In the late 1920s, Britain still loomed large in Australian society. The Empire remained a focus of the Australian government’s immigration and economic decisions, and the Scots here remained proud of the contributions to the imperial project.
We have seen evidence of the Scottish contribution to Australia throughout this series of articles. It suffices to say that, in the early twentieth century, the Scots were still proud to be equal – indeed, dominant – partners with England in the British Empire. They were often proud of their achievements as ‘Empire builders’.
In the mid-1920s, Scottish societies in Australia came together and planned a delegation to Scotland. The aims of the delegation were to develop commerce and trade between the two countries, and to increase Scottish migration to Australia. They undertook this mission with full acknowledgement that what they were doing was, indeed, building and maintaining the empire.
It was a popular but controversial idea. Members of parliament debated the negatives and positives of increased migration to Australia. One the one hand, the Australian economy was ailing and there were not too many jobs to be found in this climate. On the other, this was a period of Australia’s history when governments were aggressive in ensuring that the make-up of Australia’s population remained distinctively British – a few more Scots would do us some good, they said.
The goal of developing trade between Scotland and Australia was less controversial. The Australian Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce, was eager to see Australian economic growth. He thought the best way to do this was through ‘British men, money and markets.’ Scotland had untapped potential at this point in time, and increased trade would be a good thing for Australia, so the argument went.
In autumn 1928, about six hundred eager Scots departed Australia on the Hobson’s Bay. They arrived at Plymouth on May 18 and travelled north, where they toured Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Perth and Aberdeen, among other cities and towns.
Among the delegates were farmers, graziers, agriculturalists, storekeepers, confectioners, bootmakers, carpenters, teachers, solicitors and politicians. There were many families and single young girls on board, evidently taking the opportunity to see relatives and friends in Scotland. Indeed, many delegates stayed on after the official tour – they caught up with their loved ones, toured the countryside, and some vacationed through Europe and even journeyed to Canada.
In the various towns and cities in Scotland, they put on exhibitions of Australian goods and produce, and individual delegates arranged with young Scots ‘of the right class’ to emigrate from Scotland. They were greeted in each location by Scottish businesses that were also eager to develop relations between the two countries.
The success of the delegation in achieving its aims is a complicated issue. We know that delegates were central in making arrangements for the opening up of a direct trading route between Glasgow and Australia and, by 1934, activity between the ports had increased by about 300 per cent.
They were less successful with migrants. About 50 young Scots emigrated because of the delegation, but they were of ‘an attractive capitalist background’. At least 100 unemployed workers on the Clyde were turned away, despite Scottish politicians pleading with the delegates to take some of the surplus labour off their hands.
Overall, the Australian Scottish Delegation of 1928 indicates many things about the Scots and Australia. It shows an eagerness to be part of the imperial project – to both support the Empire and develop Australia. It also hints at some of Australia’s past, and controversial, immigration policies. Lastly, it tells us something about the ways in which migrant Scots have maintained connections with their homeland. The delegation’s president told crowds in Scotland: ‘We stand for Scotland, but we stand for Australia!’