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


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They are tumbling over each other, Liberals and Conservatives, to show which side are the greatest and most enthusiastic Imperialists. . . . The people have found that England is small, and her trade is large, and they have also found out that other people are taking their share of the world, and enforcing hostile tariffs. The people of England are finding out that 'trade follows the flag' and they have all become Imperialists. They are not going to part with any territory. . . . The English people intend to retain every inch of land they have got, and perhaps they intend to secure a few more inches.


MR. JACKSON. . . . What I have to tell you is I'm not going to have you loafing away your time here. I disapprove of loafing on principle. Both as a public man and and as a private man I disapprove of it. There's far too much of it in England today. That's where the Germans are ahead of us. Young men who ought to be at business or in the professions idle away their time and live on their parents.

ST. JOHN HANKIN, The Return of the Prodigal, 1905

Contemporary observers have commented on the militant patriotism, and even jingoism, which the Boer War had stimulated among all classes of Englishmen. Previous hopes of strengthening the ties between the scattered parts of Victoria's realm seemed dramatically realized when troops from all over the empire joined together to extend Britain's authority in South Africa. The idea of 'empire building' had become popular. The British government had previously seemed to

turn a deaf ear to entreaties that it take positive action to enlarge its possessions. England appeared to have gathered her empire, to use the familiar phrase, 'in a fit of absence of mind.' By 1899, however, Great Britain was in full possession of her imperial senses.

Such a break in policy which the coming of the Boer War so dramatically presented, could not fail to seriously divide the nation. Many Liberals -- in parliament and throughout the country -- ranged themselves on the side of the Boers and against the Unionist government waging the war. But even within the party of 'peace, retrenchment, and reform' there was now a group of self-designated 'Liberal-Imperialists' who, under the leadership of the former Liberal prime minister, Rosebery, gave their full support to the governments' policy. The popular reaction to the Jameson raid of 1895 had demonstrated the new spirit of the country. When the siege of Mafeking was lifted in May 1900, the mob rioting and street celebrations presented a picture of a nation whose combative instincts had been aroused. The election of October 1900 indicated that the entire electorate, less noisily perhaps but equally emphatically, had endorsed the imperialist policy of the government: the Unionist majority was 134. Writing in 1900, Victor Bérard, a French observer, proclaimed imperialism 'all-triumphant.' 1

The Boer War had climaxed a period of growing British interest in extending her empire. Some years before the war, Britain's new imperial spirit could have been seen in the Sudan, in the exploits of Gordon and Kitchener and in the enthusiasm which they inspired at home. During the 'eighties and 'nineties the great powers had been engaged in carving out empires and spheres of influence in Africa and Asia, and statesmen were relating these moves to the future prosperity of the nation. The Liberal-Imperialist Rosebery, as early as 1893, had described British motives in African colonization as 'pegging out claims for the future.' In an address before the Colonial Institute he had declared:

'It is said that our Empire is already large enough, and does not need extension. That would be true enough if the world were



Victor Bérard, British Imperialism and Commercial Supremacy ( London, 1906), p. 42, and passim.

elastic, but I unfortunately it is not elastic, and we are engaged at the present moment, in the language of mining, "in pegging out claims for the future." We have to consider not what we want now, but what we shall want in the future. We have to consider what countries must be developed either by ourselves or some other nation, and we have to remember that it is part of our responsibility and heritage to take care that the world, so far as it can be moulded by us, shall receive an English-speaking complexion, and not that of other nations. . . . We have to look forward beyond the chatter of platforms and the passions of party to the future of the race of which we are at present the trustees, and we should, in my opinion, grossly fail in the task that has been laid upon us did we shrink from responsibilities and decline to take our share in a partition of the world which we have not forced on, but which has been forced upon us.' 2

Popular reaction to imperialism was assessed by Rosebery when he remarked, in a famous speech at Chesterfield on December 16, 1901, that 'the Liberal party should not dissociate themselves, even indirectly or unconsciously or by any careless words, from the new sentiment of Empire which occupies the nation . . . for the statesman, however great he may be, who dissociates himself from that feeling must not be surprised if the nation dissociates itself from him.' 3 During the period few politicians took this risk. There were few men in public life who still insisted that the inevitable tendency of the colonies was independence; fewer still asserted that the colonies were a millstone around the neck of the mother country. Such views, however, had been quite common some sixty, or even some twenty, years earlier. Imperialism, indeed, had won the day.

'Imperialism' is a word of comparatively recent origin, 4 first associated with the Second Empire of Louis Napoleon, before it became identified with some of the more extravagant notions of Benjamin Disraeli. A conventional starting point in the story of late nineteenth-century British 'imperialism' is 1876, when Disraeli persuaded a reluctant parliament to add 'Empress of India' to Victoria's royal title. In the 'eighties, imperialism was sometimes understood to mean the mainte-



Quoted in William L. Langer, The Diplomacy of Imperialism ( New York: 1935), I, p. 78.


Liberal League Publication, No. 37.


Richard Koebner, "The Concept of Economic Imperialism", The Economic History Review, Second Series, Vol. II, No. 1, 1949, pp. 1-29, discusses the development of meaning of the term.

nance of the union with Ireland in opposition to the Home Rule ideas of Gladstonian Liberalism. More frequently, imperialism was taken to mean a desire to increase the unity of the 'self-governing' parts of the empire, and as such this sentiment was shared by leaders of both parties. The Imperial Federation League, which was established in 1884 to 'secure by Federation the permanent unity of the Empire,' included the Liberal W. E. Forster as well as Edward Stanhope, who was to become Salisbury's Colonial Secretary in 1886. Other members of the League were Froude, the Tory historian of Tudor England; Sir John Seeley, who held the chair of modern history at Cambridge from 1869 to 1894; Sir Charles Tupper who 'represented! Canada; Sir Charles Gavan Duffy and Sir Henry Parkes who spoke for Australia; but by far the most prominent of the politicians associated with the League was the Earl of Rosebery.

The formation of the Imperial Federation League was just one of the signs of the awakening of imperial sentiment. 5 In 1891, the United Empire Trade League was established. In 1893, the British Empire League was set up and later in that year the Imperial Federation (Defence) Committee. The United Empire Trade League posited an imperial Zollverein, a union of the empire on the basis of an imperial customs system, as its objective, and many imperialists of the 'nineties regarded this device as the most logical means for insuring imperial unity. As early as the 'eighties the Statist had offered a thousand guinea prize for the best essay on an imperial customs union. Growing concern with empire and with Britain's 'imperial mission' can be seen in the reception accorded Sir John Seeley The Expansion of England, one of the most popular books of the 'eighties, and the Liberal-Imperialist Charles Dilke Problems of Greater Britain. A more aggressive imperialism was perceptible in W. E. Henley, who made the National Observer, which he edited from 1888 to 1893, the literary organ of imperialism, and in Rudyard Kipling, who became the nation's most popular poet with his verses extolling the special mission of the British people and the 'white man's burden.' In 1894, Benjamin Kidd published his



See J. E. Tyler, The Struggle for Imperial Unity ( 1868-1895) ( London: Longmans, 1938).

Social Evolution in which, as we have seen, he discussed the racial superiority of the Teutonic peoples and called for the sacrifice of individual interests in behalf of a greater national and imperial ideal. Nor was imperialism found only in political philosophy and literature. The mass-circulation pennypress was enlisted in the cause of the empire and delivered daily sermons on the subject to its growing readership. In the 'eighties, W. T. Stead, the friend and executor of Cecil Rhodes, re-made the Pall Mall Gazette into an organ of imperialism. Alfred Harmsworth Daily Mail, founded in 1896, was marked by its imperial jingoism. In 1900, Arthur Pearson founded a competitor paper, the Daily Express, whose first leader, dated April 24th, read: 'Our policy is patriotic; our policy is the British Empire.' 6

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