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9-08-2015, 21:13

THE BRITISH EMPIRE PREMONITION OF DECLINE

At the height of its imperial greatness, there is discernible in the Edwardian Britain of the early twentieth century a new mood of uncertainty, even of apprehension about the future. Why should this be so? British society had shown itself remarkably successful in adapting to new conditions brought about by the industrial revolution. The inevitable social changes were taking place without violence. Britain had passed peacefully through some two decades of difficult economic conditions. The apprehensive mood was related more to its future role in the world. On the face of it the British Empire was the most powerful in the world: the navy ‘ruled the waves’; Britain’s wealth was matched by no other European state; a war in South Africa had been brought to a successful end in 1902, though it had not enhanced Britain’s military reputation. Superficially the Edwardian age was elegant and opulent, the king giving a lead to fashionable society and doing little else, despite the myth about his influence on affairs of state. But it was obvious that in the years to come Britain would face great changes. The effects of trade on British industry were widely discussed. It was argued that British industrial management was not good enough. If British industrialists did not wake up, authors of books like Made in Germany (1896) and the American Invaders (1902) warned, Britain would be overtaken and become a second-rate industrial power. People feared another depression and rightly sensed that British industry was lagging behind that of the US and Germany. This can indeed be seen in the comparative growth in value of manufactured exports of the world’s three leading industrial nations. Britain’s economic performance during the years from 1900 to 1914 showed several weaknesses. The ‘first’ industrial revolution was spreading to the less developed world. A textile industry was being built up in Japan and India. But Britain continued to rely on a few traditional industries such as cotton textiles, which for a time continued to grow strongly because of worldwide demand. The coal industry, employing more than a million men in 1914, still dominated the world’s coal export trade due to the fortunate fact that British coal mines were close to the sea, making possible cheap transportation to other parts of the world. Together with iron and steel, coal and textiles accounted for the greater part of Britain’s exports. After 1900 British exporters found increasing difficulty in competing with Germany and the US in the developing industrial countries. At home, foreign manufacturers invaded the British market. The speed of the American and German growth of production is very striking. This success was partly due to the increasing disparity between Britain’s, Germany’s and America’s populations. The story these statistics told was one people felt in their bones. Of course, it would be a mistake to believe that Britain and its industry were set on an inevitable course of rapid decline. There were successful ‘new’ industries of the ‘second’ industrial revolution, such as the chemical and electrical industry. Britain was still, in 1914, immensely strong and wealthy because of the continuing expansion of its traditional textile industry and large coal reserves, the world dominance of its mercantile marine, its investment income from overseas and the reputation of the insurance and banking institutions that made the city of London the financial centre of the world. But there was already in 1900 a doubt as to whether Britain would move sufficiently fast in changing conditions to maintain its leading industrial place in the world. Then industrialists felt doubts about the continuing cooperation of labour. The trade union movement had revealed a new militancy which posed a threat to industrial peace. The movement was no longer dominated by the skilled artisans sharing the values of the Victorian middle class. The new unions of the poor working men, formed in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, looked to the state for decisive support, for a redistribution of wealth. The Labour political movement also emerged during the last decade of the nineteenth century, though the ultimate break between ‘Liberal’ and ‘Labour’ politics did not take place until after the First World War. In 1900 the trade union movement became convinced that involvement in parliamentary politics was now necessary if the working man was to improve his standard of life. The Labour Representation Committee, embracing a broad alliance of socialist parties and trade unions, was formed in 1900. In the election later that year two Labour candidates succeeded in winning seats in the House of Commons. The founders of the Labour movement were practical men who realised that in the foreseeable future Labour members would be in a minority. They resolved accordingly that they would cooperate with any party ready to help labour. In Britain, the Labour Party was prepared to work within the parliamentary system, and turned its back on revolution and violence. In turn, it became accepted and enjoyed the same freedom as other political parties. The Conservatives, who were in power until the close of 1905, followed cautious social-political policies. A state system of primary and secondary schools was introduced, partly because of the belief that it was their better educational provisions that were enabling America and Germany to overtake Britain in industrial efficiency. When the Liberals came to power in 1906 their attitude to social and economic reforms was equally half-hearted, much of the party still believing in self-help and a minimum of state paternalism. The surprise of the new parliament of 1906 was the election of fifty-three Labour members, though that number owed much to an electoral arrangement with the Liberals. Among this Labour group were a few genuine socialists, such as Keir Hardie and Ramsay Mac- Donald, who had nothing in common with the Liberals; but other Labour members were less interested in socialism than in securing legislation to benefit the working men – for example, the Trade Disputes Bill which protected union funds from employers’ claims for compensation after strikes. In 1908 Herbert Asquith succeeded to the premiership. In the same year, one of the few major reforms was introduced – old-age pensions, which removed fear of the workhouse from the aged. The famous budget of 1909, however, sparked off a political crisis. Introduced by the Liberal chancellor of the exchequer, David Lloyd George, it increased indirect taxes on spirits and tobacco – which was unpopular with the poor – but also modestly increased the burdens on the better-off. The House of Lords – quite unjustly – sensed in these measures the thin edge of the wedge that would destroy their privileges. The Liberals pressed the issue of constitutional reform as a means of reviving the party’s popularity in the country. The power of the Conservativedominated House of Lords to veto bills passed by the Liberal majority in the Commons was to be curtailed so that within the life of one parliament, the House of Commons majority would prevail. An impasse was reached in Britain’s political life, not dissimilar from that in imperial Germany at about the same time. Should the Conservative hereditary lords have the power to block even the mild reforming legislation of an elected Liberal majority? Unlike in Germany, the constitutional turmoil was resolved. In November 1909 the House of Lords threw out the budget with the intention of submitting the issue to the electorate. This readiness by government and parliament to accept the wishes of the people on the one hand, and the constitutional monarch’s acceptance of the same verdict (though George V did insist unnecessarily on two elections) on the other, was the essential difference between imperial Germany and Britain. The Liberal tactic of taking the constitutional issue to the country misfired. They lost their overall majority and now ran neck and neck with the Conservatives. By the close of the second election in December 1910, each party had precisely the same strength in the House of Commons. But the Liberals, supported by Labour members and the Irish Nationalists, commanded a substantial majority over the Conservatives. The House of Lords in the summer of 1911 gave their assent to the bill limiting their powers. No social upheaval threatening the influence of wealth and property followed. But common sense, and a respect for the wishes of the majority of the House of Commons on which parliamentary constitutional government was based, prevailed. Britain would continue to follow the political and social path of evolution, not revolution. A National Insurance Bill of 1911 covered most workers against ill health, but only those in the cyclical building and engineering trades against unemployment. What Liberal policies did not do was to satisfy the working man who resented paying (with employers) compulsorily for national insurance and whose real wage in the recent years had not risen. The years 1911 and 1912 witnessed an unprecedented number of strikes and an increase in the power of the trade unions. The Liberal Party did not win the support of organised industrial labour. Nor did it seize the chance to earn the gratitude of potential women voters by granting their enfranchisement. The Liberals, for all Lloyd George’s dash and clamour as chancellor of the exchequer, were simply not ready to embark on bold social policies. The majority of Britain’s leaders believed that the future safety and prosperity of Britain depended on revitalising and drawing together the strength of the empire. Only in this way, they thought, could Britain hope to face the other great powers on an equal footing. But the questions were also asked: Will the empire last? Does it rest on permanent foundations or is it only a political organism in a certain state of decomposition? Will the younger nations, as they grow to maturity, be content to remain within it, or will they go the way of the American colonies before them . . .? The 400 million people of the British Empire had reached different stages of advancement to independence by the close of the nineteenth century. The division of the empire was largely on racial lines. The white people of the empire, where they predominated or even formed a significant minority of the country, were granted ‘selfgovernment’, only a step short of total independence. In practice, ‘self-government’ was brought about by applying the pattern of British parliamentary government to these countries; this, together with a federal structure, created the Dominions: Canada in 1867, New Zealand in 1876, the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 and, in 1909, seven years after the conclusion of the bitter Boer War, the Union of South Africa. The responsibility to protect the ‘native’ inhabitants of lands conquered and colonised by Europeans was recognised by Britain. But little that was effective was done by the imperial government in London. Indians in Canada, Maoris in New Zealand and Aborigines in Australia were largely left to struggle alone for their rights. In southern Africa, the black Africans formed the majority of the inhabitants but democratic rights were denied them and they were left to the control of the white peoples. British governments in London were not prepared to jeopardise their relations with the white ruling inhabitants. Racial discrimination was a grievous flaw in the British Empire, though a paternalistic concern for the ‘natives’ was perfectly genuine. Those parts of the empire not granted self-government were controlled and ruled in a bewildering variety of ways, more the result of accident than design, as Crown colonies (in the Caribbean and West Africa, for instance) or indirectly through local rulers – as, originally, in the Indian states, and later in the Malay states and the protectorates of tropical Africa. Of these ‘realms in trust’ the most populous and extensive was India. Ruled by British viceroys under the Crown as a separate empire, some 300 million Indians were Britain’s responsibility from 1858 until 1947. In 1900, a British Empire that did not include India would have seemed as unlikely as London without the Tower. But already the voice of India had been heard calling for autonomy and independence. In 1885 the first Indian National Congress had met. Those who gathered represented the Western viewpoint and admired the British. But rule by the British was seen as alien rule, and independence through the stage of Dominion status as an achievable goal for the future. The British brought unity, external and internal peace to India, and with the active cooperation of those Indians who had traditionally ruled the various states, established an incomparable administration all over the subcontinent. It was made possible by the marriage of Anglo- Indian traditions. But India was exploited too. Little was done for the masses of the poor. Economically, India was a dependency of Britain. The splendour of the British Raj never stilled British doubts about their role, so strongly reinforced by the Indian mutiny of 1857; the British were conscious that they, a mere handful of aliens, were ruling over millions of people. Would the people always so consent? In 1905 a senior member of the British ruling caste of India summed up the general view held by those responsible for British policy in India: British rule, he wrote, rested on ‘its character for justice, toleration and careful consideration of native feeling’, but it was also based on bayonets, on the maintenance of an ‘adequate’ force of British soldiers in India and the absolute command of the sea. If Britain weakened, its domination of India would come to an end through an uprising, perhaps helped along by a hostile foreign power, in all probability Russia. That was regarded as the ultimate disaster. The dynamic colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, was the principal advocate of an imperial movement for greater unity. In his great ‘tariff reform’ campaign from 1903 to 1905 he sought to win British support for a protected and preferential empire market which he believed would cement imperial relationships; but, as it would also have entailed higher food prices for the British people, he failed to carry the whole country. In a different way, the attempt to create a more unified system of imperial defence also failed; the self-governing Dominions were not willing to give up their independence. The cause of imperial unity was destined to fail. But in the era from 1900 to 1945, the British Empire remained very much a reality, as the prodigious effort in two world wars was to show. Cooperation between the Dominions and the mother country, however, was voluntary, based on a variety of changing institutions devised to meet no more than immediate needs. The most striking aspect of Britain’s world position in 1900 was the contrast between the appearance of its world power and its reality. Anyone looking at a map of the world with the British Empire painted red might well think that Britain dominated the world. This was certainly not the case. The security of the British Isles and the empire came to depend on three circumstances: in North America on peaceful good relations; in eastern Asia on the assistance of an ally; in Europe on a continued ‘balance of power’ between the great continental nations. Even with the largest navy, Britain could not continue relying entirely on its own strength and on temporary allies whose own interests happened to coincide with Britain’s at any particular moment of crisis. There was a widespread feeling that Britain was over-committed and that some change of course in its foreign relations would be essential. There were those who favoured an alliance with Germany. But the Germans proved coy. They saw no advantage in helping Britain against Russia, except perhaps if Britain were to pay the price of sharing its empire with Germany. An alliance was never really on the cards and discussions about such a possibility ceased in 1902. Others thought the sensible course for Britain would be to reduce the number of potential opponents all over the world. A successful start was made by removing all possibility of conflict with the US. On the British side, the readiness to defend British interests in the Americas by force, against the US if necessary, was abandoned early in the twentieth century. The British government signified its willingness to trust the US by allowing the Americans control of the future Panama Canal, by withdrawing the British fleet from the Caribbean, and by leaving the Dominion of Canada, in practice, undefended. On the US’s side the idea that the absorption of Canada was part of the US’s manifest destiny faded. Britain liquidated with equal success the longdrawn- out imperial rivalry with France in many parts of the world. As late as 1898 it had seemed possible that Britain and France would be at war again, as they had been in the early nineteenth century. There was very little love for Britain in France, where Britain was most bitterly condemned during the South African War. But the French government made its prime objective the control of Morocco. In April 1904 Britain and France settled their imperial differences, France promised Britain support in Egypt and Britain would support the French in Morocco. From this mutual pact grew the French entente cordiale when Germany flexed its muscles in the Moroccan crisis of 1905 and 1911, objecting to being left out of the carve-up. Over the next three years the Liberal government found itself enmeshed in a ‘moral’ alliance with military promises, but not in a treaty by which the French could automatically require Britain to join it in a war with Germany. Britain’s attempt to reach a settlement with its most formidable opponent in the world arena, Russia, was far less successful. Russia’s occupation of Manchuria in China, which began in 1900, alarmed the British government. The China market was seen as vital to Britain’s future prosperity. Unable to check Russia, or to trust it, Britain concluded an alliance with Japan in 1902. This alliance marks a significant stage in the history of Western imperialism. In the division of empire the European powers had been locked in rivalry and confrontation one against the other, though this rivalry had not led to war between them since the mid-nineteenth century. It was the Africans and Chinese, the peoples whose lands were parcelled up, who had suffered the ravages of war. The Europeans, though fiercely competitive among themselves, acted in this their last phase of expanding imperialism on the common assumption that it was their destiny to impose European dominion on other peoples. Now, for the first time in the new century, a European power had allied with an Asiatic power, Japan, against another European power, Russia. In the Middle East Britain was determined to defend against Russia those territorial interests which, in 1900, before the age of oil had properly begun, were largely strategic: the road to India which ran through the Ottoman Empire, Persia and landlocked mountainous Afghanistan. India was the greatest possession and jewel of the British Empire and tsarist Russia was credited by the British with the ultimate desire of ousting Britain from India and of seeking to replace Britain as the paramount power of southern Asia. The defence of India and Britain’s own supremacy in southern Asia had been the foremost objective of British policy in the nineteenth century and remained so in the new century. But it became increasingly difficult to defend the ‘buffer states’ which kept Russia away from the classic land-invasion route to India. The Ottoman Empire, once dominated by British influence, had turned away from Britain. No British government could easily have come to the defence of an empire which, under the Sultan Abdul Hamid, ‘the Damned’, had murdered defenceless Christian Armenians in Asia Minor. In Persia, Russia’s influence was steadily advancing. In 1904 a dramatic change occurred. Russia became embroiled in war with Japan over China. Its military weakness became apparent to the world. Tsarist Russia desperately needed years of peace after 1905 to recover. The British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, therefore found the Russians more ready in 1907 to reach an agreement with Britain to partition their imperial spheres of interests in the Middle East. But Grey believed this agreement only provided a temporary respite. British security in Europe had been based on an effective balance of power on the continent. It had been a part of Britain’s traditional policy to seek to prevent any one power gaining the mastery of continental Europe. After the defeat of Napoleon there seemed to be no serious possibility that any single nation either harboured such ambitions or could carry them through. But around 1905 doubts began to arise as to whether this fundamental condition of safety might not be passing. Germany’s ambitious plans of naval expansion were being seriously noted. Germany’s aggressive reaction in 1905 to the Anglo-French deal over Morocco aroused graver fears that Germany might be contemplating another war against France. Britain gave unhesitating support to France. From 1905 to 1914 the golden thread of British policy was to endeavour to preserve the peace, but in any case to avoid the possibility of a German hegemony of the continent which would result from a German victory over much weaker France. Accordingly, on the one hand British policy towards Germany was pacific and the prospect of helping it achieve some of its imperial ambitions was held out to it as long as it kept the peace. But it was warned that should it choose to attack France in a bid for continental hegemony, it could not count on the British standing aside even if Britain were not directly attacked. The Liberal Cabinet from 1906 to 1914 was not united, however, though Grey’s policy of growing intimacy with France in the end prevailed. Several Liberal ministers were more anti-Russian than anti- German; strongly pacific, they saw no cause for war with Germany or anyone. Grey went his own way of constructing a barrier against the threat of Germany, supported by the two prime ministers of the period, Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith, and a small group of ministers. In secret discussions between the French and British military staffs, military plans were drawn up after the second Moroccan crisis of 1911 to land a British army of 150,000 men in France if Germany invaded France. At the same time Grey continued to emphasise that the French should place no reliance on Britain as there could be no formal alliance between the two countries. It was a curious policy dictated partly by differences among his ministerial colleagues and partly by Grey’s own desire to play a mediating role in present and future conflicts. In fact, this compromise between ‘alliance’ and the ‘free hand’ worked quite well down to the outbreak of war in 1914. Grey made a notable contribution to calming Europe during the Bosnian crisis of 1909 and in collaborating with Germany during the Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913 in order to help preserve European peace. Nevertheless, alarm at Germany’s intentions grew in Britain from 1910 onwards. In the public mind this had much to do with the expansion of the German navy. Efforts to moderate the pace – the war secretary, Richard Haldane, visited Berlin for this purpose early in 1912 and Winston Churchill, first lord of the admiralty, called for a ‘naval holiday’ in 1913 – all came to nothing. The German ministers, in return, had demanded that Britain should tie its hands in advance and promise to remain neutral if Germany went to war with France. The Germans continued to be warned that Britain, in its own interests, would stand by France if France found itself attacked by the numerically superior German military machine. This threat, rather than Germany’s naval challenge, motivated British policy. As Grey put it in 1912, Britain was in no danger of being involved in a war ‘unless there is some Power, or group of Powers in Europe which has the ambition of achieving . . . the Napoleonic policy’. The British government knew that it possessed the resources to keep pace with any increase in Germany’s naval construction. By 1914 Britain had twenty new super-battleships of the dreadnought class, against Germany’s thirteen; in older battleships Britain’s superiority was even greater – twenty-six to Germany’s twelve. By making arrangements with France to concentrate this fleet in home waters, leaving the Mediterranean to be defended by the French fleet, British naval superiority over Germany was assured and, also significantly, its ties with France were strengthened. Still trying at the same time to assure Germany of Britain’s general goodwill, Grey concluded two agreements with it in 1913 and 1914. The first, a rather dubious one, divided up two Portuguese colonies in Africa, Mozambique and Angola, allowing Germany a good share should Portugal choose to dispose of these possessions. The other agreement helped Germany to realise plans for the final sections of the Berlin–Baghdad railway project and so facilitated German commercial penetration of Asia Minor and Mesopotamia. It was concluded on the very eve of the outbreak of war in Europe. Grey endeavoured to steer a difficult middle path. He had met the Russian threat by the agreements of 1907, just as his predecessor in the Foreign Office, Lord Lansdowne, had removed the imperial rivalry with France in 1904 by a general settlement. But the British never thought that agreements with Russia, unlike the French settlement, would allow more than breathing space from its inexorable pressure. Yet, in every one of these agreements made to protect Britain’s empire there was a price which the British Cabinet would have preferred not to pay. To protect its enormous stake in China, Britain had concluded the alliance with Japan in 1902 sanctioning Japanese aggression in Korea and making war in eastern Asia with Russia more likely. After Japan’s victory in 1904–5, Japan was set on the road to dominate China. Then there was the agreement with France over Morocco and Egypt in 1904, which was bound to offend Germany. Britain would have preferred to appease Germany by allowing it a share of Morocco. The French would not allow that. So Britain once more gained its imperial objective – predominance in Egypt – at the cost of increasing tensions in Europe. The most striking example of Britain protecting its empire at the cost of international tension was the settlement reached with Russia. With the conclusion of this agreement with Russia in 1907 over spheres of influence in the Middle East, Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, well understood that the Germans would increasingly feel ‘encircled’. The question that has to be asked is why, if Russia continued to be considered even after 1907 to present the main threat to the heart of the British Empire in Asia, did Britain go to war with Germany in 1914? There were no direct Anglo-German territorial disputes or differences over spheres of influence that were not capable of settlement. It is not easy to answer that question but there are clues in what Grey wrote and said. Agreement with Russia rather than enmity bought time. Then, looking to the future, how could Britain best maintain its position as a great power in Europe? It certainly wanted the peace of Europe to be maintained. But Grey feared that Britain might be faced with too powerful a combination of countries in Europe in coalition against it. However, he also repeatedly warned against Britain becoming dependent on Germany. Britain’s distrust of Germany was certainly growing in the Edwardian period. The kaiser was regarded as over-emotional and unstable. German manufacturers were competing with the British in the world. Of course, Germany was an excellent market for British goods, something that was taken for granted. Above all, the German naval build-up touched the public to the quick. As Sir Eyre Crowe, a senior member of the Foreign Office, put it in 1907, a hostile Germany was disregarding the ‘elementary rules of straightforward and honourable dealing’ and Britain would have to defend its position in the world, its naval supremacy and the European balance of power. Still, there were others who deplored the Germanophobia, among them the bankers, industrialists, politicians and many ordinary people who preferred the ‘clean’ Germans to their French and Italian neighbours with their supposedly more dubious morals and awful lavatories. Tsarist autocratic Russia, with its record of abusing human rights, was regarded as the one European country that not only threatened Britain in Asia but least shared British democratic ideals and respect for human rights. Grey did not share the Germanophobia, but he believed it essential to preserve and strengthen the entente with France as the primary objective of British policy in Europe. He hoped to gain some influence over French policy in return for supporting France against unreasonable German behaviour. He could not hope to exercise such influence over German policy. As it turned out he could exercise little influence over the French either. But it was the bedrock of Grey’s policy that friendly relations with Germany should never be established at the expense of France. In the end it meant that Britain was more influenced by French objectives than the other way around. To please the French and Russians in 1914, for instance, Grey consented to Anglo-Russian naval conversations which unnecessarily but dramatically increased German fears of encirclement. On the eve of 1914 the well-informed Grey perceptively assessed German apprehensions: The truth is that whereas formerly the German Government had aggressive intentions . . . they are now genuinely alarmed at the military preparation in Russia, the prospective increase in her military forces and particularly at the intended construction at the instance of the French Government and with French money of strategic railways to converge on the German Frontier. Yet for all these insights, when the crisis came in July 1914, Grey’s mediating efforts, limited as they were by previous constraints, proved unavailing. On the eve of the Great War, the most serious problem facing the British government seemed to be not abroad but at home: the question of maintaining the unity of the United Kingdom. Ireland was Britain’s Achilles heel. British governments had been too slow in attempting to satisfy Irish national feeling by devolution or limited ‘home rule’. Ireland’s problems had been allowed to languish until after the elections of December 1910. Now the decline of the Liberals’ fortunes forced Asquith into more active collaboration with the Irish Nationalist Party in the House of Commons. Not for the first time the Irish held the parliamentary balance of power. The Liberals with the support of the Irish Nationalists had staked their future on reforming the House of Lords. Asquith, in return, was committed to home rule for Ireland. In April 1912 he introduced the Home Rule Bill in the Commons. Ulster Protestant militants, strong in the north of Ireland, were determined to kill the bill or at least to demand partition. Sinn Féin, the Irish republican movement, was equally determined to preserve a united Ireland. Both sides raised private armies which on the eve of the Great War in 1914 threatened to plunge a part of the United Kingdom into civil war. The outbreak of the war gave Asquith the opportunity of postponing the Irish confrontation. What with suffragettes resorting to spectacular demonstrations to gain the vote for women, industrial unrest, Ireland seemingly on the brink of civil war, Britain presented a picture of disarray. It was deceptive. A united Britain and its empire entered the Great War of 1914.

 

 

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