The British Empire and its Centrifugal Tendencies

After administering a world-wide empire for several centuries, the British Empire was faced with the centrifugal forces that would eventually disband it as a coherent imperial unit.  The issues that arose, and the forces that acted on the empire are important elements for any understanding of the challenges of creating a larger psychological unity of humanity than the nation-state.  At the same time, the idea of a commonwealth of independent nations developed as a potential solution that moved beyond the old ideas about the nature of empire, and set up the possibility of something more flexible and fluid as a model for the future.

Sri Aurobindo focuses in on these points:  “It was not so long ago that the eventual separation of the colonies carried with it the evolution of Australia and Canada at lest into young independent nations was considered the inevitable end of the colonial empire, its one logical and hardly regrettable conclusion.”

Sri Aurobindo explores the reasons for this force of dissolution:  “The geographical necessity of union was entirely absent; on the contrary, distance created a positive mental separation.  Each colony had a clear-cut separate physical body and seemed predestined, on the lines on which human evolution was then running, to become a separate nation.  The economic interests of the mother country and the colonies were disparate, aloof from each other, often opposite as was shown by the adoption by the latter of Protection as against the British policy of Free Trade.  Their sole political interest in the Empire was the safety given by the British fleet and army against foreign invasion; they did not share and took no direct interest in the government of the Empire or the shaping of its destinies.  Psychologically, the sole tie was a frail memory of origin and a tepid sentiment which might easily evaporate and which was combated by a definite separatist sentiment and the natural inclination of strongly marked human groupings to make for themselves an independent life and racial type…. On the other hand, the mother country derived no tangible political, military or economic advantage from these offshoots, only the prestige which the possession of an empire in itself could give her.  On both sides, therefore, all the circumstances pointed to an eventual peaceful separation which would leave England only the pride of having been the mother of so many new nations.”

To be sure, the stress of defending itself during the Second World War, showed Britain some serious benefits in terms of military, economic and materiel support from the remnants of the empire, but as soon as that war ended, the collapse of the old model of empire was swift.  It remained only therefore, for Nature to provide a new model for some form of unity thereafter, and this was the development of the idea of the free commonwealth of nations into which the British Empire subsequently evolved.

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 8, The Problem of a Federated Heterogeneous Empire, pp. 60-61

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