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New Zealand in the World

6 — The Silken Bonds of Empire

page 94

The Silken Bonds of Empire

The outbreak of the Great War in 1914 found New Zealand standing without question by the side of Great Britain. It was her proud boast that she was the first Dominion to offer help, and that her troops were the first to occupy enemy territory: a feat all the more satisfying because the territory concerned was the long-coveted Western Samoa. Samoa was occupied at the end of August, and in the middle of October the 'main body' of New Zealand's expeditionary forces sailed for Egypt via Australia. Their departure was preceded by one of the last and most violent disputes between New Zealand and the British Government.* At that time there were German raiders in the Pacific, and the Admiralty refused to provide a convoy of any real strength. New Zealand ministers felt that they were being asked to send their manhood to sea almost unprotected, and that their objections were being answered like the complaints of schoolboys. The Cabinet

* Stewart, Sir Francis Bell, pp. 110-16.

page 95threatened to resign rather than accept the Admiralty's estimate of the strategic situation in the Pacific, and in the end they won their point. The whole incident, however, has generally been kept decently veiled, and did nothing to disturb the general harmony of imperial co-operation in war-time.

This co-operation was, of course, based on technical plans laid in the last few years of peace. With the outbreak of war New Zealand's very rudimentary naval organisation was at once handed over to the Admiralty, nor did the army cause much greater difficulty. The compulsory training for home defence enacted in 1909 was organised by British officers, and in 1913 the Minister of Defence discussed with the War Office the kind of expeditionary force which New Zealand should provide in the event of war. Thus in 1914 everything had been prepared. Compulsory service had been in force long enough to provide a solid basis for an expeditionary force, and plans were laid to fit that force into a general imperial scheme. From the first, volunteers for foreign service were not lacking, but in 1916, with the increasing demand for man power, it was decided to introduce conscription. By the end of the war 117,175 men had volunteered or been called up for overseas service—that is, well over ten per cent of the total population; and this total included a considerable number of Maoris and natives from those islands in the Pacific administered by New Zealand.

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The details of New Zealand's war effort do not concern this study, except to note that she shared with her fellow Dominions a new sense of nationhood, based on the consciousness of a great national effort, and fortified by the solid internal prosperity arising from war prices. The sudden maturity of national consciousness, together with frank recognition of the help given to Britain by her Dominions led to a revolution in Dominion status. During the first two years of the war an outstanding fact burnt itself into the minds of those concerned with imperial problems: that the Dominions were involved in a war to the death by a decision over which they had no influence whatever. In all parts of the Empire this situation was seen to be intolerable, and the conclusion was drawn that some device must be found whereby Dominions—now shouldering the burdens of nationhood—should be given some influence in the vital decisions of peace and war.

Particularly in England ingenious minds, in search of such a device, turned again towards imperial federation, this time more clearly conceived as a constitutional arrangement. In 1916 this line of argument was brilliantly expounded by Mr Lionel Curtis, founder of the Round Table movement, in a little book called The Problem of the Commonwealth, which had a deep influence over British statesmen, and over individuals throughout the Empire. But the case for imperial federation, however logically sound and page 97persuasively argued, found no support among Dominion statesmen. In 1917 even the spokesman of New Zealand, Mr Massey, while remarking that 'in theory there is not a very great deal to be said against it', urged caution in the matter, and praised enthusiastically a rival device which appeared to have brought at least a temporary solution to the fundamental problem.* This was the Imperial War Cabinet, an institution which showed the soundness of the favourite argument of early New Zealand federationists; that given a genuine will to imperial co-operation constitutional difficulties would vanish. It was composed of five members of the British War Cabinet together with the five Dominion Prime Ministers, and met over two long periods—March to May 1917 and June to August 1918. It was a constitutional monstrosity, for a 'Cabinet' without joint responsibility defied the most sacred principles of parliamentary government, but it was completely justified by its success. Like the equally anomalous Committee of Imperial Defence (a council of key ministers and officials with occasional Dominion representation) it enabled men who agreed on objectives to hammer out means without worrying about constitutional formulae.

Such then was the institution in which Mr Massey found the ideal form of imperial co-operation. The page 98Imperial War Cabinet gave more than mere consultation, for it could prepare joint action and give joint advice to the Sovereign: thus it satisfied New Zealand's traditional wish for a certain organic solidity in imperial institutions. At the same time, it preserved that 'partnership of nations' in which Mr Massey believed 'thoroughly and strongly', and ensured that New Zealand should only be asked to adopt an imperial policy after her views had been heard and considered by the British Government. But Massey's hope that the Imperial War Cabinet would become the basis of a permanent imperial constitution was frustrated. In 1917 all agreed that that constitution could not be settled during the stress of war, and by the time peace gave the opportunity for the Empire's future to be calmly considered, the situation had been vitally changed by developments at the Peace Conference.

Dominion statesmen took part in that conference as part of the British delegation: that was a natural extension of the Imperial War Cabinet procedure. But in addition they sat at the conference in their own right on the same footing as small belligerent nations; and in the end they signed the treaty separately and became independent foundation members of the League of Nations. This was due to energetic pressure by fellow-Dominions, notably Canada, who was determined that 'her title-deeds of nationhood' should be endorsed in this way. New Zealand did not share page 99in this campaign. Massey signed with the rest of the Dominion Premiers without deep thought on the significance of his action, for it was to him simply a continuation of war-time imperial partnership. It had a sentimental and not a legal significance, and the fact that each Dominion had individually signed the Treaty demonstrated that 'one of the greatest results of the war is that … it has cemented the British Empire into one complete whole—into a unity that can not be destroyed, and which I believe will stand the test of time.'

Thus did Massey misinterpret the events in which he had taken part. To him the free decision of the Dominions to act in unison demonstrated the permanent fact of imperial unity. To his Canadian and South African colleagues the implication was rather that their freedom of choice had been recognised in principle; this time they freely chose to act with Britain, but on a future occasion they might with equal right stand aloof. And they promptly pressed the advantage that had been gained. In the twelve years that followed the Peace the task of imperial statesmanship was not (as Massey had hoped) to consolidate the warm comradeship of the Great War and embody it in a constitution. Rather it was to define Dominion status in such generous terms as to convince South Africa, Canada, and Ireland that they would be even more free within the Empire than as independent states. Therefore the historic forms of page 100Empire were quickly modified so as to remove (or obscure) constitutional differences between the 'Dominion' of the United Kingdom and any other Dominion. Signs of British dominance were carefully eliminated, and Dominion statesmen could claim that they had all the independence they desired. In fact, Britain demonstrated clearly that she was willing to concede to any Dominion as much practical independence as it was determined to claim and exercise. This extended even to the appointment of ministers to foreign countries, and the negotiation of treaties.

This is not the place to discuss the disputed points in this evolution, or to estimate the exact degree of Dominion independence that was achieved between the two wars. The general trend is clear; and it drew a sharp reaction from New Zealand. Far from wishing to increase her independence she became more and more anxious to preserve her link with Britain, and in her effort to do so willingly jettisoned the last remnants of Vogelian independence. Her only fear was lest the enthusiasm and rashness of her fellow Dominions might impose on her a status for which she had no desire, and as early as 1919 her spokesmen expressed their suspicion that imperial cohesion had already been sadly weakened. When the peace settlement was debated in the New Zealand Parliament* the implications of the Dominion's action were sharply pointed out to Massey by Downie Stewart. In signing

* Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 185, pp. 503 ff.

page 101the Treaty, he said, New Zealand had apparently performed the act of a sovereign state; yet she claimed to remain part of the Empire. As opposed to Massey he stated the old nineteenth-century dilemma that a colony must either be inside the Empire or outside; and he complained that, for the present, New Zealand seemed to be neither in nor out. Further, unless some constitutional reform could be carried through to transform the Empire into a partnership recognisable by the eye of the law, the sovereign act of making peace must be interpreted by the lawyer as a move towards independence for the Dominions.

Massey, who was a farmer and not a lawyer, could only reply that in signing the Treaty he had no such ideas in mind, and that the constitutional revolution desired by Mr Stewart had already been carried out with the formation of the Imperial War Cabinet. This act had, to his mind, created a partnership which was none the less genuine because not expressed in legal documents. He hoped that legal definition would soon follow, but meantime, he claimed, the position was clear. The Dominion delegates did not sign the Treaty 'as independent nations in the ordinary sense of the term. We signed it as representatives of self-governing nations within the Empire—partners, with everything that the name implies.'

Massey's argument depended on his belief that the partnership of the Imperial War Cabinet was to be continued indefinitely, but when the long-awaited page 102Imperial Conference met in 1921 he realised (as perhaps Stewart had suspected in 1919) that this was not to be. There was a ring of distress in his complaint at that conference* that the Empire had gone backwards in the last two years. The Dominions had gained in status, he admitted, but they had lost the solid organic structure of the Imperial War Cabinet and relapsed into 'consultation and consultation only'. Thus early did New Zealand state her dissatisfaction with the general trend of imperial development and, as Dominion status was more elaborately defined, dissatisfaction (or apprehension) led New Zealand to express minority views with all the energy permitted by an increasingly modest sense of her own unimportance.

Though apprehensive of the threat to imperial unity inherent in the attitude of her fellow Dominions, in the nineteen-twenties New Zealand found herself, for the first time in her history, fully satisfied with the state of her own particular relations with the mother country; or at least with the state of those relations as defined by herself. Her view of them was that sketched by Massey in layman's language in 1919, and reduced to legal precision by Sir John Salmond in his report on the Washington Conference of 1921-22. The Dominions, said Salmond, had no independence in international law, except possibly for the special purposes of the League of Nations. As seen by the

* Keith, Speeches and Documents on the British Dominions, pp. 59-62.

page break page 103foreigner, and by the lawyer, the Empire was still a unity, and spoke with one voice only. All that had happened was a domestic arrangement by which the Dominions had gained a share in deciding the policy to be followed by all, whether or not it followed their own wishes. Thus, in the view of New Zealand's statesmen in the nineteen-twenties the existing arrangement gave them that for which Vogel and Atkinson had hoped: a chance to be heard before decisions were made. 'The method that has been adopted is just this,' said Mr Coates as Prime Minister, in 1925.* 'The British Government carry on the negotiations. We … express our opinions quite definitely. If the Government … think that arrangements under consideration are likely … not to be in the interests of New Zealand, we say so. But if after that it is decided to go ahead, we say to the British Government, after knowing all the facts of the case: "Very well, if that is the arrangement to be made, we are prepared to stand by it."' Such was the New Zealand conception of imperial partnership. It was a partnership genuine and close, in which the juniors, though expressing their views frankly in confidential discussion, should loyally accept and support Britain's ultimate decision.
This attitude was made all the easier because in the nineteen-twenties New Zealand had few ideas of her own about foreign policy. Public opinion was on the

* Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 208, p. 772.

page 104whole badly informed and the Government correctly represented its constituents in its willingness to leave these matters to Britain. When consulted about foreign affairs, it was said in 1923, New Zealand answered 'in stereotyped form: "New Zealand is content to be bound by the determination of His Majesty's Government in London."' Two years later New Zealand alone of the Dominions, expressing 'its highest sense of the excellence of British policy' proposed to share the obligations of Locarno: a proposal which, however, it did not insist on carrying out. On one important occasion only were there signs of serious discontent with British policy. This was in 1924, when the British Labour Government favoured the policy of the Geneva Protocol. New Zealand felt that this 'mischievous' proposal sacrificed the solid reality (the British navy) to the 'visionary doctrines' of the League of Nations—from which no real protection would be forthcoming in emergency. But it was only when Macdonald had fallen that New Zealand poured her criticisms into the sympathetic ears of the British Conservative Government. Nor was this acquiescence in British policy a matter of form only. When in 1922 the Dominions were dramatically asked for support in the Chanak incident, a hastily-summoned Cabinet endorsed British action without hesitation, and accepted the invitation 'to be represented by a contingent.' Parliament was not consulted, for that 'would have entailed a delay of at least three page 105days', instead of the three minutes actually devoted to the matter by Cabinet. It might also have lent some support to the pernicious Canadian doctrine that Dominions had the right to decide questions of war and peace for themselves. Nor was this attitude rejected by public opinion. Men flocked to the colours, and in the House of Representatives those who thought that Parliament should have been consulted could only muster seven votes against fifty-seven.

Satisfaction with the 'silken bonds' of Empire and the will to 'trust Britain' in foreign affairs just as in pre-war days she had trusted the Admiralty, led New Zealand to resist to the best of her ability those moves which she regarded as undermining the Empire's unity and strength. Massey in 1921 denounced the view that Dominions could negotiate treaties directly with foreigners, except on matters of commerce. The Balfour declaration of 1926 which described Dominion status in terms that were generous but cautiously vague was met, said an observer, 'with rabid and almost uncontrolled objections by New Zealand.' In the same year she made the characteristic gesture of promising to contribute £1,000,000 towards the Singapore Base, and declined to alter the status of her Governor-General, who remained in small but significant ways the formal representative of the Imperial Government. When her fellow Dominions were concerned with the attempts to define Dominion status which led to the Statute of Westminster (1931), her page 106Prime Minister said with truth 'New Zealand has not been concerned with the recent developments in the constitutional relations between the members of the British Commonwealth of Nations. We have felt at all times within recent years that we have had ample scope for our national aspirations and ample freedom to carry out in their entirety such measures as have seemed to us desirable.'

New Zealand's marked 'mother complex' developed strongly between 1919 and 1935. There were, of course, protests against it. Leaders of the Labour party, for example, feared lest the Dominion should be bound too closely to the 'Imperial chariot', and deplored the current assumption that New Zealand was still 'in a state of tutelage' so far as foreign affairs were concerned. A thoughtful minority claimed that New Zealand should stand more firmly on her own feet, acclaimed the more virile attitude of other Dominions, and grieved 'that in this country we should take a pride in our insufficiency.' Such views, however, could not rouse the country, for sentiment ran strongly in the other direction. The forces which led to Dominion nationalism elsewhere were lacking in New Zealand. Unlike Ireland and the Irish element in Australia, she had no deep-seated resentment against Britain's past conduct. There was no powerful non-British element which like the Afrikanders in South Africa could press for national independence, or like the French Canadians at least be eternally page 107suspicious of British dominance; nor did she share with Canada the sense of America's powerful and friendly presence. Finally she had least of all the Dominions the feeling of unchallenged security which had made possible the development of colonial autonomy.

As a whole the Dominions after the war faced the future with full nineteenth-century confidence in the permanence of that security and prosperity to which they had become accustomed. Yet among them there was a vital difference. To some—such as Canada and Ireland—security was not bound up with the British connection. Whatever might be the political position, the United States of America could never allow Canada to be over-run, nor could Britain see Ireland conquered by an enemy. As against their only conceivable enemies, therefore, these Dominions enjoyed protection without having to make a political bargain. To New Zealand, however, security meant the British navy; and there was little reason why the navy should fight in the Pacific except in order to honour an imperial obligation. New Zealand was conscious of her smallness and isolation; and, though the war naturally stimulated her sense of nationhood, her ultimate reaction was not so much a consciousness of her efforts as an independent individual as that she had a worthy share in the greater glory of an imperial achievement. She had realised Vogel's vision: she felt herself to be in fact and in sentiment part of a great page 108world power, and not living isolated in dignified but risky obscurity. In the imperial connection, then, New Zealand found security and glory in a way which was unique among the Dominions.

She also found a measure of economic security. New Zealand depended on exports as much as any civilised community, and, as an undeveloped country, she needed a steady supply of capital. Britain took three-quarters or more of New Zealand exports, and on the average lent to her Government £5,000,000 each year. Moreover, a considerable part of New Zealand's economic system was organised solely to produce goods which Britain alone would buy, but which (it was perhaps hazily suspected) she could do without; and New Zealand loans were raised under privileged conditions which could easily be withdrawn in the unlikely event of New Zealand doing anything unworthy of a loyal British dependency. These were facts which gave a solid material basis for imperial sentiment, particularly since at that time there were no obvious disadvantages in the British connection. True, it sometimes transmitted European depressions to New Zealand, but these seemed unavoidable; and in matters of policy British dominance seemed to bring no practical inconvenience. Indeed, the evolution of Dominion status, in which New Zealand acquiesced under protest, strengthened her hand in those few matters where she was really anxious to follow an independent line.

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For example, in company with Australia, she has continued to follow an immigration policy which to say the least was regarded without enthusiasm by the British Government. All the Australasian colonies shared the nineteenth-century suspicion of the Chinese, who worked too hard on goldfields, and in market-gardens and laundries, and who insisted on following, even in New Zealand, a Chinese way of life. The result was a series of anti-Chinese laws, beginning in 1881, and for a while, it was said, New Zealand led the Australasian world in high-handed action against the Chinese. In 1899, however, she adopted the less discourteous Natal 'education test', suggested by Britain, to avoid or diminish the appearance of race discrimination, and in 1920 her machinery of immigration restriction became even more simple. Thereafter British-Indians and all foreigners had to get individual permits to enter the country, and these could be refused by the Minister of Customs, with no reasons given.

By this time, of course, other factors had influenced New Zealand's attitude, such as the idea of restricting any kind of immigration in order to protect standards of life, and the fear of Japan's military and naval strength. The bogey of the 'Yellow Peril', though much less active than in Australia, had some influence before the Great War in making New Zealand cling to Britain; and in the nineteen-twenties there was uneasiness again, largely because Japan was the only page 110power which could conceivably attack New Zealand. But little rational ground could be produced for suspecting her of wishing to descend upon the Dominion, and by this time public opinion remembered with gratitude Japan's help during the Great War; thus in 1921 New Zealand (in opposition to Canada) wished the Anglo-Japanese alliance to be continued. In general, however, New Zealand opinion about Japan has been a little uncertain, largely, no doubt, because of ignorance. Trade between the two countries was small, and there was little travel. New Zealand looked at Japan through the eyes of London and, provided she was granted her essential demand—independent control of immigration—she was strongly disposed to accept London's point of view, here as elsewhere. Except for her uneasy sense of isolation, New Zealand was in fact forgetting that she was a Pacific country at all.

To some extent the grant of the Samoan mandate was a reminder of her position as a Pacific power, and a further illustration of the fact that, under British dominance, she could realise her national aspirations. However, the privilege of ruling Samoa, once so passionately demanded, has made little mark on New Zealand life. Massey hoped, before the Peace Conference met, that the islands would be simply annexed to New Zealand in the ordinary way, but she loyally accepted the terms of the mandate, and has not, indeed, claimed her full privileges thereunder.

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The work of ruling Samoa has been undertaken with the utmost conscientiousness, and New Zealand has honestly striven to justify the claim made in 1919 by a leading Maori* that she was of all countries the best fitted to administer Samoa because of the 'proud record that this country has had with the most active of the Native races inhabiting Polynesia.' 'Our experience,' he said, 'ought to make us extremely proud that this portion of the Polynesian race has been added, together with the Rarotongans, the Niue Islanders and the Aitutakian Maoris to their brothers and cousins in New Zealand'; and he threw out the suggestion that the profit motive should be kept in the background. 'We might try an experiment in one of the last seats of romance in the Pacific,' he added, 'the experiment of merely bringing up a happy and comfortable people without introducing unduly the element of competition and trade.'

On the whole New Zealand has adopted the objective suggested by the Maori, and not by his European critic ('Would you leave the natural resources of the country undeveloped? Who is to labour? Some one must labour.'), but this is not the place to analyse the complicated balance sheet of New Zealand's good intentions in Samoa. For this study it is sufficient to realise that New Zealand's experiences there have not paved the way for further ambitions in the Pacific. The administration takes its

* Sir Apirana Ngata: Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 185, pp. 521 ff.

page 112duties seriously, and so, to some extent, does public opinion. But there the matter ends. The unruly imperial ambition of Vogel has yielded to complacent acceptance of New Zealand's position as an outlying dependency of Britain.