- The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 27 Apr 1927, p. 112-119
- Roberts, Rev. Richard, Speaker
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- The inner significance of the British Empire as a political fact. The speaker's summary of certain of the elements of the tradition which we have inherited and which constitute the spiritual and moral grounds upon which the British Commonwealth of Nations has come to rest. Putting away from us the cant and humbug of supposing or of pretending that our imperial history is immaculate. Reference to Sir James Seeley's book, "The Expansion of England." Now seeing, with Seeley, that there are passages in the development of Greater Britain that a candid moral scrutiny would condemn, and so we are in a position to assess rightly the moral elements which explain the present stability of the British Commonwealth. Slavery as a case in point. The paradox that England became foremost in the traffic in slaves, yet she was the foremost in reparation also. Great Britain's relationship with China as another instance. Declaring faith in the sanctity of human personality in the Emancipation of Slaves, and in Sir Austin Chamberlain's gesture to China, affirming faith in the rights of nationality: two elements of the British tradition and heritage. A profound faith in freedom, whether of the individual or of the group as a principle around which a coherent public philosophy may gather. Some words on the nature of freedom, and freedom as the first principle of the present unity of the British Commonwealth, with recent illustrative example. The Union of South Africa and its present and future relations to the Empire. Substituting the politics of good will for the politics of force. The British Empire today as the greatest demonstration of the practicability of the politics of good will. The imperial unity threatened in recent years precisely at those points at which the politics of force and coercion have prevailed, as in Ireland, Egypt, and India. How that danger has been averted. The politics of good will working throughout the world, as it does in the Empire. Reference to Edmund Burke's famous speech in which he pleaded that England should in its dealings with India embark on a policy of "hazardous benevolence." A policy of "sporting good-will" which holds the Empire together. The remarkable story of the achievement of toleration in the Empire tradition. A discussion of the differences with regard to freedom and equality as perceived in the United States, and in the Empire. Political and civil freedom in the Empire. Our duty to cherish our freedom of thought and of its expression. The danger of forgetting and therefore of losing some of the strength of the rock from which we were hewn. The British Empire as an object of pride and hope and love; as a repository and trustee of a great tradition of ordered and creative freedom.
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- 27 Apr 1927
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OUR SPIRITUAL AND MORAL INHERITANCE
AN ADDRESS BY THE REV. RICHARD ROBERTS, D.D.
(Links of Empire Series)
27th April, 1927.
Introduced by the President, DR. ROBERTS received a warm welcome. He said
Public discourse about the British Empire tends to concern itself chiefly with its external and more obvious aspects,-its size, its commerce, and the like; and far too little attention is paid to its inner significance as a political fact. I want to suggest very briefly and summarily to you certain of the elements of the tradition which we have inherited and which constitute the spiritual and moral grounds upon which the British Commonwealth of Nations has come to rest.
First of all, let me say that it is one of the conditions of a sound realistic judgment upon the moral inwardness of the imperial tradition that we put away from us the cant and humbug of supposing or of pretending that our imperial history is immaculate. Like human nature, and like every other human story, it is a mingling of good and evil; and it is both foolish and dangerous to ignore the facts. Nothing has done more toward the understanding of the empire than did Sir James Seeley's book, "The Expansion of England." But that book is not altogether pleasant reading for patriotic Pharisees. Seeley, like every honest historian, is frank; and he will tell you, for instance, that "a policy now begins which is not, to be sure, very scrupulous, but is able, resolute and successful"; and again, that "moral rectitude is hardly a characteristic feature" of the Cromwellian colonial policy. Now, it is only as we see with Seeley that there are passages in the development of Greater Britain that a candid moral scrutiny would condemn that we are in a position to assess rightly the moral elements which explain the present stability of the British Commonwealth. Let me take a case in point. Our complicity in the slave trade was so deep and deliberate that Lecky described it as at one point "a central object of the British policy". We went into that vile business in the reign of Elizabeth, and it was John Hawkins who took us in. During the seventeenth century, our share in it grew gradually so that we outdid other nations in the extent and ruthlessness of our conduct of it. But this serves to introduce a paradox which seems to run through our whole imperial history. If England became foremost in the traffic in slaves, she was the foremost in reparation also. This is not to say that the moral enormity of slave traffic was wiped out; but it was England that at last, when the horror of this traffic was seen, led the way in slave emancipation. Other instances of the same kind might be given,-up to this present time. In China our record has been no better and no worse than other European nations-and the record of none of them has been very good; and our own record in regard to the opium traffic in China has been justly condemned. None the less, it was a British Foreign Minister who in these latter days first waived special concessions and privileges which China had once been compelled to grant to the Western powers, and which now the Chinese have come to feel obstructive to the realization of their full national identity. We are being blamed today for more than our share in the present distresses of China. We do not disown our share, but at the same time, we need not worry overmuch about that. When once the storm and stress of the present is over, China has enough sense to know who her friends are.
While therefore we have no justification for thanking God we are not as other nations are, we may with some thankfulness affirm that we do show signs of better things. And the two circumstances I have spoken of serve to suggest the thread of gold which constitutes the most precious element in our tradition. In the Emancipation of Slaves, we were declaring our faith in the sanctity of human personality; and in Sir Austin Chamberlain's gesture to China, we were affirming our faith in the rights of nationality. And if the time permitted, it would be easy to multiply very impressive evidence that showed that there have been cardinal elements in our public policy. To be sure, there have been waves of reaction when we fall below our own standard; but, by and large, it may be said that if we have a coherent public philosophy at all, it gathers around these two principles : and these two principles may be summed up in one,-namely, a profound ,faith in freedom-whether of the individual or of the group.
Now, we might spend many days in discussing the nature of freedom : but you will permit me a word or two here on the subject to clear the ground. Freedom is supposed to consist in the absence of restrictions; but it does not. Freedom is the power to choose under what restrictions we are going to live. Freedom, said Edmund Burke, is what a people thinks it is,-that is to say, it is the condition under which a person or a people thinks it can live its own distinctive life and achieve its own distinctive destiny,-implying, naturally, the absence of interference and coercion from without. Now, I need hardly point out to you that this is the first principle of the present unity of the British Commonwealth. Let me give you a recent instance of what I mean. The grant of self-government to the Dutch communities in South Africa after the Boer War grew out of the conviction that they should be free to determine their own life and to work out their own destiny. Since those days, the Union of South Africa has come into being; and certain recent happenings have raised the question as to the future relations of the Union to the Empire. A little time ago, Lord Balfour went up to explain to the students of Edinburgh the position reached at the recent Imperial Conference. At the close of the address, among the questions asked was whether the Union of South Africa might not take advantage of the situation and exploit it, with presumably a view to complete independence. This was Lord Balfour's reply : "The question is not whether South Africa will be able to, but whether she will want to. There is no power of coercion or discipline; and there has not been for years, as between Great Britain and the Dominions. If they choose to exploit (by which I suppose you mean misuse) the situation which now exists and has long existed, and to which formal sanction has been given by all the prime ministers, it is certainly not for me to say how the situation should be dealt with. I can only give a negative answer. It would not be dealt with by coercion." Which, but positively, means that the first article of imperial association is that every member in it shall be free to choose its own way, to live its own life and to work out its own destiny, without interference or compulsion from without. It would take me too far afield to trace the origin and growth of this conviction; but there it is. And in the matter of imperial politics, it is a wholly new thing in the world.
But it has a very important and significant corollary. When the sanctions of physical force are abandoned, you must find sanctions of a different kind; and what we have done in imperial relations is to substitute the politics of, good will for the politics of force. And the British Umpire is today the greatest demonstration of the practicability of the politics of good will. It is worth some attention that, in recent years, the imperial unity has been threatened precisely at those points at which the politics of force and coercion have still prevailed, namely, in Ireland, in Egypt, and in India, and the danger has been averted, in every case, and most notably in Ireland, by the degree in which the politics of force have been abandoned in favour of the politics of good will. And if the politics of good will work so manifestly in the Empire, why can they not be made to work in the whole world ? Edmund Burke in a famous speech pleaded that England should in its dealings with India embark on a policy of "hazardous benevolence", a phrase which we may render in a simpler and more modern idiom as a sporting good-will. And that is the policy which holds the Empire together; and God knows it is what this whole distracted world needs. There is no reason in the wide earth why if we are true to our traditions in this matter, the Empire may not become the instrument of a unified and warless world. This sporting good-will which works so admirably within the Empire, it is for us to show as a sound working principle in all international relationships; and it may be the predestinate object of the British Empire in the providence of God to make its own domestic discovery of the secret of living together the common possession of all peoples.
I am, to be sure, only touching the skirts of a great subject; but I must pass on to another aspect of the tradition. Lord Acton once said that the test of freedom was the ability of national groups of different racial origin to live together within the same political unity. There is truth in the saying; but the whole truth is that you will never get perfect freedom or complete goodwill unless you get them together. The one cannot be without the other. But this has its analogy in respect of the individual. There can be no perfect individual freedom except on the basis of a generous mutual toleration. And on this side of the account we may perhaps say that the conspicuous element in our tradition is the achievement of toleration. And it is a very remarkable story.
I expect that most of you read in the papers the other day the last phase of the Fascist policy in Italy. I see that it is being welcomed in some quarters as a good thing, because it brings labour to heel; but it should be observed that it brings Capital to heel no less vigorously. In Mussolini's philosophy what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander. Here Fascism and Bolshevism are on common ground. They both apparently affirm the omnipotence of the State
and that is a doctrine wholly alien to our tradition. The Absolute State is the denial of personal freedom; and we have never accepted it. A large part of our story from its earliest times consists in the record of a struggle for the freedom of individuals and of small groups. It has been a point of honour among us to respect the rights of minorities; and it is in our very bones and blood that we do not readily submit to regimentation. With us, the freedom of the individual has been the law and the prophets, and we have always believed that there are limits to State interference. We have never exalted the State so as to make its authority absolute; we have always required that the State shall give the individual elbow-room to live his own life.
And herein lies the critical difference between our own inheritance and that of our great neighbour to the south of us. In the United States, the stress has been laid upon human equality; and because the Declaration of Independence says that all men are born free and equal, it has been too lightly assumed that freedom and equality are the same thing. But as a matter of fact, they are not; and our very contiguity to the United States requires that we should be continually on our guard just here. For what has come to pass in the United States is that it has been argued that, if men are born equal, then all men must toe the same line; and there is abroad a public opinion that seems to require a measure of human uniformity which is not wholesome and is on the whole unfriendly to the true sort of social progress. Consequently there is at large little understanding of the meaning and value of toleration, little patience with minorities, little encouragement of independent opinion. We, on the other hand, have been less concerned with equality than we have with liberty; and we have to a considerable extent realized the importance and value of toleration. And that is why Karl Marx could say half a century ago that there would never be a revolution in England: and unless we change our fundamental philosophy, it is safe to say that there never will be. For the one antidote to revolution is toleration: and the one sure way to provoke revolution is to repress dissenting minorities. The fate of the Tsarist regime in Russia is only the latest, and not, I fear, the last, demonstration of the infallibility of repression as a cause of revolution.
Time fails me to follow out the ramifications of the British achievement of freedom for the individual and the group. There is our political freedom-the right of the citizen to a voice in determining the conditions of life and its great sequel in the development of free parliaments. There is our civil freedom in all its aspects, the freedom of conscience, of opinion and of speech. There has been a long history of the curtailment of class-privileges, of the removal of racial and sectarian disabilities. And all in all, it may be said of us that we are the freest people on earth today. We do pay a price for our freedom, to be sure; we have to submit to a certain amount of social untidiness and disorder, some trivial anarchies here and there. But the other side of this is that we are free to grow, to change, to adapt ourselves to altering circumstances and to build our house of life according to knowledge.
And I would especially stress our duty to cherish our freedom of thought and of its expression; first of all, because it is the one certain guarantee of a pacific and wholesome social evolution. Here in Canada we are still young and plastic and unformed; we are in the process of an experiment to create a human society, and we have the opportunity of building up as noble and as vigorous a human society as the earth has ever seen. It would be calamity of the first order if we allowed ourselves to harden into social and political orthodoxies which would fix our character in perpetuity. The world has been, throughout its known history, experimenting in the creation of human societies; and it has never yet been satisfied with its creations; and we are now in the making. It is important that we should remember that in a world of growing knowledge and developing experience, thought should be kept fluid and unpolarised; and that therefore all political and economic doctrines are to be regarded as provisional and relative only. It is our wisdom to encourgage independent thinking in the open-and it is especially our wisdom to let apparently dangerous ideas see daylight, that they may run the gauntlet of scrutiny and criticism, and deliver up, freed from error, what elements of truth may be in them. It is mere folly to suppress them; for that is only to drive them underground, where they fester in darkness until they soon or late explode expensively in the light. It is historically true that dissenting opinion has almost always been the growing point of society. We owe our most cherished liberties to the rebels and heretics of yesterday; and since we are living in a world of which change is the very law, and in which no society or institution is exempt from change, we would do well to establish in our minds the truth that the way to a sound, wholesome, pacific social progress, is the way of toleration. The society which is intolerant of dissenting opinion is inviting decay; the society which has become incapable of dissenting opinion is already dead. In this, I repeat, we have a tradition which we should at all costs, guard.
I have indeed barely passed the threshold of a very important matter; but I venture to suggest that it is a matter which greatly needs to be restated and reinterpreted to us of this generation by a competent historian. For we are, I think in danger of forgetting and therefore of losing some of the strength of the rock from which we were hewn. For me, the British Empire is an object of pride and hope and love, not because it is great in extent, or rich in resources, but because it is the repository and the trustee of a great tradition of ordered and creative freedom.
The cordial thanks of the Club was tendered to Dr. Roberts at the close of his thoughtful and stimulating address.