The Empire In These Days
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 14 Jan 1943, p. 288-301
MacDonald, The Right Honourable Malcolm, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
Criticism against the Empire. The speaker's declaration of the Imperial faith of his countrymen in Britain. Two things which have got to be understood by anyone who wishes to comprehend the modern British Empire: the infinite variety it contains; the dynamic, not static, Constitution of the Empire. Constitutional changes taking place throughout the Empire now not haphazard or accidental but purposeful, by design, gradually achieving the main purpose of British Imperial policy. The purpose: that freedom shall spread ever more widely among all His Majesty's subjects, whatever their race or colour or creed and in whatever part of the world they live. The steady, evolutionary nature of that process of the spreading of freedom. The three main divisions of the Empire: the Colonial Empire, India, and the British Commonwealth of Nations in which are included all the Dominions and Britain itself, with a discussion of each including examples and illustrations of points made showing the current position of the British Empire. A summation of the main features of the British Empire today. Some words about victory. Showing how in practice men can find and tread upon the paths of peace as perhaps the noblest gift of the British Commonwealth of Nations.
Date of Original
14 Jan 1943
Language of Item
Copyright Statement
The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
Empire Club of Canada
Agency street/mail address:

Fairmont Royal York Hotel

100 Front Street West, Floor H

Toronto, ON, M5J 1E3

Full Text
High Commissioner for the United Kingdom.
Chairman The President, John C. M. MacBeth, Esq., B.A., K.C.
Thursday, January 14, 1943

MR. JOHN C. M. MACBETH: Your Honour, Gentlemen of The Empire Club: May I first express the regret of the Prime Minister of Ontario at his absence today. He had hoped to be with us but last minute business has detained him.

It is our privilege today to welcome the brother of a very charming young lady who was our guest a few weeks ago. The memory of Miss Sheila MacDonald and her message still inspires us. The Right Honourable Malcolm MacDonald addressed us in May 1941, and, at that time, the Honourable G. Howard Ferguson, then President of the Club, said that when Mr. MacDonald was back in England we looked upon him as a Canadian living abroad.

A distinguished son of a distinguished father, he is an outstanding example of the platonic doctrine of training and education for public life. He was raised in an atmosphere of political thought, and, at the age of 28, was elected to the British House of Commons. In the intervening 13 or 14 years he has been successively Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Overseas Dominions, Secretary of State for the Colonies and Dominion Affairs, and Minister of Health. In 1941, he became High Commissioner for Canada, the position which he is now so ably filling.

Idealistic in vision and realistic in performance, capable and hardworking, Malcolm MacDonald continues on his way. One can forecast great achievements in high places for one who in the maturity of his youth has already accomplished so much.

Gentlemen, I present The Right Honourable Malcolm MacDonald, who will address us on the subject, "The Empire In These Days". (Applause.)


Mr. Chairman, Your Honour, Gentlemen: Thank you for your kind introduction and welcome. During the last twenty months I have learned to have a profound respect--for the powers of patient endurance of Canadian audiences. But I think that you take the prize, because you are just about the only audience that has voluntarily submitted itself to two speeches from me. I would like to express to you my admiration and gratitude for that extraordinary piece of courage.

When I was wondering what I should speak to you about today I thought it might not come amiss at The Empire Club of Canada if I said something about the Empire. We have heard much about it lately. Not all the speakers have couched their sentiments in complimentary language, indeed, it is a fact which we citizens of the Empire would be foolish to ignore that important sections of opinion among our American friends and elsewhere are rather suspicious of the British Empire. In fact, it is one subject which might cause a certain amount of unfriendliness between the people of Britain and America at a time when it is really essential that there should be a sincere friendship and trust between those f two greatest democracies in the world, if the history of S-mankind during the next century is to be a happy one.

There are some people in Britain who seem to resent disparaging remarks about the Empire uttered by Americans, But I don't think that the main fault lies with them--it lies with us. If some Americans talk too much about the Empire, it is because we ourselves have talked too little about it. If they occasionally misunderstand some of the fundamental principles of our Imperial Government, the fault is ours, because we haven't taken the trouble to explain to them clearly. And if they suppose that our Empire is a sort of conspiracy to deny freedom to peoples, then it is high time that we made it clear that the very opposite is the truth. (Applause.)

Today on this appropriate platform, provided by you, I should like to make a declaration of the Imperial faith of my countrymen in Britain and, I believe, of you also in this room.

There are two things which have got to be understood at the very beginning by anyone who wishes to comprehend the modern British Empire. The first is the infinite variety which it contains. It is a multitudinous collection of countries scattered all around the world. It includes territories on every continent and islands in every sea, and covers a quarter of the entire land surface of the earth. Its peoples number more than one-quarter of the whole human population of the world. They are not one people with one set of problems to which there is one standard solution. They are a myriad of peoples, beginning with some of the most primitive races of man and passing through every gradation of cultural and social and political development up to some of the most civilized communities in the modern world. There were not more tongues spoken in the Tower of Babel than there are in the British Empire. There have never been so many different races paying homage to one King. There never was a wider earthly rule.

Well, those are some of the physical attributes of the Empire. But what about its spirit? What spirit animates this gigantic physical body whose limbs stretch right round the earth?

That brings me to the second basic fact about the Empire. It is this. The Constitution of the Empire is not static, it is dynamic. It has never become crystallized or fossilized or mummified. If it had, this Empire would have been long ago as extinct as the dodo, or as dead as many other Empires which have flourished in the past. But within this Empire constitutional changes are constantly taking place. Its political forms grow. They evolve. They develop. And those changes are a sign that this Empire is alive, that it is not just a hulking mass of inert territory and humanity, but that it is an organism which breathes and is sensitive and alert to every expanding need of the people who live in it.

For those constitutional changes which are taking place, now here now there, throughout the Empire are not haphazard changes. They are not accidental. They have design. They have purpose. They are gradually achieving the main purpose of British Imperial policy. What is that purpose? It is that freedom shall spread--ever more widely among all His Majesty's subjects, whatever their race or colour or creed and in whatever part of the world they live. That spread of freedom is a steady, evolutionary process. It is going on all the time, sometimes almost imperceptibly. Its pace varies from country to country, according to the different capacities and stages of development of the local inhabitants. In primitive communities the pace is extremely slow. Elsewhere it is much more rapid. If we are to follow that steady onward march of liberty among all the King's peoples, it is convenient to divide the Empire into three main groups of countries. First, there is the Colonial Empire. Second, there is India, and third, there is what is now called the British Commonwealth of Nations, in which are included all the Dominions and Britain herself.

Let me begin with the Colonial Empire. That is one point of attack by our friendly critics. In the Colonial Empire there are some fifty colonies, protectorates and mandated territories. The peoples in some of them are still very little advanced beyond their primitive state. For example, I recall dallying for a while some years ago on one of our island colonies in the Pacific Ocean. I spent a pleasant afternoon in the company of an old Chieftain who was reputed to be a reformed cannibal. When we had got on sufficiently safe terms of affability, I asked him whether he had ever eaten human flesh.

"O, yes", he replied with a chuckle, "many a time".

"What does it taste like?", I asked.

He replied, with a reminiscent epicurean smile, "It tasted rather like good roast pork."

Then I asked cautiously whether white men or black men were better to eat, and he said that it was the general opinion of the cannibals of his day that black men were more palatable than white men because white men had got too much salt in their flesh.

Heaving a sigh of relief, I asked him whether he had ever eaten a white man.

"No", he said, "only an American".

Of course I relate that experience only in jest. Nothing could be more circumspect and friendly than the conduct of those islanders today. They are already taking a direct part in the good civilized government of their country and as time goes on they will take a larger and larger part. Nevertheless, it is just possible that if some of our American critics gave prudent thought to that tale, they might conclude that some, at any rate, of the results of giving early complete self-government to those islanders might still be unfortunate. The progress of such peoples is bound to be slow. We would defeat our own excellent purpose if we were to hustle them. I don't know much about it, but I have been told you have to teach a child to walk before it can run.

Nevertheless, let me state categorically that the prime purpose of our colonial administration even among the most backward peoples in some parts of Africa or Malaya or the South Sea Islands is to train them always to stand a little more securely on their own social and political feet. (Applause.)

I could give much evidence of that. For example, we have trained large numbers already and increasing numbers are being trained to be their own agricultural officers and medical officers and educational officers and administrative officers in government. In some of the African colonies there are already excellent African heads of departments, African Judges, African leaders of thought and action. We are deliberately training those peoples so that they can take over in an ever-increasing measure the management of their own affairs.

There is another significant feature in the colonies. In almost every British colonial territorial there is already some form of local representative council. Those councils vary greatly in their size and their responsibilities. Some of them are still very miniature affairs, with extremely limited powers. But others are already imposing assemblies, clothed with much of the authority of fully fledged democratic parliaments. In Ceylon, for instance, there is a legislative council of more than a hundred members, elected on a wide popular franchise, exercising complete powers of lawmaking in all the internal affairs of the island, and led by a Ceylonese Prime Minister and a Committee of other responsible Ceylonese Ministers at the head of almost every executive department.

My point is this: Every one of those representative councils, whether they be small or large, whether they be weak or already powerful, are parliaments in embryo. They represent different stages in the birth of complete self-government. Government of the colonial peoples for the colonial peoples by the colonial peoples is everywhere the ultimate aim of British rule.

The peoples in the colonies themselves generally feel assured of that fact. I do not believe that there has been anything more remarkable in modern times than the action of the British Colonies in September, 1939. I happened to be Colonial Secretary then, and what I watched was very moving. The colonies are scattered far and wide all around the world. Most of them were remote from the scene of conflict in Europe, they had no responsibility whatever for the quarrels from which the tragedy had sprung; and they might well have hesitated or even sought to escape from the privations and dangers of participation in war. But they took the very opposite course. Immediately after Britain's declaration of war on Germany, messages from them began to pour on to my desk in Downing Street. I had not asked for them. I had not even suggested to any Governors that they should arrange for them to come. But they came in from every territory and from almost every organization in every territory in the British Colonial Empire. They came from Legislative Councils and from Chambers of Commerce, and Trade Unions, from Councils of Native Chiefs, from huge gatherings of native tribes, and from public meetings of every kind of citizen. They came spontaneously. They were unanimous. Every one of them was an expression of whole-hearted support for Britain, and an expression of their desire to share all the burdens and sacrifices which the war might entail.

Why did those messages come? It certainly was not that our colonial administration has been perfect, or that the citizens of the colonies had no complaints. We have achieved many good things in our colonial government, but we have also made some very serious mistakes. The peoples of the colonies had their grievances and they used to air them. Under our government they were free to do so. But as soon as war came and Britain was in peril, all those controversies ceased. The peoples of the colonies felt an over-riding urge to concentrate their minds and energies on the unremitting waging of war at Britain's side.

Why? Because Britain was the best guarantee of their free development. If Britain were destroyed, they thought that they would be lost. They know that so long as they remain part of the British Empire their own individual characters and cultures and religions will be respected. Everything that is good in their own peculiar ways of life will be preserved. They will be left free to develop themselves according to their own particular idiosyncrasies and genius. Their liberty will steadily expand. Let me just give one concrete case of that. As it happened, shortly before the war the time had come for a constitutional step forward in a certain colony in the Mediterranean called Malta. Early in 1939 a new Constitution with a considerable installment of self-government was enacted there. Well, in the last three years we have heard quite a lot about the Maltese. They have covered themselves with glory. (Applause.) Their stubborn and heroic resistance to the combined might of Germany and Italy is one of the classics, not just of this war but of all wars. Well, at the very height of the enemy's attempt to subjugate the Island I got a message from Malta one day, saying that a major factor in sustaining the superb morale of the people there was the confidence which the Constitution of 1939 had given them that Britain was the true champion of their freedom.

Let me pass from the Colonies to India. The Colonies are all travelling at different speeds along the road toward self-government. No one can yet say when any of them will arrive at their destination. The position is quite different in India. The peoples of British India have progressed much further along this highway than the peoples of the colonies have done, and a definite time has been set for their arrival.

What is the position? It is sometimes suggested that a tyrannical British Government stands in the way of Indian freedom. It does nothing of the kind. For some years past the British Government has been anxious to press ahead with reforms which would result in India assuming all the powers of a sovereign nation. Certain practical difficulties stand in the way. But those difficulties do not exist inside Britain. They exist inside India itself. The presence of the princely Indian States is one complication. But the main difficulty is that the great Hindu and Moslem religious communities which play such a vital part in the social and political life of India have not yet been able to compose their differences and to agree on a Constitution which would divide authority equitably between them and protect the rights of minorities.

The solution of the Indian problem rests very largely--not entirely, because we can do a great deal to help, but very largely with the Indian peoples themselves. If they can avail themselves of the specific proposals which Sir Stafford Cripps made on behalf of the British Government early last year, they will undoubtedly obtain their complete national freedom at the end of the war. That offer of the British Government still stands. It has not got any strings on it. The Indian people can gain their freedom either as a Dominion inside the British Commonwealth, or, if they prefer it, as an independent nation outside. Now, it would be impossible for the British or for any other people to make a more unqualified and generous offer than that.

In the meantime, let there be no mistake about the attitude of the Indian people to this war. In some of our newspapers their internal political difficulties receive much too much prominence in relation to certain other things. We hear all too little about other important activities which are busily engaging the Indian peoples in these fateful times. The people of India are spending their treasure and their blood in the fight against Nazi and Fascist dictatorship as nobly as any of the rest of us in the United Nations. (Applause.) Indian factories today are equipping with modern weapons and munitions the greater part of all the Allied Forces in that quarter of the globe. The Indians themselves are seeking to enlist in the fighting forces in such large numbers that it has been literally impossible to take them in as fast as they volunteered. Indian troops have fought in every campaign in the Middle East and the Far East. They acquitted themselves well in Malaya and Burma, Abysginia and Syria, Egypt and Libya. Several individuals among them have already won the supreme award of the Victoria Cross.

One whole Indian Regiment fought so courageously through the Abyssinian campaign that some Highland troops who fought at their side composed a song in their honour and presented it to them, with an accompaniment the bagpipes, called "The Bravest of the Brave". Believe me, if a Highlander tells you that you are the bravest of the brave, it is the solemn and inescapable truth. (Applause.)

Well, I can assure you that we in Britain devoutly hope that as soon as possible after the war the Indian peoples from whom were sprung those bravest of the rave will be included among the freest of the free. (Applause.)

The best proof of the sincerity of Britain in these professions is the fact that already inside the British Empire there are some countries where that evolutionary process of the gaining of freedom which I have described has already been completed, where young peoples have graduated into full nationhood.

Those countries of course are the Dominions. Canada first among them. There are also Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Eire. Under the British Crown the Dominions are equal in political status with Britain herself. They cooperate like brothers with each other, but each one of them separately is clothed with all the rights and powers of a sovereign nation. Every Dominion governs its own internal affairs through its own parliament, conducts its own foreign policy through its Foreign Secretary, sends its own delegations to international conferences, appoints its own diplomatic representatives in foreign capitals, and negotiates its own treaties with foreign governments. They are absolutely free to decide what their policy shall be in all the great crises that can face a nation. That liberty could not have received a more extreme test than it did at the outbreak of this war. In that supreme crisis, when Britain was fighting for her very life, every Dominion was free to decide for itself whether it should enter the war or stand aside. Four of them did immediately resolve to enter the war, and they have shared voluntarily and proudly ever since every hazard and honour of our great enterprise.

But one Dominion behaved differently. Britain's closest neighbour, Eire, decided to remain neutral. Eire's neutrality has exposed us in Britain to great dangers, but nobody has ever made the slightest attempt to bring Eire into the struggle against her own will. I do not believe you will find anywhere in the whole field of international politics a more devoted loyalty to the principle of freedom than Britain has shown in that case. (Applause.)

Well, that is a brief sketch of the British Empire in these days. Much has had to be omitted from the portrait. There has been no time, for instance, to tell you of the constructive ways in which Britain is carrying out her trusteeship for colonial peoples, pending the time when they can govern themselves completely. But I have drawn the main features of the character of the British Empire today.

How can it be summed up? Well, it was summed up by General Smuts the other day. No one is more qualified to speak of the Empire than that fine soldier-statesman who is the Prime Minister of South Africa. He began his public career by fighting bitterly against the British. He has no sentimental prejudice in our favour. He looks at the British Empire as it has developed since those days of his brilliant youth with the dispassionate gaze of one of the most experienced and wisest statesmen of our time. The other day he wrote in the American Magazine, Life, that the Empire today "is the widest system of organized human freedom which has ever existed in history".

Of course we have made many mistakes in our Imperial policy. No doubt we shall make some more. That is one of the marks of all human endeavour. But we are striving sincerely and strenuously after a great ideal.

And in seeking to attain it neither the people of Britain nor their comrades in the Dominions and India and the Colonies will shirk any difficulty or danger. Free men all round the world already owe us a good deal. In the most critical twelve months of this war we stood alone across the path of the cruel conqueror who otherwise would have extinguished liberty everywhere.

And when the victory is won-very largely as a result of the intervention of our best friends in the world, the Americans who live to the south of you--(Applause)--where the victory is won, the contribution of the British Empire in building, we hope, a better peace than men have known before will be as significant as it has been in the battle itself. The thing that men yearn for most today is the discovery of how nations in future can live peacefully together, settling those international disputes which are bound to arise between them from time to time by reasonable and civilized methods, instead of by resort to the barbaric cruelties of war. Often in history it has seemed that men have discovered the secret of that. Grand Alliances between nations, Councils of the Great Powers, then the League of Nations followed each other in turn, each seeming for a while to solve that greatest of all human problems, and then suddenly failing. But there does remain one experiment in friendly co-operation between free and equal nations which has survived many severe tests and which is still working in practice. It is the British Commonwealth of Nations. Of course it can never take the place of the wider, the universal association of nations and peoples that we all desire. But it may in some ways be a model for that. Certainly our experiences can teach many practical lessons to the architects and the builders of that grander design.

The political genius of the British peoples has given many great gifts to civilized men. It presented them, for example, with parliamentary government. But perhaps the noblest gift of all is this British Commonwealth of Nations, which is showing how in practice men can find and tread upon the paths of peace. (Prolonged applause-the audience standing.)

Mr. JOHN C. M. MACBETH: Your Honour and Gentlemen of The Empire Club: Some seven weeks ago, to be exact, in November last year, two passengers alighted from a train at a railway station some place in the north of The Isles. By "The Isles" I mean the British Isles, not the "Iles" of Scottish song and story. One of them was in uniform, a Wing Commander in the Air Force. The other was in civilian clothes. Of course, may I say, there was a station waggon for the man who was in uniform to take him from there to his destination. The civilian was not so provided for. The Wing Commander said to him, "Going over to the airport?" He was. "Have a lift?" He would.

So these two gentlemen started off on a bomber for Canada. One was bound for Toronto, the other was bound for Ottawa. The one who was bound for Toronto was coming here to see his refugee children who were in the home of one of the members of this Club, Mr. Cecil Harpham. The other was bound for Ottawa to resume his official duties-The Right Honourable Malcolm MacDonald.

It is a rather nice coincidence, a pretty little story, but isn't it rather odd that we should have the British High Commissioner thumbing his way, as it were, by bomber to Canada, particularly to Ottawa?

It has been a great pleasure, Sir, to have you with us today. This is the second generation of MacDonalds who have addressed us. I wonder whether it is too much to hope--(Laughter.)

We have had a succession of addresses on the Empire a wonderful succession of addresses. First, you will remember we had His Excellency, the Earl of Athlone. We had Chaudhuri Sir Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, who spoke to us on India. We had Lord Hailey and we had Colonel George Drew, and today, the fifth in line, The Right Honourable Malcolm MacDonald. We have had an exceedingly fine series of addresses on what the Empire means to us and this. Gentlemen, is your Club-The Empire Club-the Club that is supposed to do what it can to bind together that friendship, that feeling of good spirit, that spirit of nationhood which should bind together the different parts of this grand Empire of which eve form a part.

We are happy to have with us, too, Mr. Cormack, a boyhood friend of The Right Honourable Malcolm MacDonald. We welcome you here very sincerely, Mr. Cormack.

To you, Sir, the only further word that I say is, in your own language, as from one Scot to another, you are the bravest of the brave. We thank you sincerely for this delightful address. (Applause.)

Powered by / Alimenté par VITA Toolkit

My favourites lets you save items you like, tag them and group them into collections for your own personal use. Viewing "My favourites" will open in a new tab. Login here or start a My favourites account.


The Empire In These Days

Criticism against the Empire. The speaker's declaration of the Imperial faith of his countrymen in Britain. Two things which have got to be understood by anyone who wishes to comprehend the modern British Empire: the infinite variety it contains; the dynamic, not static, Constitution of the Empire. Constitutional changes taking place throughout the Empire now not haphazard or accidental but purposeful, by design, gradually achieving the main purpose of British Imperial policy. The purpose: that freedom shall spread ever more widely among all His Majesty's subjects, whatever their race or colour or creed and in whatever part of the world they live. The steady, evolutionary nature of that process of the spreading of freedom. The three main divisions of the Empire: the Colonial Empire, India, and the British Commonwealth of Nations in which are included all the Dominions and Britain itself, with a discussion of each including examples and illustrations of points made showing the current position of the British Empire. A summation of the main features of the British Empire today. Some words about victory. Showing how in practice men can find and tread upon the paths of peace as perhaps the noblest gift of the British Commonwealth of Nations.