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

3 A comparison of attitudes

It is, indeed, instructive to compare the attitude of the people to imperialism in both these nation states during the final decade of the nineteenth century. Clearly, although there are surface similarities in the situation, the historical tradition of both countries respecting empire in fact determined to a great extent responses to imperialism. It was possible to speak of imperialism and the empire with pride in Britain. The United States denied its empire and its imperial ambitions. When it developed a policy of territorial acquisition, it tried to clothe naked greed in the garments of humanity and benevolence. In both countries the organised labour movement stood out against territorial expansion, especially where an aggressive war was involved. In both countries this stand against imperialism was considerably weakened when war broke out: it was both inappropriate and dangerous to be seen to oppose one's own government in time of war.

It is, therefore, fairly clear where the organised workers stood on the imperial issue. What is less certain, and much more difficult to ascertain, is where the unorganised workers saw themselves with regard to this issue. Contemporaries thought that they knew: both the British and the American governments believed that they had received an overwhelming mandate from their respective peoples to conduct an imperial war and pursue a policy of active expansion. But the evidence lends itself to another interpretation – that the people were not interested in imperialism as such.

In Britain the working class was involved in the war – workers had to fight its battles, after all. There was a ‘natural’ desire to fight, to win and to nurse wounds. There was also considerable patriotism. But there is also evidence that these same people who sang patriotic songs during the war, who waved the flag and shouted ‘Death to the Boer’, had no hankering after another imperial war. Even Tory politicians believed that the people's support was fickle. In the early twentieth century Chamberlain believed that support had been alienated by the Education Act, but in point of fact the disillusionment of working people with the promised benefits of empire was more crucial. Few believed that their personal economic circumstances would benefit from the tariff reform which Chamberlain proposed. When it came to the point the free traders’ promise of a cheap loaf was much more tempting than the tariff reformers’ offer of full employment. The point was driven home when the ‘carrot’ of employment in the empire was shown after the war to be rotten. Large numbers of Chinese labourers were brought in to work the South African mines for low wages and in appalling conditions. This type of competition closed the empire to emigrant British workers. In 1904, Charles Fenwick, Northumberland Miners MP, noted that:

… towards the close of the late unhappy war supporters of the government pointed out to the working classes in this country what a happy hunting ground South Africa would be for the British labourer and what a splendid outlet it would be for the surplus population of this country. Now it turned out that this country had shed the blood of tens of thousands of its subjects not in the interests of British labour but in the interests of Chinese labour.

(Quoted in Pelling, 1968, p. 98)

The poor performance of the Conservatives in the 1906 general election showed that the electorate was unprepared to pursue the policy of imperial consolidation if it implied any lowering of their current living standards. Yet, had Britain become involved in an imperial war, the response may well have been similar to that in 1899 to 1902. Popular enthusiasm for the war in the United States equally must not be mistaken for enthusiasm for – or even interest in – imperialism. There, even more than in Britain, the response was a patriotic one and, by all accounts, an even more self-consciously patriotic one. Prevalent nativism and xenophobia made all sections of the community eager to assert their Americanness and deny their loyalties to other nations. The war of territorial aggression was simultaneously a war which healed a nation riven by ethnic rivalries. Empire itself was an issue which little interested the American worker.

In studying the response of the American and British people to these imperial wars, it becomes evident that politicians in both countries were anxious to appear to act in accordance with the popular will. This was necessary in a democratic system. In the case of America it was particularly important for the government to claim an imperial mandate from the people because the policy of territorial acquisition and aggression against outside powers was so very out of line with orthodox American ideology.

It is more difficult to determine whether these same politicians understood the nature of the public response to the wars. It is true that they noted popular support and war fever, but it is also true that they were careful to appeal to the more mundane interests of the electorate and were aware of the fickle nature of their support. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that politicians were well aware that imperialism as a concept was for the middle classes and that for the worker it was at best an emotive issue, to be confused with patriotism. Politicians manipulated the populace.

Although, in both nations, the labour movement stood out against imperialism there were important differences in approach. Those who spoke for the working class in Britain were well aware that imperialism had an underlying economic base. The capitalist was the enemy. Territorial expansion was to be deplored but so was economic infiltration and exploitation of other lands. In Britain, also, there was more talk of the adverse effects of the empire and its wars upon the conditions of the workers at home. But anti-imperialism did not imply an unpatriotic stance. When war came, labour stood for Britain. In the United States, there was little acknowledgement of the economic roots of imperialism. Territorial expansion was deplored because it involved the oppression and exploitation of others. Economic imperialism by American capitalists abroad came in for little analysis. The labour movement was outspokenly internationalist in approach. Its declarations before the war laid its leaders open to charges of unpatriotic, even traitorous, behaviour during the war. Relative silence was the result.

Nevertheless, in both nations, the labour movement did stress the implications of empire for the indigenous populations. Competition from colonial peoples was feared. Parallels were drawn between the attitudes of employers to contract labour in the imperial possessions and the way in which employers wanted to treat labour at home. Always there was the problem of reconciling the view of the movement as a whole that war and empire were bad for the workers with the fact that war sometimes brought boom conditions and usually benefited certain sectors. In fact, the concerted stand of the movement against imperialism in Britain successfully refutes the charge made by some Marxist historians that the skilled workers, the labour aristocracy, were bought off by the profits of empire.

Above all, this short survey must remind us of the immense difficulties involved in discovering the opinions of ‘the working people’. It is hard to interpret the statements of trade union leaders or to assess the stand of members of working men's clubs, but at least we have their statements to hand. The position is very different when it comes to studying the opinion of the masses. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that the organised labour movement was not representative of ordinary workers, to hint that they were at best apathetic about the labour stand. But for the most part we are thrust back at every turn upon statements about the supposed opinions of these people rather than upon what they, themselves, said or did.

The historian's approach is in danger of being circular: if a person declared a political position, even more if they were able to write it down, they were by definition not average and were, therefore, not one of the masses; only the illiterate and the apathetic justify the epithets ‘average’, ‘representative’ or ‘ordinary’. Yet we are bent upon discovering whether average working people were apathetic or whether they did have views on empire or other political issues. How do we as historians circumvent this problem? What sources can we use which demonstrate the views of the ‘person in the street’? Even in this essay, it has been only too easy to slip into using ‘electoral behaviour’ or the working men's clubs as evidence of working opinion yet both were open only to a portion of the class under discussion.

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