Surveying the history of states from the fall of Rome to modern Britain, Donisthorpe introduces his plea for “Integration with Decentralization.”

Donisthorpe's Individualism: A System of Politics, Part 2

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

In our first number, Donisthorpe set out to demonstrate in what sense we might think that “The state is an organism.” He showed why we might think the first states emerged out of both the socio‐​economic needs of the earliest human societies and the superior strength, wealth, or religious power of particular individuals. Gradually—as human needs increased in number and complexity—strongmen had to give way to chieftains, chieftains to warlords, and warlords to incipient states (usually led by kings). In some cases (like Greco‐​Roman civilization), societies rose up against their kings and experimented in other methods of ensuring governance. But always and everywhere, state functionaries have had to balance their coercive power (in modern terms, their “state capacity”) with the extent of their territory and the relative amount of cohesion among their people. Donisthorpe argued that the Roman Empire acquired as great a territory and number of people as possible, for so long and to such great effect on the whole, that its fall represents the last great period of state‐​crumbling in history. Since then, he begins our current selection, “there has been a constantly increasing tendency towards the welding together of tribes and small states into larger wholes.”

After citing many examples from Europe, including his own British isles, Donisthorpe claims that political decentralization has brought with it a great many benefits: First and foremost, there was competition among states and therefore a greater variety of governmental types. As different peoples experimented in different means of governance, they eventually learned from one another and improved their own systems as a result. But once a people have struck on the right government for them—What then? What if the home government were to take a liberal turn (like nineteenth century Britain) that redounds greatly to the public benefit? What if the people finally come to support their home government, and the colonies get wind of what’s happening? Would they then want the same sort of liberal regime for themselves, and either rise in rebellion (like 1830s Canada) or for separation (like British India) in time? Either that, or the people at home would have to agree to loosen their paternalistic tendencies toward the colonies. No longer could the metropole be master of all British peoples—If all Britons would be drawn closer together across the globe, they would have to embrace what our author calls “Integration with Decentralization.”

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By Wordsworth Donisthorpe
London: MacMillan and Co. 1889.

Individualism: A System of Politics

CHAPTER I: The State: Its Growth and Evolution

Since the break‐​up of the Roman Empire there has been a constantly increasing tendency towards the welding together of tribes and small states into larger wholes. Take the history of these Islands. About a thousand years ago this England of ours was divided into no less than seven (probably we may say eight) separate kingdoms. Ireland was divided into at least five kingdoms, and Scotland consisted of a larger number of independent states. Well, about the year 829, the states of the Heptarchy were rolled into one, to which was given by King Egbert the name of England. Two or three centuries later Wales was merged in the whole. Shortly after that Ireland was conquered, hardly merged perhaps, but conquered and annexed. Then in 1603 England and Scotland were united under one political head, and a century later, in 1707, their Parliaments became one. In the year 1801 the Act of Union brought the Irish representatives to Westminster, and so apparently consolidated and completed the political integration of the British Isles. So that here there has been a continuous tendency on the part of the smaller states to federate and finally to become welded into an organic whole. A similar process has been going on all over Europe.

In no preceding ages have the possibilities of integration been more enormously increased than in the present century. The wonderful applications of steam and of electricity to the satisfaction of man’s wants, the immense strides made in the speculative sciences, and last, but not least, the bringing within reach of all classes of the people of the rich treasures of useful knowledge which were formerly the monopoly of the few; these and other causes have operated to stimulate political integration to an extent hitherto unattainable, not in this country only, but all over the civilised world. In our own day we have seen the unification of Italy; the unification of Germany; the gradual absorption of small states by larger states. Denmark is disappearing; Holland and Belgium have not many years of independent existence left to them. “We have witnessed the most stupendous war this planet has yet seen, waged in America for the same great principle. In fine, the history of this century is the history of political integration. It is true that alongside of flourishing and growing social organisms we have others in a state of decay and dissolution; but even here, as in Turkey, signs are not wanting that the process of re‐​integration on a new basis is following close on the snapping of the old bonds. When, therefore, there is any question as to the wieldiness of an empire, the presumption at the present day is clearly in favour of a policy of integration rather than disruption, of increased rather than diminished mass. Above all, the British Empire, which before the development of the means of co‐​ordination above referred to supported an unprecedented mass, cannot now be suspected of inability to maintain its equilibrium without strong evidence to the contrary. A series of maps of Europe for the first year of each half century since the time of Justinian would well illustrate this tendency, and would at the same time demonstrate the folly and ignorance of those statesmen of all ages whose object was the maintenance of what they called’ the balance of power.” This view of foreign affairs is conservative in the worst sense of the word, and it is not yet quite extinct.

Among other means of co‐​ordination must be counted improved systems of political organisation. With the sifting and reduction of governmental duties, a corresponding adaptation of governmental organs has been effected. Much has been done in the way of division of labour, and every year the State learns a new lesson from the processes of individual enterprise. From a single despot or a chamber of notables, the ruling body has developed into a gigantic framework of departments, interdependent and actuated from a common centre.

In spite of the immense aids to empire‐​making, the enormous growth of “Greater Britain” within the last two centuries has put a considerable strain on the cohesive forces of Anglo‐​Saxondom. The most disastrous effect of this strain was the detachment of the American branch a hundred years ago. Nor until within the last few years (one might almost say months) has there been any very visible retendency towards imperial integration. The statesmen of England seem for two generations to have been smitten with the insular craze; though we should be careful not to express in psychological terms what is really a natural sociological accompaniment of rapidly‐​augmenting political mass. The agitation here and in the Colonies in favour of some kind of closer union between the mother country and her offspring is one of the healthiest signs of the times, and upon its eventual success or failure depends the future of the English social system.

The problem before us (though it is a problem which will eventually appear to solve itself without the assistance of individual cobblers) is the discovery and adoption of some increasing bond of union between England and her off‐​shoots and dependencies, such as shall admit of central action without weakening local liberty. And the solution is Integration with Decentralisation,—though this is, of course, merely a re‐​stating of the problem in fewer words. For what is the precise nature of the integration and decentralisation to be brought about? Is not the freedom of the parts incompatible with the working of the aggregate as an organic whole? Let us see. No sooner had Alfred the Great finally consolidated the union of the kingdoms of the Heptarchy, than he at once set to work, and re‐​subdivided the whole into counties. This interesting illustration throws light on the essential nature of true political integration. Local government of some kind is a necessary concomitant of political extension over a wide area, rather than antagonistic thereto. Integration must not be confounded with centralisation, nor must decentralisation be confounded with disruption. On the contrary, wide empire (or commonwealth, if Mr. Froude prefers the term) can be built and maintain its stability only on local liberty, on the freedom of the parts in all matters not affecting the whole.

The problem resolves itself into an inquiry as to the true limits of the imperial functions and the residual local functions, be they of large limbs or small. “Certain interests,” writes De Tocqueville, “are common to all parts of a nation, such as the enactment of its general laws, and the maintenance of its foreign relations. Other interests are peculiar to certain parts of the nation, such as, for instance, the business of the several townships….A centralised administration of local affairs is fit only to enervate the nations in which it exists, by incessantly diminishing their local spirit. It may ensure a victory in the hour of strife, but it gradually relaxes the sinews of strength.” Thus by decentralisation is meant not local legislation, but local administration. So that no local enactment must contravene the law of the empire; and although local authorities may lay down any rules they choose for the interpretation and administration of the general law, they must not be permitted to enact a conflicting law. And this is true of all local self‐​governing areas, from the largest colony to the smallest municipality. The principle upon which the functions of the one rest must equally apply to the functions of the other.

Hitherto this has been the guiding principle of local government in England, though there are signs of a tendency to run off the lines. In America, on the other hand, the reverse process is at work. The several states have exercised legislative privileges at variance with the proper functions of the central government; but the tendency at the present time is strongly in the direction of the absorption by the United States Government of the legislative powers of the several states. This is a healthy symptom and likely to become more pronounced.

What is the explanation of the lack of ardour shown by many of our colonists for some kind of Imperial Federation? They are loyal enough; and indeed the more loyal among them seem to regard the movement with the greater distrust. The answer is simple. They have unpleasant recollections of Downing Street. If England has neglected her maternal duties in many respects, she has made up for it by increased fussiness and arbitrariness in others. As might have been predicted, those colonies which she has treated with the most grandmotherly solicitude, like infants not fit to be trusted with the most ordinary duties of self‐​protection, have turned out the least self‐​reliant, the least prosperous, and the most clamorous for more help from home. It is with nations as with individuals. The more you let them alone, the better they thrive….But England is quite as guilty of “leaving undone those things which we ought to have done.” While she has busied herself with preaching and dictating to her own colonies, she has allowed other nations to establish themselves in dangerous proximity to them. Colonial remonstrance has usually been in vain. While our pioneering brethren across the Atlantic have acted upon the Monroe doctrine in North America, we have allowed French and Germans quietly to appropriate “unconsidered trifles” in the way of harbours and islands from which at no distant date they must be ejected, possibly not without trouble and expense. It is said that we may smile at these amateur invasions of New Guinea and the New Hebrides and Angra Pequena, etc. etc. Curiously enough, however, all the smiling is done at home. The Colonies do not join in the fun. They have suffered too much already in the process of “surviving” by way of proving that they are the fittest, and they prefer in future to take it for granted. If instead of bullying the Dutch in the Cape we had long ago proclaimed a sort of Monroe doctrine for South Africa and also for the islands of the Australasian Archipelago, we should have saved ourselves much complication. Again, regardless of the history of our Indian Empire, we have suppressed all private initiative like to that of the famous Company. Only recently a similar enterprise, on a scale the future limits of which could not be foreseen, was launched in Borneo, when the home government lost no time in throwing cold water upon it.

Too little consideration is paid to the necessities of the pioneers of Anglo‐​Saxondom on the borders of our straggling empire, and too much, far too much, to the sentiments of ignorant if well‐​meaning faddists at the centre. It is easy to sit at home and cant about the rights of the poor Indian to his hunting‐​grounds, but the struggling settler knows that a thousand human beings can be supported on those lands under cultivation for one who can find subsistence on it as a hunter: and he knows also what a wild beast is the native with whom he has to deal. “Aborigines protection” is a hobby which requires a consummate ignorance of aborigines generally and a plentiful infusion of fiction to render it a really fascinating pursuit. Yet England panders to the crotcheteer.

Thus, when the feasibility of the common government of two or more nations or areas is raised, there are two distinct questions to face. First, is the political integration of the two countries desirable and practicable? Second, if so, for what degree of decentralisation are the two or more component parts ripe? The questions are quite distinct and should be kept so Unfortunately there has been a marked tendency to confuse them.

In the light of the above reflections let us consider the question of the government of Ireland. We have seen that as regards the total separation of Great Britain and Ireland, the presumption is against it. But presumption is not proof. Those who regard political integration most favourably, as calculated to remove the friction due to international barriers and jealousies, will hardly approve the action of the Fifth Monarchy Men, who, a couple of centuries ago, so far believed in the federation of mankind as to convene a meeting in London to weld all the nations of the world into one empire, and to proclaim Jesus Christ king. Surely this was carrying an abstract principle to an absurd length. But without going so far as that, history shows that it is quite possible to exceed the normal limits of a wise federation. It may be doubted whether Austria‐​Hungary is a stable combination. The kingdom of the Netherlands clearly was not; though many would have regarded it as quite as natural and politic as the union of Norway and Sweden or of Great Britain and Ireland. Hence the policy of the latter union is not altogether out of court, and must be considered on its merits as a practical question of political expediency. Disintegration, dismemberment, and disruption of the Empire are fine phrases, well calculated to split the ears of the groundlings; but the present application of a principle how good soever in theory is a question for the practical statesman.

Now, what are the grounds upon which the practical statesman must base his decision as to the expediency and opportuneness of a proposed union of two or more peoples or of a proposed discontinuance of any such existing union? Certainly not in accordance with phrases of general import. To demonstrate the folly of such a course it is only necessary to cite a few instances in which a decision was or might have been required. Will any one contend that, whether wise or unwise, the cession of the Ionian Islands to Greece was tantamount to the disruption of the British Empire? Then again the Transvaal was part of this Empire. When after an unsuccessful war, independence was conceded to the victors, did that amount to dismemberment? But to take an even less doubtful case. Not many years ago France nominally formed part of the dominions of the Kings of England; was the withdrawal of such claim a tribute to the principle of disintegration? Hundreds of other instances of varying degrees might be cited, but these suffice to show that before any case of separation, or admission of separation, can fairly be denounced as violating the principle of political integration, it must be clearly established that a true and natural union, as distinguished from an artificial or nominal union, antecedently existed. The actual point to be decided is whether the present time is opportune for tightening and strengthening the bonds which tend to weld the English and Irish into a homogeneous people, as the English and Welsh have long since been welded; or whether the circumstances are such that the bonds should be slackened, and an impetus given in the opposite direction; that is to say, towards the divergence of the two peoples.

I will venture to submit three reasons which at any time may be urged against the artificial union of peoples.

1st. Two nations cannot well be welded together when active co‐​ordination is difficult; as, for instance, when they are situated at a great distance apart and without rapid means of communication. Hence the natural disruption of the Spanish Empire in South America. Hence the probable transfer of the Dutch possessions in the East Indies either to England or to Germany at no very distant date. These are cases in which co‐​ordination with respect to a given centre is or was difficult, if not impossible. Of course no one will contend that this can be put forward as a valid reason against governing Ireland from Westminster. If the British Government is capable of ruling what are called the Crown Colonies at distances very much greater than from London to Dublin, it is obvious that this particular objection cannot hold.

2nd. The second argument which may validly be urged against union or in favour of disunion, is that the two peoples in question are in different stages of social evolution. In such cases it is welling impossible to weld the two into a single homogeneous state. Now this objection might fairly be urged against the political union of the Anglo‐​Saxon people and the people of India. It is impossible to weld these two races into a homogeneous state, because they are in totally different stages of social evolution. Institutions suitable to the one people would ruin the other. The Hindus are somewhat backward in civilisation, but will any one pretend that apart from slight differences the English and the Irish are in different phases of social development? Are the Irish as individuals vastly inferior to the English in any particular? If so, what? Without enumerating their soldiers, poets, philosophers, artists, and men of science, it is not necessary to go farther afield than to Spain of a hundred years ago to meet the vulgar contention that they are inferior as statesmen. In the middle of last century, the Spanish Ambassador to the Court of St. James was an Irishman, so was the Spanish Ambassador to the Court of Stockholm; so was the Spanish Ambassador to the Court of Vienna: the Prime Minister of Spain was himself an Irishman; so too was the organiser of the Spanish Army. In fine the wisest and best government which Spain has ever known was conducted by Irishmen. Surely without going into details or namin’ names, this alone goes to show that the Irish are not wanting in administrative ability. Thus the English and Irish peoples can hardly be said to be in different stages of social evolution. And the second argument against their permanent union breaks down.

3rd. The third reason which can be urged against the union of races is that their claims upon the Government are conflicting. Let me explain. So long as it is admitted by both parties that it is the duty of the State to uphold the true religion, clearly nations of different religions cannot well be ruled by the same governing body. If the State is to take sides in any degree in the matter of religion, it would be difficult indeed for the same government to rule England and Ireland. The Irish are of opinion that the Roman Catholic is the best form of religion; the English, for reasons known to some of them, maintain that the Protestant form (or one of them) is better. Now, if the Government is to decide between these two, it must appear to side with one of the disputants; and the other will feel aggrieved and possibly rebellious. Again, to take a kindred matter, the Irish have strong views on the matter of the marriage‐​tie. The English are in favour of permitting divorce under certain conditions. If the State is expected to interfere in such matters, clearly the Union Government must offend one nation or the other. The English lean towards liberty; the Irish towards coercion. The State must choose between them. Conversely, the English favour coercion and the Irish liberty in the matter of tobacco culture. The reason is not far to seek. The climate and soil of Ireland are favourable to the growth of tobacco. In England it is otherwise. Thus by the prohibition of the growth of tobacco the revenue is increased without inflicting any injury on English farmers. The Union Government had to choose between them, and it elected to suppress tobacco culture in the British Isles. Again, England is a manufacturing people; Ireland is almost wholly an agricultural people. Hence freedom to buy in the cheapest markets (or the dearest if preferred) enables England to profit by purchasing her raw materials at the lowest figure, whilst the like liberty, besides being useless to Ireland, enables foreign competitors to undersell her sole produce in the home markets. Here again England favours liberty arid Ireland coercion. If and so long as the State is expected by both parties alike to interfere in such matters at all, it is clear that the Union Government must favour one nation and aggrieve the other. Under such circumstances it is obvious that the union can be maintained only with difficulty and friction. It is also highly probable that where there is considerable disparity in the strength of the two nations, the Union Government will tend to lean toward the wishes of the stronger and the more numerously represented in the ruling body.

We see that while England favours coercion in some matters, Ireland favours coercion in other matters; and not until the policy of non‐​interference by the State in all matters is recognised as a general rule, can the two peoples hope to flourish together under a common Government. At present this is not the case. Both parties clamour for State aid here and State control there, while they differ as to where the State should interfere and where it should not. Hence the third argument against the union seems to be at the present time a most valid one.

When Irish and English alike shall have learnt the great lesson of history aright—the lesson of liberty—then, and not till then, will the time be thoroughly ripe for a happy union.

Unfortunately, both parties in both countries — Liberals and Conservatives‐​are doing their utmost to inspire the people with blind faith in the omnipotence of the State. If (the State is justified in transferring’ one‐​third of the property of one class of the citizens to another class, without compensation, it is difficult for the most highly instructed—it is impossible for the uninstructed—to understand why it cannot with consistency transfer two‐​thirds or even three‐​thirds, and an agitation is naturally set on foot with the very logical object of “freeing” the land. Why not? Englishmen of both parties have admitted the duty of the State to intervene between landlord and tenant, and the simple, unsophisticated folk of both countries push the principle to its logical extreme. Conservatives have vied with Liberals in voting the money of the British taxpayer for the purpose of pauperising the Irish in a hundred ways, and the logical reply of the British taxpayer is: If you want £150,000,000 for the Irish, let those contribute it who live in Ireland and may benefit by the expenditure, but do not take it out of the pockets of the English shopkeeper and farmer. The Government, with the approval of both parties, has constructed or subsidised railways, has built harbours and docks, has embanked rivers and made canals; it has provided the people with instruction at less than cost price; it has built houses and let them at less than the normal rent; it has fixed prices between buyer and seller, and frequently paid the difference out of public moneys. It has done all these things, and a thousand more, out of its own apparently bottomless purse, and the simple citizen cannot see why, with such a powerful machine, much more cannot be effected. Even now eminent financiers are gravely talking of regulating the value of silver. It has fallen, they say, too low. Let us enact that 161/2 ounces of silver shall for ever be worth one ounce of gold. Hey Presto! The thing is done….And so the ball is kept rolling.

So long as the Irish pray for rain and the English pray for fine weather they had better supplicate different gods. When they are prepared to accept the weather as it comes, and to make the best of it, they can then worship in the same temple….

Again, there is another consideration, which must nowadays be put forward with bated breath, and that is the predominant need of the superior race. For strategic reasons it might not be prudent for England to allow the western island to be under foreign government. If so, the argument of nations enters—the argument of force. In such cases it behooves the leaders in both countries to see that the paramount needs of race do not conflict with the just rights and liberties of individuals, no matter to what race they may belong. It must not be forgotten that it is the superior social organisation which tends to survive, and not necessarily that of the superior individual type of man. The latter may be absorbed and even eventually predominate, but it will be under the system of the better organised society.

Disruption and dismemberment are phrases, but if it can be shown that the repeal of the Union would be a step in the direction of breaking up what tends to become a natural integration, whether it is so now or not, then the cry stands condemned by history and by science. But why beat the air? English and Irish statesmen of all parties are now professedly unanimous in declaring that no such thing as separation is contemplated or even desired. The only question between them is as to the best form of local government, and here again we find complete unanimity in the view that increased decentralisation must be effected. In order to form a correct estimate of the direction which decentralisation should take in this particular instance it is necessary to consider the general question.