Wednesday, February 22, 2017

February 22, 1917 – One Parliament to Rule Entire British Empire

After years of efforts by societies like the Imperial Federation League, the war-pressed government in London announced that a single Imperial Parliament would be formed.

It was no new idea; the IFL had been founded in 1884 and had supporters not only in large dominions like Canada and Australia but even to colonies like Barbados and British Guiana. Some supported the move out of racism, hoping to keep whites in charge of far-flung colonies with increasing nationalistic zeal among natives. Other more liberal-minded thinkers held that it would be a tremendous move toward inclusion of all races in government, noting the successes of Dadabhai Naoroji and Mancherjee Bhownagree in Britain’s own House of Commons.

An imperial parliament may have been supported by many, but proposals for a similar political council had been defeated already in 1897 and in 1902. Movers at home feared more influence by dominions over foreign policy and defense, and many suspected free trade would be abandoned for preference to the empire (which it soon was). These worries were overcome by political motivation stemmed from the bold contributions of the dominions to the World War, which needed repayment lest the empire face further division in generations to come.

The day following Britain’s announcement, the front page of the New York Tribune, along with those of just about every newspaper in the world, touted the joining of nations. A grand conference soon was held in London to address major questions of how the new Imperial Parliament would be composed. In the reorganization, self-ruling dominions would be expanded, such as the joining of Australia and New Zealand as well as Canada and Newfoundland. Further, planned land seizures following German defeat would add German West Africa to the Union of South Africa and German New Guinea to the already larger Australia.

Proportional representation proved to be an item automatically rejected. The Tribune reported, “Both wealth and population would be determining factors among the English-speaking dominions and of South Africa, but in the instance of India, both her wealth and population would give her a predominant voice in the imperial councils if she were admitted to them on the same basis.” While India would receive more self-governance, something much-demanded for decades since its annexation of millions into the empire, it was considered a “military empire, composed entirely of alien races with the merest smattering of English-speaking people among them.”

An economic surge in the 1920s seemed to show that the unity was good, even granting Ireland limited home-rule as its own dominion within the empire. By the 1930s, however, the empire struggled with poor economic growth. The former colonies had the worst fare with industrial production cut nearly in half, but renewed investments from London eased the burden and restarted development. Although the empire largely came back onto its feet by 1940, the troubles in India sparked a loud demand for equal representation. Mohandas Gandhi, who had led many campaigns within India, reached out across the empire with a question:  was India to be a fair partner in the empire or should it seek independence?

Ultimately, narrowly avoiding what could have become civil war within the empire, the demand for proportional representation resulted in an Imperial House of Commons. This prompted enormous conservative backlash in Britain out of fear that the whole island might be made to eat curry, but the Imperial Parliament’s powers were clearly defined to defend local rights. Using the huge voting bloc of people of color throughout the empire, massive reforms were instituted worldwide. Improvements in health, education, and infrastructure greatly furthered the empire’s collective wealth through the twentieth century. Still, many Britons feel that they have come under the weight of their own former colonies and call for Britain itself to exit the empire it built.


In reality, the New York Tribune announced that a conference would be held in London to discuss the possibilities of an imperial parliament. Ultimately the tide of interest in unification was doused as World War I emboldened a sense of nationalism in individual dominions, arguably setting the course for the end of the empire after World War II, although the Commonwealth retains economic ties.

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