The Federal Idea

Henry Brailsford

This pamphlet was first published by Federal Union in 1940.

Federal Union stands for federal union of free peoples under a common government elected by and responsible to the people for their common affairs, with national self-government for national affairs as a first step towards democratic world government for the prevention of war, the creation of prosperity and the preservation and promotion of individual liberty.

The movement does not commit itself to detailed proposals within this general statement. Therefore, although Mr Brailsford is a member of Federal Union, his outline of the administrative organs of a federation must be considered as personal.

The Federal Idea

There is a general demand that the Government should define its war-aims. It may be too early to ask for any detailed statement, but two of these aims are known. Whatever else we may attempt, we must restore their national independence to the Poles and the Czechs. This is easily said, but it implies very much more.

Let us take the case of the Czechs. This war-aim means that we see our way to re-erect in the heart of Europe a little landlocked State, surrounded by much more powerful neighbours, and are satisfied that we can ensure its safety and independence. It is not enough to say that we assume the defeat of Germany and the overthrow of Hitlerism. The effects of a military defeat do not last for ever. Moreover, in their hour of trial in September, 1938, the Czechs had to face both Poland and Hungary, as well as Germany: all three helped themselves to portions of Czech territory after Munich. Nor is it enough to say that the settlement after the present war must certainly include some measure of disarmament. That also has been tried before. If it is a one-sided disarmament of the Germans, while the rest of us retain our weapons, it will have the effects that we have witnessed once before to our cost. It will offend German self-respect and arouse German fears, until in due course the resentment against this inferior status begets a mood of self-assertion and a boundless lust for power. But if the disarmament is general and equal, it does not solve our problem. Eight million Czechs, isolated and landlocked, are still facing eighty millions of Germans. One may banish airplanes and tanks and heavy artillery, but wars were both murderous and decisive before these inventions. Clearly, then, the question we have to face is that of the environment that will surround the restored Czech Republic. What structure do we propose for Europe to ensure the safety of the smaller States-and for that matter our own?

Bankrupt devices

Let us look at the solution the Allies provided after the last war. They were well aware of the problem. They knew that a traditional feud had divided Czechs and Germans since the days of Huss. The first concern of the victors was, therefore, to give the new Czech State a defensible frontier. This, Nature had provided in the mountain chains of Sudetenland, but to include this region involved the placing of a minority of three million Germans under the Czech majority. The Czechs treated the German minority on the whole with liberality. But some grievances the Germans had, and on these the Nazis were able to play, with the deplorable results we know. This enviable strategical frontier was, as events turned out, a doubtful boon.

In addition to this provision for defence, the Czechs entered the French military system as allies, and this arrangement was afterwards extended to include Russia. The result was to arouse in the minds of the Germans the fear of encirclement. When this alliance was tested at Munich it collapsed pitiably. Finally, the Czechs had the protection of the League of Nations and its Covenant, which bound us, no less than the French, to play our part in defending the integrity and independence of a fellow member against aggression. In September and in the following March, when the nominal independence of this dismembered State was finally destroyed, the League watched the tragedy silent and motionless.

Clearly, none of the old devices will solve our problem, viewed from the angle of Prague. It is not enough to crush the most likely enemy and disarm him: allies are apt to flinch at the critical moment: even the League, on which idealists set their hopes, failed the Czechs as it failed the Chinese, the Abyssinians and the Spaniards. For these disappointments some of us are content to blame the frailties of one statesman or another. They may be blameworthy, but the real causes of the League’s failure lay deeper.

The League’s failure

Why, in the simplest terms, did the League collapse whenever it had to deal with a Great Power? It was, of course, because action against Japan, Italy or Germany in a cause that was not our own would have involved for each of us a degree of risk and sacrifice we were unwilling to face. If Japan had seized Hong Kong, or if Italy had taken Malta, we should have acted at once with all our forces, even if we had had to act alone. We deplored the rape of Manchuria and the conquest of Abyssinia, but it mattered to us too little to stir us to effective action, and even our economic measures were half-hearted, when we applied them to Italy. In this matter we were no better and no worse than others. The assumption underlying the idea of collective security as embodied in the League turned out to be unworkable. Where no risk and no sacrifice was involved, the League worked well enough: it could deal with the Greeks when they invaded Bulgaria. But Japan might have resisted, and Italy at least threatened to resist. For Abyssinia we would not risk the loss of a battleship or two. The French took the same view in the Czech crisis, although an explicit alliance bound them to act, as well as the Covenant of the League. In plain words, none of the Great Powers was ready to act on the principle that a threat to any member of the League is a threat to each and to all. That is what “collective security” means : it means nothing, if it means less.

Here is an exalted moral principle, which demanded an immense re-adjustment in our habits of thought and action. That re-adjustment, during the twenty years of the League’s life, we never in fact made. That is not a confession of our own shortcomings. The League itself required from us no such re-adjustment. That was the fundamental flaw in its structure and conception. It expected from its member-States this sublime degree of altruism, but it left them what they had always been in their unregenerate past, independent as before, completely sovereign as before, each following in its daily life, in the political and economic fields, its own national interests as the ultimate guide of its policy.

The League was primarily the creation of lawyers who believed that by a contract or covenant they could bind Powers, which abandoned none of their sovereignty, to behave in this altruistic way. This contract they proposed to enforce by penalties and sanctions. The whole conception involved a continual contradiction between principle and reality. Each Member-Power armed as it thought fit, with an eye solely to its own safety or its own ambitions. It is not on record that we ever built a battleship for the League’s service or scrapped one of these monsters because we trusted to the League’s protection. And so it was in our economic life. When our rulers decided that an elaborate system of tariffs and preferences would serve to foster our trade within the Empire, they adopted the Ottawa Convention without a thought of the effect on our fellow-members of this step in the direction of imperial self-sufficiency.

The dependent Empire became more than ever an area of relative monopoly for our traders and investors. In short, our policy, like that of all our neighbours’, aimed at national advantage.

Benefits not sanctions

The experience of daily life might have taught us to set about our in a different spirit. The associations among men that survive and thrive owe their success to the benefits they confer on their members. That is true of a trade union, a club, a choir, even of a church. Men are loyal to them because they derive from them much obvious good, economic, social or cultural. They come to feel that their own lives would be narrower and poorer if they were to quit these associations, or suffer expulsion from them. But it never occurred to Japan, or even to a Latin American Republic, that they lost anything by walking out of the League.

It conferred no obvious benefits. It did not ensure safety. It led to no economy in armaments. It left its members, in their efforts to live by foreign trade, to shift for themselves as best they might in a competitive world. It might, for example, have required its members to give a tariff preference to fellow-members over outsiders. Its secretariat did admirable work by expert studies over an immense variety of economic problems – currency, unemployment, the rationalisation of the coal industry, the growth of international trusts, the distribution of raw materials and the like. Sometimes it ventured on suggestions for a positive remedial policy. But the League had no more power than a University to lead us out of the economic anarchy in which we are content to live. It was not an international planning authority: still less had it any effective legislative power to cope with the disorder. The result was that it meant nothing to the average citizen in his daily life of work. It conferred on its members no appreciable economic advantages. This was inherent in its structure. It could act or legislate only when its members were unanimous, which meant that it could rarely act at all. A Sovereign State will not bow to the voice of the majority, and a League of Sovereign States could be effective only when unanimity prevailed.

The result was that the main stream of history flowed past Geneva and ignored the League. It had no say in the long tragi-comedy of reparations-not even when the Ruhr was occupied. It was merely a scientific observer, while the Great Slump shattered the whole fabric of capitalist society and brought in its wake the most far-reaching changes in the economic and even in the political relations of States. It could do nothing to revise betimes and by a peaceful procedure even the most manifest errors in the War Settlement, with the result that an insurgent Germany eventually swept them away by force. It could do nothing to deal in advance and constructively with the grievances which, if neglected, will eventually breed wars – the grievances that led the Have-not Powers to fight for Lebensraum. All it could do was to bring into action its procedure for peaceful settlement when a dispute actually arose.

It may be said that the League was immature and might have evolved in the right direction. That is a too easy-going view. If one starts with the fundamental conception that the League is a mere collection of Sovereign States which can act only when all are agreed, any significant development towards planning and legislation is forbidden. Sovereign States cannot act by majority vote. To reach a majority that could make legislation possible, one must break down frontiers and count heads. The Sovereign State must be taken in the rear by calling up the people.

International government

This line of thought has led us within sight of a decidedly radical conclusion. It seems to mean that which we require, not merely for peace, but for the orderly development of all the resources of civilisation, is not a League of Sovereign States, but some form of International Government. It will never be able to hold the loyalty of its Member-States by threatening them with penalties and coercion if they abuse their armed power. It must win and retain their loyalty and gratitude by making for their daily life of work an orderly environment, planned for the common good. But such benefits imply the power to legislate by a majority vote that can over-ride the egoism of sectional and anti-social interests. It should plan for abundance and economic security. But it must also guarantee our safety.

This last demand must be interpreted in the most literal sense. The League professed to do it, but no one had ever, even in its heyday, taken this profession seriously. We never looked to Geneva to provide for our safety: we charged the Admiralty with that duty. For little States that could not afford a great navy and air force the League might do something; but not for us. Conceived in this way, “collective security” was a mockery. It will work only when the Great Powers rely on it no less than the little nationalities. We shall then insist that it works, and not till then. Many years ago in the Kellogg Pact, we all renounced war as an instrument of policy. We none the less retained in great abundance and variety the instruments with which we proposed to refrain from war. Logic and experience demand from us one step further. If we have renounced the use of power for the ends of national advantage, then we ought not to leave power in the possession of national states. The idea of collective security, that all are responsible for the security of each, means that we conceive the participating States as a single whole, a unit for the purposes of defence. In actual war our perception of the common dangers does drive us to this position. In the last phases of the previous war all the forces of the Allies were under a single military command. A centralised system of control organised all their buying of supplies, and eliminated competition. A single authority rationed raw materials, took charge of shipping and watched over the pound and the franc. In the present war, as a matter of course, we revived most of these arrangements. In the hour of danger we cease to be competitors, and abandon that exclusive pursuit of our national interests which is the normal law of our work-a-day economic life.

This we do when danger actually confronts us in the shape of war. The history of recent years surely conveys the lesson that for the prevention of war we ought to act in the same way. We have seen how fragile and slight was the tie that bound the Members of the League. But let us suppose that in time of peace also they had practised these intimate methods of co-operation. Let us suppose that they had eliminated the cruder forms of competition, regulated transport for the common good, supported each other’s currencies and treated the raw materials under their command as a common pool. Each would then have been indispensable to the others. Germany, if she had been an equal member of this close association, would never have dared to break away, as she did from the League in 1933. Nor could her partners have acquiesced in the rape of Czechoslovakia, as they did the other day. The loss of an associate even of the second rank would have disorganised their own economic life.

What is sovereignty?

It wants only an effort of intellectual courage to perceive whither this argument is carrying us. If this intimate association for safety and welfare is to be permanent, it must throw over the obsolete conception of national sovereignty in the old form. What is a Sovereign State? It claims complete independence: it is free to injure itself and its neighbours as it pleases. Firstly and chiefly it owns and wields military power. It has effective command of its own armed forces. Of its own will it makes peace or war. Both in the technical language of diplomacy and in daily speech there is a highly significant name for these Sovereign States. They are “Powers”, great or small. It is then, primarily with power, military or naval, that we have to deal. If we mean, after this war, to trudge along in the old ruts, always competitors, sometimes enemies, then we shall leave power as it was in the ownership of many rival, independent States. Each will use it for his own ends. It will play its part in years of peace as well as in war. For let no one suppose that power is dormant and inactive during an armed peace. It gives resonance to a diplomatist’s voice. No one listened to Mr Eden or Lord Halifax as they might listen to a master of dialectic, or a golden-tongued orator. If their words had weight, it was because battleships and bombing planes were ranged behind them, and the wealth that could buy more ships and planes. When Herr von Ribbentrop and Lord Halifax exchanged Notes, the result was hardly affected by the literary grace of their periods or the cogency of their logic. Two considerations counted: what armaments lay behind their logic, and had they the will to use these tools? That is always the hidden play behind diplomacy. In every clash of opinion or interest between armed Sovereign States, a process of calculation goes on behind the scenes. Each measures its own weight of armaments, its industrial potential and its staying power against those of its rivals. According as the result of these reckonings is promising or the reverse, its attitude in the negotiations will be stiff or yielding. Diplomacy under such conditions is only a veiled manipulation of force, which is still force, even when the guns are silent and no regiment crosses a frontier. When force is overwhelming it can conquer without bloodshed. Germany acquired Czechoslovakia in this way and Russia made the Baltic States her vassals. Long years may pass in European history that witness no events as brutal or cynical as these. In these static periods the balance of power is so delicate that no ambitious State will risk a move. But even in these uneventful periods forces are at play; when they are equal and opposite we flatter ourselves by calling the negative result a condition of peace. We can hope for nothing better, so long as power is owned by a number of Sovereign States, each seeking its own advantage.

The only radical cure is manifestly to transfer power from these competing Sovereign units to a collective whole that includes them all. Each must surrender the primary prerogative of sovereignty, the right to make war, and with it the ownership of power and of the tools that serve for war. They must agree, that is to say, to form a Federation, and to transfer to it this prerogative of sovereignty. Henceforward the whole responsibility for defence will fall on it, and the component States are relieved of this burden.

The meaning of federations

Federations differ widely in the extent to which they transfer other prerogatives of sovereignty to the central authority. Some State rights are always retained: there is a sphere, large or small, on which the Federal Government must not trench. Space is lacking to survey the examples provided by history and contemporary life – the USA, the Soviet Union, the German Reich as it was before the Nazi revolution, Switzerland, the Commonwealth of Australia, Canada and South Africa. The Federal authority takes charge at least of defence, foreign relations and colonies, and it regulates inter-State transport and commerce, but it may do very much more than this. We must beware of following any model slavishly. The thirteen original States that formed the USA had a common cultural tradition and a single language; they had, moreover, fought for their existence together. Behind them they had no proud history of independence. To federate Europe will be an incomparably harder task. (1) We may have to start with a much looser organisation and a much less ambitious conception of the scope of our common concerns. The Westminster Parliament and the French Chamber will continue to legislate for all our internal concerns as before, and our public life will remain that of an independent national State. But if we must be content with modest beginnings, the constitution should be so framed that development will be easy. Here are some tentative suggestions.

(1) Defence. Ideally the Federation should raise, finance and command its own navy, air force and army. The States should retain only a police force and perhaps a militia, but these must not compete in armament with the Federal forces. The cost must be met by some form of Federal taxation. I will not attempt to discuss the modifications of this ideal with which we may have to start. Certainly the Federation must have a monopoly of air power, sea power and all offensive arms. It should control such strategic positions as Gibraltar, the Turkish Straits, the Suez Canal and the entry to the Baltic.

(2) Foreign Relations. Manifestly the Federation must conduct the relations of its Members, regarded as a unit, with outside States. A standing council representing its Members might assist its Foreign Secretary, whose staff, like that of the League, would be international.

(3) Colonies. Sovereignty over the dependent Colonies of the Member-States must pass to the Federation. This does not, of course, affect the Dominions or India, which ought to become a Dominion within the briefest interval after the end of the war. One or two of the Crown Colonies which should soon be ripe for full self-government might also be excepted. In what follows I am thinking mainly of tropical Africa.

The former empires must begin by renouncing all the economic privileges that flowed from their political connection with these colonies. As in the mandated territories under the League, any form of tariff preference would be forbidden. There must be no discrimination in the investment of capital: nor should the natives be used as a source of man-power. The Federation should declare its intention of educating these populations as rapidly as possible for self-government.

In the meantime, should the Federation attempt to administer these colonies directly? Certainly it must exercise the ultimate control over them. But it might be wise to leave the present administrations in charge in most cases under a mandate and subject to inspection. A democratic Germany might receive one or more mandates.

But the former Imperial Powers should not reserve to their subjects a monopoly of posts as administrators, officers, scientists and technicians. An international service open to qualified citizens of all the Member-States, both coloured and white, should be trained in an international college. Men who have been educated together will be able to work together. Its graduates would eventually serve all over tropical Africa, so long as white administrators are required.

The future material development of Africa, the building and running of railways, motor roads, harbours, power stations and other public works might be entrusted to a disinterested corporation, which should raise its capital internationally. It should pay only fixed interest charges, and return all profits to the natives, for cultural development. Disinterested trading corporations might in the same way handle the agricultural produce of the natives and sell to them imported goods. Possibly mines and plantations could be managed in the same way. The object would be to end profiteering at the expense of the natives, and create a fund for educational and health services.

(4) Economic Co-operation. It is not easy to say in advance what measure of control the Members will allow to the Federation over their economic life: (a) A federation ought to be a Zollverein, an area of internal free trade. However desirable, this may be at the start impossible. But a good deal might be conceded even at the start: perhaps a federal free list, and certainly a federal most-favoured-nation clause, which would extend all preferences to fellow-members. (b) The regulation of inter-State transport should be a federal concern, and air-transport beyond State frontiers should be a federal service. The war-time allied shipping control might be continued with modifications. (c) The same remark applies to any inter-allied control of raw materials and foods that may be set up during this war. The scrapping of these controls after the last war was a social crime. A federal authority should review and control all international cartels and organisations for the rationalisation of prices, output and markets, and should aim at stability on a level of plenty. (d) A Labour Office should watch over the maintenance of a common standard of life throughout the federation. (e) A Legal Office should work out a common code of Commercial Law throughout the federation, with special reference to patents. (f) Plans for a Federal central banking system should be studied. This implies some common policy for the control of credit and the management of currencies. The control of foreign investment would seem to be inevitably a Federal concern, if only because it is an important instrument of diplomacy that vitally affects foreign relations. It can also be used as an instrument of social policy. It should be a leading purpose of the Federation to raise the standard of life of its poorer agricultural populations, both white and coloured, up to the level of its more advanced industrial populations. Three obvious methods suggest themselves: (1) the adjustment of the prices on which peasants’ and farmers’ incomes depend; (2) the promotion by the provision of capital of every form of development, including public works, in the backward areas; and (3) the encouragement by grants in aid of social services, notably health and education, in the backward areas, among which the African colonies would figure prominently. Even if the Federal Authority lacked the power to impose its policies on its Members, it could often secure their adoption by offering credit facilities, loan capital or grants in aid. (g) The apex of the Federation’s economic system should be a council devoted to planning, which would unify all these activities. It should have power to negotiate with the Member-States and to propose legislation to the Federal Congress.

(5) Cultural Life. The Federation should be empowered to create the instruments indispensable to a truly international civilisation. There should be a Federal university for post-graduate study and research in every department of intellectual life. It should centralise the research work carried on in all the Member-States. It should pay special attention to the needs of the Colonies. Again, an Education Office might do much to promote an international outlook in the schools. Lastly, the Federation ought to have its broadcasting station, to which we should look for impartial international news, for talks and discussions designed to make us familiar with opinion in other lands, and for music that would set standards for us all.

(6) Rights of Minorities. The Constitution should lay down certain cultural rights and principles of equal treatment which all minorities, racial or religious, shall enjoy within the Federation. A Department should be created with full powers to investigate complaints, suggest remedies and, in the last resort, sue a defaulting State in the Federal Courts.

Popular representation

(7) Political Structure. The Federation cannot be, like the League, a mere collection of States, represented only by their governments. The result was either that nothing could be done for lack of unanimous consent, or else that two or three Great Powers when they were agreed, imposed their will by their mere weight upon the smaller States. But will a Great Power ever bow to a majority composed of other States, some of which are weak and poor? The way of escape is to introduce the democratic principle of popular representation. The details need not concern us at this stage. The popular House of the Federal Congress might be directly elected on the basis (say) of one member for each million inhabitants. A simpler plan would be to elect it indirectly by proportional representation from the national Parliaments. By either plan we should avoid the chief weakness of the League’s Assembly. In it national delegations voted as solid blocks. Our proposal is that each member, however elected, should vote as an individual. The result would be the formation of groups and parties on an international footing. Liberals, Socialists and Conservatives would come together, finding in their common opinions a bond more significant than nationality. Every majority would be composite. It would never happen, or very rarely, that all the British members, voting together, would be defeated by a combination of other national groups. Two tendencies would appear from the start, one making for a stiff reading of State Rights, the other for the enhancement of the Federal idea. Such divisions are inevitable and healthy, whereas divisions on national lines would soon wreck the Federation.

As is usual in Federations, the European Congress might consist of two Chambers, the Upper House might be a Senate or Council, nominated by governments, taking population on some rough reckoning into account. It might have a carefully guarded right of revision or veto over the work of the popular House. I make this suggestion, however, with reluctance. The Ministry, charged with executive functions, should be responsible to the popular House, which might be the best electorate to choose the President. It is a matter for careful discussion whether the Federal revenues should be raised by taxation, direct or indirect, or by contributions levied on the Member States in proportion to their wealth. A Federal Court will be indispensable, but care must be taken to avoid two evils of American political life – a too rigid constitution and an omnipotent Supreme Court.

(8) Membership. Do we wish to include every State within the area covered by our Federation? My own answer to this question is emphatically that we want within it no illiberal, no Fascist State. Without the right of free discussion it could not live, nor would any Fascist State, which must, as such, reject the whole conception of international co-operation, enter our ranks, save to serve its own exclusive ends by disruptive and disloyal means. On the other hand, resentment would be aroused if we sought to prescribe to Member-States the pattern on which they shall conduct their internal political life. What does concern us is that within and between Member-States Federal affairs shall be freely debated. My suggestion is, therefore, that it should be laid down in the Constitution that for the purpose of discussing Federal affairs and of electing Federal representatives, every Member-State recognises complete freedom of speech, printing and association. If these are not effectively recognised an appeal shall lie to the Federal Court. That is all we need. If in such a country as Italy parties could be formed, newspapers founded and public meetings held to discuss Federal affairs, the totalitarian regime would soon be sapped. This minimum is, however, indispensable. It remains to add that the Federation must reserve the right to suspend or expel a Member-State for any grave or repeated offence against its Constitution.

A wider patriotism

What shall we have gained if we can realise anything resembling this project of Federation? Firstly and chiefly we, shall abolish internecine war in Europe, the homeland of our civilisation. That is a negative statement. In the positive sense we shall achieve vastly more: we shall rescue the priceless values of this civilisation itself. It cannot survive the totalitarian corruption that assails all it prizes – truth and mercy, honest dealing and intellectual integrity. If the peoples of Europe can be led to erect this structure, it will be because they demand a political framework within which they may lead a social life governed by reason and humanity. If we abandon the old concept of the Sovereign State, it will not be because we have changed our views about a legal theory. It will be because we have reached an ideal of human fraternity that embraces our neighbours, who in other languages think the same civilised thoughts. We can end war only by widening patriotism. If that is what we intend, the rest follows inevitably. Our Federation will organise the democratic discussion and decision of our common affairs. It will respect the rich variety of a Continent, that has preserved many stocks, many cultures, many tongues, through all the vicissitudes of its history. It will end the anarchy of our economic life by orderly planning for the common good. In so far as it still must arm, it will arm for the common safety alone.

(1) I have spoken of a European Federation as the immediate objective, but it is wise to leave its outlines vague until we can foresee the changes this war will bring about. Will it bring democracy in some form to Germany? Will it shake the USA out of her isolation? For the purposes of this sketch I have assumed the necessary change in Germany but not in America. This can only be guesswork, and I am speaking here only for myself: I have no wish to discourage the optimism of other advocates of Federal Union, who reckon on American participation. It should be remembered that the USA, like the USSR, is already a Federation, and that she has to solve the problem of Pan-American Union at her doors. A European Federation would have to cultivate close and cordial co-operation both with the USA and the USSR. These three together will have to face the problem of disarmament. They must also co-operate in the control of raw materials, a world-wide task.

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