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


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The Liberals regarded the campaign of Chamberlain and the Tariff Reform League to convert the working classes to protection as an appeal to the vilest instincts by entirely selfseeking interests. The Tariff Reformers, in Radical eyes, were selfish manufacturers determined to increase their profits even if this meant bringing back the 'dear loaf' and the 'hungry 'forties.' They were bloated landowners anxious that the increasing burden of taxation for defence and social reform should be placed upon the back of the working classes in the form of excises rather than upon their own huge unearned incomes. This Liberal analysis was in many respects an accurate one. The attempt to create a Bismarckian England revealed a play of motives that was no prettier than those involved in the creation of Bismarckian Germany or, for that matter, in the framing of an American tariff. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume that no larger ideals lay behind the movement for Tariff Reform and preference. The socialimperialism of Alfred Milner was, in many ways, a repository of this idealism. Although in basic agreement with the programme of the Unionist Party, Milner stubbornly chose to follow an independent course and held himself genuinely 'above party.' Obviously disinterested and guided by sincere and generous sentiments, he succeeded in winning the respect even of his political opponents.

Milner was born in Giesen, Hesse-Darmstadt, of English parentage, on March 23, 1854. His first four years were spent in Germany -- his father was a teacher in a German university -- his next eight in Chelsea, and the three following in a Gymnasium at Tübingen to whose university the elder Milner -- a physician by profession -- had returned as a Reader in English

Literature. Unlike his social-imperial colleagues, therefore, Milner was not cut in any of the conventional English public school patterns. After a brilliant career at King's College, London, he received a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, and subsequently a call to the bar from Inner Temple. After leaving school, he worked on the Pall Mall Gazette, first with the Cobdenite John Morley and then with the imperialist social reformer, W. T. Stead. He displayed an early interest in social reform and was a friend and a colleague of both Arnold Toynbee 1 and William Barnett. Milner served as joint secretary of the university extension movement for which, in 1882, he had delivered six lectures on socialism, 2 and was one of the founders of Toynbee Hall.

Milner's early politics were Liberal -- he fought Harrow for the Liberals in 1885 and lost-but his Liberalism was never of the Cobdenite blend. He had, early in life, determined never to marry so that he might devote his life entirely to the state-itself a rejection of Cobdenite egoism. (He relented when he was sixty-seven years old). An enthusiastic imperialist, he followed Chamberlain in his break with Gladstonian Liberalism and served as private secretary to the LiberalUnionist Goschen, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Unionist cabinet of 1886. In 1887, he accepted the position of director-general of accounts in Egypt, thereby beginning his proconsular activities. He performed brilliantly in the position and was recalled in 1892 to become Chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue. While serving with the Board, he aided two chancellors, Harcourt and Hicks-Beach, in the preparation of their budgets; there is no way of knowing how great a role he played in placing death duties in the budget of the former, but there is no doubt that his influence was felt.

In 1897 Milner had been the choice of both parties to go to South Africa to try to solve the difficulties in British-Boer relations. His activities in South Africa before, during, and after the Boer War are well known. An advocate of the doctrine of the civilizing mission of the Europeans, of the 'white



Milner has outlined the influence of Toynbee on both his imperial and social views in an admirable essay Arnold Toynbee: A Reminiscence ( London 1901).


Milner six lectures on socialism were reprinted by the National Review in monthly issues from January through June 1931.

man's burden,' he could not tolerate the Boer's treatment of the native, an attitude, we are told, which played no small part in shaping his South African position. 3 Milner's return from South Africa was the occasion for both hoots and cheers. From that time onward, he was no longer judged as a man but as a symbol of British imperialism. One of the earliest acts of the Liberal parliament of 1906, for example, was a censure of Milner, by an overpowering vote of 355 to 135, for certain of his acts in South Africa. But to others he was a hero. He was welcomed into the Coefficients Club by his admirers. He became a mainstay of the Tariff Reform cause. He arrived home a peer, and, from that vantage point, he began to preach a 'higher' imperialism and a new concept of national life.

Milner, a target for the Liberals and the not-too-well understood hero of the imperialists, was never destined to be a popular figure. For one thing, he was not a good speaker: Austen Chamberlain's wife Ivy reported to her husband on one of Milner's speeches which was 'full of good stuff, but badly delivered, from vast sheaves of notes from which he read largely, losing himself at intervals'; 4 W. A. S. Hewins described another speech of Milner's in behalf of Hewins' own parliamentary candidacy at Shipley, saying 'Yorkshire working men greatly appreciated the presence of so distinguished a person but wished they could understand what he said.' 5 His lack of concern with the purely pounds, shillings, and pence arguments of the Tariff Reformers served to alienate many Unionists. Hewins, the Secretary to the Tariff Commission and the technician of Tariff Reform, complained that Milner never 'wholeheartedly' supported Chamberlain's plan. Although Milner was a member of a Balfour-appointed tariff committee, Hewins could 'not remember that he ever made a single contribution to elucidating the technical tariff questions which we reviewed.' 6 In many ways, he was more a hero of the



Edward Crankshaw, The Forsaken Idea: A Study of Viscount Milner ( London: Longmans, 1952). A recent work devoted to a presentation of Milner's ideas. Gives much attention to Milner's activities in South Africa. See also Cecil Headlam, ed., The Milner Papers ( London, 193133), 2 Vols.


Austin Chamberlain, Politics from Inside, p. 110.


Hewins, Apologia of An Imperialist, I, pp. 39-40.


Ibid., p. 40.

Fabians than any other political group. 7 He keenly felt his isolated position. 'I am a free lance,' he declared, 'a sort of political Ishmaelite, who has found hospitality in the Unionist camp. It is certain that I could not have found it in any other.' 8

The end of the nineteenth century had witnessed the resurrection of tribal ideals, of concepts of racial missions. These formed significant parts of both French and German socialimperialism. Among the British social-imperialists whose ideas we are discussing, Milner expressed this viewpoint most intensely. He asserted his conviction that 'the British race . . . stands for something distinctive and priceless in the onward march of humanity.' 9 Milner's imperial pride appeared in the full-blooded terms of the late nineteenth century:

'I have emphasised the importance of the racial bond. From my point of view this is fundamental. It is the British race which built the Empire, and it is the undivided British race which can alone uphold it . . . deeper, stronger, more primordial than these material ties is the bond of common blood, a common language, common history and traditions. But what do I mean by the British race? I mean all the peoples of the United Kingdom and their descendants in other countries under the British flag.' 10

This was an unusual mode of expression, for British imperialism generally had a more pragmatic bent. In his view of 'racial' bonds and missions, Milner was joined in part by Chamberlain and by Cecil Rhodes, whose views on the subject were even more pointed, 11 and, of course, by the SocialDarwinist, Karl Pearson.

Like Pearson, Milner was an opponent of the 'divisive' brand of socialism, believing that, instead of encouraging organic development along national or racial lines, it threatened to subvert the state by promoting class hostility. Class conflict, he was convinced, posed the greatest danger to the British



Ibid., xxxv.


For Rhodes' views on race, see W. T. S. Stead, ed., The Last Will and Testament of Cecil John Rhodes ( London, 1902), pp. 52, 58.


See Chapter VI, supra.


Lord Milner, "A Political Ishmaelite," Wolverhampton, December 17, 1906, The Nation and the Empire, p. 153. Second references will be to the title of the speech and the page of The Nation and the Empire. (N and E).


Alfred Milner, "The Two Nations,"' East London, December 4, 1912, N and E, p. 496.

Empire. Milner elevated this observation into a firm political law: 'Among civilised peoples of more or less equal size,' he asserted, 'that one will be, as it will deserve to be, the strongest, which is most successful in removing the causes of class antagonism in its midst.' 12 The Unionist party, if it would be successful, must become a national party 'not a class party.' Milner suggested the running of Unionist Labour members. He had confidence in the patriotism and imperialism of the working class. He refused to believe that they were 'the unpatriotic, anti-national, down-with-the-army, up-with-the-foreigner, take-it-lying-down class of Little Englanders, that they are constantly represented to be.' 13 He had nothing but contempt for the doctrine of 'the solidarity of the workers of all nations' and affirmed his own belief in development 'on national lines,' in the 'mission of my country, of the British race.' 14

When Chamberlain brought forth his programme, Milner gave it enthusiastic support. He dismissed the 'divisive' argument that the tariff would place an unequal burden on the poor. The programme of Tariff Reform, he declared, was framed in the interest of 'the nation as a whole-not of any one class.' 15 The Radical government was seeking funds for defence and for social reform by wholesale expropriation. It was 'stirring up class hatred or trying to rob Peter in order to pay Paul.' 16 Social reform and national defence were not matters that pertained to only one class; the nation as a whole was affected. All classes should pay, according to their ability, the expense involved. 'It is thoroughly vicious in principle,' Milner insisted, 'to divide the nation, as many of the Radical and Labour men want to divide it, into two sections-a majority which only calls the tune, and a minority which only pays the piper.' 17 The only method for raising the revenues necessary for a wide programme of progressive social reform -- the only



Milner, "The Two Nations," N and E, p. 496.


Milner, "Unionists and Social Reform," Rugby, November 19, 1907, N and E, p. 252.


Milner, "The Two Nations", N and E, p. 496.


Milner, "Tariff Reform and National Policy", Poole, November 16, 1909, N and E, p. 388.


Milner, "A Constructive Policy," Guildford, October 29, 1907, N and E, pp. 214-215.


1bid., p. 216.

method other than gross expropriation -- was Tariff Reform. 18 Tariff revenues would supply funds for old-age pensions as well as support for the military and naval services without draining the resources of the well-to-do exclusively. Tariff Reform would be the ideal mechanism by which the sound revenue principle of 'Let all pay according to their means' might best be applied. 19 Tariff Reform would unite all classes and promote class harmony rather than class conflict.

Milner regarded British industry as the 'national' industry and therefore deserving of national protection. 'The point is, that we should look at industry in a national spirit which aims at the maximum of production and employment' he asserted, 'not in the purely commercial spirit which thinks of nothing but cheapness.' The decline of any British industry must be set down as 'a national loss.' 20 The Cobdenites had made a god of cheapness and this deity was undermining the national welfare. 'It is surely better to pay a little more for your goods, and keep thousands of people in productive work, than to pay a little less for your goods, and have ultimately to devote what you have saved in that way to the relief of pauperism due to the loss of employment.' 21

Milner was convinced that 'there can be no adequate prosperity for the forty or fifty million people in these islands without the Empire and all that it provides.' 22 British wellbeing depended upon the continued allegiance of the great self-governing nations of the commonwealth, the maintenance of British control in the Empire's dependencies, and the capacity of Great Britain to guard her interests in foreign countries outside the empire. Should the empire be liquidated or should Great Britain be unable to exert the force necessary to fulfill her commitments or to induce other nations to fulfill theirs, Britain would be reduced to a fifth-rate power. National prosperity depended upon national power:

'This country must remain a great Power or she will become a poor country; and those who in seeking, as they are most right to



Milner, "Unionists and Social Reform," N and E, pp. 244-245.


Ibid., p. 251.


Milner, "A Political Ishmaelite," N and E, p. 162.


Ibid., p. 162.


Milner, "Tariff Reform", Tunbridge Wells, October 24, 1907, N and E, pp. 196-197.

seek, social improvement are tempted to neglect national strength, are simply building their house upon the sand. . . . These islands, by themselves cannot always remain a Power of the very first rank.' 23

Milner was an imperialist; he believed that 'the maintenance and consolidation of what we call the British Empire should be the first and the highest of all political objects for every subject of the Crown.' 24 He was also a social reformer. He saw no contradiction between the two roles, believing imperialism and social reform entirely interdependent. If the Empire were to be consolidated and preserved, the strength of the entire nation was needed for the effort. If the nation was weak, unhealthy, impoverished -- the very foundations of empire must crumble. He called upon the Unionist party not only to fight for the Empire but to join the struggle against 'irregular employment and unhealthy conditions of life.' 25 The Cobdenite believed in 'unfettered competition' and idealized 'cheapness.' Not so the Tariff Reformer: 'He does not believe that the mere blind struggle for individual gain is going to produce the most beneficent results. He does not believe in cheapness if it is the result of sweating or of underpaid labour.' 26 The social-imperialist understood that the community had an equity in the efficiency and well-being of all its members. 27 To those who were genuinely patriotic, 'to those, in whom that sentiment is really powerful, the existence of slums, of sweating, of health-destroying industries, and of all other conditions which lead to the degradation of great numbers of their fellow-countrymen, must appear an intolerable desecration of all that they hold most dear.' 28 A people's well-being consisted of having sufficient 'air, space, cleanliness, exercise, good houses, good food.' A sound imperialism was based upon a vigorous people, an 'imperial Race.' To sustain the empire



Milner, "The Imperialist Creed," Manchester, December 14, 1906, N and E, pp. 139-140.


Ibid., p. 138.


Milner, "Unionists and Social Reform,"N and E, pp. 249-250.


Milner, "Unionists and the Empire," Edinburgh, November 15, 1907, N and E, pp. 240-241.


Milner, "Sweated Industries," Oxford, December 5, 1907, N and E, p. 260.


Milner, N and E, p. xlvi.

you must have soundness at the core -- health, intelligence, industry; and these cannot be general without a fair average standard of material well-being.' If one called himself an imperialist, Milner asserted, 'he must care that the heart of the Empire should beat with a sounder and less feverish pulse.' 29 'Patriotism,' Milner warned, 'like all the ideal sides of life, can be choked, must be choked, in the squalor and degradation of the slums of our great cities.' If patriotism were extinguished, so would Imperialism, which 'is simply the highest development of patriotism,' be extinguished. 30

Milner extended the old Conservative ideal of 'community,' to include the entire Empire, every land in which men of British blood and tradition lived:

'The conception which haunts me is the conception of the people of these islands as a great family, bound by indissoluble ties to kindred families in other parts of the world, and, within its own borders, striving after all that makes for productive power, for social harmony, and, as a result of these and as the necessary complement and shield of these, for its strength as a nation among the nations of the earth.' 31

He regarded himself a 'collectivist' and could not condemn the goals and ideals of socialism. He disliked the socialism of the class struggle but himself preached the creed of a 'nobler Socialism' as an essential of a new 'national life.' 'I am unable to join in the hue and cry against Socialism' he wrote:

'There is a nobler Socialism, which so far from springing from "envy, hatred, and all uncharitableness," is born of genuine sympathy and a lofty and wise conception of what is meant by national life. It realises the fact that we are not merely so many millions of individuals, each struggling for himself, with the State to act as policeman, but literally one body-politic; that the different classes and sections of the community are members of that body, and that when one member suffers all the members suffer. From this point of view the attempt to raise the well-being and efficiency of the more backward of our people -- for this is what it all comes to-is not philanthropy: it is business.' 32



Milner, "The Imperialist Creed," N and E, pp. 139-140; Milner, "Imperialism and Social Reform," Montreal, November 2, 1908, N and E, p. 352.


Ibid., p. 354.


Milner, "A Political Ishmaelite," N and E, p. 163.


Ibid., p. 161.

Milner's 'nobler Socialism' was in conception little different from the 'collectivism' of the Fabians who considered the South African proconsul most worthy of their praise.

In one other sphere, Milner's social-imperialism stood out from the general body of British social-imperial theory-in his attitudes toward democracy and parliamentary institutions. Continental social-imperialists regarded these as corrupt and inefficient. Without accepting such an extreme position-as, we shall see, Blatchford did-and without making his position at all a crucial part of his doctrine, Milner, too, had reservations about what he called 'the system.' In a letter written during the course of the tariff controversy, Milner despaired of Chamberlain ever being able to do anything 'great' because of the 'system.' The 'system' left the 'ultimate powers on all matters, without appeal, with an ignorant people,' a people 'having no adequate appreciation of the supreme value of trained knowledge, or of the difference in size of the questions submitted to them, so that they are capable of the same levity with regard to the biggest things as with regard to trifles.' Under the system, party politics were a meaningless struggle between the ins and the outs, a struggle having little to do with principle. Government was in the hands of a 'huge, unwieldy Cabinet' dominated by 'second-rate men.' More important, there was no 'grading' of questions as to their importance. More often than not, important national questions were put aside in favour of 'local and temporary' ones. 33 Milner's views were not unusual among bureaucrats, experts, working in democratic government-and Milner was a bureaucrat for a good part of his life. Here, too, he was in substantial agreement with the Fabian position.

Throughout his career, Milner failed to make himself understood by the democracy. But his ability and integrity made him a necessary instrument for that democracy in its times of need. He was sent to South Africa as the choice of both parties to deal with a difficult situation; he was invited to join a five-man inner war cabinet in 1916 by David Lloyd George, the war-time Prime Minister, a leader of the Liberal forces which had censured him in 1906. His qualities made him the



Quoted in Crankshaw, op. cit., pp. 135-136.

idol of a group of young men who had served with him in South Africa and who went on to serve the nation in prominent places. Milner's famous 'kindergarten included the journalist Leopold Amery, who rose to the Cabinet rank in his later years; the historian Basil Williams; Geoffrey Dawson, who was to become the editor of The Times; John Buchan and Lionel Curtis. Under the editorship of Curtis, the 'kindergarten' established The Round Table as a periodical in which imperial problems could be reviewed. 34

At Milner's death, in 1925, the editors of The Round Table published an unsigned obituary which described the 'deep affection and absolute confidence' which Milner inspired in all who knew him. He was 'never self-seeking,' never the demagogue; 'he could not be anything but straight.' His imperialism was 'no more strongly held than was his determination to assist those whom he thought weak or downtrodden, whether it were the Kaffir in South Africa or the working man at home.' Milner was, in fact, almost alone among socialimperialists and imperial-socialists in expressing concern for the native peoples in the Empire. In matters of social policy, the editors reported, he felt 'a sympathy with the Labour party.' To the end he remained an imperialist, firmly believing that the strengthening of the British Commonwealth of Nations was 'the best means of securing and adding to the liberty, happiness and progress of mankind.' 35

Chamberlain's chief motivation, as noted, was the prevention of the disintegration of the empire. His social-imperialism was too obviously a mixture of nostalgic reminiscences of his Radical past and sheer opportunism. Promises, made, revised, withdrawn, presented again; this was his pattern and perhaps it was an inevitable one for a political leader in a massdemocracy. Chamberlain feared that his promises of employment and social-reform would be regarded as a 'squalid argument' and would much have preferred an appeal solely on the patriotic platform of saving the empire. Chamberlain, a demagogue, guiltily half-believed his social-imperialism pure dema-



Vladimir Halpérin, Lord Milner et l'évolution de l'impérialisme britannique ( Paris, 1950), passim; pp. 189-213. A recent volume devoted to Milner's activities and influence.


'Lord Milner' The Round Table, No. 59, June 1925, pp. 427-430.

goguery. Milner, out of the public eye, offered no apologies for a social-imperial doctrine he fully believed. As concerned with the empire as was Chamberlain, Milner was convinced that its preservation was essential to the welfare of the working class and that the strength and health of the workers were essential to the empire. If we were to attempt to construct an 'ideal' social-imperialist-analogous to the 'ideal' gas of the physicists -- Milner would come closest to fulfilling its properties. He was also an 'idealist' in the popular, non-metaphysical sense. He represented the noblest, least self-seeking side of Tariff Reform social-imperialism. For him, support of the social-imperial complex constituted-in his own words-the 'highest development of patriotism.'


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