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

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Liberal-Imperialism dated from the 'eighties and was espoused during its early phase by the two most promising of the younger leaders of the Liberal Party -- Earl Rosebery and Sir Charles Dilke. Both Rosebery and Dilke believed that it was possible to be a Liberal without at the same time joining in the Radical chorus, led by men like John Bright, of shouting the praise of laissez-faire and the denunciation of Empire. Many young Oxford men were attracted to this new vision of Liberalism by the Oxford Neo-Hegelian and Liberal, T. H. Green, who can be said to have laid the philosophical foundations for Liberal-Imperialism. Green had turned against the Benthamite utilitarianism which had supported the atomistic individualism of Cobdenism and had preached a new concept of the organic nation which opened the door to social reform and to positive state action in all areas, a gospel which he preached to Balliol men of the generation of Asquith and Milner. A philosophical follower of Green, Bernard Bosanquet, extended that doctrine and struck out against Cobdenite cosmopolitanism ' and internationalism. Writing in 1899, Bosanquet declared that 'the Nation-State is the widest organisa-



Quoted in Sidney Dark, The Life of Sir Arthur Pearson ( London, n.d.), p. 88.

tion which has the common experience necessary to found a common life,' and urged a new patriotism and a subordination of the individual to the community. 7

As we have noted, Rosebery, in the 'eighties, was perhaps the most prominent member of the Imperial Federation League and Dilke was penning his books of praise for 'greater Britain.' Dilke was to be eliminated from consideration for high party or governmental leadership because of an unfortunate divorce action. Rosebery was to fulfil his promise and to succeed the grand old man, Gladstone, as premier in 1894. At Gladstone's retirement from office, the Queen had been faced with a choice between Sir William Harcourt, who led the Radical, Gladstonian segment of the party, and Rosebery. She chose Rosebery because, as she wrote on March 4, 1894, she did not 'think it possible that Lord Rosebery will destroy well tried, valued and necessary institutions for the sole purpose of flattering useless Radicals.' 8 It is easy to understand why Archibald Philip Primrose, the fifth Earl of Rosebery, the flower of the Scottish peerage, was more to the taste of the Queen than Harcourt, a keener Radical than Gladstone himself. Rosebery did not have the cramped, non-conformist style which Victoria had learned to despise. For example, the Queen might recall that Rosebery's name had been expunged from the rolls of Christ Church, Oxford, when, as an undergraduate, he had refused to sell his stud of race horses, and the recollection could not fail to be comforting. The supporters of Harcourt were none too content with the situation and there were considerable difficulties for the Liberal government of 1894-95. The troubles did not cease after the Liberals were ejected from office. Rosebery, who does not seem to have had much of a taste for party politics, found it more comfortable to resign from the leadership of the Liberal party in October 1896.

Highly placed in the party were several followers of Rosebery's Liberal-Imperialism, some of whom had held office in his government. There were three who rose to particular prom-



Bernard Bosanquet, The Philosophical Theory of the State ( London, 1899), p. 320 ff.


Quoted in Marquis of Crewe, Lord Rosebery ( London: J. Murray, 1931), II, p. 443.

inence -- Grey, Asquith, and Haldane. Sir Edward Grey, Rosebery's Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, was a country gentleman who, on the whole, preferred the ordinary, off-season pursuits of that class of Englishmen to politics. Yet he strongly impressed not only his Liberal-Imperial colleagues but also the Tory opposition with his grasp of Britain's diplomatic problems. Henry Herbert Asquith had been Rosebery's Home Secretary. Asquith was of humbler background -his father had been a Lancashire wool-spinner and weaver -and as a scholarship student at Balliol, he had capped a brilliant Oxford career with two firsts and the presidency of the Union. He had been called to the bar in 1876 and to the House of Commons, sitting for East Fife, in 1886. In the years between his election to Commons and his appointment, in 1892, to the Cabinet, he scored success after success both in politics and in his private legal practice. Everywhere he was regarded as a man to be watched. After the fall of the Rosebery government, Asquith once more returned to his private law practice, but kept an active hand in political affairs. Another key Liberal-Imperialist was Richard Burdon Haldane. Haldane, a member of a distinguished Scottish family, first attended the University of Edinburgh, and then Göttingen. His earliest interest was in philosophy and he was to do much writing in this area throughout his lifetime. After Gottingen, he read for the bar, to which he was called by Lincoln's Inn in 1879, and soon became known as one of England's most learned and most able barristers. In 1885, he was elected M.P. for East Lothian, a seat he was to hold until elevated to the peerage in 1911, on becoming Lord Chancellor.

The coming of the Boer War intensified the cleavage within the Liberal party between these followers of Rosebery and the anti-imperialist Radicals. The Radical wing, the wing of Sir William Harcourt, included two other leaders of the party, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and the fiery chieftain of Welsh liberalism, David Lloyd George. Both these men protested against the war as a ramp for South African financiers and condemned, in Campbell-Bannerman's words, the 'methods of barbarism' by means of which the British government was waging war. The imperialist-wing of Liberalism, on the other hand, gave its full support to the policies of the government, of

its colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, and of its representative in South Africa, Sir Alfred Milner. Asquith, Grey, and Haldane had the greatest confidence in Milner, a Balliol companion of Asquith's, whose competence, disinterested patriotism and lofty imperial sentiment had won their highest respect. The Liberal-Imperialist position toward the war was set down by Rosebery as early as October 1899, when he proclaimed that 'in the face of this attack the nation will, I doubt not, close its ranks, and relegate party controversy to a more convenient season.' 9

During the course of the war, the division within Liberalism widened. In the middle of 1901, Lord Rogebery wrote a letter to the City Liberal Club, of which he was then the president, which made many think that the Liberal party would once again be split as it had been in the 'eighties. Rosebery's letter was an expression of faith 'that there is a great Liberal force in the country, that it could effectively combine on a domestic policy, and that it is capable of indefinite extension.' But for all that, the Liberal party 'can only become a power when it has made up its mind on Imperial questions, which are at this moment embodied in the war.' These imperial questions, Rosebery continued, 'are supreme issues; none greater ever divided two hostile parties.' One of the Liberal schools of thought, 'blind as I think to the developments of the world, is avowedly insular.' The other 'places as the first article of its creed the responsibilities and maintenance of our free and beneficent Empire.' It was 'the evolution of our Empire and of Imperial feeling during the past 20 years which has produced this divergence.' The party, Rosebery concluded, 'cannot . . . contain these two schools of thought and remain an efficient instrument'; 'one school or the other must prevail if the Liberal party is once more to become a force.' 10

During the next several days, there was speculation that the Rosebery letter was the signal for the establishment of a new party -- or perhaps for the Liberal-Imperialists to join Joseph Chamberlain in the Unionist party which had united the opponents of Irish Home Rule in the 'eighties. The supporters of



The Times, July 17, 1901, 7 c, d.


Quoted in T. F. G. Coates, Lord Rosebery, His Life and Speeches ( London, 1900), II, p. 989.

Chamberlain and those of Rosebery certainly agreed as to outlook on the Empire and agreed, in opposition to the laissezfaire position of orthodox Radicalism, upon the necessity for social reform. Wherein lay their differences, if any? The distinction between the two -- Liberal-Imperialists and Liberal Unionists -- was already clear and was destined to become clearer during the next several years. Chamberlain was a screw-manufacturer from Birmingham and his followers were largely drawn from the manufacturing areas of the midlands. For them, as we shall see, the crucial criterion of British economic strength was manufacturing, in Great Britain's power to out-produce her foreign rivals. For Rosebery, the president of the Liberal Club of the City of London and a Rothschild son-in-law, capital was a more important consideration than productive capacity. In a speech delivered at Chatham in January of 1900, Rosebery spoke of Britain's loss of prestige as a result of the war in South Africa. But such lost prestige could be regained, he was convinced, because 'this country has two supreme assets, to a degree which no other country in the world possesses; therefore I venture to use the word "supreme." They are our Navy and our capital (Cheers) -- weapons of enormous importance in time of war and instruments of enormous weight in time of peace.' With 'that start of a Navy and capital, we should not be long in building up our prestige.' 11

Rosebery's expression of faith in the power of British capital was central to the special world-outlook of LiberalImperialism. During the period of the Boer War, the outstanding theorist among the Liberal-Imperialists was Halford J. Mackinder, then Reader in Geography at Oxford, and an unsuccessful Liberal-Imperialist candidate in the election of 1900. In December 1899, Mackinder delivered a remarkable series of lectures to the Institute of Bankers in London in which this outlook was fully displayed. In the course of these lectures, Mackinder carefully differentiated between the interests of industry and those of finance. British industry was faced with the keenest foreign competition, he asserted, and



The Times, January 24, 1900, 7 b, c.

soon British commerce might be in a similar position. This circumstance was a result of a tendency 'towards the dispersion and equalisation of industrial and commercial activity throughout the world.' However, the more dispersed the world's industry and commerce might be, 'the greater will be the need of a controlling centre to it.' Mackinder was convinced that London was destined to remain the banking centre of the world. 'It appears, therefore, quite possible,' he suggested, most significantly, 'that the financial importance of the City of London may continue to increase, while the industry, at any rate, of Britain, becomes relatively less.' 12

The followers of Rosebery associated their imperialism with a faith in free trade, which, they felt, was responsible for Britain's imperial greatness and upon which British financial and commercial interests felt themselves completely dependent. In the 'nineties, Rosebery had stated his opposition to any form of tariff, insisting that protection would spur the hostility of all foreign countries. The Liberal-Imperialists dissociated themselves from any conception of empire bearing the taint of 'aggression and greed and violence' and preached an imperialism which was 'a passion of affection and family feeling, of pride and hope and helpfulness.' 13 They regarded schemes of imperial preference as 'shoddy Imperialism' in contrast to their own 'sane Imperialism' 14 Protectionism, they believed, would pit the interests of the homeland against those of the other parts of the Empire, would 'impoverish and sterilize and extinguish the imperial sentiment among the great mass of the people,' 15 to use the words of Asquith, and that it would 'tend to make the Empire odious to the working classes.' 16 The Liberal-Imperialists remained Free Traders, they insisted, to preserve the Empire.

This conception of empire, Asquith explained, stimulated rather than paralyzed 'all those aspirations and efforts which Liberals included under the general name of social reform.'



Halford Mackinder, "The Great Trade Routes", Journal of the Institute of Bankers, May, 1900, p. 271.


Liberal League Publication No. 37, p. 8. In the future L.L.P.


L.L.P. No. 144, pp. 3-4.


L.L.P. No. 51.


L.L.P. No. 46, p. 9. See L.L.P. No. 47, pp. 12, 15.

'It was the work of statesmanship in this country,' he declared, 'to make the Empire worth living in as well as worth dying for.' 17 Rosebery presented the social-imperialist argument of Liberal-Imperialism in this fashion: 'An Empire such as ours requires as its first condition an imperial race-a race vigorous and industrious and intrepid.' He added: 'in the rookeries and slums which still survive, an imperial race cannot be reared.' 'Remember,' he urged his audience, 'that where you promote health and arrest disease, where you convert an unhealthy citizen into a healthy one, where you exercise your authority to promote sanitary conditions and suppress those which are the reverse, you in doing your duty are also working for the Empire.' 18 Speaking at Liverpool, February 14, 1902, Rosebery declared 'that 'the true policy of Imperialism' 'relates not to territory alone, but to race as well. The Imperialism that, grasping after territory, ignores the conditions of an Imperial race, is a blind, a futile, and a doomed Imperialism.' Rosebery urged action to provide housing suitable for 'citizens and subjects of an Imperial race'; 19 he explained that 'a drinksodden population . . . is not the true basis of a prosperous Empire.' 20 Elsewhere he declared that more widespread educational opportunities were a necessary basis of imperial strength -- although R. B. Haldane made this aspect his particular forte. 21

The issues of educational, housing and temperance reform were joined by Rosebery in the idea of 'efficiency,' which he defined in Glasgow, on March 10, 1902, as 'a condition of national fitness equal to the demands of our Empire -- administrative, parliamentary, commercial, educational, physical, moral, naval, and military fitness -- so that we should make the best of our admirable raw material.' 22 In this notion of 'efficiency,' the Liberal-Imperialists merged their desires for social



Earl of Oxford and Asquith, Fifty Years of Parliament ( London, 1926), II, pp. 2-3.


Lord Rosebery, Miscellanies: Literary and Historical ( London, 1921), II, pp. 250-251.


L.L.P. No. 37, pp. 4, 21-22.


L.L.P. No. 144, pp. 3-4.


See R. B. Haldane, Universities and National Life ( London: J. Murray, 1911); National Education ( London: J. Murray, 1913).


L.L.P. No. 37.

reform and their wish to strengthen Britain's military and naval capabilities.

In early 1902, the followers of Rosebery established the Liberal League, an extra-party organization whose president was Rosebery and whose chief spokesmen were H. H. Asquith, R. B. Haldane, and Sir Edward Grey. The Liberal League programme was imperialism and social reform. Rosebery employed an address at Glasgow in March 1902, to introduce the Liberal League to the nation. On that occasion, he made it quite clear that he was not leading his followers out of the house of Liberalism in order to join the Unionists. In fact, he denounced the Unionist government as 'seven years lost for all social and human causes; seven years lost for all measures which make for national health and national efficiency; seven years lost in our training and preparation for the keen race of nations, both in commerce and in dominion.' 23 Rosebery seemed determined, however, to form a party of national efficiency. Whether he hoped to set up an entirely new party or whether he hoped to shape the Liberal Party to his special ends was an undecided question in the early part of 1902.

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