"Not by Law but by Sentiment"
Great Britain and Imperial Defense, 1918–1939
"If the heart of the Empire was threatened, all the members were threatened," said Joseph A. Lyons, the prime minister of Australia, at the last Imperial Conference of the interwar period, emphasizing that war for Great Britain meant war for its dominions.1 His words laid bare expectations about the Empire as well as fears for its fate. Lyons' auditors included leaders from the principal dominions–the prime ministers and large retinues from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Canada. They gathered in London between May 14 and June 15, 1937, ostensibly to celebrate George VI's coronation.2 Their attentions were claimed, however, by less glamorous problems–Japanese expansionism in the Pacific, Italian Fascism, and German Nazism, all of which threatened imperial security. The conference was a crucial step in the British government's efforts to mobilize the dominions for strategic support in case of war.
As had been the case in similar critical circumstances in 1911, British claims to leadership in the Empire3 conflicted with the demands of some of the dominions for greater autonomy in international affairs.4 These tensions
1 Public Record Office (hereafter PRO), Cab 32/128, Principal Delegates Fourth Meeting, May 22,
1937. See S. R. Ashton and S. E. Stockwell, eds., Imperial Policy and Colonial Practice, 1925–1945,
British Documents on the End of Empire, ser. A, vol. 1, pt. 1 (London, 1996).
2 The Irish Free State did not send an official representative. See D. Harkness, "Mr. de Valera's
Dominion: Irish Relations with Britain and the Commonwealth 1932–1938," Journal of Common-
wealth Political Studies 8 (1970): 206–28; Keith Jeffery, "The Irish Military Tradition and the British
Empire," in Keith Jeffery, ed., "An Irish Empire"? Aspects of Ireland and the British Empire (Manchester,
3 The term commonwealth came to be used during World War I and was more clearly defined at the
1926 imperial conference as the dualism of the dependent colonies and the mostly autonomous
dominions before the era of decolonization. This chapter will use the term Empire rather than either
Empire-Commonwealth or Commonwealth.
4 Nicholas Mansergh, Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs: Problems of External Policy, 1931–1939
(London, 1952); Robert F. Holland, Britain and the Commonwealth Alliance, 1918–1939 (London,
1981); Lars S. Skalnes, "Grand Strategy and Foreign Economic Policy: British Grand Strategy in the
1930s," World Politics 50 (1998): 582–616.