From 'Birth of a Union', ed. Dr E Burke, Esmedune University Press, 1962:
...It is worth remembering that, for all that was achieved by those in attendance, the First Liverpool Conference was also supposed to be the only Conference. The delegates who arrived at the Pier Head from every corner of the Empire in October 1929 were expected to develop a blueprint for Imperial Union in its entirety, including the thorny issues of the African colonies and the perpetual headache known as 'what on earth to do with India'. The fourteen-month timescale was, at the time, considered generous to the point of wastefulness; with hindsight, it was nowhere near enough time.
From the start, the conference was bedevilled with issues. Norman Farridge, the Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom who had arranged the Conference in the first place and had invested an immense amount of political capital in its success, had promised delegates in his address at the opening ceremony that there would be no interference from Whitehall in their affairs; in reality, Farridge was constantly interceding personally with delegates, trying to drive his vision of a United Empire ruled from Ten Downing Street. So bad did it get that, at a Cabinet meeting called at the height of the Maghreb Crisis in March 1930, ministers were astounded to find Farridge encouraging them to hurry up with proceedings, as he had a train to catch to Liverpool for a meeting with Conference delegates! The Farridge government would fall to a vote of no-confidence in August of that year, thanks in no small part to Conservative backbenchers concerned at their leader's preoccupation with Imperial matters voting against the government.
Even without the unwanted attention of Downing Street, the Conference was riven with arguments over India. Whilst the ideal of Imperial Union was a fully democratic organisation under the control of a 'super-Parliament' of some sort, it was obvious to all present that in any such organisation India's population was so much greater than the rest of the Empire as to render them the dominant power. Some even argued that there were too many Indian representatives at the Conference itself, with most of the princely states sending delegations alongside that from the Raj.
Africa was little better. Whilst South Africa had been a Dominion for twenty years at this point, some of its attitudes towards its non-white citizens were already drawing opprobrium from all corners. East Africa was still considered at least ten years from Dominionhood; the individual colonies were still facing tooth-and-nail resistance to the federal solution all-but-mandated by Whitehall. West Africa, without the comparatively large settler populations of the South and East and possessing a long desert border with the Communist Union, didn't even have a timescale.
As the conference got underway, even the notion of Imperial Union began to buckle at the seams. It was clear that the 'traditionalist' factions (who were mostly British and formed the majority of the home delegation, but had support among elements of delegations from all white dominions) envisioned a union where the Mother Parliament was 'first among equals', and the unified empire was essentially run from Whitehall. The broad swathe of conference delegates favoured a more egalitarian solution; a supra-national organisation of recommendation and regulation in which the nations of the Empire could address each other as equals. What they could not agree on was the scope of that organisation – whether it should be a trade bloc, a mutual defence organisation, or both; whether it should have the power to legislate, and to what extent members should be bound by any laws; whether there should be a formal Imperial Congress, whether it should be elected, where it should sit, and many, many other disagreements besides. This division meant that, whilst the traditionalists were in the minority, they were in fact the largest single faction and were able to portray themselves in the friendly press as the voice of reason amongst a rabble of colonials, socialists and Irishmen.
Ironically, it was the delegation from the Kingdom of Ireland that led to the deadlock of the first Conference being broken. Despite being the most profoundly anti-Traditionalist delegation by some margin, the Irish representatives were largely pragmatic and counted among their number some truly skilled diplomats, not least Thomas 'Junior' O'Connor and Sir Peter Fitzsimons. When the conference chair, the ageing and ineffectual Lord Dee, fell ill in February 1930, O'Connor and Fitzsimons petitioned to have him replaced by the outgoing Lord Mayor of Liverpool, Max Murphy. Murphy was a controversial choice – he was a councillor for the explicitly Roman Catholic Centre Party, and had only managed to become Lord Mayor as a sop by the Conservative-Liberal coalition on the Council to stop his party supporting a Labour minority government – but he also had a reputation for problem-solving, bridge-building and generally bringing harmony where there was discord. His presence would also aid an audacious plan by the Irishmen, but that would not come into play until near the end of the conference.
Despite grumblings from Farridge, who suspected his influence was being undermined, and consternation from some quarters at the prospect of a Catholic overseeing the Empire's future, Murphy was approved by a simple majority vote of delegates and installed as chair on March 20th 1930. He wasted no time applying his coalition-building skills to the labyrinthine allegiances of the various factions, developing broad consensuses amongst fractious delegates whilst chipping away at the edges of the Traditionalist bloc.
It is impossible to discuss Murphy's work as chair of the First Conference without some consideration of his politics. This topic is worth a book in itself – and, indeed, many scholars (including this author) have done just that – but the nature of an essay such as this precludes such in-depth analysis. In brief, the classic charge laid against Murphy is that he was a closet anti-Trad brought in by his fellow Papists to undermine British influence in their own Empire. Analysis of his political career before and after shows this claim to be a nonsense. Murphy indeed had much in common with O'Connor and Fitzsimons, but only in the sense that he was a longstanding pragmatist; his urban working-class Catholicism would be alien to O'Connor, who came from a wealthy rural tradition, whilst Fitzsimons was Church of Ireland (although both his children would convert to Catholicism later). Furthermore, it is unlikely Murphy had much in the way of an opinion on Imperial Union before his involvement in the Conference; in an age when every man and his dog was expected to have an opinion on the matter, Murphy's is staggering by its absence. Most likely he simply saw the Commonwealth as a macrocosm of the city he had dedicated his life to serving, and applied his experience and pragmatism to creating a system that would survive the rigours of the modern world and the Empire's internal politics.
The First Liverpool Conference did not fulfill its remit – the name alone reveals that. Maybe if it had been led by Murphy or a figure with similar drive from the start, it might have done so, but it is far more likely that the task before it was too vast. The delegates did, however, lay most of the groundwork for what was to come – often at the cost of the Traditionalists. It was established that the United Empire (the name 'United Commonwealth' would not come about until the Second Conference) would be a supranational body designed to co-ordinate legislation between member nations (primarily as a facilitator of Imperial trade) and as such its representatives would be elected. Those realms which had achieved dominionhood would send voting delegates; colonies could send observers. Furthermore, the Conference report advocated the raising of all colonies to dominionhood, and called for not one but two new conferences – one to further discuss the details of the United Empire (which became the Second Liverpool Conference), another to discuss Indian dominionhood and its implementation within ten years (the ill-fated Suez Conference). The report also suggested an 'Imperial Parliament' of two chambers, one based on representation of regions and another on representation of nations; the blueprint for the Commonwealth Congress should be obvious, along with the eventual federal settlements for both Britain and Ireland – and the blatant loophole which allows India to be so shamefully stymied by the White Dominions.
But the biggest impact of the Conference was its suggestion for the seat of the Imperial Parliament. Whilst the hardcore Traditionalist line calling for Imperial governance from Westminster was obviously unpopular (and likely unworkable), there was a vague consensus that the 'Imperial Capital' should be somewhere in Britain, partly as a nod to the fact this was still the British Empire and partly because nobody amongst the Dominions wanted to give one of their rivals such a prestigious prize. It was here that Murphy, with the backing of the Irish delegation, proposed that the capital should be the very city in which they were meeting.
It proved a surprisingly popular choice; Liverpool was the second city of the Empire and far and away the second-largest city in the United Kingdom. Although nowhere near big enough to challenge London in terms of population, the city had achieved a critical mass whereby its cultural and political institutions were powerful enough to affect the nation as a whole (indeed, there were some who favoured this plan in the hope it would negate Liverpoplian influence in Britain by hiving it off as a Commonwealth capital district), and could at least counteract Westminster interference if not block it out altogether. It is probably worth noting that the timing of the conference was fortuitous; had it occurred five years earlier, Liverpool's polyglot political scene would have been widely considered a blip in its centuries-long Tory dominance, but by the late 1920s the febrile competitiveness between Conservative, Liberal, Labour, Co-op, Centre and even Welsh parties (the last of these often fielding bilingual candidates who could appeal to the city's nonconformist voters as well as the ebbing Cymraeg community) at all levels of government had become accepted as the normal way of doing things (it is, perhaps, this crowded political sphere which has also stymied the meteoric rise of the New Party in the two decades since the last war).
The length of the First Conference doubtless helped ease the decision – fourteen months' exposure to the city and its blowy Atlantic charms helped personally sway more delegates than any amount of bribery on the part of the city fathers, as numerous private testimonies have revealed in the intervening thirty years. Yet those same testimonies also reveal an ancestral link; Liverpool had been the greatest emigrant port in Europe for a century before the conference, and for all its status as an ancient borough was a very young city. Canada and Australia had been virtually populated from the Pier Head, and its districts were home to men from Bombay to Basseterre, Wydah to Wellington, and everywhere in-between. “This city, which nevertheless feels like a great village,” remarked one delegate, “is the only place in our commonwealth where every man may feel at home.”
The people of the city – unsurprisingly supportive of the plan already – took this quote to heart; 'The Big Village at the Heart of the Commonwealth' would become the city's colloquial motto, and the ratification of the report by the new Coalition government in January 1931 led to city-wide celebrations despite the unusually cold weather that winter. The Second Liverpool Conference would be opened almost exactly a year later to finalise the creation of what would become the United Commonwealth – the globe's only supra-power...