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


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The British novelist, C. P. Snow, has written of a conversation that he had with David Lloyd George during the 'thirties. Snow

had asked the former Prime Minister what he believed history would say of him and Lloyd George had replied:

'I think our wars will seem rather local affairs to posterity, because the centre of gravity of the world is going to change, if it hasn't changed already. I am inclined to think that, if they are interested in me at all, they will be interested because, in the first country to be highly industrialised, I did something to mollify class conflict -and whether they approve or not, will depend on whether they believe that was a good thing to do.' 1

Lloyd George had not, during the period preceding the war, publicly subscribed to the social-imperialist creed. Although principally responsible for the social programme of the LiberalImperialist led government, the Welsh Liberal had led the Radical pack of pro-Boers during the South African War and had fought for social reform against Dreadnoughts in the cabinet crisis of 1909. Yet when war with Germany came, both parties turned to him, to the 'anti-imperialist' Lloyd George, to head the war-time government, a coalition backed principally by the Unionist party. The question which presents itself is, of course, how this could have occurred if Lloyd George's views had remained those of Radical anti-imperialism. It is all too easy to regard Lloyd George as an opportunist, and such an explanation can be made to jibe with many of the facts. Indeed, in Lloyd George's case there is a rather large grain of truth imbedded in such a view. Yet it is not a fully satisfactory one. Perhaps we can better understand Lloyd George and -- more important -- the political mood of Great Britain during this period before the War of 1914 if we explore the story of Lloyd George's 'other coalition,' a coalition that never was to be.

When this coalition was presumably only a glint in the mind's eye of its eventual initiator, it emerged, full-blown, in the novels of that remarkable writer, the Liberal M.P. Hilaire Belloc. In Belloc Mr Clutterbuck's Election, published in 1908, 2 were incorporated not only its author's many wellknown, and highly unattractive, prejudices but a description of an England of the future, an England with two new politi-



C. P. Snow, "London Diary", in New Statesman, February 23, 1957, LIII, No. 1354, p. 227.


Hilaire Belloc, Mr Clutterbuck's Election ( London, 1908), passim.

cal parties. The first of these imaginary groups was called the ' National Party.' In what seemed like the purest nonsense, Belloc pictured the National party as a consequence of the acceptance of a modified tariff by the Liberal majority and by the Unionist Free Traders as well as the acceptance of Home Rule for Ireland on the part of the majority of the Unionist party. The chief leaders of the two traditional parties, in Belloc's fantasy, had thus accepted what each had publicly dedicated himself most fervently to oppose. The second party was called the Opposition -- it could not agree on a more satisfactory name. It was composed of the unreconstructed Free Traders and die-hard Orangemen. In a later novel, Pongo and the Bull, published in 1910, Belloc's readers found themselves in the same political spectrum, with a new element -- the 'Straights,' a socialist party clearly modelled upon the Fabians. The Straights, we are told, 'were willing and quite sincerely willing to support the general programme of armament and of Imperial policy for which the National party now stood.' For his part, the leader of the National party was 'not only willing as a politician, but naturally inclined as a thinker to follow their advice upon the details of social-reform.' 3

What Hilaire Belloc had depicted in the National party was the party of national efficiency which the Fabians had tried to form when they assembled the Coefficients. It was a party which might have found favour in the eyes of Joseph Chamberlain who, we recall, had been speaking of a 'National party' as early as the 'seventies. With its lofty method of transcending the issues of practical politics in favour of a united approach on problems of armament, imperial policy, and social reform, the National party of Belloc's novels was the party of social-imperialism. It was a party which the Cobdenites dreaded -- and which the cynical Belloc, the author of the Servile State, anticipated with grim foreboding. For Belloc, the co-author, with Cecil Chesterton, of The Party System, in 1911, such deceitful compromises were an inescapable part of parliamentary democracy. Belloc's attack on the 'system' was much along the lines of Robert Blatchford, that is, defence of the democracy of 'general will,' accompanied,



Hilaire Belloc, Pongo and the Bull ( London, 1910), p. 48, and passim.

in the continental manner, by an attack on elections, parliaments, and political parties. Parties for Belloc were meaningless instruments between which there was 'no difference of economic interest or of political principle.' As a result of the party system, statesmen paid no attention to the wishes of the electorate. It was not at all the people who mattered under the party system, it was 'the Governing Group,' and the leaders of both parties were members of this group -- or were soon absorbed by this group. The principles which the member of the governing group supposedly held were quite 'unreal' to him although real enough to the voters. That was why 'governments suddenly abandon causes which they have enthusiastically espoused, and why Oppositions tolerate such abandonment and lend themselves to such manoeuvres.' 4

Shortly before the writing of The Party System, a 'conference' had been called, in mid-1910, of both the Unionist and the Liberal leaders. The purpose of this conference had been the solution of the constitutional impasse into which England had been hurled by the Lords' rejection of the Lloyd George budget. This conference, Belloc was to assert, was not entirely unique -- on a less formal level, it constituted 'the normal method of governing the country.' 5 The inter-party discussions of the conference of 1910 were a matter of public intelligence. In a most private and secretive manner, on the topmost levels, another kind of discussion was in progress, the objective of which would have come as no real surprise to the authors of The Party System, and the details of which would have confirmed the prophecies of the author of Pongo and the Bull, had they but known of them.

In mid-October, in 1910, Lloyd George approached F. E. Smith, one of the leaders of the Unionist party, with an extraordinary proposal. As a means of solving the many thorny problems with which the nation was faced, Lloyd George suggested the formation of a Coalition government composed of the 'moderate' wings of the Liberal and Unionist parties. Smith immediately brought the Leader of the Opposition, A. J. Balfour, into the discussions -- and, soon afterward, such



Hilaire Belloc and Cecil Chesterton, The Party System ( London, 1911), pp. 8-9, and passim.


Ibid., pp. 54-55.

Unionist stalwarts as Austen Chamberlain and Andrew Bonar Law. For his part, Lloyd George was speaking on behalf of five of his cabinet colleagues: the Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer had secured the agreement of the Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, of Lord Haldane, of Sir Edward Grey, of Lord Crewe and of Winston Churchill to the terms upon which the Liberals would accept a coalition government. The Liberal chiefs proposed that the Conservatives join them on a programme which would set up a system of national military training, much like the Swiss militia system; which would put the Navy on a 'satisfactory footing'; which would at once grant tariff preference to the colonies on the duties immediately available as well as set up an inquiry into what further duties might be imposed in the national and imperial interest; which would deal with the problems of the Poor Law and set up a system of national insurance -- which last, in Austen Chamberlain's words, 'if done by common agreement, could be done better and cheaper than if done by one Party.' A virtually complete amalgam of both Liberal and Tariff Reform social-imperialisms. All that Lloyd George and the Liberal-Imperialists sought from the Unionists in exchange for this multitude of concessions was a policy of devolution within the United Kingdom which would give Ireland her parliament.

F. E. Smith and Austen Chamberlain were enormously pleased. Smith's explanation of Lloyd George's proposal was simply, quem Deus vult perdere prius dementat. We must remember, in viewing the terms set forth by the Liberals, that, with the exception of Lloyd George, those Liberals who had subscribed to the secret proposal were all self-acknowledged imperialists. Prompted, perhaps, by their mounting fears for the safety of the Empire, the Liberal-Imperialists appeared willing to throw over their Radical Cabinet colleagues, just as Chamberlain had thrown over Gladstone on the issue of Irish Home Rule in the 'eighties, and to deny almost all traces of the creed of Cobdenite cosmopolitanism which had characterized Liberalism for over half a century. The Unionists appeared quite willing to accept all this, and quite understandably. What stuck in their throats was the provision of Home Rule for Ireland. Balfour hesitated and the Unionist partywhip, Akers-Douglas, expressed the view that the party would

not support a coalition on such a basis -- and so the proposal fell through. 6

Lloyd George's coalition proposal of 1910 was more than a curious fulfilment of the fantasy-prediction of Belloc's novels. 7 In these proposals, we may see the socio-political programme of perhaps the most enlightened section of the British governing classes at a crisis-time in British history. It was a time of crisis, a period of domestic violence (suffragette, Orangeman, and syndicalist), and of heightening fears of Imperial Germany. In his War Memoirs, Lloyd George described the conditions which had led to his proposal of a party truce in 1910 -- conditions which, perhaps because of the failure of his proposal, persisted until the coming of war in 1914:

'The shadow of unemployment was rising ominously above the horizon. Our international rivals were forging ahead at a great rate and jeopardising our hold on the markets of the world. There was an arrest in that expansion of our foreign trade which had contributed to the phenomenal prosperity of the previous halfcentury, and of which we had made such a muddled and selfish use. Our working population, crushed into dingy and mean streets, with no assurance that they would not be deprived of their daily bread by ill-health or trade fluctuations, were becoming sullen with discontent. Whilst we were growing more dependent on overseas supplies for our food, our soil was gradually going out of cultivation. The life of the countryside was wilting away and we were becoming dangerously over-industrialised. Excessive indulgence in alcoholic drinks was undermining the health and efficiency of a considerable section of the population. [Furthermore,] A great Constitutional struggle over the House of Lords threatened revolution at home,



This would-be coalition is discussed in David Lloyd George, War Memoirs ( London, 1933), I, pp. 32-41; Austen Chamberlain, Politics From Inside, pp. 191-193; 283-294, 576-577; Earl of Birkenhead, Frederick Edwin, Earl of Birkenhead ( London, 1933), I, pp. 203-209. Also see S. J. Hurwitz, State Intervention in Great Britain ( New York, 1949), pp. 22-25.


Even the 'Straights,' in the form of the Labour Party, were asked to join the Coalition. Lloyd George, with an unerring ability to recognize the coalition personality, approached J. Ramsay Macdonald, rather than either George Barnes, the leader of the parliamentary party, or Arthur Henderson, the chairman of the party. Macdonald tentatively accepted a position in the forthcoming coalition cabinet but Henderson wisely refused to consider the matter. We might of course see this proposal as anticipatory of both the Lloyd George coalition government of 1916 to 1922 and of J. Ramsay Macdonald's National Government of 1931-35. See Mary Agnes Hamilton, Arthur Henderson ( London: Heinemann, 1938), p. 74.

another threatened civil war at our doors in Ireland. [Abroad,] great nations were arming feverishly for an apprehended struggle into which we might be drawn by some visible or invisible ties, interests or sympathies.'

Lloyd George's agonizing final question was: 'Were we prepared for all the terrifying contingencies?' 8

Lloyd George's picture of conditions at home was an amalgam of the complaints of the Radicals, the Liberal-Imperialists, and the Tariff Reformers. From the last mentioned had come the picture of Britain's loosening hold on her export markets and the resulting unemployment, from them and from men like Robert Blatchford had come the steady insistence that Free Trade had dealt a death blow to the countryside and that England was becoming dangerously dependent on overseas food, from the Radicals had come the fear that drink was proving the ruination of a good part of the working class, and from the Liberal-Imperialists the warning of the dangers of slum-dwellings to the breeding of an imperial race. But there was a single undercurrent, a single strand which united the seemingly disparate elements. Fear. The 'shadow of unemployment' rises 'ominously'; the working class was 'becoming sullen with discontent'; there was a threat of 'revolution at home' and of 'civil war' in Ireland. And across the North Sea Germany was planning new mischief. These were the circumstances -- wrote Lloyd George -- which had led to his proposals and, presumably, to their acceptance by the imperialist members of the Liberal cabinet. These were the circumstances under which the leading members of what Belloc has described as the 'Governing Group' of England negotiated for the end of party warfare, for the shelving of traditional party warcries -- whether addressed to the nonconformist conscience or to Irish Protestant prejudice -- in the interest of preparing England for the coming international struggle. Only in this way, the Liberal-Imperialists felt, and the leading Tariff Reformers appeared to agree, could the revolutionary dangers of a discontented working class be averted while, at the same time, England's vital defences might be strengthened to meet foreign attack. The members of the governing group, regardless of



Lloyd George, op. cit., I, p. 35.


party-label, recognized social-imperialism as the necessary policy.

Yet somehow the politics of social-imperialism did not quite jibe with the code and rules of the English party system. English politics was a gentlemanly game played by gentlemen. The naked social-imperial appeals to the working class made by continental social-imperialists would have stuck in the throats of Asquith, or Grey, or Rosebery, or Balfour, or even Joseph Chamberlain. Chamberlain was in many ways most extreme in his statements -- yet even he had half-apologized for the 'squalid argument.' The Unionist Party permitted such extra-party organizations as the Tariff Reform League to say what it itself had refused to say -- we have noted Balfour's wincing over the slogan ' Tariff Reform Means Work for All.' Nor, to cite another example, did the Liberal statesmen clearly depict the social-imperial meaning of their decision to prove social reform compatible with Free Trade by their programme of taxing the new 'unearned' wealth of the urban landlords, though their supporters in the Labour party had intuitively grasped this. The English political system just was not set up to admit the sort of demagogic social-imperialism which, in the years to come, Hitler and Mussolini were to spout on the continent. As a consequence, perhaps, the leading exponents of social-imperialist theory in England were men who did not or could not play the party game -- men like Milner, who had called himself a political Ishmaelite, or academicians like Ashley, Mackinder, or Cunningham. It somehow seems very English that this attempt to form a social-imperial party was defeated by the veto of the Unionist party whip who understood that the Tory squires would not have countenanced the 'betrayal' of the Orangemen.

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