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New Zealand in the World

5 — Decline of Independence

page 78

Decline of Independence

In 1887 the crucial problem of naval defence brought out the difference between the New Zealand and the Australian points of view. That difference was fundamental, and was accentuated as Australia (particularly after federation) pressed for a navy of her own. Admiralty experts pointed out in vain that separate navies would be less efficient and more costly than a single fleet under central control. Australian national dignity would no longer permit her to pay tribute to another country; and that political argument, once formulated, was unanswerable. The Admiralty accepted it just before the Great War with a fair grace—but with a reminder to the Empire as a whole that fighting efficiency had been sacrificed to colonial sentiment; and New Zealand's conduct was held up in contrast as an example to self-governing colonies.

New Zealand had in fact publicly dissociated herself from each stage of Australia's action. When the page 79matter was discussed in Parliament in 1902* the acting Prime Minister roundly condemned the plan of separate navies, and none of the following speakers questioned the wisdom of the existing tribute to the Admiralty. Most members wanted the payment to be increased, without too close enquiry into the value received for the money: ('we do not want that odious spirit of huckstering to come in and mar our Imperialism'), and those very arguments which stung Australians to demand a navy of their own were used to rally New Zealanders round the Admiralty: 'If we are loyal subjects of the Empire, if we have a spark of independence in us, we should increase our contribution to the British navy.' In 1907, when Australia took the plunge and demanded 'ships altogether Australian in cost and political control, both in peace and war', New Zealand accepted faithfully the principle of 'one sea, one Empire, one navy', and was willing to 'trust the Admiralty' without limit. In 1909, moreover, when Australia ordered her first warships, Sir Joseph Ward on New Zealand's behalf thrust upon a grateful Admiralty the offer of 'at least one, and if necessary, two first-class battleships … to be controlled both in peace and war-time absolutely by the British Government.' In 1913, it is true, passing discontent with British naval policy, together with the wish to recruit local personnel, led New Zealand to order a cruiser for the New Zealand

* Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 122, pp. 507 ff.

page 80Division of the Royal Navy. Even then, however, it was understood that this division, though administered by New Zealand in times of peace, 'shall automatically pass under the direct control of the Admiralty immediately on the outbreak of hostilities.' By contrast, the Australian navy remained under local control in war as in peace, until such time as the Australian Government should deliberately hand it over to the Admiralty.

Actually, when the test came in 1914, the practical difference between the two arrangements was nil, for the day before war was declared Australia offered her new navy unconditionally to the Admiralty. But the difference in principle was great: New Zealand had deliberately accepted the Admiralty view almost in its entirety at a time when Australia made the principle of naval independence a point of pride for her developing sense of nationhood. Indeed, New Zealand's loyalty to the British view of naval defence was part of her general reaction against that nationhood, and marked the extent to which the two Dominions had drifted apart by the eve of the Great War.

As we have seen, the early relations between New Zealand and her Australian neighbours were always close, and nearly always friendly: but as the movement for an Australian federation gathered strength, New Zealand held aloof. The old ties of course remained strong through kinship of men and ideas. The labour movements throughout the colonies were page break


page 81closely linked, for example; land policy and social service legislation followed the same lines; and the whole group of colonies took similar action against Asiatic immigrants. Again, it was widely realised that co-operation was essential in defence: only by holding together, it was said in 1885, can the Australasian colonies meet Bismarck squarely by his own methods of blood and iron. In spite of all, however, New Zealand never seriously wavered in the determination expressed at the beginning of her career as a self-governing colony, to cling to her 'separate and independent power and destiny'.
The arguments against joining with Australia were forcibly defined by Stout as early as 1885.* New Zealand, in his view, should only join in an Australasian federation, 'if the desire to do so was widespread amongst the colonists, and the love of such a union was strong.' As yet, he wrote, the colony's feeling for Australia did not go beyond 'a warm feeling of sympathy and kindliness': a feeling which gave a sound basis for free co-operation, but which might be destroyed by an attempt at organic political union. By such a union, moreover, New Zealand would sacrifice 'her influence in the Pacific, of which she is naturally the trade centre'; and above all, she would imperil 'her local autonomy and legislative power'. This was, indeed, the crux of the matter: the fear of being swallowed up by a country which was page 82close enough to dominate, in spite of the 1,200 miles of ocean which would prevent really intimate co-operation. And as Australia became progressively more conscious of her nationality and individual point of view, so New Zealand naturally disliked increasingly the idea of sacrificing her kindred but subtly different conceptions. After all, her climate, social tradition, and economic interest all drew her towards England rather than towards Australia; and it was perhaps of some importance that the economic arguments against federation seemed to strengthen during the critical years between 1890 and 1900. In particular, wheat farmers and manufacturers, who feared Australian competition, clung to the protection which only an independent tariff could give. Thus it is not surprising that, though New Zealand postponed decision to the eleventh hour or beyond it, in 1900 she finally stood aside from the new Commonwealth.

From the first New Zealand set the conception of imperial federation against that of a regional arrangement with Australia; if she were to surrender anything of her independence, it should be in order to become an effective part of a great world power. As opposed to mere regionalism, her statesmen even looked forward to a reunion of all the English-speaking peoples, and in 1885 they actually invited the Queen to organise a conference in London or Washington to consider such a project. With such ideas in the minds of her leaders, and with the under- page 83lying conviction that (to use Vogel's phrase) 'the benefits that would follow imperial federation are as certain as those of colonial federation are doubtful', New Zealand argued an unpopular cause in imperial affairs during the last twenty-five years before the Great War. During those years Canada, and to a less extent Australia, fought for colonial autonomy, and the Empire as a whole stumbled towards a new ideal: that of permanent alliance between virtually independent nations which (in the mystic phrase) were 'equal in status though not in stature'. New Zealand shared modestly in this process; but at the same time she, alone among self-governing Dominions, pressed the case for a much closer political bond than that represented by periodical imperial conferences. At the Imperial Conference of 1897, for example, the vast majority of delegates thought that the then existing political relations within the Empire were satisfactory. The time might come, they allowed, for colonists to be given 'a voice in the direction and control of those questions of Imperial interest in which they are concerned equally with the Mother-country'. But they were in no hurry, and feared that if they were allowed a voice in their own foreign affairs, there might be money to pay. As against this resolution, Seddon formed the more vocal half of a minority of two. He deplored that nothing had been done 'to more firmly secure the political ties between the United Kingdom and the colonies'; and he denied page 84that improved ties would mean colonial subsidies towards imperial expenses. At the next conference (1902) Seddon himself, and in 1907 his successor, Sir Joseph Ward, urged different plans for tightening imperial bonds; and finally, in 1911 Ward presented an elaborate plan for an Imperial Defence Parliament (or Council) in a speech which (it has been suggested) was the longest ever made at an Imperial Conference.* These proceedings, taken in conjunction with New Zealand's comparative docility in naval matters, earned for this Dominion an outstanding reputation for imperial enthusiasm which was refreshing to English statesmen jaded by the independent spirit of Canada and Australia.

On the whole that reputation was justified; New Zealand was an outstandingly 'loyal' Dominion. Yet the ambitious and questioning spirit of Vogel was not dead in these pre-war years. It is clearly to be seen, for example, in the attitude of Ward himself, who was by no means willing to follow blindly in the imperial wake of Great Britain. It was he, for example, who said in 1907 that 'we should be above all things strenuous to preserve our entity and individuality in the control of our own country', and that New Zealand wanted to 'keep clear of being drawn into what one might term Continental troubles with England itself. We want to have a distinct line of demarcation drawn in that respect between the page 85responsibility we accept of our own free will and the responsibility that may be imposed upon us without our having had any opportunity of conference or discussion with regard to it.' As late as 1911 when Ward, as a minority of one, advocated imperial federation to a critical audience, one theme continually recurs: that under the existing system colonies were committed to war without the smallest chance of influencing the decision. It was right and inevitable, he thought, that they should shoulder this responsibility; but in return, 'they are entitled, as a matter of right, not as a matter of appeal, to have some say, even although they may be in a minority, upon some properly constituted body that is going to decide the question as to whether there is to be peace or war'. Just how this 'properly constituted body' was to function Ward was comparatively vague, as he showed under a bombardment of critical interjections by Australians, Canadians, and Englishmen. But he clung firm to his general conclusions: that the present system was wrong, that no scheme of imperial federation could increase the colonies' responsibility because they were involved up to the hilt already; and that even the smallest influence which they might exert under a new scheme would be a gain, because at present their influence was literally nothing.

These arguments were typical of New Zealand's approach to the problem of imperial relations. They had in fact been anticipated almost word for word page 86in the parliamentary debate of 1883,* and in the writings of Vogel and Stout. They were also typical in that they were clear in general intention, but were not embodied in a workable system. Such concrete details as they contained were probably due primarily to the Round Table movement, and certainly did not represent the considered opinion of New Zealand statesmanship, let alone the New Zealand electorate. In fact, Ward placed before the Conference a vehement wish that something should be done rather than a well thought-out scheme of how to do it, and in doing so he expressed the general Dominion point of view more accurately than is suggested by the volume of criticism hurled at him then and since. Though he spoke the language of imperial federation and the rest spoke that of Dominion nationalism, they all had the same grievance at heart and the same vaguely conceived remedy in mind.

All the Dominions felt with Ward that there was something wrong with a system which imposed on them responsibilities without a chance to influence policy; and this consensus of Dominion opinion bore fruit. Asquith, the British Prime Minister, answered Ward by the famous declaration that control of foreign policy could not be shared, so that in fact colonists must always fight in Britain's wars without a voice in their own fate; but at the same time he did much to give in practice that which he formally

* Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 44, p. 243.

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Sir Joseph Ward at the Imperial Conference, 1911

Sir Joseph Ward at the Imperial Conference, 1911

page 87refused. Hitherto, Dominions had been given information about particular negotiations which concerned them directly, but by a revolutionary development the Conference of 1911 was given a full survey of British foreign policy in general—a fuller survey, it is said, than had been placed before the British Cabinet itself—and this was followed up by close consultation on the technical problems of defence. This development was welcomed with enthusiasm by Dominion spokesmen, who felt that in these confidential discussions they had been at last given a real share in imperial policy; and it paved the way for the active co-operation of Dominion Prime Ministers in the Imperial War Cabinet, as well as for the systematic exchange of information (including information about Dominion views) in later years.

New Zealand's championship of imperial federation which flamed up in 1911 was, then, not a mere surrender of judgment to British leadership. It was historically connected with a crusade to win for her some real influence in imperial affairs: and the same can be said of certain other acts of policy which were rightly hailed as proof of New Zealand's loyalty to the mother country. It is true, for example, of the whole episode of Seddonian imperialism. There can be no doubt of the spontaneous will of New Zealand as a whole to help Britain in the Boer War. Seddon, however, was clearly conscious that in leading the colony to war at Britain's side he was helping to earn page 88the right to a 'direct part in the government of a federated Empire'; and, taking up Macaulay's famous remark, he said that in the legendary future 'the New Zealander will be advising in council, not croaking on London Bridge' as he surveyed the ruins of the Empire's capital.* Seddon himself, for that matter, was eager to advise Britain (or anyone else) forthwith, without awaiting the formalities of imperial federation; and the conferences of 1897 and 1902 gave him a ready-made public platform in Britain, South Africa, and Australia. To all he gave broad hints on social reconstruction, based on the idea that they might well copy New Zealand; but to the mother country in particular he gave impressive counsel on general policy.

He had a genuine sympathy for human suffering, and was shocked to find in Britain tragic evidence of that biting poverty which was almost unknown in New Zealand. His remedy for this situation was, naturally, that Britain should be more receptive to new ideas, and in particular adopt social services along New Zealand lines, and by devices similar to hers establish confidence between employers and workers. Further, he urged, let Britain, having thus secured the home front, wage war against foreign protectionists with their own weapons, set up a tariff system, and cleave to the Empire by granting mutual

* Harrop, My New Zealand, p. 201, and in Cambridge History of British Empire, Vol. vii, Part ii, p. 219.

page 89preferences to the self-governing colonies. Thus Seddon in 1902 was one of the most vocal leaders of an energetic colonial campaign to persuade the mother country to abandon her traditional free trade in order to build up an imperial customs system which, like the German Zollverein of the nineteenth century, would weld together independent but kindred peoples.

The results were disappointing. Chamberlain, it is true, launched a powerful campaign in Britain for 'tariff reform'. But the idea of free trade was deeply rooted in the British mind, which felt that the solid benefit of cheap food was not to be lightly risked, even in order to please such forceful colonials as Seddon. As he complained, therefore, there was much talk about imperial consolidation, but little action in the directions he desired. Nor were Englishmen much more responsive to his practical gestures. New Zealand's tariff of 1903 gave a substantial preference to Britain; shortly afterwards commercial agreements were negotiated with Australia and South Africa, and Canada and New Zealand granted each other a tariff preference. According to New Zealand spokesmen these changes together made up an impressive contribution towards an imperial tariff system: and the only thing really lacking was British co-operation. But Britain made no move. Apart from the free-trade principles of her Liberal Government the fact was that Seddon's preferences had only a small effect on page 90trade. As Asquith, speaking for Britain, gently reminded Ward in 1907, they only affected one-fifth of Britain's exports to New Zealand. Moreover, duties against British goods had not been lowered; an additional burden had been imposed on foreigners, but the British exporter faced the same barriers as before. In short Seddon's arguments for imperial preference were weakened by the fact that his own application of them illustrated the difficulties rather than the possibilities of genuine imperial customs co-operation. The suggestion which pleased Mr Chamberlain and British manufacturers was that of a Zollverein, or free trade within the Empire, which would knock down Dominion barriers against British trade. The Dominions, however, were determined to keep those barriers high against British manufacturers.* What interested them was the suggestion that the British market for their food and raw materials should be protected by taxing foreign imports: a suggestion naturally distasteful to manufacturers who wanted cheap materials and to politicians whose constituents clamoured for 'a free breakfast-table'. Between these contradictory points of view the field for an imperial customs system was narrow indeed.

In short, Seddon failed to drag Britain into imperial preference; nor did he fare much better with his

* Though it should be noted that, as compared with Australia and Canada, New Zealand was and remained a low-tariff country.

page 91energetic revival of Vogel's Pacific imperialism. Under his leadership New Zealand made a last effort to gain Samoa, and in 1899 offered to send an expeditionary force there to end in favour of the Empire the unsatisfactory compromise which followed the agreement of 1884. In the same year, however, Britain without consulting New Zealand agreed to the alternative solution of German annexation, and he penned a vigorous protest, explaining that this disagreeable result had followed from British neglect of New Zealand advice thirty years before, and suggesting that the Cook, Fiji, Friendly, and Society islands should at once be brought within the boundaries of New Zealand. 'Some definite action of a forward kind is required in the Pacific at the earliest opportune moment,' he wrote, 'for the surrender of Samoa has disheartened the natives of the Islands, disappointed the people of Australasia, and lowered the prestige of Great Britain in this part of the globe.'

Mr Chamberlain answered this outburst with tact. He recognised 'the legitimate disappointment of New Zealand in regard to the settlement of Samoa, and the loyalty with which it has been accepted by the colony', and, as to islands asked for by Seddon, he hinted that the time might come when 'the great self-governing colonies' might be allowed to relieve Great Britain of a burdensome responsibility. The only practical result, however, was the annexation to New Zealand of the Cook Islands and Niue (1901). Fiji remained page 92a Crown colony, in spite of an energetic agitation for federation with New Zealand in 1900-1, when Seddon and the Governor of Fiji waged a wordy battle across the waters of the Pacific; Tonga became a British protectorate, not administered by New Zealand; and thus was Seddon frustrated. The Auckland islands (1863), the Kermadecs (1887) and the Cook islands formed a meagre empire compared with the visions of Grey, Vogel, and Seddon himself. Towards the end of his life Seddon wrote in some bitterness of the way in which British muddlement and folly had frustrated New Zealand's sensible ambitions. Samoa had gone, though all had been prepared in 1885 for New Zealand's annexation, and 'the steamer was there tearing at her hawsers' when Downing Street's veto arrived. The Sandwich islands had gone to the United States, and the Philippines also were American. New Caledonia had gone, and the New Hebrides were apparently going. 'These losses were incalculable,' he wrote, 'and it was a pity that such statesmen [as had allowed them] should ever have been entrusted with the destinies of Great Britain.'*

When Seddon died in 1906, New Zealand's ambitions in the Pacific had apparently been finally defeated. Samoa was remembered: but during the years of European tension that preceded the Great War it would have been mere folly to have tormented the British Government with optimistic advice to page 93annex Pacific islands. As this question was settled, there remained no issue in foreign affairs in which New Zealand felt a burning interest, and she was increasingly willing to leave the rest to Britain. Accordingly she sank more and more completely into that happy state described and envied by Siegfried: to a thoughtful European, what could seem more idyllic than to live in a country whose problems of 'foreign military and financial policy' were solved for it by a benevolent mother country? True, New Zealand rendered some return; for in her relations with the mother country the spirit of Atkinson gradually prevailed over that of Vogel. New Zealand learnt to give in the confident hope that she would in return receive; but she trusted to generosity rather than to business-like bargaining. The 'dormant Englishman' whom Siegfried perceived (in Seddon's lifetime) beneath 'the noisy self assertion of the New Zealander' awoke to life and to renewed influence. By this time, it is true, he had a proper pride in the social experiments which had been carried through in God's Own Country; but his sentiment for the mother country (viewed, from a distance, through a rosy haze) helped to overcome the last influence of early turbulent independence of spirit, and so enabled the flame of imperial loyalty to burn as steadily as if Grey, Vogel, Stout, and Seddon had never hurled abuse and complaint at an unsympathetic Colonial Office.