There are few subjects in the world upon which it is easier to become platitudinous than that of the British Commonwealth. The phrases trip so easily off the tongue - "freedom-loving people," "traditions of justice and fair play," "a greater conception than the Empire which it replaces." We all know them so well.
I believe, however, that this is not the time for employing them. Let us this evening, for a few minutes, try to face the realities of a situation which is immensely complicated, abstruse and dangerous.
It is probably to go too far to say that the old Empire was maintained by force or the threat of force. Had that been true, there would be no Commonwealth today, nor would men and women from all over the world have rallied to the side of the Mother Country when she found herself in mortal danger twice in 30 years.
It was the complete supremacy of the British Fleet which provided the ultimate deterrent to revolt of secession. Not only could it move about at will a small but highly-trained army; it could also prevent other great Powers from lending aid to the insurgents. Thus I think it is true to say that the Pax Britannica was maintained with a blend of affection and fear, much as a good old-fashioned schoolmaster used to discipline his pupils.
The two world wars which so drastically altered the balance of world power also brought in their train profound changes in social and political thought. People in the Mother Country, having just fought these desperate wars in defence of freedom, began to question their right to impose their will on others. Most important, perhaps, of all, was the fact that a new World Power had arisen, aware for the first time in her history, of her industrial and military potential, and offering to backward and hungry people a new way of life, godless, materialistic but undeniably efficient.
Hungry people are not free people, and what does an Asian peasant, with his loin-cloth and his bowl of rice, know of freedom in any wide sense of the term. For such a one Russian Communism has undeniable attractions, and the Western Powers have got to find some ethical, cultural and economic formula as a counter.
The nuclear fission bomb has produced an almost fantastic situation wherein both sides know full well that a big shooting war can lead only to the annihilation of all life upon this planet. The use of force in imposing one's will is therefore not only out of accord with the spirit of the age, so far as the Western World is concerned, but impracticable as well.
The enemy of mankind is materialistic Communism. I believe that in the long run it will fail - for two reasons. First, because I think the English-speaking peoples of the world are beginning to draw closer to one another and to understand one another's problems. The greatest disaster in the world would be discord between the Commonwealth and the United States. When honest men fall out, thieves come into their own.
And the second reason is that I think that Communism has in it the seeds of its own destruction. In the long run, mankind has never yet proved itself able to live by bread alone, and as science probes further and further into the mysteries of the universe, it is natural for people to want to understand more and more about the purpose that lies behind creation.
We at present are going through a bad patch in the history of the world. We are paying too much attention to a material thing known as a standard of living and too little to a spiritual one known as a way of life.
It is just this that caused the great empires of the world to rot and perish. An empire means wealth for the imperial power - and wealth means arrogance, torpor and a lowering of spiritual and ethical standards. Rome fell, not through military conquest from without, but through the decline in her own virtue. Great power and riches rotted her soul and made her ripe for conquest.
Seventy years ago a great Liberal statesman, Gladstone, foresaw the Gadarene slope toward which a rich and careless England was heading. Sir Philip Magnus, in his "Life," wrote these prophetic words:
Gladstone had seen the power and wealth of the State expand during his lifetime beyond all precedent. He considered that politics would be debauched and divorced from the service of God if policy were to be auctioned by party leaders ambitious to buy votes from selfish and possibly unscrupulous pressure-groups.
Behind the luxury and pride which capitalist industry had generated, behind Bismarck's ruthless concentration and use of force, behind the growing and almost universal demand for increased material satisfactions, Gladstone glimpsed monstrous shadow-shapes which danced convulsively in the fiery furnace of his own imagination. The full measure of the 20th Century's shame was concealed from him, but he fought to the last against the tendency to replace the worship of God by that of Caesar or any species of idolatry.
This Commonwealth can survive only if its members increasingly turn their attention toward the building of a nobler and ampler society. "Vulgarity is never far from the human animal," wrote C. E. Montague, "when it has only decorated its animal life and not built an ampler life on it."
In other words, let us turn our attention toward putting our own house in order and then we shall have to concern ourselves less with the external pressures. The Western Nations are in mortal danger of becoming intellectually and ethically sterile as their search for material satisfactions increases in intensity.
The people who 100 years ago founded this country were a remarkable race of men. They asked little of life except the right to worship God in their own way, to wrest a living from a good soil, and to live in peace with their neighbours. They lived disciplined lives; they learnt that discipline in their homes and their schools. Now that discipline is fading, and we are beginning to discover the result. Experience is a good teacher, but her fees are very high.
The Commonwealth was founded and consolidated by men dedicated to an ideal - the ideal of teaching men and nations to govern themselves by schooling their passions and so to realise upon earth the spirit of the Christian ethic. Upon the continuance of that spirit of service the future of the Commonwealth depends. The nations of the West will never be able to impose their will by force of arms - the old means of creating an Empire - but they can still save the world by their example.