperial Anglican Church, with its centre at Canterbury. Yet no one ecclesiastical organization binds together the British so much as the Orthodox Church holds together the Russian race. A large section of the Christian population of the British Empire—perhaps a fifth—belongs to a Church which has its centre, not in England, but at Rome, and is a bond of union, not between inhabitants of the British Empire, but between sections of all nations, cutting diagonally across every patriotism. Religion is a cause of separation, not of union, between the Christians, Mohammedans, Hindoos, Buddhists, and Pagans, of the Empire. Then, again, the inhabitants of the Empire have but dimly the feeling that they belong to a single political organization. The native of India sees close at hand the great officialdom by which he is directly governed. The free Colonies have their own legislation, ministers, parties, and questions. Increased rapidity of communication there is, but this rather breeds an illusion of mutual knowledge than creates it, and, indeed, often leads to dangerous misunderstandings.

Nor do these countries form, like Russia or the United States, a continuous whole, so that an unbroken chain of personal acquaintance binds every part to every part. The waters, even narrow seas, divide the peoples, and a wave of emotion often ends where the land meets the sea as truly as a wave of water ends where the sea meets the land. How much was England moved by the Alaska Award, or Canada by the English Education Act?

In some countries a single and centralized military system has done something to weld together a people. In the British Empire there is no true military unity, except as between England and India. The tendency has been in the direction of withdrawing British troops from the Colonies, and a policy of concentration now also governs the disposition of the Royal Navy.

Here, then, is the importance of the Crown. These nations and races, divided by space and civilization, by religion, policy, language, colour, with no common Church or Parliament or Army, are united by the lines of allegiance which converge from every part to the throne. Not otherwise could such an Empire be held together, any more than the Roman Catholic Church, not being founded upon nationality, could exist without its centre at Rome. To the British the King is the far-descended chief of their race; to Asiatics and Africans he appears as lord of their rulers, a remote, mysterious, and mighty being. Millions of British subjects have never heard of Imperial Parliament, or Cabinet, or Prime Minister, but there are none to whom the monarch is not a real, if confusedly apprehended, existence. In his name all the acts of rule in their own lands are done; they see his annual festival honoured with solemn ritual at every centre of administration. He gives an intelligible meaning to government in minds incapable of political abstractions.

Equally important on the other side is the existence of the monarchy as a binding link between the free States or nations which contain the bulk of the white population of the Empire. In the view of the Canadian or Australian the King is his King, but the real power of the 'Imperial Parliament,' whatever it may continue to be in theory, 'ends with the boundary of the watery main.' The Government virtually elected by the people of this country is not his Government, although it still, by consent, conducts some of his external affairs. The United Kingdom is far the oldest and still the richest and most populous of the free States of the Empire, yet it is but one of the States. Forms of action and speech still veil this fact, but as the Colonies grow even these forms are threatened with destruction. The Canadian is better aware of this than we in England are, and he knows also that within fifty years his yomig and vigorous nation, expanding in its wide territory, may probably equal in numbers and in average wealth the population of the United Kingdom, and m a hundred years will greatly exceed it. An eloquent French - Canadian speaker said lately in the Dominion Parliament: nNous sommes des adolescents courants vers l'âge viril. Notre état colonial n'est qu'un acheminement vers une existence plus noble et plus digne d'un grand peuple. Nous serons alors de puissants amis, des alliés devoués de l'ancienne mère patrie, mus par les mêmes sentiments de générosité et de loyauté.' Or, as Sir Wilfrid Laurier said in the same debate: 'The British Empire to-day is composed of nations; it is an aggregation of nations all bearing allegiance to the same Sovereign;' and he went on to say that it differed from previous empires because it rested on free consent.

If this 'allegiance to the same Sovereign,' this bond between each individual and a person, and between the Governments of self-ruling States and a common centre, were taken away, the one universally uniting element would be lost, and these nations would be but allies, and soon, perhaps, not so much as that. But because this allegiance exists, it is possible to contemplate, even if but as a vision of a far-distant future, the rise of a stronger union, and the development of a true Imperial Government and Council, directly representative of the Empire, occupied in its common affairs, and free from the internal business of the United Kingdom or any other State. The English realm, with all its institutions, arose out of the relation of each unit to the King, and the same centre of union may gradually, and as it were by natural force of attraction, draw into a more perfect confederation the free States of the British Empire.