British attitudes towards the ‘White Australia Policy’ in the inter-war period

I am currently writing a research article on the British Union of Fascists’ view of Australia and how it fit into the fascist view of empire in the inter-war period. As Paul Stocker has recently written, the fascist view of empire was predominantly an extension of already existing conservative attitudes towards the empire, but was much more protectionist and held up ‘imperial unity’ as paramount to the preservation of the British Empire (and the British ‘race’). In my research, I have found that the BUF’s attitudes towards Australia (and particularly the ‘White Australia Policy’) weren’t that far removed from the attitudes shared by many other British politicians and journalists. Most of the British elite had sympathies for the idea of a ‘White Australia’, but this was tempered by the fact that Australia was deemed to be under-populated and under threat from Japanese (and German) expansionism. The British felt that large scale and rapid migration of people (not necessarily from Britain or even Europe) was probably needed to secure the country as a British possession. This pragmatism was decried by the BUF, who maintained the importance of Australia as a white settler colony.

The section below is part of this research and outlines how the British elite viewed the ‘White Australia Policy’ in the inter-war period, providing the wider context for the fascist view of Australia that was developed by the BUF in the 1930s. This is a new area of research for me, so any feedback, criticisms or tips for further research are most welcome.

The under-population of tropical Australia was a concern for both the Australians and the British, who believed that it may succumb to invasion.

As Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds have argued, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the settler colonies of the British Empire, alongside the United States, established a ‘global colour line’.[i] Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa (and eventually Southern Rhodesia) had a special role in maintaining the boundaries at the edges of the Empire and sought to regulate the dichotomy between the European coloniser and indigenous colonised. Within this imperial hierarchy, certain ethnic groups were imported from other places within the empire to perform certain labour and administrative tasks, but it was always reinforced by the colonial rulers (particularly in the settler colonies) that the British were at the top of this hierarchy. This hierarchy operated more or less in an informal manner across many of the colonies, but in the settler colonies, there were efforts to make this hierarchy more formalised – and in the case of Australia after 1901, efforts were made abolish this hierarchy in favour on an unachievable monocultural society.

For the newly federated Australia, the ability to make sovereign decisions over its racial make-up was central to its push for self-government. As Lake and Reynolds have argued, Australia’s pursuit of self-government sought to confirm ‘their special status as white men in a multi-racial Empire…, even as they continued to subject themselves to the sovereign British Queen.’[ii] In the 1880s and 1890s, the Australian colonies had objected to British treaties which allowed unrestricted Chinese and Japanese migration within the British Empire and sought to implement immigration controls that restricted non-white migration ‘regardless of their standing as powers or status as British subjects’.[iii] First introduced in the colony of New South Wales in 1896, this was reiterated in the 1901 Commonwealth Act, against the protests of the British.

One of the important aspects of the ‘White Australia Policy’ was its protection of the rights of ‘white workers’. Before 1901, certain ethnic minorities (such as the Japanese and Pacific Islanders in Western Australia and Queensland) had specific places within a colonial economy, but after Federation, the majority of employment was reserved for white workers, with several pieces of legislation severely restricting the access of non-white people to jobs. Until the 1960s, the organised labour movement in Australia worked to ensure that white (British and northern European) workers remained at the top of this hierarchy and were firmly attached to the concept of the ‘White Australia Policy’.

In Britain, there was sympathy for the ‘White Australia Policy’ and acknowledged that this was central to the Australian political system at the time. National Democratic Party MP, Charles Jesson, stated in the House of Commons in 1920 that ‘the workers have decided that they will have a white Australia, and we have no right to interfere.’[iv] In 1925, Labour MP Hugh Dalton described the ‘White Australia Policy’ as ‘an absolutely inevitable policy’ and declared that ‘every State has, under international law, complete control over its own immigration – whom it will admit and whom it will not admit.’[v]

But there was also concern that the newly federated country was placing racial purity above the broader military/security concerns of the British Empire. Expressed in Parliament and in the mainstream press, many were anxious about the security of northern Australia, which was seen as under-populated and as attractive territory for rival powers, particularly Germany and Japan. In the House of Lords, Lord Denman reminded the House that Australia, along with New Zealand, occupied an ‘isolated position in the Southern Seas’, but was still only ‘within a few days steaming of great Asiatic countries’ and that this threat was exacerbated by the under-population of the country.[vi] Dalton said that the need for settlers was felt across all of the Dominions, but stated ‘I think there is no case as urgent as that of Australia’, claiming that the ‘White Australia Policy’ was ‘barring their way to the great empty spaces of the Australian continent.’[vii] Dalton concluded his address by declaring his support for the ‘White Australia Policy’ but declared that ‘it can only be maintained and justified in the eyes of the world if Australia can achieve a great increase in her population and render her new unoccupied territory fertile and productive.’[viii]

Developing the empire was a great concern in the inter-war period and the Empire Settlement Act 1922 was part of a broader attempt to shore up the empire through migration, with assisted migration for skilled Britons to the Dominions to maintain the strength of the empire in the peripheries. The Australian-born Conservative MP, Sir Newton Moore, described his concern that the country was ‘surrounded by teeming millions of Asiatics whom she does not propose to admit’ and this was a threat to the Australia’s northern ‘territory of a million square miles with only something like 350,000 people’.[ix] This concern continued through the 1930s, and was raised with the rise of Germany, Italy and Japan. After Germany and Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact in late 1936, Conservative MP Somerset de Chair lamented the peripheral position of Australia and described the ‘White Australia Policy’ as a bulwark against Asian expansionism:

They know that they stand isolated from the rest of the Empire and that between them and us are the teeming millions of Asia. They have adopted a “White Australia” policy because they realise that if they once opened the door to coloured immigration, above all to the immigration of the Chinese, they would be completely swamped. They have recognised that the “White Australia” policy is the only alternative, to racial extinction.[x]

But de Chair also recognised that upholding this policy of racial purity came at a strategic cost and with a population of ‘only 6,500,000’, Australia had to ‘realise that that is bound to be dangerous’.[xi] The crux of the predicament faced by the Australian government was,

They want the country populated, and they know that the natural proess of the increasing birthrate will not be sufficient to fill the country in time. At the same time, they are reluctant to consider an immediate influx of immigrants.[xii]

The juxtaposing concerns of maintaining the health of the British ‘race’ across the empire and ensuring the security of the peripheries of the empire can also be seen in the mainstream press in the inter-war period. In 1919, an editorial in The Times opined about the under-population of the northern part of Australia and the concerns this raised for the elite in London, stating that the ‘danger of leaving this immense area permanently unpeopled has an Imperial aspect, because empty lands are an abiding temptation.’[xiii] While many in the Australian government promoted the idea that ‘white’ Britons would eventually settle these northern areas, the newspaper was much more sceptical, writing that ‘we are unable to believe that millions of whites will ever be established in the northern areas of Australia’.[xiv] But still feared that ‘the more temperate regions of Australia have a boundless future’ for ‘other races’.[xv]

When the British negotiated the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1920 to prevent imperial conflict in Asia, the British press saw the ‘White Australia Policy’ as a barrier to this arrangement that ensured the security of the British Empire’s Asian colonies in the short-term. In The Times, it was recognised that the ‘determination of Australia and New Zealand to prevent Asiatic immigration is set and unalterable’, yet hoped that the determination of Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes to maintain this policy would not derail the Alliance, declaring that the English-speaking world ‘cannot face the prospect of renewed competition in naval armaments without the certainty of financial and… moral bankruptcy.’[xvi]

In The New Statesman, Independent National MP from the Australian House of Representatives, Frederic Eggleston, wrote that the ‘chief factor in the healthy growth of the Australian democracy has undoubtedly been the purity of the Anglo-Saxon base’ and declared that ‘Australia is more purely Anglo-Saxon than any other dominion, more so than some parts of Great Britain.’[xvii] But Eggleston also realised that Australia’s ‘sparsely settled territory’ was tenuously held and ‘it would not take much to swamp the Anglo-Saxon holding party.’[xviii] For this Australian politician, the ‘White Australia Policy’ was paramount to assuring the security of the British Empire in the Australasian region, arguing, ‘[u]nrestricted immigration of Asiatic races means the disappearance of Australia as an Anglo-Saxon democracy.’[xix]

Eggleston and other supporters of the ‘White Australia Policy’ promoted further migration of British settlers to Australia to secure the country and stave off the perceived threat of Asian invasion. For example, a Daily Mail editorial from 1927 claimed that the only way that Australia could maintain the ‘empty lands of a continent where there are only six million people to nearly three million square miles’ was through the ‘vigorous immigration of the best white stock’.[xx] Although as The Times editorial above suggested, many in Britain were sceptical of this occurring and pragmatically believed that non-British migration would be a suitable solution. A 1934 Times editorial stated, ‘A White Australia policy… cannot be safe so long as it implies or seems to imply an empty Australia’, suggesting that ‘a well-organized scheme of migration’ was needed to ensure the security of Australia and the wider British Empire.[xxi]

The opinions expressed by various British politicians and journalists show that the idea of a racially ‘pure’ Australia as a paragon of the settler colonial society was widespread throughout British elite and that concerns about maintaining this ‘purity’ were not the desires of the far right in Britain, but shared by a much broader strata. However this desire for maintaining the ‘purity’ of the British ‘race’ in Australia had to be gauged against the desire by the British to maintain the country as part of the British Empire/Commonwealth (in the face of threats from Japan and Germany). This concern about the nation’s security meant that the British favoured large-scale migration of non-British (and possibly non-European) migrants into the northern territories of Australia to prevent this ‘empty land’ from being invaded.


[i] Marilyn Lake & Henry Reynolds Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the Question of Racial Equality (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2008) p. 5.

[ii] Lake & Reynolds Drawing the Global Colour Line, p. 143.

[iii] Lake & Reynolds Drawing the Global Colour Line, p. 144.

[iv] House of Commons, Hansard, 26 April, 1920, col. 948.

[v] House of Commons, Hansard, 24 March, 1925, col. 368-369.

[vi] House of Lords, Hansard, 29 May, 1922, col. 850.

[vii] House of Lords, Hansard, 29 May, 1922, col. 850.

[viii] House of Lords, Hansard, 29 May, 1922, col. 850.

[ix] House of Commons, Hansard, 2 April, 1925, col. 1615.

[x] House of Commons, Hansard, 25 January, 1937, col. 677-678.

[xi] House of Commons, Hansard, 25 January, 1937, col. 678.

[xii] House of Commons, Hansard, 25 January, 1937, col. 678.

[xiii] ‘The Future of Tropical Australia’, The Times, 12 August, 1919, p. 11.

[xiv] ‘The Future of Tropical Australia’, The Times, 12 August, 1919, p. 11.

[xv] ‘The Future of Tropical Australia’, The Times, 12 August, 1919, p. 11.

[xvi] ‘Empire Policy’, The Times, 8 April, 1921, p. 11.

[xvii] Frederic W. Eggleston, ‘The White Australia Policy’, New Statesman, 10 July, 1920, p. 386.

[xviii] Eggleston, ‘The White Australia Policy’, p. 386.

[xix] Eggleston, ‘The White Australia Policy’, p. 386.

[xx] ‘Advance, Australia!’, Daily Mail, 9 May, 1927, p. 10.

[xxi] ‘Empty Spaces of the Empire’, The Times, 1 February, 1934, p. 15.

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