Has The British Empire Completed Its Task?
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 10 Apr 1947, p. 305-315

Gower-Rees, Colonel, The Ven. Archdeacon A.P., Speaker
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Some of the varied comments regarding the British Empire. The question of the day: "Has the British Empire Completed its Task?" The speaker's substitution of the word "purpose" for "tasks." Use of the word Commonwealth rather than Empire. Ways in which the British Empire is STILL an Empire today. Ways in which the British Empire is NOT an Empire today. The use and purpose of the British Commonwealth in the word today? A consideration under three headings: "The primary function of the British Empire is to maintain the reign of law; and because of it to keep the peace among a quarter of the people of the earth." "The second function of the British Commonwealth is one which has not been fully appreciated." "The third purpose of the British Commonwealth should need but little explanation after our experience of two World Wars in 30 years." A discussion follows each heading. Room for improvement in the administration and laws of the British Commonwealth as it exists today. The true line of progress to IMPROVE the British Commonwealth, NOT TO DISSOLVE it. Consequences of breaking up the Commonwealth. Two subjects which may threaten the disruption of the Commonwealth unless they are handled wisely: the first concerning the introduction of self-government to India, and the second the constitution of a central Imperial Parliament for the British Commonwealth. A discussion of each follows. The need of the British Commonwealth and Empire today; its importance for Europe lying in the fact that it is the champion of the world supremacy of the White Man. The British Commonwealth and Empire lasting just as long as its spiritual basis remains a living and effective force; but the end of it will also be the end of the world-wide rule of the White Man. Appreciating the full significance of the British Commonwealth and the full significance of the closer unity of its people by considering their relations with the outside world. The need for all of us to labour to leave "that great fabric, the British Commonwealth and Empire, a nobler, freer and juster Commonwealth than we found it and thus prove ourselves not unworthy trustees of so great a heritage."
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10 Apr 1947
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A. P. GOWER-REES, M.A., D.C.L., M.C.
Chairman: The President, Major F. L. Clouse
Thursday, April 10th, 1947

MAJOR CLOUSE: Gentlemen of the Empire Club of Canada and ladies and gentlemen of our air audience (which audience numbers nearly one hundred thousand listeners)

Eighteen years ago from this platform--a gentleman whom we all revere, in referring to the desire for world peace, said "Before we can arrive at that condition it is very necessary that every nation, every group of people, should realize their part in the larger whole: should strive unitedly and persistently to that common aim".

The author of those words Rev. Canon Gower-Rees,

Today we are honoured in having as our guest speaker that same Reverend anal Respected Gentleman The Ven. Archdeacon Gower-Rees. And I can well imagine that at this moment his mind is carried over that span of year to the day when he gave us that profound message little realizing that eighteen years later the same message with even greater significance must be re-burned into the minds and souls of mankind. And how appropriate that the title of today's address should be

"Has the British Empire completed its task?"

The Ven. Archdeacon Gower-Rees graduated as a Master of Arts from Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1908. He was ordained in Yorkminster and was Canon of Bradford Cathedral and Rector of Bolton in Yorkshire. During the first World War he served in the field through France, Belgium and Germany and was Assistant Chaplain-General of the Army of Occupation. Following the signing of the Treaty of Versailles he held service and preached in Cologne Cathedral. For Meritorious Action in the Field he was awarded the Military Cross and was mentioned five times in despatches. In 1927 he came to Canada, accepting the appointment of Rector of St. George's Anglican Church and Archdeacon of Montreal.

In World War II Col. Gower-Rees served as Naval Chaplain in the Montreal district.

It is my privilege to re-introduce to the members of The Empire Club of Canada

Colonel, The Venerable Archdeacon A. P. GowerRees, M.A., D.C.L., M.C.

Mr. Chairmen and Gentlemen

I deeply appreciate the warm welcome you have so kindly expressed, and in return I wish to acknowledge your gracious confidence in entrusting to me the responsible task of offering a reasonable answer to the very pertinent question.

Has the Empire fulfilled its task? It is a question implied, if not definitely and bluntly asked, in the voluminous observations with reference to the present situation of the Empire, which have been given world-wide publicity in the Press of almost every nation. The attention and thought of the reading public cannot fail to be focussed by such insinuating expressions and questions as "the Empire is passing into history", "this crumbling Empire", "the liquidation of the British Empire", "How long will the liquidation process last? "When did the decay of the British Empire begin?" The severity of the mental impact produced by such expressions varies in effect according to the quality, and depth of the racial loyalties or prejudices of the reader. On March 17th at Richmond, Virginia, Lord Inverchapel, the British Ambassador to the U.S.A. was reported in the New York Times to have said in an address prepared for the English-Speaking Union and the Richmond Public Forum, "I may be obtuse and slow-witted but I fail to follow the arguments of people who say that our guts have withered and shrivelled within us, and that we have lost our power and will to work. History has shown that the British people possess in a remarkable way just those few inches of guts that make all the difference.

Believe me, those extra few inches are still with us and will carry us out of the present crisis as they have carried us out of far greater and graver crisis in the past. He said questions clearly stirring the minds of the American people today were, "What is happening to Britain? Is she collapsing? Is the British Commonwealth breaking up, and is the British Empire falling to pieces?" "Here and there", he went on to say, "I am being taunted with not being a realist, because whilst I recognize there is a crisis in the domestic affairs of Britain I reject, with all the strength at my command, any suggestion that we are finished as a world power and that we are incapable of overcoming the difficulties which six years of bombardment; of submarine blockade, of overwork and dull food have left us." Having recounted Britain's achievements since V-J. Day he said, "In spite of our difficulties, and they are many and grave, we are determined to take our full share in the building of a free world. We shall not flinch from one of our tasks. We welcome and are grateful f or the way in which others are coming to our aid in lightening our century-old duty of being the watch-dog of the world."

I venture, gentlemen, at once to declare that those sentiments, forcibly expressed, are the sentiments not only of every member of this Empire Society, but of every loyal citizen of the Empire.

Without further delay, I will now come to the question of the day. "Has the Empire fulfilled its tasks?"

You will all concede that an adequate and satisfactory answer to that question requires wide historical knowledge, and a professional historian's penetrating eye and analytical ability.

Lest you be tempted in your generous hearts to assume that I possess such a qualification, I feel compelled to confess that I am but an amateur historian, just an ordinary observer of events, ever seeking to understand and correlate events and movements which are the pieces of the jig-saw puzzle of human history. Now what we want to know is whether the Empire has up to the present fulfilled its purpose in the world. I believe it will be found helpful towards a better understanding if I substituted the word "purpose" for "tasks".

It would be also helpful if I explained here, why the word Commonwealth is used in these days in place of the word Empire. It is used because I believe it denotes more correctly than the word Empire what the great State to which we all belong really is.

In one sense the British Empire is still an Empire today, for the sovereign power is vested in an Imperial Parliament, which still exercises more or less autocratic power over vast territories in the world. In another sense it is not an Empire because the Imperial Parliament has long ago abdicated its title to legislate for the self-governing Dominions, which, by the Statute of Westminster, 1931, have attained an equality of status with the Mother Country. But what is more important, I think, than the technical meaning of words it is a Commonwealth, because the feeling of the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants is that the justification for its existence can never be that it is of benefit to any one section of its inhabitants at the expense of the rest, but that it ensures internal peace, law, and order to its myriad inhabitants and affords to all of them the best hope of self-government and progress. In fact, we should most of us cease to believe in. the Empire unless we also believed that it was becoming more and more of a Commonwealth, by giving in increasing degree, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, while at the same time it imposed upon them their correlatives equal burdens and equal responsibilities.

What, then, is the use and purpose of the British Commonwealth in the world? This I think can best be considered under three heads.

I. The primary function of the British Empire is to maintain the reign of law; and because of it to keep the peace among a quarter of the people of the earth. Has it succeeded in doing so? Two World Wars in 30 years has made it much more clear what an enormous important service the Empire has done in introducing ordered relations between 430 million people who, in the hour of peril, rallied together as one united people to resist the Teutonic bid for world domination. The British Commonwealth is a form of international government, which has kept the peace among a quarter of mankind. It has developed a sense of unity which prevents the nationalism within its boundaries from degenerating into pure bigotry, and it has provided the means whereby the disputes between the communities of every race and color and grade of civilization of which it is composed, can be settled by law and not by force.

That in itself has been a tremendous contribution not only to our own peace but to the peace of the world.

Though its constitutional machinery has not been perfectly contrived for discharging that function, yet so long as the Empire remains one State, that machinery, imperfect though it may be, is there to be used whenever required.

II. The second function of the British Commonwealth is one which has not been fully appreciated.

It is the great bridge between East and West and between all the grades of civilization which exist upon the face of the globe. Some people have been inclined to regard the British Raj in India as something in itself, wicked; something to be maintained, because having once been created it could not be suddenly overthrown, but to be apologized f or, and to be got rid of as quickly as possible. Those are people who would assent to the view that the Empire was the product of the desire f or domination of our ancestors and of no laudable purpose at all. I believe that if they will study history they will find that such opinions are wholly unwarranted.

There are many black or rather I would say, grey pages in Anglo-Indian history, there are many things which could have been greatly improved; but I do not believe that any dispassionate enquirer would deny that the establishment of the British Raj has not only been a benefit to India but has been a necessary stage in the upward progress of the world. It is only possible to realize this, by considering what happens as the result of the first contact between civilization as we know it in the West and an ancient Asiatic civilization or a primitive African community. The result is almost invariably chaos. Whatever form the contact takes, whether it be the introduction of new ideas by the missionary, of drink, firearms and the implements of civilization by the trader, or of money and organization by the financier and speculator, the result is always the same, the earlier civilization crumbles into ruins. Only in the case of the Japanese has an Eastern civilization been able to accommodate itself to the terrible impact of the knowledge and enterprise of the West; and the Japanese did so only by practically rebuilding their national life on Western lines. When such a chaos falls upon primitive backward peoples, and when there seems to be no prospect of their re-establishing peace and security for life and property, for themselves, the only way was for some civilized nation to step in and protect the inhabitants from being exploited by so-called civilized adventurers and put an end to evils, which, if unchecked, could only destroy and barbarize the people, by maintaining order and just law, until such time as the people have learnt how to govern themselves under the new conditions created by Western knowledge and ways.

It has been and still is a most important function of the British Commonwealth to maintain justice and liberty among nearly 400 million people who were not able to protect themselves from the devastating influences of the foreign adventurers and speculators and who had not re-adapted their primitive or their ancient societies to the new conditions which constant contact with the West had brought into being.

The regulation of that contact has not been perfect. In particular the relations between individuals of white races and coloured races are still undesirably bad. But none the less the British Commonwealth, with all its imperfections, has in a remarkable way succeeded in creating the conditions in which free self development and progress are possible and also providing the means whereby contact between all grades of civilization can be adjusted by conference and compromise, ending in legislation binding on all, instead of by war.

III. The third purpose of the British Commonwealth should need but little explanation after our experience of two World Wars in 30 years. The f act of its unity has not only saved the communities of which it is composed, from invasion and possible loss of independence; but it has already made practically certain the triumph of the ideals of democracy and freedom and the vindication of public right in the world.

It was no small thing that the existence of the British Commonwealth should have in such an astonishing manner mobilized its vast resources in men and material to resist the mightiest military onslaught ever made on human freedom and public right. History will certainly record that it was the existence of the British Commonwealth and the alacrity of its peoples to defend the right which was the principal factor in defeating the German attempts to impose a military tyranny on the world. In saying that, I am not for a moment unmindful of or ungrateful to our great and valiant Allies who later carne to our aid and made victory. certain. Therefore, I submit, gentlemen, that the British Empire and Commonwealth has hitherto fulfilled its task in the world and will continue to do so despite the ominous and disturbing aspects of the present situation.

It has ensured personal liberty: and the reign of law over a quarter of the globe, it has been the chief instrument for adjusting the relations between East and West by peaceful, means, it has been the chief bulwark of freedom and public right in the world.

That does not mean that the British Commonwealth as it exists today is perfect. The room for improvement in its administration and its laws is practically infinite. But it does mean that the true line of progress is to improve the British Commonwealth, and not to dissolve it. To break it up would simply be to set back the hands of the clock of progress. It would destroy the best agency which exists today for training peoples still practically backward in liberal democracy, and it would mean handing them over to some autocratic power, which would not only teach them some illiberal Kultur, but would utilise their resources and their man-power to overthrow liberty itself. It would sunder communities and races who are now united in allegiance to one another and leave them with no other means of official intercourse, save diplomacy backed by armaments; and thereby increase the possibilities of further wars.

It would put an end to the only practical proof which exists today that it is possible to unite all races and all levels of civilization and all the ends of the earth in one State, within which every disputed question is settled by reason and justice expressed in law, and not by force. Hence I suggest to you that it is the primary duty of every good citizen not only to be an active citizen of his own national community, which to us is Canada, but also to be an active citizen of the British Commonwealth as well--not only to make our own country a better place to live in, but to help to make the Empire also a better place for all its inhabitants to live in and a more effective instrument for the maintenance of freedom and public right in the world.

There are two subjects which events have forced to the front in recent years, and which, as they concern the fundamentals of the Imperial constitution, may threaten the disruption of the Commonwealth unless they are handled wisely.

The first relates to the introduction of self-government to India. The conduct of the government of India by the British terminates in June, 1947.

It has long been recognized that British government in India could only be a transitional episode in the history of India. It could have no finality in itself. The justification for British rule in India must be that it has served to tide over the period while India was adjusting itself and its ideas to Western ideas, and that it ended in the creation of a self-governing Dominion within the Commonwealth by constitutional and peaceful and not revolutionary means. It would be well for us to bear in mind that the introduction of self-government is not the same thing as the establishment of democratic machinery. Self-government is a thing of the spirit far more than of constitutional mechanics. It requires, before it can be brought successfully into operation, not only a considerable degree of education among the majority of the voters, but such a standard of political conduct among them as will ensure they put the interests of the community above their own interests or those of the section or class to which they belong.

The greatest obstacle at present in the way of a successful democracy in India, is not the opposition of British officialdom but religious prejudice, the almost impassable barriers of caste which separate the people into strata which have practically no connection with one another; and the illiteracy of the overwhelming mass of the Indian population. We can only realize what a colossal task confronts the Indian leaders when we remember that India which is as large as Europe without Russia and whose 350,000,000 inhabitants are infinitely divided by religion and caste, are grouped into races as different from one another as are the races of Europe, and speak more different languages than are spoken in Europe and of whom the overwhelming majority are still totally incapable of exercising the franchise. Much has been done under British Rule in India to lay the foundations for ultimate self-government. Much more has yet to be done by the Indian leaders to achieve it. But self-government is much more than democratic machinery and the road to it will not be fully travelled until many a difficult problem has been carried into effect by the Indians themselves. Now faced with the entire responsibility for settling their political and religious differences, the Indian leaders are already finding the process rather painful. I am sure we all wish them every success in their endeavours and we shall be ready to extend to India a wholehearted welcome as a self-governing Dominion within the British Commonwealth.

The other problem to which I can only make a brief reference, concerns the constitution of a central Imperial Parliament for the British Commonwealth.

I am of the opinion that the pressure, not only of enthusiasts or of constitution-makers, but of facts, is driving us to a federal constitution which will create an Imperial Parliament representative of the whole Empire to deal with the common affairs of the Commonwealth while guaranteeing the autonomy of all parts, as the alternative to the disruption of the Empire.

The method of co-operation has worked astoundingly well for many years-but sooner or later as all history seems to show, it is certain to break down. And when it does break down we shall be faced with the alternatives--federation or disruption--with no via media between.

We are perilously near such a crisis now when the process of disintegration appears to be going on before our eyes. I am of the opinion that the time has come to choose the road of federation and not the road of disruption. I say that, because I believe that the unity of the British Commonwealth is still the greatest single political service which we can render to the cause of peace, to our fellows and to mankind.

The British Commonwealth and Empire is today a necessity to the world; its importance for Europe lies in the fact that it is the champion of the world supremacy of the White Man. There is nothing more shortsighted than the belief that any European country whatever could benefit by a weakening of. the British Empire. The future of the British Commonwealth is the future of the White Man. Its future is of the greatest consequence for the whole of humanity.

One thing is certain; the British Commonwealth and Empire will last just as long as its spiritual basis remains a living and effective force and no longer; but the end of it will also be the end of the world-wide rule of the White Man.

I am afraid that I have touched today but lightly on matters of vital importance but I hope that what I have said will help some of you at least to realize more clearly what is the use and purpose of our British Commonwealth in the world.

In any case I trust that you will feel that the Commonwealth of which you and I are citizens is not something in itself essentially evil but essentially good; not to be apologized for, but to be proud of, not to be pulled down, liquidated or disrupted; but to be built up, and improved and perfected so that it may continue to fulfill its task in the world even better in the future than in the past. I should be the first to admit its defects and lapses; but I am not yet convinced that the world can afford to do without it.

We cannot appreciate the full significance of the British Commonwealth or the full significance of the closer unity of its peoples until we consider their relations with the outside world. The British Commonwealth is the standing denial of the doctrines which have caused not only the devastation of Europe but of other parts of the world. It is a living proof that unity comes not of force, but of justice and law, not of self-concentration but of mutual service. It proves no less that peace is the fruit not of jealousy and selfishness but of a brotherhood which can transcend the narrower claims of race and nationality and colour. If it were to break up, it would be the greatest calamity which could befall mankind. But it will not break up.

We must all labour to leave that great fabric, the British Commonwealth and Empire, a nobler, freer and juster Commonwealth than we found it and thus prove ourselves not unworthy trustees of so great a heritage.

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