Imperialism and social reform english Social-Imperial Thought 1895-1914


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The Tariff Reformers found it a most difficult task to 'sell' taxation of food to the working classes. The Tariff men were forced to admit that under their programme some items of food would most probably go up in price. This was the imperial side of Tariff Reform, the so-called 'idealistic' side. The British workman might be convinced that protection would save his trade from extinction, but the imperialists who dominated the tariff movement had decreed that a tax against German steel must go hand in hand with a tax against Argentinian wheat. The workman must therefore be sold not only on protection but on the empire. Preference and consolidation of the British Empire must be shown to be in the best interests of the weekly pay-envelope. Appeals to imperial sentiment were not entirely omitted; they were simply subordinated to matters commercial.

The Tariff League circulated widely a speech by Balfour which warned that if Britain did not move to effect the consolidation of the empire, its impending dissolution would cause a fatal injury to the great manufacturing industries of England. 66 The League also circulated the text of a speech Lord Milner had delivered in Montreal in 1908:

'By buying its wheat, so far as possible, from Canada rather than from the Argentine, the United Kingdom will be helping to build up the prosperity of the Dominion. By buying china and earthenware, or glass-ware, or cutlery, from the United Kingdom rather than from Germany or Belgium, Canada is giving employment to British instead of to foreign hands. Needless to argue that development and employment in any part of the Empire is more important than an equivalent amount of development or employment in some foreign country.' 67



Monthly Notes on Tariff Reform ( Birmingham), December 1905, p. 97.


A. J. Balfour, Mr Balfour on Imperial Preference ( London, 1910), pp. 16, 21.


Lord Milner, Our Imperial Heritage ( London, 1910), pp. 16-17.

This was the general shape which the Tariff Reform argument on the Empire took.

'Now is your Opportunity!' urged one leaflet. 'Support Tariff Reform and Imperial Preference and Keep your Canadian Trade.' 68 'Shall Yorkshire or America Have the Canadian Market?' asked another. 'If this trade goes to the Americans, Yorkshire Loses Work and Wages.' 69 A third leaflet posed the same question concerning Lancashire and not too surprisingly arrived at the same conclusion. 70 Still another described the meaning of Preference to the British worker: 'If Canada concluded a commercial treaty with, say, the United States of America, Yankee Workers would be the gainers and you British Workers the Losers!' 71 A fifth described the Australian preferential system under the title 'How Australia Helps the British Working Man.' 72

A pamphlet published by the Rural Labourers League asked the British worker to consider who were his customers and who his competitors. 'He will see that it is the British Possessions and the neutral markets that are our salvation; and that if it had not been for these we should . . . have been bankrupt by now.' 73 A leaflet of the Imperial Tariff Committee warned that, because of world trade conditions, there was definite danger of losing the colonial markets. 'Colonial Preference offers to the British Workman an advantage over Foreigners in the markets of British Possessions,' it added. 'If you reject Tariff Reform now, you are throwing away what may be the last chance of restoring the industry on which you depend for a living.' 74 A leaflet of the Tariff Reform League made the same grave warning and called for the forming of 'A National Trades Union' and 'an Imperial Trades Union.' 'A preferential tariff with the Colonies,' it added, 'will secure us the Imperial market, which is already the best market we



T.R.L.L. No. 270.


T.R.L.L. No. 272.


T.R.L.L. No. 274.


T.R.L.L. No. 277.


T.R.L.L. No. 131.


Rural Labourers League, Manufactured Goods: Whence They Come and Where They Go ( London, 1909?), p. 1.


Imperial Tariff Committee, Trade and Empire, No. 114.

have, but which will grow enormously under the influence of freer trade within the Empire.' 75

The United Empire Trade League, in the late 'nineties, had warned Britain, as had the imperial-socialist Robert Blatchford, of the danger of starvation in case of war. It had urged Britain to return to agriculture, 'to provide British Food for Britons.' If not enough arable land was available in Great Britain, it counselled Englishmen to 'Look at Your Daughter Lands-Canada, Australasia, South Africa, India.' 76 The Tariff Reform League took up this cry. One leaflet proclaimed 'No Duty on Empire Wheat,' adding 'Support Tariff Reform and Preference Which Means A Big Imperial Loaf!' 77 The hope of a cheap Imperial loaf was held out, too, by another leaflet which maintained that 'Preferential Tariffs Will Develop the Vast Resources of the Colonies and Lower the Price of Food.' 78 The dream of 'A Big Imperial Loaf,' however, was not one of the staples offered by the Tariff Reformers. More often they discounted the petty matter of a small increase in the price of wheat by stressing the enormous trade advantages which would be enjoyed as a result of preference and the disastrous results of failure to adopt preferential trade.

The doctrine of the Tariff Reform League presented to the British working man resembled that of contemporary protectionists elsewhere. Emphasis was placed upon the identity of interest of employer and employee; evidence was presented that their mutual interests were threatened by the foreigner; the conclusion was reached that only by a tariff could these interests be protected. What distinguished their 'gospel' from that of, say, German or American protectionists was the need to justify an increase in food prices as a means of cementing imperial ties. This posed a great difficulty and was generally presented not as a sacrifice to be made for the sake of the Empire-which was the argument many imperialists would have preferred to adopt-but, as we have noted, as an advantage to the English working man in the long run, citing that colonial markets for British goods would expand and the pos-



T.R.L.L. No. 24, pp. 2-3.


United Empire Trade League Publications, New Series, ( London, 1897?).


T.R.L.L. No. 220.


T.R.L., Cartoon Series, No. G.

sibility of a cheaper imperial loaf in the future. It is very clear, however, that the protectionists of the Tariff Reform League did not feel too comfortable in the imperial clothes which they felt compelled to don at Chamberlain's insistence. They were cramping, indeed, and imperial questions were not usually emphasized in League publications.

'Doctrinal' differences concerning domestic protection and imperial preference (the first has been called the 'bread and butter' side and the second the 'sentimental or 'imperial side of Tariff Reform) divided the members of the Tariff Reform League increasingly as the years passed. Joseph Chamberlain had begun the tariff campaign as one for preference and imperial consolidation. The manufacturers of the Tariff Reform League, although more interested in domestic protection, had accepted the imperial programme as well. Protection, however, was fairly popular with many sections of the British electorate. Many hard-pressed capitalists and their employees could be persuaded to protect British industry. But imperial preference meant an increase in the price of food, and the Liberals had won many elections on the cry of a free breakfast table. In the last years of the campaign, many protectionists argued that preference be eliminated from the Tariff programme so that protection might triumph.

The 'sentimental' side, the imperial side of the movement, was not without its friends. The chief leaders of the Tariff Reform League were convinced imperialists who refused to compromise on imperial preference. Viscount Ridley, a Chairman of the Tariff Reform League, was a leading imperialist. In a speech at the Constitution Club in March of 1909, Ridley expressed his pleasure that ' Tariff Reform was not to come from the Radicals, who would have given a policy of pure Protection without any Imperial aspect.' He himself 'would not have touched the movement but for its imperial interest,' and he felt that his colleagues of the Tariff Reform League had acted similarly. 79 On another occasion, while discussing the comparative prosperity of the German and American workman as a result of tariffs, Ridley had suggested that the prosperity of the workman, 'important as it was, compared with the development of the Empire, was comparatively a



Quoted in Liberal Magazine, April 1909, XVII, p. 199.

side issue.' 80 Since the great theme of the Tariff Reform League campaign was that Tariff Reform was not primarily an imperial question, or a rich man's question, but a working man's question, Ridley's remark gave much good ammunition to the critics of the League's programme.

As the campaign progressed, however, despite all that Ridley and Chamberlain could do, imperial questions became a matter for perorations only. Many of the adherents of imperial consolidation became concerned lest the victory of Tariff Reform not bring with it imperial preference. 81 The question arose at the annual meeting of the Tariff Reform League held in 1908, when this resolution was presented:

'This conference is of opinion that the immediate interests of the working classes in this country would best be served if the proposed reform in Imperial taxation was limited for the present to a transference of a portion of the existing food taxes to imported manufactured articles.'

The intent of the resolution was clear: protection without preference. The Chairman immediately declared that the entire executive body would resign if the resolution were passed, and, with two or three dissenters, the motion was declared out of order. The debate was concluded by Medhurst, the chairman of the Trade Union Branch of the T.R.L., who declared that 'they must not run away from a single item of their policy.' 82

Two narrow Liberal victories in 1910 separated the lambs from the wolves, the sincere imperialists from the industrial protectionists. During the period between the 1910 polls, much of the Tory press insisted that the Conservative party drop food duties. Succumbing to considerable party pressure, Balfour, in November of 1910, in a speech at Albert Hall, promised to submit a Tariff Reform budget to an electoral referendum should the Unionists be returned. The Tariff Reformers felt miserable and betrayed, but the party still had not deserted preference. 83 After the second defeat of 1910, party



Quoted in Ibid., December 1905, XIII, p. 682; see also issue of January 1908, XV, pp. 728-729.


See Ibid., August 1908, XVI, p. 467.


The Times, February 8, 1908, 6c.


Chamberlain, Politics from Inside, passim, pp. 298-312.

resentment turned against its weak and hesitant leader. Disgusted with Balfour's vacillating tactics, the Tariff Reformers began a campaign to force him out. 'B.M.G.', ' Balfour Must Go,' was their slogan. In November of 1911, Balfour resigned to be replaced as Leader of the Unionist opposition by an active Tariff Reformer, Andrew Bonar Law.

Subsequent events make it apparent that it had not really been Balfour's lukewarm position which had caused difficulty for the Tariff Reformers. After the defeat of 1910, contributions to the Tariff Reform League dwindled to almost nothing. Great pressure was brought to bear upon Bonar Law by local Unionist associations and by the mass-circulation party press to drop the highly unpopular food taxes. Finally, in January 1913, Bonar Law felt compelled to give way to these demands. The preferential aspects of Tariff Reform were unceremoniously abandoned. The Unionist party now stood on a programme of protection without preference. The imperialists were routed. In a moving letter to his stepmother, Austen Chamberlain, who had continued the fight initiated by his father after the imperialist leader had suffered a stroke, wrote:

'I have prepared you and Father for what this letter has to tell, yet I find it a very difficult one to write. I have done my best, but the game is up. We are beaten and the cause for which Father sacrificed more than life itself is abandoned! It is a bitter confession to make and it is difficult for me to speak calmly about it.' 84



Ibid., p. 508.


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