Part I Chapter VI [The Australian Crisis, by C.H. Kirmess, 1909]

[Editor: This is a chapter from the novel The Australian Crisis by C.H. Kirmess.]

Chapter VI

A study of British sentiment

The Japanese descent upon the Northern Territory had been well timed. Over the world of white men there lingered the afterglow of an epoch of unprecedented prosperity, of which Great Britain had had full measure. Its ruling classes were glutted with success and its enjoyment. Now that the outlook became less bright, their attention was wholly engrossed in the pursuit of more profit, before the oncoming period of depression, universally prophesied by experts. Even the class-war was less fierce; unemployment had steadily decreased for years; wages had been slowly rising, and the toilers’ discontent was lulled somewhat by a sense of uncommon economic stability. If there was one wish shared alike by all England, it was the desire that an even tenor of political development, both at home and abroad, might be maintained. Consequently, there was a feeling of irritation when the immigration controversy threatened to cause a disturbance.

Popular resentment, naturally, turned against the side which seemed to aggravate the difficulties of the situation. It was there Japan scored. Officially, it could afford to sit tight and to keep quiet, for its secret work had been so cleverly contrived that it could now be left to itself for a time at least. The Commonwealth, on the other hand, was driven to desperate measures of repression. The shortsighted demagogues and radical journalists, who dominated the English masses, condemned roundly the colonial excitement about a trouble which appeared to them, from their safe distance, fifth-rate at most. Nothing the Federal Government did was thought right by these zealous humanitarians. Its prosecution of the deputation was dubbed puerile exaggeration. The fierce denunciation of subjects of an allied Power in the proclamation was even taken as a reflection on Great Britain for the company kept by it. It was not understood in the Mother Country that the Commonwealth was acting according to the promptings of an irresistible instinct. As creatures of the night, exposed to sudden glare, dart instinctively for the nearest dark shelter, thus Australia, dazed by the sudden perception of deadly danger, started into convulsive movement. But the Commonwealth appeared to the badly-informed millions, who in the last resort sway Imperial policy, as responsible for the biggest part of the commotion, and this misconception disposed them all the more to look with tolerant eyes upon the case as presented by Japan. Tokio had prepared the way to their overgrown hearts cunningly. It claimed no right; it merely appealed to common humanity. And it thus flattered nicely the popular idea of the Mission of Empire. Here they were asked to stretch forth helping hands to humble supplicants; to elevate a race yet erring in outer darkness, to their own level of goodness; to bestow material prosperity on famishing hordes. Nothing could be more desirable. Nevertheless, a handful of white settlers 12,000 miles away, hardly visible in the surrounding vastness of an empty continent, told them to desist as harshly as if they had no voice in the matter at all.

The English middle-classes, too, have always been moved deeply by religious considerations. Only acute fears, real or imagined, about the existence and growth of the Empire, could overcome their scruples in that direction. Nobody alleged that there was any reason for patriotic anxiety in the present development. The Japanese explanations were modest, even complimentary. The assurance that the immigrants craved the honour to be allowed to live and die under the Union Jack might be said to confer an extra lustre on the grand old flag. The ambitious request did not strike Britishers as very remarkable after all the speculations of recent years, that possibly Japanese soldiers would fight and die some day in defence of India for the Empire. An allied nation, of which such high expectations had been formed, could not be looked upon with contempt. Alas! they were heathens still. But the immigrants, removed from the retarding influence, one might almost say, from the bad example of the millions still groping in darkness in their native haunts, would offer a fair field for missionary work. Many ardent British believers thanked God for the chance.

The economic aspect, which so frightened Australian workers, was not understood by their comrades in the United Kingdom, who had to contend all their lives in free markets against the cut-throat competition of cheap labour, and who had also to put up with a steady inpour of East and South European cheap labourers. Where was the difference? Toilers in the Mother Country did not realize the significance of race contrasts, because, so far, they had not become acquainted with them firsthand. Distance and overcrowding formed a sort of protection. In the industrial districts of Great Britain white skilled and trained labour was so cheap and superabundant, as a rule, that the importation of Mongolians or negroes would hardly have been a paying game. At any rate, it had never been tried systematically. And thus British workers, having been spared the degradation of contact with lower races, could afford to take a lenient view. In their opinion, the difference was only skin-deep at worst. It passed their minds why any one should go into hysterics because a few Japs or Chinese wished to make a living at the other end of the world, where there was so much room for everybody.

Still, the middle and lower classes were not really antagonistic to Commonwealth ideals. They were merely hampered by the small extent of their knowledge and by the subconscious sense of superiority which warps the judgment of the average Englishman in matters colonial and foreign. Most of them regarded Australia as a kind of prodigal daughter, whose pranks had to be borne with good-humouredly. Her people were supposed to indulge in various irresponsible notions, and to be very ticklish on all labour questions, to such an extent that they had refused admittance more than once to honest Britishers who came looking for work. (This was a Press invention, but it had firmly taken root, nevertheless.) Of the Northern Territory, it was only known that it was very big, very hot, very empty; a gap on the map, yawning for population, yet not at all a white man’s land.

But higher up in the social scale there were sections who cherished grievances against the Common-wealth. The banking world and the Stock Exchange interests belonged to them. It is difficult to define the reasons for this scarcely-veiled hostility of British high finance. The antipathy was based partly on sentimental grounds. Political life in the Antipodes was highly flavoured with that democratic levelling spirit which the wealthy classes in England had so often played with for their own ends, and cheated of its prize every time, and which they abhorred, therefore, with the hatred born of instinctive fear of a vague, unavoidable retribution. In a word, Australian democracy served as an irksome reminder of the smothered social conscience of British wealth.

Moreover, the broad masses there had remained very independent and ignorant of the obedient humility which the owner of riches can personally command in the Old World. Instead, the most popular prints were full of cleverly worded and ingeniously illustrated attacks on capitalism, national and international. Political leaders of far-reaching influence had echoed the contempt at times, and in several conflicts big vested interests had not been exalted officially above less gilded claims. There was, too, a steady current of legislation towards the restriction of the money power. Even British Imperialism had come in for criticism, and had been described as world-wide exploitation for the benefit of millionaires at home, with little regard for distant white toilers abroad. Such licence bred reaction. But it was not so much verbal presumptions as material consequences which high finance was troubled about. The new spirit, with its demands for living wages, its regulation of working hours, and restriction of cheap contract labour immigration, its inspection of producing methods and products was threatening the profits of old investments, and made remunerative new investments more complicated.

Capital, always conservative, does not easily accommodate itself to great changes. Above all, it loathes supervision. In the United Kingdom some modifications might be proper. But it had ever been recognized that east of the Suez Canal moss-grown European conventionalities had no currency, and that the road was left clear there for the unfettered play of commercial genius out on the golden quest, even as it had been in the old merchant-adventurer days radiant with Indian memories of glory and gain. Yet now, in the very heart of those privileged hunting-grounds, an upstart dependency dared to set up as moral arbiter of business methods. And not content to govern themselves in established communities, its citizens claimed control of the whole continent, and foreclosed the tropical north against Imperial enterprise.

Some things are only truly appreciated after they have been lost beyond hope. The whole northern fringe of Australia had lain practically unused for decades. Speculators in London had not perceived the fact that it contained the makings of another India until the definite formulation and adoption of the White Australia policy had made the realization impossible. Then, of course, they did not blame their own remissness, but the impudence of the colonials. For several years a section of the British Press, prompted by disappointed monopolists, conducted a campaign of slander against the young Commonwealth, accusing it of undue interference with private enterprise, and of a deliberate attempt to withhold its torrid districts from colonization. It was ably backed in this particular by “Little England” papers, which disliked the White Australia doctrine just as much, though for exactly opposite reasons. Between them, they drew a glowing picture of what the Northern Territory should be like if, instead of new-fangled theories, the approved traditions of Imperial colonization were followed. It was only necessary to appoint a capable administrator, with Indian experience, and to throw open the country to all comers. Or perhaps, as a sop to national prejudice, it might be reserved to Imperial immigration — of all colours, of course. Here was a chance to relieve the curse of Hindustan, overcrowding, by transferring whole villages and tribes. The new province could thus be stocked with a cheap, submissive, intelligent population, which would transform it into fruitful fields. Rice, cotton, tobacco, wheat and other tropical products could be cultivated. Railways, roads, ports and shipping would have to be constructed, together with the hundred other modern contrivances of trade required to distribute the wealth of the land and to supply the needs of its settlers. And British capital and industries would benefit. Why all these marvellous prospects should be sacrificed for a fad, in the interests of non-existent white citizens who could only be attracted by the certainty of high remuneration, if at all, passed the understanding of the average stay-at-home Englishman. As for the leaders of finance, they could never forgive such folly. The White Australia policy robbed them of profits which were as good as made but for its arbitrary interference. Anything was better than the stagnation which resulted from it. The present development was rather welcomed by the more virulent section as a fitting retribution. And the Press, influenced by them, began to hint that this complication could never have occurred if the old methods of colonization had been adhered to.

The nobility and gentry of the United Kingdom shared the coolness of the capitalists, partly for the same reasons; partly, however, because of a special class grievance. It may be said that the proud, democratic spirit of the Australian people represented the principle directly opposed to the social conditions which evolved a hereditary aristocracy. The contrast was too great to allow of mutual admiration. All attempts to graft a peerage upon the young continent had failed ignominiously. Some knighthoods had been granted, but it was a strange fact that, in quite a number of cases, men who were considered to have promising prospects before they were thus honoured fell victims to political extinction soon afterwards. The temper of the nation was republican in this respect. Members of the aristocracy, on their part, had not forgotten the origin of the colony. Between its citizens and themselves a great gulf was fixed. Their habits of thought were divided by centuries. Neither was able to take seriously the ideals of the other.

It has been shown that the general sentiments of the people of the Mother Country were widely divergent at this crisis. General sentiments, however, must not be confounded with political convictions. Regarding the latter, their unanimity was wonderful. There is really very little to choose between the most ardent Imperialist and the pronounced Little Englander, when their fundamental attitude towards colonies, particularly autonomous colonies, comes to be dissected. That may sound paradoxical, but it is true. Certainly, they disagree in their estimation, and, consequently, in their policy. But these are mere superficialities. Brush them aside, and there is revealed, at the back of the stolid British mind, the firm belief that the continued existence of the colonies is a benefit conferred upon them by the Mother Country. Through generations this conception has been handed down until recently the loud clamour of the daughter nations, for official acknowledgment of equality, began to tear at its roots. It has been said that but for the secession of the New England States, the idea of colonial equality would never have been formulated. Even so, it caused genuine consternation, though the expression was smothered in a frantic outburst of Imperial enthusiasm, led by patriotic trumpet-calls of a singularly united Press. This surprising unanimity should have given of itself careful observers pause to reflect. It suggested that there was something to be concealed, something to be held back or smoothed over. And all the din could not dispel the silent indignation which welled up in many British hearts. The pretensions were too enormous. Here, on the one hand, stood a nation welded by the storm and stress of a thousand years, by a struggle for bare existence at first, and afterwards for domination; a nation which had shaped Empire, and still maintained it by its sole strength. On the other hand, there rose a group of immense communities hardly yet advanced to nationhood, never tested in the furnace of adversity upon quality and extent of their own resources: raw materials of Empire, in fact, boldly asking for equality. In the background, as a dim warning, the spectre of the American analogy was made to loom. Thus pressed, Great Britain prepared to concede the demand with good grace. What passed far below the smiling surface, in the subconsciousness of the toiling millions, on whose ever-increasing exertions the grand structure is founded, was conveniently overlooked, and might have been choked in its own profoundness at last. But it was not given time. Japan once showed admirable perception of approaching convulsions in the body of the Russian colossus, and shaped its plans accordingly. Had its emissaries, with judgment still more refined, correctly gauged the symptoms which eddied faintly about the outskirts of Imperial enthusiasm, and allowed for them in the intrigue? At any rate, the spirited, high-souled part taken by the Commonwealth in the campaign for equality had not won many sympathies in the Mother Country.

The members of the British Government stood too high, of course, to be swayed by hidden undercurrents. Whichever party was in power, the leaders, once the mantle of responsibility fell their way, kept one aim steadily in mind — the greater glory of the Empire. That included the advantage of all its constituents, and was the one continuous policy. The second continuous policy embraced the cultivation of close friendship with certain great Powers and particularly the maintenance of the alliance with Japan. Probably it had never been contemplated that there could be a clash between the two. When it did happen, the issue, as it presented itself to the English Cabinet, was mainly a question of expediency. Its first effort was to appease Australian anxiety by insisting on the harmlessness of the incident. Japan, perfectly cordial, rendered the attempt abortive by frankness. It became, therefore, necessary to choose between the permanent estrangement of a valuable ally and the passing temper of dependencies. For of the volatility of colonial resentment repeated proof existed within recent years. No change of front could be charged against the Imperial statesmen. The doctrine of a white continent might well be propounded by the Commonwealth, but it could not be countenanced logically by the mistress of India. She tolerated it as long as its victims were too feeble to raise effectual protests, and Australia stood strong enough to enforce it. Once this assurance failed, a full reconsideration of the position became inevitable. Britannia could not unsheath her sword in such a cause.

Colonial friction with foreign Powers required careful watching. Encouragement in one quarter might lead to trouble in others. Young nations half freed from leading strings are very impulsive, and prone to try conclusions without urgent need. The weakest point of the immense Empire lay in the danger of a fifth-rate disturbance on the periphery, thousands of miles away from the nerve centres, setting up irritation which might end by convulsing the whole body. That had to be guarded against, for the shock might bring down the nicely balanced structure of British World Policy, the result of infinite care drawn out over a number of years, and now heavy with promise. Japan’s continued cordial support was essential to carry the policy to full maturity. Australian aspirations, therefore, would have to be postponed.

It was of material assistance to the Imperial Government that the British Parliament was sitting, and could be made the fountain-head from which soothing and confident declarations poured forth. The Opposition obeyed the time-hallowed custom not to create difficulties in international affairs. Especially where Japan was concerned, the Cabinet might be described as holding a brief for the entire nation. As usual in such circumstances, successive questions were asked and then pompously answered in the House. The replies were so framed that they did not leave the slightest doubt as to the hope of the Ministers of settling the matter quickly and quietly. Further, they indicated that no dictation from outside would be accepted by the responsible advisers of the Crown; that warlike talk abroad should not be considered seriously; and that official relations with Japan were as cordial as ever.

C.H. Kirmess. The Australian Crisis, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1909

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