Imperial Federation

Imperial Federation

Imperial Federation was a late-19th early-20th century proposal to create a federated union in place of the existing British Empire.


At the time, the British Empire consisted of many colonies, some of which were largely self-governing dominions (Canada, Dominion of 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, and Ireland (along with the other members of the Old Commonwealth) would have their own Parliaments. Westminster would become a purely Imperial body. [Morris, p.15]

Supporters of 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. [Morris, p.9]

In response to claims that geography was against federation on such a large scale, it was said that scientific advancements would solve the difficulty. Morris [p.20] in 1885 reminded listeners to his lecture that London was no more difficult to reach from Melbourne in 1885 than it was to reach from Orkney Island after the Act of Union in 1707. It was no more difficult for a colonist to reach England in 1885, he said, than it was for a Californian delegate to reach Washington DC before passes over the Rockies were made.

The Imperial Federation League was founded in London in 1884 and subsequently 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 popular among also proponents of Liberal or New Imperialism such as E. M. 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. British culture and values were typically presumed to be associated with white-skinned ethnic identity.


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.


The First World War put an end to large-scale popular debates over imperial federation. Defence concerns and problems of imperial cooperation were also resolved through the system of colonial or Imperial Conferences. The idea of Imperial unity was carried on after the war by Lionel Curtis and the Round Table movement, which continues to this day as a forum and promoter of the Commonwealth of Nations.



* [,7&Search%5FArg=Morris%2C%20Edward%20E%2E&SL=None&Search%5FCode=NALL&CNT=15&PID=oXgaTUU3V0SbikI33uuQze6zAV0f&SEQ=20070601230603&SID=1 Morris, Edward E.; Imperial federation : a Lecture for the Victorian Branch of the Imperial Federation League 28 Aug 1885, Melbourne]

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