End of Empire –
the end of an
imperial system
of order

   End of Empire –
the end of an
   imperial system
      of order

Mother had

Miriam Adler, Sabrina Jost, Sebastian Koch

“Mother had deserted”, “New Zealand has lost access to Queen”, “Britain goes home. A sad day for US ALL” – these are just a few headlines from newspapers in Australia, Canada and New Zealand during the 1960s and 1970s. The reason: starting in 1961, Britain had begun trying to join the European Economic Community (EEC). As a result, the ‘mother country’ seemed to be turning away from its imperial family. London – the cultural home of British-born Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders – seemed to be receding ever further away. What had happened to the glorious days of the Empire?  After all, these countries had survived the world wars together alongside their ‘mother country’. And what would now become of these three countries whose cultural, economic and political affairs had traditionally been dominated by Britain? How could one even be an Australian, Zealander or Canadian without also being British at the same time?

The end of an imperial system of order

As a whole, the British Empire had been struggling economically since the end of the Second World War. With a number of its colonies striving for independence, the Empire also seemed to some like an anachronism. But not for Australia, Canada and New Zealand! The transformation of the “British Commonwealth of Nations” – an exclusive club of ‘white’ settler colonies – into the more diverse “Commonwealth of Nations” – with new members such as India (1947) – was at times only grudgingly accepted by their prime ministers. In fact, many continued to prefer the term Empire. Unlike the colonies, as so-called ‘dominions’ these countries were formally considered to be independent nations. Yet even after 1945, they venerated flags that contained the Union Jack, sang “God Save the King/ Queen”, and saw themselves culturally as primarily British. At the beginning of the 1960s, however, this self-image faced a crisis. The fact that Britain wanted to join the EEC made one thing clear: the ‘mother country’ intended to turn its back on its imperial family. 

What threatens us?

When Great Britain first applied for membership to the EEC in 1961, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders were shocked. Their ‘mother country’s’ turn towards Europe threatened them in many ways. On the one hand, Great Britain represented each of these countries’ largest economic market, and new potential new barriers to trade were seen as a threat. On the other, the move shook the former dominions’ cultural identity and self-image, generating a fundamental insecurity: had their British ‘mother country’ lost interest in its imperial family? The situation at British airports in the early 1970’s exemplified the anger, disappointment, and disbelief felt by Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders at the new system of order: while Europeans were now allowed to enter Britain easily, they now had to wait in a queue along with other international travellers reserved for foreigners. At the same time, some people saw the situation as a positive development. Younger people in particular, as well indigenous groups and self-identified nationalists, did not see Britain’s withdrawal as a threat, but rather as an opportunity to find and develop their own identity independent of Britain and the Empire.

Cartoon: British Prime Minister MacMillan in bed with Europe
(From: Observer, 10.06.1962)

Who are we?

Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians had always seen themselves as an integral part of the British world and felt closely connected to British culture and traditions. The experiences of their British ancestors as settlers in a remote land – supposedly far from the social inequalities that dominated Great Britain – had a long-term impact: many citizens of these countries even felt that they were “better Britons”. Starting in the 1960s, however, this self-perception began to face a crisis. As their British identity became ever more fragile, many were forced to confront the question of who they were as a people and as a nation. Others saw an opportunity to create new social and national identities by focusing more on the distinctive characteristics of their respective countries. After all, didn’t Aboriginals also live in Australia? Wasn’t there always a special relationship between the white immigrants and the Māori in New Zealand? And wasn’t Canada unique in its proximity to the USA and with its French minority in Quebec?

"The Empire Needs Men", Recruitment poster during the First World War.
Speech On the Consequences
of Britain’s withdrawal
“So that after all those generations in which you had allowed the notion of empire to shape your identity […], we were to learn that you cared as little for our past as for our future. […] In effect, you threw your identity, as well as ours, into a condition of contingency, in which you have to decide whether it is possible to be both British and European […], while we have to decide in what sense if any we continue to be British or have a British history. You did not pause to consider what you were doing to us – but you did it to yourselves at the same time.”
J.G.A. Pocock: Contingency, identity, sovereignty, in: Alexander Grant, Keith J. Stringer (Ed.): Uniting the Kingdom? The Making of British History, London 1995 (e-Library 2003), p. 203–209, here p. 205f. See also: J. G. A. Pocock: British History: A Plea for a New Subject, in: The Journal of Modern History 47.4 (1975), p. 601–621

What do we need?

As a New Zealand newspaper told its readers in 1973, the British government and overall circumstances made one thing clear: Britain was no longer a reliable partner! Even though most New Zealanders would continue to feel a very special relationship with their British ‘mother country’, it was nevertheless time to develop an independent New Zealand identity. Ten years prior, the Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt had described his country’s situation in almost exactly the same terms. Australia had to learn, quite suddenly and surprisingly, to behave like an ‘adult’ nation. And in Canada as well, new concepts of identity that were independent of the ‘old’ British-influenced ideas were in high demand. People felt an urgent need for action in Canada in particular, as both the strong influence of its US neighbour and secession attempts by French-speaking Québec seemed to indicate that the very survival of the nation was at stake. In all three countries and for the up to this point culturally excluded groups in particular, concepts of multicultural identity became increasingly attractive, as they promised a solution to the identity crisis.

Image: Harold Holt, prime minister of Australia (left), 1966
Lester B. Pearson, prime minister of Canada (right), 1965
Speech Speeches by
Prime Ministers
Holt and Pearson
“I think it is time to have a little more pride in what we have done and what we are doing, and faith in what we can do, in this country; and the Canada of the founding races, French speaking and English-speaking, to whom have been added the representatives of every race in the world. Out of this we are building something different, and I think, and hope, something better. A multi-racial society which comes together as Canadian.”

Lester B. Pearson, Canadian Prime Minister, 1965
LAC MG 26 N 9, Box 43, 1965 January, Transcript of remarks by the Prime Minister at opening of Newtonbrook Secondary School, Toronto, 22.01.1965, p. 6.

“We in Australia have been jolted by events to adulthood in circumstances of such complexity as to call for a maturity and understanding perhaps as has not been expected of us in earlier periods of our history.”

Harold Holt, Australian Prime Minister, 1966

DPMCL Harold Holt: First Annual Conference of the Australian Division of the Institute of Directors, Sydney, NSW, 24.02.1966, p. 2.

What should we do?

The so-called ‘New Nationalism’ was seen as a remedy for these countries’ pressing need to develop their own unique concepts of identity and advocated for a new and more diverse self-image. In 1972, the Labour politicians Gough Whitlam (Australia) and Norman Kirk (New Zealand) simultaneously ran very successful election campaigns that were grounded in the spirit of this New Nationalism. With the corresponding slogan “It’s Time”, both politicians underlined their promise of a new beginning for their respective national identities.

At the same time, the former settler colonies continued to trip over their British colonial heritage. At the 1967 International Expo in Montreal, Canada, an Australian boomerang performance was presented not by an Aboriginal, but rather by Frank Donnellan, a 70-year-old white man. This led to a massive resistance in Australia by Aboriginals, who saw this representation as exploiting Aboriginal culture as superficial decoration for Australia's ‘new’ identity. Indigenous criticism of persistent racism grew in Canada and New Zealand as well. As Indigenous people in all three countries argued, a credible national self-image based on multiculturalism could only be achieved by seriously addressing their disadvantaged and the effects of a racist national past.

Australian politician Gough Whitlam with singer Little Pattie,
Labour election campaign 1972
AUDIO Campaign song
„It’s Time“
00:00 — A group of celebrities, led by Alison McCallum, sing the ALP „It’s Time“ song for the 1972 federal election campaign.
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