Were there ever any serious initiatives to federalise the British Empire

The colonial policy of the British Empire was willing, though on a selective basis, to grant far-reaching autonomy to many of its colonies. Starting from the 19th century, many territories were allowed to elect their own legislatures, with a local Prime Minister responsible to that legislature, and the power to run their own affairs, while matters affecting the empire as a whole continued to be handled by the British Parliament in London. Those possessions with particularly far-reaching autonomy would later develop into the dominions and subsequently the Commonwealth realms such as Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, which are de facto independent but still share their monarchy with the UK, with which they stand on equal footing within the Commonwealth.

That set-up is, conceptually, not all that far away from a British Empire that takes the form of an American-style federation, with individual component realms - including the UK itself - handling their own affairs locally via an elected local legislature, and matters affecting the Empire as a whole, such as defence, decided by an Imperial Parliament elected by the population of the Empire, analogous to the U.S. Congress.

This never happened. Instead, the British Empire fell apart, and the dominions took their foreign and defence policy into their own hands, though they would still regard themselves as Britain’s allies. But was a federalisation of the Empire, turning it into a global federated state, ever seriously considered?

If William Pitt the Elder had had his way during the 1760s, the result very likely would have lead to such an outcome. Whether he actually considered such a thing, I don’t know.


The population of India alone in 1931 was over 352M. The UK was 46M. Throw in the population of the other territories and it’s all over for the Brits if a reasonable proportional voting system is used.

So the allocation of seats would have to be incredibly skewed. And that’s before taking racism into account. Remember, the Brits considered most colonies to just be a bunch of savages. Australia, Canada, etc. got treated differently due to the European populations overwhelming the locals. That didn’t happen in most places in Asia and Africa. South Africa was a bit different. Minority white but overwhelmingly controlled by them so got self-governance earlier than other British African colonies. (I think dealing with old Boer issues helped change the British mindset towards “Let’s get out of there.”)

I can’t imagine how a situation would have arisen with SA part of a federal system but voting by the blacks limited or non-existent. The Brits were fine with SA doing that on their own, but probably not as park of a super UK. (They later changed their minds about such policies in their colonies. Cf. Rhodesia.)

There were some efforts, but never anything that had governmental support. Cecil Rhodes’ gang even wanted to bring America into it. None of it came close to getting off the ground.

Ireland shared a parliament with the rest of Britain during the Imperial Parliament for most of the nineteenth century and a part of the 20th century. This was when voting relied on property ownership.

South Africa was guaranteed home rule at the end of the Boer conflict. When Apartheid took power they even left the Commonwealth.

But that’s got nothing to do with the OP’s question. There’s nothing in the definition of a federation that requires it to have proportional voting. Heck, as you acknowledge even later in your post, it doesn’t even need to have universal suffrage. Even absolute monarchies can form (and have formed) federations.

Imperial Federation was an idea that was kicked around for a while, but never got anywhere for a variety of reasons.

A couple of things not already mentioned: I think it would be very hard to persuade The Parliament in London to subordinate itself to some Imperial super-parliament. And trying to make the existing original Parliament of the United Kingdom into the Imperial Parliament would have some major structural issues.

Also, whatever common culture and history the various parts of the Empire had, there were also a lot of things pulling even the “Settler dominions” in different directions. In strategic terms, the primary interest of Britain itself is pretty much always going to have to be the continent of Europe. Canada, on the other hand, is destined to be always looking south at the 900-pound gorilla of the Americas, the U.S.A., both for military threats and economic (and perhaps geopolitical) opportunities. (Canada had already adopted the Canadian dollar–to facilitate trade with the U.S.–rather than a currency based on the pound sterling–to primarily facilitate trade with the rest of the Empire–decades before it became a sovereign and independent state.) Australia will be focused northwards towards Asia, again both for possible threats and for mutually beneficial economic partnerships. New Zealand, would, I suppose, be more of a Pacific Ocean state, and less focused than Australia on the mainland and coastal islands of Asia. South Africa will naturally look north, to the rest of Africa. Bringing in other parts of the Empire into a federal state would include even more sets of divergent geopolitical interests into the mix.

And of course, as already mentioned, racism. Although an “Imperial Federation” wouldn’t necessarily have to include the whole Empire; Great Britain (and maybe Ireland)/Ireland (if separate from Great Britain)/Australia/Canada/Newfoundland (if not incorporated into Canada)/New Zealand/South Africa could jointly rule over India and various other African and Asian possessions. (There was also I suppose a legal distinction between “colonies” of the British Crown and “protectorates”, although there were “colonies” in some pretty far-flung places.) That wouldn’t be fair, but it’s not like the British Empire ran on “fair”. I suppose allowing some parts of the Empire to have an equal say in the running of it, but not others, would throw the racism of the whole thing into even sharper relief (though it’s not like anyone was likely ever fooled into believing otherwise).

The OP mentioned a parliament. Either the number of seats for India would be directly limited to a quite small number in relation to their population or only a small percent of the population is allowed to vote and the number of seats represent the enfranchised voters. A skew is a skew.

Canada (and AFAIK Australia and New Zealand) is de jure independent of Britain. Yes, the Queen is the formal head of state, but she has no power, not even in theory. Bills are proclaimed by the Governer-General but s/he is a creature of the Canadian government. This has been the case since 1981. Before that, the GG formally represented the Queen, but no more.

OK, I see what you mean. But there’s no reason that this hypothetical imperial parliament would need to allocate seats based on population. It could work like the US senate, with a fixed number of seats for each member of the federation. (Still, that doesn’t get around the fact that the UK proper could be outvoted by its colonies.)

Not quite.

Yes, Canada is a constitutional monarchy that is independent of the UK. I cannot speak to Australia and New Zealand, but in Canada, the Monarch of Canada (King or Queen) is Canada’s Head of State, and has been since Canada’s inception in 1867. Today’s Queen has certain powers, such as signing bills passed by Canada’s Parliament, into law. While some of her powers have never been used in Canada–for example, dissolving Parliament on her own initiative–it cannot be claimed that she has no powers.

The Governor-General is a creature of the UK Parliament, under the BNA Act 1867. That office was created by the UK Parliament in 1867, and from then to this day, continues to represent the monarch in Canada, and exercises the Queen’s powers on behalf of the Queen–such as signing bills passed by Parliament into law. While the G-G could exercise emergency powers at any time, a number of constitutional conventions that the Queen is bound by also, would prevent a whimsical exercise of those powers. See the King-Byng Affair of 1926 for more on this.

AIR, Scotland and Wales were independent kingdoms with a shared king for a while. The real problem was BREXIT: they wanted customs union, which required joint regulation, which was solved by giving them representation in the joint parliament.

As with the EU, common currency had both benefits and problems. Off-hand, I can’t think of any of the colonies that actually wanted common currency when they had the chance.

So, looking at the USA: common currency, customs union, common defense (NATO).

The commonwealth had common defense, didn’t want common currency, and got good trade treaties while getting local control of trade protection.

Not since 1707 in the case of the former, and 1542 in the case of the latter.

If you look at the money trail, the answer becomes obvious. Here is the British Empire GDP distribution from 1870 :

British India (50.04%)
United Kingdom (37.19%)
British Ireland (3.58%)
British Canada (2.39%)
British Australia (2.14%)
British Egypt (1.69%)
Other territories (2.97%)

Of course they had a big desire to control the colonies that they milked for the most money.

Cite : https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_the_British_Empire

These two situations are quite different conceptually. In one, the UK retains its sovereignty and the colonies have home rule but no say over the internal or external affairs of the UK. In the other, sovereignty is pooled between the UK and its former colonies. The latter is, to some degree, how the French managed their empire in the 20th century, with certain colonies being considered an integral part of the French republic and represented (albeit under-represented) in the Assembly and Council.

The legal framework of what we refer to, for convenience, as the British Empire, varied hugely from case to case, with India, for example, being divided between provinces and princely states, Egypt for a long time remaining theoretically part of the Ottoman Empire, and Sudan being an Anglo-Egyptian condominium. The areas painted pink on the map were protectorates, free states, dominions, feudal monarchies and crown colonies, with varying degrees of home rule/responsible government at varying times, but no representation in Parliament apart from the UK itself.