Karl E. Meyer: Edwardian Warning: The Unraveling of a Colossus – WPJ


ARTICLE: Volume XVII, No 4, WINTER 2000/01

An Edwardian Warning: The Unraveling of a Colossus
Karl E. Meyer   

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All historical analogies are a form of sleight of hand, in which the clever conjuror by adroit selection can find points of parallel with almost anything past. Perpetrators need always to remember that the expulsion from Eden began with a false analogy; the serpent promised Eve that by eating the forbidden fruit she and Adam would be “as a god.” Thus with the prowess of hindsight we look back as a god on the world of the dead, already knowing its winners and losers. Even so, the diligent reader is continually surprised by the cautionary warnings that spring from the records of history. Two in particular struck this writer: how a global colossus can be weakened from within by unbridled party rivalry, feeding on outrage over broken rules and dirty tricks, and how swiftly the appearance of permanent supremacy can give way to the reality of diminished authority. That this happened to the British Empire at its apogee in no way ordains a similar destiny for the United States, but the warning is implicit. With these caveats, let us travel back to a very different Britain in 1901.

On a grim wet January day just a century ago, Queen Victoria lay dying at Osbourne House. It proved a tableau worthy of the occasion. Her son Bertie, the future Edward VII, was at her deathbed; so was her devoted grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II. On January 22, 1901, the old queen finally sank, as an awed courtier remarked, “like a great three-decker ship.” The news of her death passed immediately to her otherwise unsentimental chief minister, Lord Salisbury, who had attended her coronation 63 years earlier. Now a shaken Salisbury confessed to “a feeling deeper than I ever remember.” Everywhere church bells tolled, as they did in seaside Scarborough, where the young dandy Osbert Sitwell heard his neighbors exclaim “What shall we do now?” On her death at 81, most of her subjects, comprising a fourth of the world’s inhabitants, had known no other monarch; Victoria was stability incarnate, the Great Mother of Empire.

For an American, poised at the start of a new millennium, her world seems a different universe. After a postmortem, the queen’s personal physician, Sir James Reid, found that she had suffered a prolapse or slippage of the uterus, not unusual for a woman who had borne nine children. What was unusual was that Sir James, who attended Victoria for 20 years, had never before examined her body. True to the canons of modesty she epitomized, the queen shunned even stethoscopes. Yet if modesty on matters hygienic verged on the bizarre, public discourse in the 1900s was outspoken in its imperial swagger. Members of the ruling elite commonly held that Anglo-Saxons were programmed as if by Providence to govern, and that wars were a biological mechanism for determining the fittest. As one writer phrased it, in “our high-strung, masterful Caucasian world” a “righteous and necessary war is no more brutal than a surgical operation.” Many Britons applauded when America in 1898 thrashed the declining Spanish Empire and through just such surgery acquired an overseas empire in the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Some even hoped Americans would somehow return to the imperial fold, a prospect that inspired Cecil Rhodes to endow his Oxford scholarships. Rhodes envisioned a great English-speaking union under British tutelage, for as he liked to put it, to be born British was to draw a winning ticket in life’s lottery.1

Still, in other respects an American might feel at home. Britannia’s global preeminence was acknowledged, envied, and resented. Not since Rome had a Western power cast so wide a net over the known world, whose remote tracts were in fact explored and charted mostly by Britons. Having pioneered a communications revolution that joined far-flung possessions, the British promulgated across the seas their language and popular culture, their laws and games, their religions and pedagogy, even their modes of dress. At home, it was a commonplace that British institutions—free trade, a parliament, trial by jury, free speech—like British goods, were best.

Moreover, despite creaks and kinks indicating industrial obsolescence, and notwithstanding the ascent of Germany and America, few doubted the longevity of Pax Britannica. To a romantic like Lord Curzon, the British Empire was “the greatest instrument for good the world has seen,” within which the “noble work of governing India had been placed by inscrutable Providence on the shoulders of the British race.” For Curzon, the most qualified and driven of Indian viceroys, the message was “carved in granite and hewn in the Rock of Doom, that our work is righteous and that it shall endure.” Yet the great granite edifice had begun to crumble before the First World War, and within the lifetime of Curzon’s daughters, India became independent and the old colonial empire had dwindled to flyspecks.2

With hindsight, this imperial unraveling owed as much to internal dissonance as it did to foreign challenges, and its onset—the first rips in the fabric—occurred during a period erroneously equated with prosperous placidity: the Edwardian era. So bitter were political disputes over trade and taxes, so divisive were class, gender, and ethnic conflicts, that many Britons turned almost with relief to the hecatomb of 1914–18, whose casualties wrote finis to the old imperial swagger.

Destined to Dominate This Planet
This downward slide would have seemed incredible just a few years earlier. On June 22, 1897, 46,000 plumed and scrubbed troops, the largest military force ever seen in London, had assembled to mark Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Her subjects cheered a seemingly endless procession: stiff-necked hussars and dragoons from Canada, a camel corps from India, Muslim zaptiehs in red fezes, the dyak police from Borneo, flourishing their feathered scabbards, and on and on, with music to match. “Always a changing tumult of colours that seemed to list and gleam with a light of their own, and always blinding gold,” wrote one onlooker. “No eye could bear more gorgeousness.” The queen-empress responded with a simple message on the sixtieth anniversary of her reign, “From my heart, I thank my people. May God bless them.”

The world took note. From Paris, the Figaro‘s editorialist commented that Rome itself had been “equaled, if not surpassed, by the Power which in Canada, Australia, India, in the China Seas, in Egypt, Central and Southern Africa, in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean rules the peoples and governs their interests.” The New York Times went further: “We are a part, and a great part, of the Greater Britain which seems so plainly destined to dominate this planet.” In Berlin, the voice of Junkerdom, the Kreuzzeitung acknowledged that the British Empire was “practically unassailable.” At home, a leading article in The Times noted with satisfaction that Victoria’s was “the mightiest and most beneficial Empire ever known in the annals of mankind.” Yet wonderfully, the same newspaper published the only remembered words inspired by the Jubilee, Rudyard Kipling’s “Recessional,” with its cautionary lines:

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire;
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Kipling’s unexpected foreboding—he was then but 32, at the height of his early fame—was rare among Victorians. More typical were the delighted hurrahs of eight-year-old Arnold Toynbee, who watched the Jubilee parade from his uncle’s shoulders, and felt as if the sun itself were “standing still in the midst of Heaven, as it had once stood still there at the bidding of Joshua.” Outwardly, Britannia’s reach did seem something of a miracle. If expansion connoted national vigor, as so many believed, the late Victorians were robust indeed. From 1874 to 1902, the British added to their holdings 4,750,000 square miles, inhabited by some 90 million people, increasing by a third the queen’s already vast domain. New lands included Upper Burma, various Malay states, slices of Borneo and all of Fiji, plus scores of Pacific islands. In a competition with other Europeans, Britain grabbed great swaths of Africa, from Uganda in the north to Bechuanaland in the south.3

In communications, Britain remained the pacesetter. The imperial historian Ronald Hyam notes that the British with their engineering feats laid the mechanical basis for a global marketplace. Beginning in the 1870s, the empire was linked by 170,000 nautical miles of ocean cable and 662,000 miles of aerial wire and buried cable. By 1900, with the completion of Canada’s transcontinental rail system, British engineers came close to realizing the goal of the rail pioneer R. M. Stephenson “to girdle the world with an iron chain, to connect Europe and Asia from the furthest extremities by one colossal railway.” It was not for nothing that France’s Jules Verne designated a Britisher, Phileas Fogg, as the bet-winning traveler in Around the World in Eighty Days (1873).4

Guarding and serving Victoria’s realm of 11 million square miles and 372 million people was the mightiest of navies. For the Diamond Jubilee, the biggest fleet ever assembled was on review at Portsmouth: 165 warships carrying 40,000 seamen and 3,000 guns, a line extending 30 ironclad miles. Observers from 14 foreign navies were able to inspect through binoculars the Royal Navy’s prize possessions, including 11 new battleships, unrivaled for their speed and armor, and 5 first-class and 13 second-class cruisers, together with scores of other battleships, cruisers, and torpedo-boat destroyers. Looking on from a creaking German battleship, British-built and now downgraded to first-class cruiser, was Rear Admiral Prince Henry of Prussia. He received this cable from his brother, Kaiser Wilhelm II: “I deeply regret that I have no better ship to place at your disposal whilst other nations shine with their fine vessels. This is the result of those unpatriotic fellows [in the Reichstag] who opposed construction of the most necessary ships.” It was a humiliation that the kaiser, a keen admirer of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (1890) by America’s Alfred Thayer Mahan, was determined to rectify.5

The British assembled this enormous fleet, whose tonnage was greater than that of any two other navies combined, to protect trade routes, particularly the vaunted lifeline to India via Suez. The imperial historian Dennis Judd calculates that the value of British exports to India rose from £23 million in 1855, before the canal opened, to £137 million in 1910, while in the same period the value of imports from India rose from £13.5 million to £86 million, leaving Britain with a favorable balance of some £51 million. True, there had been a progressive slippage in Britain’s relative share of world manufacturing, which (using the historian Paul Kennedy’s figures) dropped from first place in 1880 (at 22.9 percent), to second in 1900 (at 18.5 percent, behind America’s 23.6 percent), and to third in 1913 (at 13.6 percent compared with America’s 32 percent and Germany’s 14.8 percent). But this, according to the Oxford scholar Niall Ferguson, was offset by the formidable growth of Britain’s financial power. British overseas investment swelled from £370 million in 1860 to £3.9 billion in 1913—or roughly one-third of total British wealth—giving the City of London immense investor leverage in global financial markets.6

Beyond money and battleships, imperial Britain deployed a subtler source of universal influence: a culture in the broad sense that admiring and often baffled foreigners strove to imitate. This is still evident today in men’s clothing. As related by Luigi Barzini, the somber fashion of dark suits favored by statesmen, hotel waiters, orchestra conductors, undertakers, bankers, and American presidents on Inauguration Day had its origin in Britain in the fourth decade of the nineteenth century, or roughly when Regency dandyism gave way to Victorian sobriety. Britain’s sartorial example was emulated in gaudier ways abroad at hunt clubs (top hats, pink coats), tennis courts (white flannels), golf links (plus fours), racetracks (caps and silks), soccer fields (shorts and brightly striped jerseys), as well as in other games invented or ritualized in Britain. Interestingly, even Bolsheviks like Lenin, Fascists like Mussolini, and Japanese envoys representing the world’s oldest throne, all dressed on state occasions in British black. How else to be taken seriously?7

As ubiquitous abroad were books written by Britons: books for highbrows, books for children, books for amnesiacs, books for everybody. By 1900, English was already a lingua franca on the Continent, and at railroad terminals travelers could buy handy Tauchnitz paperback editions of bestsellers or red-jacketed Baedeker guides, published in Leipzig and instantly translated. The process was sometimes reversed: George Bernard Shaw was so popular among German-speakers, for example, that his most popular play, Pygmalion, made its 1913 debut in German.

Nor can one underestimate the subliminal power of popular literature. Children’s classics—the works of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Beatrix Potter, Robert Louis Stevenson, Kipling, and others—became staples in Western nurseries and schoolrooms. In bookstalls a century ago, from the Arno to the Neva, one could always find Alice’s Abenteur im Wunderland, or Le Aventure d’Alice nel Paese Meraviglie (illustrated by Giovanni Tenniel), or Les Aventures d’Alice au Pays de Merveilles. Too, having immortalized Sherlock Holmes and Baker Street, having invented the spy thriller, and the horror story (Frankenstein and Dracula), British writers dominated whole genres of popular books devoured by ordinary readers abroad. Among the unexpected results was the rebirth of the Olympics, the work of a French Anglomane, Baron de Coubertin (1865–1937), who as a youngster had read in translation Tom Brown’s School Days, by Thomas Hughes. Smitten with British ideals of fair play and amateurism, and with the lofty precepts of Dr. Arnold, headmaster at Tom Brown’s Rugby, Coubertin in 1894 founded the International Olympic Committee. Two years later, the Modern Games were launched in Athens as (in Ian Buruma words) “an English bucolic fantasy out of Thomas Hughes, mixed with a dose of Hellenism.”8

Yet with so many advantages, what humbled Britannia within a lifetime?

The Beginnings of the Downward Slide
We are misled by the familiar image of Edwardian England: safe and overstuffed, like its eponymous monarch; a land of hope and glory as scored by Elgar, its languid debutantes preserved in oils by John Singer Sargent. This was in good part a mirage. Doubtless upper-caste Britons were complacent and bored, as in Vita Sackville-West’s novel, The Edwardians (“Nothing ever happens,” complains her twenty-something hero, Sebastian. “Day after day goes by and it is always the same”). Yet pace Sackville-West, it was scarcely a boring epoch; it was marked instead by polarized politics, a feminist rebellion, and labor militancy, culminating in a conflict over Ireland so menacing that Britain’s parliamentary system lay in the balance. This is not a new or revisionist thesis. It was put forward in the 1920s by Winston Churchill, who witnessed the drama from the front benches of the House of Commons, and is elaborated in a neglected classic, The Strange Death of Liberal England, by George Dangerfield, first published in 1935.9

Churchill dates the downward slide from the notorious Jameson Raid in 1896. The raid had its genesis in the European rivalry for African colonies (the “Scramble”), which began in the 1880s for reasons of prestige, domestic politics, missionary zeal, and markets. The race turned nasty after the discovery of diamond fields near Johannesburg in 1867, then of gold south of Pretoria in 1887. Fortune-seekers from everywhere swarmed into the then-independent Boer republic of Transvaal, whose church-going citizens did not know how to cope with the influx of foreigners, or Uitlanders, mostly British and footloose bachelors, described by a contemporary as “a loafing, drinking, scheming lot” who would “corrupt an archangel.” When the Boers refused to grant votes to Uitlanders, their cause was taken up by Cecil Rhodes (1853–1902), who dreamed of flying the Union Jack from Cape to Cairo and who half-jokingly said he would annex the universe if he could. Having amassed a fortune from diamonds, and having become prime minister of Britain’s Cape Colony in 1890, Rhodes saw in the Uitlanders a way of annexing the Transvaal.

With Rhodes’s connivance, a force of some 500 mounted freebooters, with their native grooms and gunbearers, encamped on the British frontier nearest Johannesburg. Their leader was Leander Starr Jameson, a bachelor physician who idolized Rhodes. Jameson was meant to wait for a signal that the Uitlanders had rebelled and dash to their support, but his operation was scarcely covert and proved wholly unsuccessful. All Johannesburg seemed braced for the raid when Jameson, frustrated by delays, incautiously jumped the gun. The Boers quickly overwhelmed the raiders and jailed their supporters. A scandal ensued. Rhodes now claimed he had vainly tried to stop the raid, the British government pleaded ignorance, and at a parliamentary inquiry in London, Jameson spoke for all imperial adventurers: “I know perfectly well as I have not succeeded [that] the natural thing has happened, but I also know that if I had succeeded I should have been forgiven.”

Almost certainly plans for the raid and Rhodes’s part in it were known to Joseph Chamberlain, just beginning a decade’s tenure as colonial secretary. Nicknamed “Imperial Joe” and “Pushful Joe” by nonadmirers, known everywhere by his monocle and ramrod presence, Chamberlain was a blend of opposites: a radical, a Unitarian, and a Conservative. On imperial issues, his outlook was unequivocal. As he listed his qualifications on assuming what until then was a minor cabinet post, he noted: “In the first place, I believe in the British race. I believe that the British race is the greatest of governing races that the world has ever seen… and I believe that there are no limits to its future.”

Consistent with that outlook, Chamberlain in 1897 named a like-minded imperialist to the dual posts of governor of the Cape Colony and high commissioner of South Africa. He was Sir Alfred Milner, born British, reared in Germany, Oxford educated, who saw himself as “a civilian soldier of the Empire.” After the Jameson raid, Milner scorned compromise with the Boers, setting forth his views in a celebrated long telegram in 1899 known as the “Helot’s Dispatch,” which concluded: “It seems a paradox but it is true that the only effective way of protecting our subjects is to help them to cease to be our subjects…. It is idle to talk of peace and unity…. The case for intervention is overwhelming…. The spectacle of thousands of British subjects kept permanently in the position of helots, constantly chafing under grievances and calling vainly on Her Majesty’s Government for redress” could only lead to British prestige being “grievously undermined.”

The Boer War was thus foreordained. Its outbreak in 1899 and its now-forgotten incidents are well described in histories by Thomas Pakenham and Byron Farwell. To all the world, it appeared that 40,000 Boer irregulars were able to hold at bay 500,000 imperial troops. Britons expected the war, which began in October, to be over by Christmas, but as Pakenham writes, it proved the longest (two and three-quarter years), the costliest (over £200 million), the bloodiest (at least 22,000 British, 25,000 Boer, and 12,000 African lives) and most humiliating war for Britain since 1815. Concerning its purposes, a week after hostilities began, Chamberlain declared that Britain was defending two principles: “The first principle is that if we are to maintain our existence as a great power in South Africa, we are bound to show that we are both willing and able to protect British subjects everywhere when they are made to suffer from oppression and injustice…. The second principle is that in the interests of the British Empire, Great Britain must remain the paramount power in South Africa.” It was not a justification likely to win support among foreigners less enamored of British paramountcy.10

At first Boer sharpshooters humbled crack British regiments, then the empire retaliated with shiploads of imperial troops under Lord Roberts of Kandahar, whose forces in August 1900 occupied the Transvaal. Encouraged by this victory, and told by the celebrated field marshal that the war was nearly over, Lord Salisbury’s Conservatives called an election. This was the “Khaki Election,” whose patriotic theme was expressed by Colonial Secretary Chamberlain: “Every seat lost to the Government is a seat gained to the Boers.” Victory seemed at hand, the opposition Liberals were divided over the war, and the Conservatives readily prevailed in what Salisbury conceded was a “Jingo hurricane.”11

But the war was far from over. Boer commandos faded into the countryside and their hit-and-run raids proved so effective that the British resorted to extreme measures. Now led by Lord Kitchener, the imperial forces herded Boer women and children into concentration camps, and torched the farms on which guerrillas relied for food. At least 4,000 Boer adults and 16,000 children out of some 114,000 captives died in the camps. In May 1902, spurred by outraged protests at home and weariness with the war, the British settled for lenient peace terms with their Boer adversaries. Ironically, this opened the way for the eventual creation in the 1940s of the apartheid state by Afrikaners, who never forgot or forgave British excesses, even as they imposed their own.

The Agonies of Peace
Discouraged by the frustrating endgame in Africa, shaken by Victoria’s death, and having served longer than any of her prime ministers, the patriarchal Lord Salisbury submitted his resignation in July 1902 to the newly enthroned Edward VII. Salisbury had already engineered the succession to Downing Street of his nephew Arthur Balfour, a prince of the same Cecil line that had served the crown since Elizabeth’s reign. Six feet tall, known for his nonchalant oratorical skills and for writing such abstruse works as A Defence of Philosophic Doubt (1879), Balfour brought to his office an unusual style. As the historian Barbara Tuchman noted, he was “careless of facts, unsafe with figures, and memory was not his strong point,” but he surmounted this weakness by a technique that never failed to amuse the House of Commons: when caught out, he would turn for enlightenment to a better informed colleague, and murmur with a friendly, half-admonitory glance, “Exactly.”12

His detractors maintained that for Arthur Balfour politics was a game like golf, whose universal popularity he did much to establish. Yet belying Balfour’s manner was his skill in holding his party together and gaining passage of difficult but important reform measures, notably of British education. In 1903, Balfour applied himself to a problem worthy of his skills. During summer recess, Joseph Chamberlain had challenged the hallowed gospel of free trade in a speech calling for imperial preferences, splitting his party down the middle. Most Tories were free traders, and to them, “preferences” were a heresy. In what seemed a deft attempt to punish and placate, Balfour reshuffled his cabinet, banishing both Chamberlain and old-line free traders, while bringing in the colonial minister’s son, Austen Chamberlain, as new chancellor of the exchequer.

It didn’t work. The arguments grew warmer. Joseph Chamberlain’s detractors maintained that his pet ideas for restructuring the empire—imperial federation and imperial trade preferences—both failed to win adoption for much the same reason. The self-governing dominions of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand did not wish to vitiate their autonomy, or to be tied to the British market and thus lose the right to impose their own tariffs. And Liberals were united in opposing any dilution of their free trade principles.

George Dangerfield describes Chamberlain’s proposals as ingenious, “yet the mere description of this singular Empire, free trader at heart and protectionist in all its limbs, was enough to damn the describer. For it carried with it one implication that nobody cared to face in 1903: it meant that England was no longer commercial dictator of the world; that the Empire of Free Trade must soon become one with Nineveh and Tyre.”13

The Reckoning
The reckoning came in 1906, when a united Liberal Party swept into power with a majority of 84 seats over all other parties combined. The new prime minister was Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, a solid, goodhumored Scot but also a critic of the Boer War who denounced concentration camps as “methods of barbarism.” As the party of peace and free trade, the Liberals squared accounts for the Khaki Election by assailing the importation to South Africa of 20,000 Chinese laborers to toil in mines under appalling conditions. (Milner had approved the use of these “human tools” and persuaded Balfour to go along.) Joining the Liberals in attacking “Chinese slavery” was the recently formed Labour Party, whose candidates won a surprising 53 seats. With that showing, as Dangerfield writes, “the death of Liberalism was pronounced; it was no longer the Left.” Still, the old party had two great battles to wage, one that it won, and the other that brought Britain to the brink of disunion.

From the outset, the Liberals were frustrated by repeated vetoes of their measures by the hereditary and nonelected House of Lords. It remained for David Lloyd George, a Welsh radical whose youthful political bible was Les Misérables, to carry the battle to its inescapable conclusion. In 1908, “C-B” died, and his successor was Herbert Asquith, a polished Balliol graduate who exuded effortless serenity. He was destined to play the white hat, while his radical partner headed for the barricades. This Lloyd George did when he replaced Asquith as chancellor of the exchequer, and in that powerful office proposed in 1909 to tax the rich. His “People’s Budget” called for taxing the undeveloped land owned by Britain’s feudal 1 percent, raising death duties, and imposing a supertax on those in the top brackets. Confronted with these novelties, which Lloyd George defended with impassioned taunts, the House of Lords broke with its tradition against interfering with money bills. Their lordships rejected the budget, as they had also rejected previous nonfinancial measures adopted by the House of Commons, prompting Lloyd George’s jibe that they had become “Mr. Balfour’s Poodle.”

The budget veto forced a new general election in January 1910, which resulted in a near even tie between Liberals and Conservatives. Asquith turned to the new Labour Party and the Irish Nationalists to form a government. With their votes, the budget was again approved, as was a special measure to limit the veto powers of the upper house. Their lordships said no to both bills, and as the arguments flared, Edward VII died, his end hastened, it was said, by the angry controversy. Asquith convened a conference to seek a compromise and spare the new sovereign, George V, from beginning his reign with a constitutional crisis. By now the House of Lords was divided between “Ditchers” and “Hedgers,” the former taking their name from the rash words of Lord Curzon, which he later regretted: “We will die in the last ditch before we give in.” The Ditchers prevailed, rebuffing compromise and forcing a second election that same year, in December 1910.

Once again, neither Liberals nor Conservatives achieved a majority and, as before, Asquith formed an alliance with Labour and the Irish Nationalists. But this time the Liberal leader conferred with the new king, and secured his reluctant agreement to create enough new Liberal peers to overcome the built-in Conservative majority. “The question is,” exclaimed Lord Selborne, a Ditcher, “shall we perish in the dark, slain by our own hand, or in the light, killed by our enemies.” Faced with being swamped by newly ermined Liberals, the peers took cover in darkness, relinquished their veto, and vented their anger on Arthur Balfour, who was replaced as Conservative leader by Bonar Law, a bluff, unsubtle Glasgow iron merchant and an old follower of Joseph Chamberlain.

Poisoned Politics
The battle over the House of Lords was important in itself, since it turned on the basic question: that of democracy and fairness versus hereditary privilege. Yet, as crucially, it poisoned politics. On one notorious occasion, when Prime Minister Asquith rose to speak in the House of Commons, he was greeted with opposition shouts of “Traitor! Traitor!” The hooting continued until he was forced to stop speaking; not in memory had a serving prime minister been denied a hearing. And the time and passion devoted to the House of Lords all but paralyzed Parliament as Britain faced multiple rebellions, by laborers, women, and Irish Protestants. British workers were rightly angered by the demonstrable fact that as they got poorer, the rich got richer. There were no workers in the House of Lords, and precious few in the House of Commons. Who then spoke for workers and their families? Beginning in the 1890s, imports kept rising and exports declined, as did jobs and real wages, an effect fortified by the gold pouring from new fields in South Africa. Cheap gold translated into higher prices, so that between 1899 and 1913, real wages sank by 10 percent. Workers outraged by their comparative impoverishment, and frustrated by the Taff-Vale Judgment by the House of Lords upholding financial penalties against their unions, turned to industrial action. In 1912, there were 857 labor disputes involving 1.2 million workers with a staggering loss of 38 million working days. Feeding and shaping this worker unrest were the very un-British theories of syndicalism, specifically centering on a projected general strike, led by a “triple alliance” of miners, transport workers, and railwaymen, backed by their militant rank and file.14

As un-British, and perhaps more startling, was the women’s uprising to secure the right to vote, led by the iron-willed Emmeline Pankhurst and her formidable daughter Christabel. Unable to get a serious hearing from an all-male Parliament, the suffragettes also turned to direct action, chaining themselves to buildings and pelting cabinet officers; in a famous episode, a woman fatally hurled herself under a racehorse. When the police responded brutally, imprisoned suffragettes undertook life-threatening hunger strikes. By 1914, the stakes escalated as women turned to arson: in seven months, as many as 107 buildings were set on fire. Between March and July, an emaciated Mrs. Pankhurst was imprisoned four times, and four times her flesh shrank, terrifyingly, in prolonged hunger strikes.

As this was happening, so was a third rebellion, by militant Protestants in Northern Ireland determined, whatever it might take, to block Irish home rule. For Liberals, few causes had greater resonance than allowing Ireland to elect its own parliament. Twice the great Gladstone tried to secure passage of Irish home rule, and twice he failed. Now it was Asquith’s turn. In return for their votes, essential for his majority in Parliament, the moderate Irish Nationalist Party won from Asquith the promise of a vote on what proved to be a moderate home rule bill. However, partisan enmity was by then so ingrained that the Tory leader Bonar Law and his predecessor Arthur Balfour saw a chance for payback. Opposition to home rule was as much a Conservative legacy as support was to the Liberals. It was not hard to rouse Northern Ireland’s fiercer Protestant spirits, steeped in the tradition of “No Surrender” and “Ulster Will Fight, and Ulster Will Be Right,” the famous slogan supplied to the North’s Protestants a few decades earlier by Randolph Churchill (whose son Winston now found himself, as a Liberal, on the argument’s other side).

The results were instant, and percussive. Protestant Ulster found a natural leader in Sir Edward Carson, a crafty barrister remembered for his bruising examination a few years earlier of Oscar Wilde, resulting in the playwright’s imprisonment. Soon Northern Ireland was afire with rallies, marches, and calls to rebellion. As the home rule measure came before Parliament, Sir Edward’s words became blunter. He declared in September 1913: “We have pledges and promises from some of the greatest generals in the army that, when the time comes and if it is necessary, they will come over to help us keep the old flag flying and to defy those who dare invade our liberties.”

“King” Carson set the tone as the Ulster insurrection gathered momentum, and did so with the avenging approval of Bonar Law. Thus encouraged, the Director of Military Operations, General Sir Henry Wilson, working out of the War Office, quietly connived against his own government. In Parliament, Carson blamed the government for provoking the rebellion he himself had fomented. In March 1914, the expected mutiny began when cavalry officers at the Curragh garrison near Dublin informed their brigadier general they would accept dismissal rather than go north, and their commander approved the decision. In London, the government responded with dismay and limp indecision. “Not since 1688, when James II lost his crown,” Dangerfield reminds us, “had the army refused to obey its orders, as it now refused to obey them; not since 1688 had it controlled the country; this was the first time since that violent year, that an Opposition had promoted a rebellion, and for the first time in all history that a Liberal Government had virtually ceased to govern.”15

The Death of Liberalism
It is fair to say that the death of Liberalism, British style, was self-inflicted. The party’s traditional doctrines were inadequate to the challenges of an industrial society or to the dawning century’s culture wars. Neither did free trade nostrums offer an understanding to an ever more violent and anarchic international scene, with its Balkan wars and terrorist killings, its Dual and Triple Alliances, its web of secret treaties, and its spiraling naval competition, involving not only Britain and Germany but also Japan, Russia, and the United States, an arms race that the Liberals pursued without enthusiasm, but pursue it they did.

Yet in looking back, one is struck by the age’s complacency, its self-satisfaction with a privileged old order in which the gap between the richest and poorest grew steadily wider. In the conventional picture of Edwardian times, the violence and extremism are commonly filtered out, and the near breakdown of the British political system forgotten. The mood of the era is caught by a perceptive American journalist in Society in the New Reign, published in 1904 under the pseudonym, “A Foreign Resident.” The author was George Smalley, a graduate of Yale and of Harvard Law School, who had covered the American Civil War before settling in England in the 1880s. On a return visit, he was struck by how insular and self-absorbed better-educated Britons had become, how indifferent they were to the wider world beyond. Of Arthur Balfour, Smalley offered a typically caustic if biased American judgment: “If there is one thing more than another that Lord Salisbury’s nephew disbelieves and dislikes it is the House of Commons. He is indeed its leader, but neither its champion nor representative. His titular control of it is due less to conspicuous fitness for the place than to family accidents—to the fact that his leadership subdivides the factions least and to a certain charm of manner which, first discovered in him by Gladstone, remains today his chief parliamentary capital.16

Fairly or not, the spirit of Balfourism still lingers over the Edwardian era. A succinct and relevant assessment of the age and its follies was put forward by Winston Churchill in a striking passage from The World Crisis, first published in 1922:

I date the beginning of these violent times in our country from the Jameson raid in 1896. This was the herald, if indeed not the progenitor, of the South African War. From the South African War was born the Khaki Election, the Protectionist Movement, the Chinese Labour cry and the consequent furious reaction and Liberal triumph of 1906. From this sprang the violent inroads of the House of Lords on popular government which by the end of 1908 had reduced the immense Liberal majority to virtual impotence, from which condition they were rescued by the Lloyd George Budget in 1909. The measure became, in its turn, on both sides, the cause of still greater provocations, and its rejection by the Lords was a constitutional outrage and political blunder beyond compare. It led directly to the two General Elections of 1910, to the Parliament Act, and to the Irish struggle, in which our country was brought to the very threshold of civil war.

Thus we see a succession of partisan actions continuing without intermission for nearly twenty years, each injury repeated with interest, each oscillation more violent, each risk more grave, until at last it seemed that the sabre itself must be invoked to cool the blood and the passions that were rife.17

Churchill’s list repays reading. It offers a sober warning to America’s political class, now sharpening its sabres for a party duel, with each injury to be repaid with interest. It suggests that a collective sense of entitlement cannot justify indifference to the opinion of others elsewhere in pressing for national advantage abroad. It shows how a sequence of events, in which secondary quarrels are pursued with implacable fury, can result in a march to folly.


1. The details of Victoria’s passing are drawn from Michaela Reid, Ask Sir James (New York: Viking, 1987), based on Sir James’s papers; Andrew Roberts, Salisbury: Victorian Titan (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999); and Osbert Sitwell, Left Hand, Right Hand (London: Macmillan, 1945). For the era’s imperial theories, see William L. Langer, The Diplomacy of Imperialism (New York: Knopf, 1965). Not all Britons shared these attitudes; the best corrective account is A. P. Thornton, The Imperial Idea and Its Enemies (London: Macmillan, 1959).

2. On Curzon’s views, see Richard Symonds, Oxford and Empire (London: Macmillan, 1986).

3. On Victoria’s Jubilee, see James Morris, Pax Britannica (London: Faber, 1965); Denis Judd, Empire (New York: Basic Books, 1996); and Arnold Toynbee, Experiences (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 186–90.

4. On rails and cables, see Ronald Hyam, Britain’s Imperial Century, 1815–1914 (London: Macmillan, 1993), pp. 1–52.

5. The Jubilee naval review is recaptured in Robert K. Massie, Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War (New York: Random House, 1991), pp. xvi–xxxi.

6. See Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (New York: Random House, 1987), pp. 202–48; and Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War (New York: Basic Books, 1999), pp. 31–39.

7. See Luigi Barzini, whose grandfather was a men’s tailor, The Europeans (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983), pp. 36–54.

8. On Coubertin, see Ian Buruma, Anglomania: A European Love Affair (New York: Random House, 1998), pp. 138–64.

9. George Dangerfield, English-born and an Oxford graduate, migrated to America, where he won a Pulitzer for his account of James Monroe’s “Era of Good Feelings” and before his death in 1987 published The Damnable Question: One Hundred and Twenty Years of Anglo-Irish Conflict (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976). His 1935 masterpiece, The Strange Death of Liberal England, has been frequently reprinted; I have drawn on the 1966 edition published in London by MacGibbon & Kee, with a good introduction by Paul Johnson, still in his Labourite period.

10. Details of the Jameson Raid and the Boer War are from Byron Farwell, The Great Anglo-Boer War (New York: Harper & Row, 1976); and Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War (New York, Random House, 1979). On Rhodes, see Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1991); and Robert L. Rotberg, The Founder (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

11. See Roberts, Salisbury, pp. 714–83.

12. Barbara Tuchman’s estimate of Balfour is in The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War (New York: Macmillan, 1966), pp. 45–51.

13. See Dangerfield, Strange Death of Liberal England, p. 23.

14. On British labor militance, see G. D. H. Cole and Raymond Postgate, The Common People, 1746–1946 (London: Methuen, 1961), pp. 496–503; and Dangerfield, Strange Death of Liberal England, pp. 195–291.

15. On the Ulster rebellion, besides Dangerfield, for a fascinating first-hand Tory view see Austen Chamberlain, Politics from Inside, 1906–1914 (London: Casell. 1936); and for the Liberal side, see Roy Jenkins, Asquith (London: Collins, 1964), pp. 274–323.

16. See Society in the New Reign (London: Fisher Unwin, 1904), by “A Foreign Resident” [George W. Smalley], pp. 1–24.

17. Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis (New York: Scribner’s, 1931), p. 16.

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