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1870-1914 - Greater Britain

Between in 1867 and 1885 the ballot, though not yet quite full grown to the stature of universal suffrage, was greatly extended. The effect was indeed a surprise to those who made sure that, if only the workman had the vote and there was secured a sumciently cheap press, England might be trusted to beat her swords into ploughshares and her spears into pruninghooks. Reformers overlooked the truth set out by Tocqueville when he said, “Nations are like men; they are still prouder of what flatters their passions, than of what serves their interests."

The idea of empire intervened, partly because the circumstances of empire changed. Between 1885 and 1900 Great Britain added between three and four million square miles and a population little short of sixty millions to her imperial dominion; and the expenditure on the two war services had risen since 1875 from twenty-four to over seventy millions of pounds.

By the late 19th Century a new spirit was apparent in England. The fears of the previous generation had not been realized. The growing colonies showed no signs of desiring complete independence. Now that all Europe was struggling for outside territory, Britain awoke to the value of what she possessed. Each in his own way, Seeley, Fronde, Frere, Dilke, Kipling, Rhodes, Chamberlain and others voiced the new conviction that the Empire should be maintained, consolidated, extended.

Every man of education on the continent knew that the Times of London was read everywhere, and that it was from the statements therein that the English nation formed its estimate of the merits of all concerned; but if in this respect foreigners failed to do justice to other English newspapers it can scarcely be imputed to them as a fault.

Disraeli, who in 1852 had declared, "Those wretched colonies will all be independent in a few years, and they are a mill-stone around our necks," changed his mind, made Victoria Empress of India, and began preaching imperialism. The growing competition of Germany in commerce and colonies and (after 1898) in navy, the fear of Russia in Asia, the rise of Japan, all made a united Empire seem increasingly desirable. The idea of the Empire appealed to the imagination, the Empire with its Daughter Nations, its Indian and African millions, its "far-flung battle line," its mighty fleet, its commerce, its resources. The more practical were interested in the colonies as markets and sources of raw material,'and as places for the-investment of capital. This latter became an increasingly important consideration as the possibilities of profit through the use of native labor in exploiting natural resources became more evident. Territory not immediately useful was taken by way of "pegging out claims for posterity."

In 1872 Disraeli stated that one of the great objects of the Tory party was " ... to uphold the empire of England. If you look to the history of this country since the advent of Liberalism—forty years ago— you will find that there has been no effort, so continuous, so subtle, supported by so much energy, and carried on with so much ability and acumen, as the attempts of Liberalism to effect tlie disintegration of the empire of England. Statesmen of the highest character, writers of the most distinguished ability, the most organised and efficient means have been employed in this endeavour. It has been proved to all of us that we have lost money by our colonies ... that result was nearly accomplished when these subtle views were adopted by the country, under the plausible plea of granting self-government to the colonies. I confess that I myself thought that the tie was broken.

"Not that I, for one, object to self-government. I cannot conceive how our distant colonies can have their affairs administered except by self-government. But selfgovernment, in my opinion, ought to have been conceded, as part of a great policy of imperial consolidation. It ought to have been accompanied by an imperial tariff, by securities for the people of England for the enjoyment of the unappropriated lands which belonged to the sovereign as their trustee, and by a military code which should have precisely defined the means and the responsibilities by which the colonies should be defended} and by which, if necessary, tlie country should call for aid front the colonies themselves. It ought further to have been accompanied by the institution of some representative council in the metropolis, which would have brought the colonies into constant and continuous relations with the home Government. All this, however, was omitted because those who advised that policy— and I believe their convictions were sincere—looked upon the colonies of England, looked even upon our connection with India, as a burden upon this country, viewing everything in a financial aspect, and totally passing by those moral and political considerations which make nations great, and by the influence of which alone men are distinguished from animals." At the end of the 19th Century the Imperialist would say "See, this marvellous work of our race, the vast inheritance of the generations which we hold in trust for our descendants -— in mere size the greatest Empire of history, in variety of interest, in the extraordinary complexity of its composition far surpassing all political societies that the world has ever known. Consider how it extends the laws of peace over prairie and jungle. mountain and steppe, subarctic ice and torrid forest; how it maintains order and administers justice with equal success for the brand-new mining community, for the ancient civilization of the Ganges or the Nile, or for the primitive clan of the Indian hills. Is not this among the greatest of human achievements, this unparalleled adaptability in arts of conquest and of government?

"And yet this is not the best. What is an infinitely greater matter is that where the British flag goes, go British freedom. British Justice, an absolutely incorruptibie Civil Service, a scrupulous impartiality as between religion and races. an enthusiasm for the spread of that individual liberty and local selfgovernment which have made England herself so great! . . .

"You talk perhaps of humanity — a vague abstract idea. But do you not see that any genuine humanitarianism must be the result of a gradual broadening of those very sympathies which first make a man a good patriot? There was a time when love for England, as a whole, was too wide a conception, and men were Mercians or Northumbrians, but not Englishmen. Just as it was an advance when the love for England superseded this narrow provinciallsm, so is it an advance when Imperialism supersedes your narrow Little Englandism. You may say that Empire means force, aggression. conquest. That may have been so in the past, but we live in an age when Empire is free, tolerant, and nnaggressive, and if we still acquire territory, we acquire it not for ourselves but for civilization. You may object to the method by which the Enipire was built up, but here it is in being~—a great fact, a tremendous responsibility."

A great Imperialist once coupled the name of Little England with the policy of surrender. It was a libel. Little England never surrendered. On the contrary, she three times encountered Powers which aspired to the mastery of the world. and three times overthrew them.

William Ewart Gladstone, of Palmerstone's Liberal Party, was first Prime Minister from 1868 to 1874. as Her Majesty's Secretary of State for the Colonies, he told House of Lords, May 12, 1874, that "It is the wish of Her Majesty's Government to abstain from any territorial acquisitions and from contracting any new obligations." Not all agreed. The anonymous author of The Great Game in 1875 evoked "... a sympathy with the grand, masterful, and adventurous in the relations of England to the world : a willingness, an eagerness to make strong England play a father's or an elder brother's part in the family of mankind, taking the weak and ignorant by the hand, striking terror into evil doers, giving protection and encouragement to the beginnings of good, causing the wilderness to blossom as the rose, and sending forth the light of religion and civilisation into those dark places of the earth which are still the habitations of cruelty. "

Not everyone shared the imperialist urge. In 1879, Liberal parliamentarian John Bright [a leader of the anti-war faction and a Quaker], declaimed that "... All this adds to your burdens. Just listen to this: they add to the burdens, not of the empire, but of the 33,000,000 of people who inhabit Great Britain and Ireland. We take the burden and pay the charge. This policy may lend a seeming glory to the Crown, and it may give scope for patronage and promotion, and pay a pension to a limited and favoured class. But to you, the people, it brings expenditure of blood and treasure, increased debts and taxes, and adds risk of war in every part of the globe."

Bright at least had the courage of his honest convictions. He was against war altogether; but in being so, one critic charged he "tried to lull Great Britain into a fool's paradise of international exhibitions." Of " Peace at any price," Disraeli said, in the interests of general peace, that it was a "dangerous doctrine, which had done more mischief and caused more wars than the most ruthless conquerors."

A free informal union with the Colonies, combined with a conscientious but tolerant government of tropical dependencies, was in essence the conception of the Empire bequeathed by the older generation of Liberals, and precisely the antithesis of the later-day Imperialism, the operative principle of which was the forcible establishment and maintenance of racial ascendency. The trap laid for Liberals in particular consisted in this — that they were asked to give in their adhesion to Imperialism as representing admiration for an Empire which more and more has been shaped upon Liberal lines. Having given their assent, they were insensibly led on to the other meaning of Imperialism - a meaning in which, for all practical purposes, these principles are set aside.

Little by little, it became clearer that the new Imperialism stood, not for a widened and ennobled sense of national responsibility, but for a hard assertion of racial supremacy and material force. The unprejudiced observer was compelled to recognize that, judged by actual performance, it meant perpetual warfare, battles which, where black or yellow men were concerned, became sheer massacres, campaigns which, where a resolute white race stood in the way, involved desolation unspeakable, the destruction of political and personal freedom, and the erection on their ruins of an un-English type of overpaid and incompetent oflicialdom, the cold-shouldering of the British immigrant, and the recrudescence of servile labor. Finally comparing the battle-cry with the actual result of victory, some began to ask whether the enterprises on which his fellow-countrymen freely spent their blood were such as minister to the glory of the Empire and the good of humanity, or rather to the vanity of a self-confident satrap and the lucre of a capitalist.

The anonymous author of The Great Game wrote of India in 1875 that "The maintenance of native states is compatible with no other policy than that of ultimately withdrawing British control from all India. If the British rulers have such a policy in view, they ought to say so frankly and forthwith to their master, the British nation. If they have in view, as we have better reason to believe, a policy quite opposite in character, they need to be warned that by allowing an unwise tenderness to lead them into a suicidal error, they are diligently defeating their own wiser intentions. The continuance of native rule cannot but stultify their general policy by helping on the consummation which they wish to avert. It will not merely smooth the way for withdrawal. It will soon make withdrawal necessary.""

The Colonial Conference on the occasion of Victoria's Jubilee (1887) was an indication of the new era. Since then the Daughter Nations beyond the seas have been increasingly taken into the confidence of the home government. More and more affairs of common interest have been handled by conference, discussion, semi-diplomatic negotiation, rather than by the issuance of commands from London. The conferences at Ottawa (1894) and at London (1897, 1902) discussed in particular imperial tariff preference, naval defense, and the practicability of imperial federation.

The Liberals who came to power in 1906, though deeply interested in political and social reforms at home, were not indifferent to the Empire. Their boldness in granting self-government to the conquered Transvaal and Orange Free State, and their steps towards home rule for India and Egypt were denounced by many as treason to the cause of unity. The soundness of their statesmanship has been proved, however, and their faithfulness to the traditions of liberty has been rewarded by the loyalty of South Africa and India in the Great War.

In 1907 the "Colonial" Conference became the "Imperial" Conference, and regular meetings every four years were planned. In 1909 a subsidiary conference was held on naval affairs, in view of the German fleet situation. In 1911 a full Conference met again. The meeting set for 1915 was postponed by the war, but in May, 1917, it gathered in London with the significant addition of representatives of India. Parallel to the Conference a new and important body met, the Imperial War Cabinet, consisting of the British War Cabinet, the Colonial Premiers, and the representatives of India. Consulting as equals, these representatives of the Empire planned how to make its entire strength available for victory. The Conference voted to meet yearly and to continue Indian representation.

H.G.Wells wrote in 1907, [War in the Air] " ... the British Empire ... had given these subject races cigarettes, boots, bowler hats, cricket, race meetings, cheap revolvers, petroleum, the factory system of industry, halfpenny newspapers in both English and the vernacular, inexpensive university degrees, motor-bicycles and electric trams; it had produced a considerable literature expressing contempt for the Subject Races, and rendered it freely accessible to them, and it had been content to believe that nothing would result from these stimulants... Instead of which, Egypt, India, and the subject countries generally had produced new generations in a state of passionate indignation and the utmost energy, activity and modernity. The governing class in Great Britain was slowly adapting itself to a new conception of the Subject Races as waking peoples ... Their impertinence was excessive; it was no mere stone-throwing and shouting. They would quote Burns at them and Mill and Darwin and confute them in arguments."

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Page last modified: 09-06-2016 16:50:14 ZULU