At the time, the British Empire consisted of many colonies, some of which were largely self-governing dominions (Canada, Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa) and others not (India, West Indies, Fiji). The future of the empire remained uncertain, as it was unclear what the end result would be if all colonies eventually became self-governing. Among other concerns, it would be very difficult for British interests to be maintained if every colony was essentially already sovereign.
Creating an Imperial Federation thus became a popular alternative proposal to colonial imperialism. The plan was never firm, but the general proposal was to create a single federal state among all colonies of the British Empire. The federation would have a common parliament and would be governed as a superstate. Thus, Imperial unity could be maintained while still allowing for democratic government. The colonies would increase their influence while Britain would be able to share the costs of imperial defence. The best features of large states could be combined with the best features of small states.
It was seen as a method of solving the Home Rule problem in Ireland, as England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland (along with the other members of the Old Commonwealth) would have their own Parliaments. Westminster would become a purely Imperial body.
Supporters of the Imperial Federation regarded the United Kingdom as having two possible futures; imperial union and continued long-term importance or imperial dissolution and the reduction of the status of the UK to a second-class nation.
In response to claims that geography was against federation on such a large scale, it was said that scientific advancements would solve the difficulty. Edward Ellis Morris reminded listeners to his lecture in 1885 that it was now as easy to reach London from Melbourne as it had been to reach London from Orkney at the time of the Acts of Union 1707, or to reach Washington DC from California before passes over the Rockies were made.
The Imperial Federation League was founded in London in 1884 and subsequent branches were established in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Barbados, and British Guiana. While the proposal was often associated with segments of the British Conservative Party, it was also popular among Liberal Imperialists or New Imperialism such as W. E. Forster. The movement was also a vehicle for British race nationalism, inspired by such writers as Charles Dilke and John Robert Seeley and ideas of a greater Britain encompassing the largely white self-governing colonies and dominions.
Canadian advocates of imperial federation, are called "Canadian Imperialists" and their ideology "Canadian Imperialism" in Canadian historiography since Carl Berger 1970's book The Sense of Power identified this as a separate ideology from Canadian nationalism. Noted Canadian Imperialists included George Monro Grant, Sir George Robert Parkin, Stephen Leacock, and George Taylor Denison III.
In 1900, Thomas Hedderwick, a Scottish Liberal Party MP, raised the issue in the British House of Commons. Recalling to the House the contributions of Dadabhai Naoroji and Mancherjee Bhownagree, Indian MPs serving in the House of Commons, Hedderwick mooted the possibility that an autonomous India might one day be represented in an Imperial Parliament.
One of the main obstacles to the scheme was what one of its proponents, Richard Jebb, called colonial nationalism. The granting of authority to a super-parliament composed of many competing interests was seen by opponents as a compromise to the powers of the local parliaments. Leading colonial supporters of imperial federation, such as Australian prime minister Alfred Deakin, however saw the movement as a way to increase the influence of the dominions over imperial defence and foreign policy. The colonial branches of the Imperial Federation League in fact outlived the demise of the home branch in London, which collapsed in 1896 when it failed to resolve internal disputes over imperial trade policy.
While Joseph Chamberlain, Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1895 to 1903, was sympathetic to the idea, his proposals for a permanent Imperial Council or Council of the Empire which would be a kind of Imperial Parliament passing policies that would bind colonial governments, was rejected at the 1897 Colonial Conference and 1902 Colonial Conferences due to fears that such a scheme would undermine the autonomy of colonies. Similarly, proposals for centralising the Empire's armed forces were also rejected as were his proposals for an Empire customs union. At subsequent Imperial Conferences, proposals for Imperial preferential trade were rejected by the British Liberal governments due to their preference for international free trade. It would not be until the British Empire Economic Conference in 1932 that imperial preference would be implemented, however, the policy did not survive World War II.
Support for imperial federation waned with the First World War which produced greater feelings of national identity in several dominions, Canada and Australia in particular. Defence concerns and problems of imperial cooperation were partially resolved through the system of colonial or Imperial Conference and with growing sentiments by various dominion governments for greater independence resulting in the Balfour Declaration of 1926 and the Statute of Westminster 1931. It was last discussed seriously at the governmental level at the 1937 Imperial Conference where it was dismissed.
The idea of Imperial unity was carried on after the First World War by Lionel Curtis and the Round Table movement, which continues to this day as a forum and promoter of the Commonwealth of Nations and also by the Royal Empire Society which continues to promote the Commonwealth.
In recent years, the idea has received new life in several Commonwealth nations. A federation of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom (CANZUK) has been promoted by some in the United Kingdom as an alternative to continued British membership in the European Union. The United Commonwealth Society, established in 2002, advocates such a federation encompassing the 16 Commonwealth Realms. Support for a Commonwealth federation, however, has been limited.
- British Empire
- Commonwealth of Nations
- Political union
- Round Table movement
- Imperial Federation League
- Morris, p.15
- Morris, p.9
- Morris, p.20
- Imperialism. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved on 2013-07-17.
- Hedderwick, Thomas. New Statesman. "Colonies (Representation in the Imperial Parliament)". Retrieved 2012-04-11.
- Duncan Bell, The Idea of Greater Britain: Empire and the Future of World Order, 1860-1900 (Princeton, 2007)
- Morris, Edward E.; Imperial federation : a Lecture for the Victorian Branch of the Imperial Federation League 28 Aug 1885, Melbourne
- Denison, George T., The Struggle for Imperial Unity: Recollections and Experiences (Macmillan and Co., 1909)