22 MAY 1941, Page 16


Empire and Liberty

Ideas and Ideals of the British Empire. By Ernest Barker. (Cambridge University Press. 3s. 6d.)

THE greater the stress to which it is subjected, the more the British Empire exhibits its amazing toughness and resiliency. In times of peace it seems ready to fall to pieces; but when the tempest breaks in hurricane-fury, its staunchness makes steel and concrete seem fragile. Why? More of the answer to that question can be found in this short book than in many a portly volume on the subject. Every observer is aware that the British Empire is unique in other respects than its mere size, range, and variety ; and in these 16o pages Dr. Barker places his finger on the essential qualities that make it unique. His approach to the topic is not historical or governmental, but rather philosophical. He is concerned with pointing out just what has distinguished the British Empire from other empires past and present ; just what imparts to it the vitality and tensile strength it is now exhibiting; and just what makes it significant for the future of the world.

The world's first empires—empires too often founded in lust for power and cemented by the blood of myriads—were con- tinental in character. They were as closely unified as transporta- tion and communication allowed, and based on the informing principle of authority (imperium), both civil and military, flowing from a single fountain-head. But as the continental empire descended through history, from Alexander to the Seleucides and Ptolemys, from the ancient Romans to the Holy Roman Empire and Bonaparte, it caught up new connotations and implications. To the idea of imperium was added the idea of jut. The Romans gave this special force it ran down the ages, and it produced one of its late flowers in the Code Napoleon. A long tradition, too, associated empire with a distinct cultural mission. Under Alexander and the later Romans, and still more distinctly under the Holy Roman Empire, the imperial idea was connected with spiritual and religious values.

But the future belonged to maritime empire rather than con- tinental empire and when the Spanish, the Dutch, the French, and above all the British Empires arose, they showed certain novel features. It was the British Empire which broke open a path which has proved broad and fruitful. For the Empire, finding in its relations with the North American colonies that the old principle of imperium no longer suited a fast-expanding world, substituted the new principle of libertas or autonomy. In that exchange Dr. Barker finds the cardinal source of the abound- ing vitality, the immense adaptability, of the renovated Empire. So strong is his regard for it that he waves away all schemes for centralisation, even the latest plans for federation, with a few scornful paragraphs ; they are "not a step on the road to liberty," and liberty is everything. In its rich profusion of forms the Empire cannot approach a single type of government, but it can, and does, possess a single spirit—" and that spirit is a spirit of liberty." It is to be found alike in those " population-settle- ments " which grew into the great Dominions ; in those strategic and commercial settlements which grew into Crown colonies ; and in the "trading settlements" which grew into the Indian dominion. It is not perfect, but it grows unsteadily toward perfection.

Nor is the Empire without a sense of mission which, equally with its liberties, gives it justification and strength. It has its cultural mission among native peoples. It has its religous mission, as exemplified in benevolent and proselytising activities. Above all, it has a mission in matters of equity. It has diffused over wide areas a just idea of civil rights ; it has preserved native institutions where they existed, fostered their growth where they did not ; and it has increasingly recognised that in dealing with weaker people it must exercise what Dr. Barker calls the "double trust." That is, it must contribute to the well-being of these peoples • and it must also contribute, through and with them, to the wed-being of the world by developing unused resources for the common benefit. That the Empire has often been all too recreant to its sense of mission Dr. Barker admits. He regards the Ottawa Agreements as an obvious breach of the double trust. But on the whole he thinks the record creditable :

There is no perfection today. But it is possible for a writer nourished in the creed of Liberalism to take comfort from what he sees today. . . . On the one hand he has witnessed the passing of an Act, during the last few months, which devotes a sum of £50,000,000 from the British Treasury to aid the development of the resources of colonial territories, and to enable them to improve their methods of agriculture, their conditions of health, and their housing. On the other hand, he has also witnessed, during these same few months, spontaneous offerings of men as well as money from all Darts of the Empire—the Dominions, India, and the

colonies—to aid Great Britain in her struggle. Of all these gifts that which has moved him most is a eft from Sierra Leone, "in grateful recognition of the great benefits which Sierra Leone has received during 135 years under the British flag." It would need a cynicism which the writer does not possess to disbelieve in the value of the ideas and ideals of an empire_ which can receive, as a free and voluntary gift, a tribute of that order.

Dr. Barker's wise and stimulating book, the fruit of much thought and research, is, as we have said, not for those who seek a historical or a governmental treatise. It is a study of

general forms, and of those basic ideas which create forms. It does not attempt to look into the future, and perhaps one fault is that it does not explore the question whether the idea of libertas, as applied to a wide-flung and steadily maturing empire, is not in the end a suicidal idea. But if the Empire does in time cease to exist and be but a splendid memory of the daughter-nations, it will have played its part. The true nature of that part is nowhere better indicated than in this small book.