Late nineteenth-century Britain and America: The people and the empire
Late nineteenth-century Britain and America: The people and the empire

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Late nineteenth-century Britain and America: The people and the empire

1 Popular responses to the South African War, 1899–1902

It is convenient for purposes of comparison to examine popular responses to the Boer War or South African War of 1899 to 1902, which involved Britain in a war for the Transvaal, and to the Spanish-American War of 1898, which was fought, ostensibly at least, to free the Cuban people from Spanish oppression.

The South African War certainly involved the British working population. The war was fought by members of the working and lower-middle classes, many of whom volunteered. And the war was pre-eminently an imperialistic war, which raised in acute form the old issue of the right of mighty nations to acquire and exploit weak but resource-rich nations at the expense of their independence. Contemporary Liberal and Conservative politicians interpreted worker participation in the war, enthusiasm for its victorious conclusion and patriotic sentiment as support for expansionism. Some historians, such as R. Koebner and H.D. Schmidt, have agreed (Koebner and Schmidt, 1964). But does popular enthusiasm for the fighting and winning of the South African War really imply popular support for its expansionist aims?

If we looked at the evidence for the opinion of labour leaders, we would have little reason to doubt that they were almost all anti-imperialist both before and during the war. At the outbreak of the war there were twelve trade union leaders in the House of Commons and only one was an imperialist. In the 1900 ‘Khaki’ election, nine trade union leaders were returned to Parliament, not one of whom was an imperialist. British labour leaders tended to identify the war as one fought in the interests of capitalism and against those of the working population: Ben Pickard, leader of the Yorkshire Miners, was one who urged the Trades Union Congress (TUC) as early as 1899 to make its stand against the war known.

In 1902 the TUC did declare the war to be unjust. Among organised workers demonstrations of enthusiasm for the war were exceptional, although, while the war was being fought, many preferred to remain silent for fear of embarrassing the troops.

But trade union membership was but the tip of the iceberg. What of the mass of the people who were never organised? Contemporaries thought that they were in favour of an imperialist war. Modern historians have delved deep in the archives to identify where popular sympathies lay. The content of popular music hall songs; the flood of worker recruits into the army during the war; the enthusiasm during popular demonstrations on and after Mafeking night; the activities of a ‘jingo mob’ in breaking up anti-war meetings during the first year of the war; the Unionist election victories of 1895 and 1900; the very lack of an outspoken and organised opposition; the propagandist campaign in the press – all have been adduced to argue that the people of Britain supported imperialism.

On the surface the case looks persuasive. But, if we search more deeply, it is less convincing. For example, while it is possible to show that the people were patriotic and wanted Britain to win the war, it is difficult to prove that they were expansionist. The song in which the word ‘jingo’ was coined was itself patriotic rather than imperialist in sentiment:

We don't want to fight, but, by jingo! if we do,

We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too.

We've fought the Bear before, and while Britons shall be true,

The Russians shall not have Constantinople.

The songs which were most popular at the time of the Boer War were generally not on imperialistic themes, dwelling rather on the theme of another popular song, ‘The Miner's Dream of Home’.

The war, also, was presented to the people as inevitable, the result of a Boer ultimatum and declaration. There was no alternative, if national shame was to be avoided, to fighting the Boer and to winning the fight. This, of course, says nothing about popular opinion about the imperialistic motives behind the war but speaks, rather, of popular conviction that the nation must survive and come out of a war with its head held high.

Rates of recruitment into the army are also partially explicable in these terms. In December 1899 there was a request for volunteers for the war. There was, indeed, an overwhelming response: 54,000 men finally volunteered. Why? No doubt, in part, men volunteered because they felt that the war, once thrust upon the nation, had to be fought and won quickly. But there were other reasons. The army was particularly attractive to young men in their early 20s, many of whom were hit by unemployment at home. There is a fairly clear correlation between working-class recruitment to the army and unemployment at home during the war. Unemployment had been fairly low since the early 1890s but it gradually mounted. At the start of the war it was still on the low side and so was working-class recruitment to the army. As the war progressed, unemployment rose markedly, real wages fell and working-class recruitment to the army soared. Tables 1 and 2 show the correlation with respect to the working class as a whole and to two trades.

Table 1 Working-class recruits for Imperial Yeomanry per 100 of total and unemployment per 100 trade unionists, December–March of each year

Year Recruits per 100 Unemployment per 100
1899–1900 32.6 2.6
1900–1 62.6 3.8
1901–2 76.2 4.2
Source: Price, 1972, p. 213.

Table 2 Carpenters and plumbers recruited for Imperial Yeomanry per 100 of total and unemployment per 100 trade-union carpenters and plumbers, December–March of each year

Year Recruits per 100 Unemployment per 100
1899–1900 1.31 2.72
1900–1 3.26 4.86
1901–2 3.91 5.2
Source: Price, 1972, p. 213.

The links between working-class recruitment and the labour market seem indisputable. But it is also argued that a high proportion of recruits to the army were not working class at all but lower-middle class in origin, especially at the start of the war. Clerks, for instance, formed the single largest occupational grouping among recruits – 30 per cent of the total number – and skilled craftsmen were also prominent. (Unfortunately for the historian, the attestation forms which provide the clues to a recruit's social standing are insufficiently detailed to enable us to determine which of the recruits were middle and which upper-middle class.) The ‘jingo press’ (the Daily Mail, for instance) and works debating the concept of empire (such as Seeley's Expansion of England) reached a middle and lower-middle class audience. It is tempting to conclude that they had their effect and produced a jingoistic mood at the start of the war among the lower-middle class, leading to considerable volunteer recruitment. Whether this was true or not, lower-middle-class recruitment to the army peaked in 1899 to 1900 and then fell markedly.

The Relief of Mafeking in May 1900 was certainly greeted with spontaneous demonstrations of joy in the streets of the towns. This celebratory crowd included working-class and middle-class people. There seems to be little if any evidence that it was an ‘imperialist’ or ‘expansionist’ demonstration. And by the weekend following, when it took on specifically anti ‘pro-Boer’ characteristics, the mob seems to have been under the leadership not of working-class youth, ‘street-corner’ boys, but of students and members of the lower-middle classes. These demonstrations were encouraged by the press: ‘this crowd is out for killing and it knows whom it wants to kill …’ (Canetti, 1962, p. 49). Some anti-war speakers noted that it was students, and particularly medical students, who broke up their meetings whereas working-class audiences were in general quiet and attentive.

So what of the evidence of the vote? Did not the resounding victory which the Conservatives scored in 1895 prove that the people by and large supported imperialism? There is a divergence of opinion on this point among historians. Koebner and Schmidt say that ‘The election of 1895 gave Salisbury and Chamberlain a majority which could be interpreted by contemporaries as a large vote for empire expansionism and a defeat of the “Little Englanders”’ (Koebner and Schmidt, 1964). Disputing this, Henry Pelling says the empire was not at that point a party political issue but that temperance was much more at issue, a matter which elicited a strong working-class response (Pelling, 1968). The Liberals advocated temperance; the brewers, innkeepers and large sections of the working class did not. In addition, he favours the ‘swing of the pendulum theory’. Because trade was in a slump the outgoing party – the Liberals – were blamed and the pendulum swung in favour of the Conservative alternative.

More attention has been given to the evidence afforded by the ‘Khaki’ election of 1900. Once it was accepted that the Conservative victory meant working-class support for the policy in South Africa. But in 1968 Pelling wrote an article modifying this view. Without the war and the boom conditions which it brought with it, the Conservatives would not have won the election but other factors were vital. The Liberals were sorely divided in their attitude to the war and imperialism, and Campbell Bannerman, the new Liberal leader, had not yet consolidated his control of the party sufficiently to offer strong leadership in the campaign. A number of other issues overrode the issue of empire – for example, Jewish immigrants in the East End of London tended to cast their votes for whichever candidate – Conservative or Liberal – promised to protect their interests, and Irish voters were advised by their priests to vote for the candidate who would support the endowment of a Catholic University for Ireland – normally the Unionist.

A little later, Richard Price took up Pelling's points and examined in detail the response during the ‘Khaki’ election (Price, 1972). He began from the premise that, while imperialism and the war constituted a national issue, historians and contemporaries had been wrong to assume that local issues were secondary. He noted several aspects of electoral behaviour which suggested that imperialism was not the deciding factor. The election was characterised by general voter apathy, with turnouts considerably lower than in 1895. Liberal imperialists did not succeed noticeably. A pro-Boer Liberal candidate who was also a notable social reformer tended to do well. Where local economic conditions were bad, the voters voted in a Liberal candidate. In Camborne, Cornwall, and in Northampton, for example, where the war was seen to have brought bad times, an appeal to patriotism was useless. And everywhere Conservative candidates who wished to hold on to seats in predominantly working-class constituencies made an effort to show themselves interested in their constituents’ needs. H.S. Samuel, MP for Limehouse, gave an election address which concentrated on looking after the concerns of the river-men; T.W. Dewar, candidate for St George's-in-the-East, London, made a speech which linked the war with its effects upon the working class:

The war in which we are engaged has served a useful purpose in pointing to the necessity of a thorough reform and reorganisation of our Army system … the field hospital accommodation … [should be] made more satisfactory; the pay and chance of promotion … improved; and adequate state provision should be made for the widows and orphans … [there should be] such legislation as shall ensure for every working man and his family in the East of London decent and comfortable dwellings at fair rents.

(Quoted in Price, 1972, p. 122)

Conservatives who neglected local issues in the London elections were worsted at the polls, as were Liberals who focused on the imperial issue.

Price made a persuasive case for the irrelevance of the imperial issue in working-class constituencies and the disproportionate importance which they attached to local issues. He does not, however, demonstrate that constituents actively voted against the war or imperialism – merely that they found the issue irrelevant. Some might say that both he and Pelling have weakened their cases by singling out the Jewish and Irish ‘immigrant’ vote in East London as tipping the scale. Jewish immigrants to the East End from Russia and central Europe in the late nineteenth century could rarely speak English and probably, as a result, cast fewer votes than their numbers warranted. The voting registration laws were such that the mobile Irish workers were often unable to exercise their votes; there is, therefore, currently some doubt as to their importance in the general election of 1900 even in ‘Irish’ constituencies in London and Liverpool.

Price's case for the irrelevance of the imperial issue to most members of the English working class is strengthened by the fact that there was no strong response to the anti-war protest movement. Despite the existence of the South African Conciliation Committee (SACC) which conducted a pamphlet war against misconceptions about the Boers and the Stop-the-War Committee which organised a religiously motivated Crusade of Peace in 1899, the working classes did not rally to the anti-war banner. Yet a study of working men's clubs does show that when the war was discussed, the feeling was definitely anti-war. The working classes, even when organised, felt that the expansion of the empire was irrelevant to their needs. The clubs, despite some attempts to politicise them, were, for the workers, primarily recreation. An article in the newspaper Club Life, on 11 March, 1899, said : ‘The cry is, “We don't want to be bothered with politics after a hard day's work; what we want is recreation”’ (p. 15).

But the failure of the anti-war movements to enlist wholesale working-class support must also rest partly with their ineffectual approach. The SACC essentially appealed to the middle classes and adopted Fabian tactics; the Stop-the-War Committee realised that mass support was necessary, but did not provide a platform moderate enough to give it mass appeal; the Liberals were hopelessly divided and lacking in leadership. It is one of those tantalising ‘ifs’ of history, that the working class might indeed have exhibited its latent feeling against the war and, perhaps, the idea of empire had it been given the right leadership. But this seems to be lending support to the view that the working classes rarely exercise their own judgement on any but ‘bread-and-butter’ issues and are readily manipulated by political leaders of whatever persuasion. Scottish labour leader Keir Hardie himself ascribed the silence of the working classes on the imperial issue to the lack of national leadership against the war:

The working people do not think and have lost the power of asserting themselves in politics, have blindly followed leaders who found most favour with the aristocratic or moneyed classes. When they found nearly all those condoning the war they followed their lead. There has been no voice at Hawarden.

(Quoted in Price, 1972, p. 45)

If left to their own devices, the mass of English workers will concern themselves with the business of day-to-day living. What they need, by implication, is either right-minded leadership or political consciousness-raising and education.

We might conclude, then, that the British working class comprised two distinct segments: the organised labour movement, made up above all of skilled workers who declared against the Boer War as a war at the expense of the workers; and the unorganised mass of the workers, semiskilled and labouring manual workers, who found politics, including the empire question, irrelevant to their everyday existence. This second group, when they could vote, cast their votes for candidates who promised advantage – the ‘cheap, big loaf’. They were willing to fight the wars of the upper classes because the laws of survival gave them little choice. But there are some who would urge that historians such as Price still have not identified what the workers of the second group thought. By analysing voting behaviour and working men's clubs they ignore the larger part of the working class – perhaps 60 per cent.

Price was anxious to examine the response of unorganised workers to the imperial issue but, in fact, he spurned the records of one type of working-class institution – the trade unions – in favour of another, the working-class clubs. It is unfortunate that no significant work has been done on the evidence of support or antagonism to the war or the empire arising from non-institutional sources such as correspondence, sermons and diaries.

We must also take stock of the fact that, while the British working class was either anti-imperialist or merely not interested in the issue, this did not mean that the workers were unpatriotic or unpossessed of a nationalistic sentiment. In time of war, when the workers were forced into the front line by events, the whole question of survival brought such nationalistic instincts into the fore. Price has not explained why, if the workers were so apathetic towards empire, they responded so enthusiastically to the call to arms in World War I. Perhaps the answer lies in the reality of working-class patriotism and nationalism. Price may well have over-emphasised the dedication of the working man to the need for social reform and general apathy towards war and expansion at the expense of attention to a deep-rooted although not ideological commitment to the flag. Apathy may have made the working man unsuitable material for the socialist movement; so, it could be contended, did patriotism.


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