[Editor: This is a chapter from The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936) by P. R. Stephensen.]
Wentworth, in the concluding stanza of his poem, had the audacity to suggest, in effect, that culture and power in the British Islands might some day decline. That would, indeed, be a “dark, disastrous hour,” but might it not happen, nevertheless? Dean Inge has been saying for years that England would be happier as a second-class power, without a colonial empire; as a kingdom, say, about the size of Holland or Denmark, with a population reduced to about ten or twelve million people, economically self-contained. There is quite a strong school of thought in England in support of this view that England is overpopulated, and, in fact, with five million adults chronically unemployed, the population is slowly declining. Britain no longer has the biggest navy, the biggest merchant marine, the biggest industrial equipment. Britain’s strength to-day is mainly as a financial clearing-house, rather than as a world-leader in industry and trade. The Dominions, including Australia, are becoming industrially self-contained. Per contra, far-sighted statesmen in Britain intend to make Britain self-contained in the matter of foodstuffs, as far as possible. The imperial system of even a decade ago is undergoing a profound change. The Labour Party in Britain is opposed to imperialism, and may at any time take charge of the government. Nothing is gained by refusing to look at these facts.
It is quite possible that, in the year A.D. 2000, Britain’s population may have declined to twenty millions and Australia’s population may have risen to twenty millions.
What then? Both countries would have the same size population, but Australia would be immensely richer in natural resources. England would still be richer in castles and traditions, but what of that? Castles and traditions do not make a literature, or Egypt and Palestine would be the most literary countries in the world to-day. Literature is concerned with living realities, with the present and future rather than with the past. Literature and culture blossom at their best during a period of national expansion, as in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, or again in England during the reign of Queen Victoria — two distinctly expanding periods. Literature and culture do not flourish during a period of national decline, except the literature of decadence.
Nothing less than a new and exclusive industrial invention, comparable with the steam engine, or the discovery of a new world to pre-empt and conquer, could maintain Britain’s expansion, or her population at forty-five millions. There is no sign, as yet, of this new invention or discovery.
Well, then! Is Wentworth’s dream so impossible, that Australia might become A New Britannia in Another World?
P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 53-54
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