Lionel Curtis, Imperial Citizenship, and the Quest for Unity

By Gorman, Daniel | The Historian, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Lionel Curtis, Imperial Citizenship, and the Quest for Unity


Gorman, Daniel, The Historian


ONE OF THE MOST PERSISTENT VOICES of empire in the early decades of the twentieth century belonged not to a sitting politician, nor to a Tory grandee, but to a man who operated outside of official circles. Lionel Curtis, if one was forced to attribute to him a career, could best be described as an imperial spokesman and organizer. Through his writings, travels, and eclectic and exhaustive proselytizing, Curtis helped maintain imperialism as a subject of importance for the public and Whitehall alike. Imperial leaders from Cecil Rhodes and Sir Alfred Milner to Jan Smuts, New Zealand prime minister Sir Joseph Ward, and Winston Churchill looked to Curtis as a spokesman and consultant whenever the empire-commonwealth came to the fore as a political issue. (1) He was a figure of single-minded purpose, an outlook illustrated in a letter Curtis sent in 1911 to the young Canadian Vincent Massey, then a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford:

   [m]y deepest conviction is that in politics as in other matters
   there is a truth which can be discovered by earnest and
   dispassionate enquiry and that those who have the patience to reach
   it and abide in it will find that they meet on common ground which
   will give them the basis for concerted action. (2)

Through his work with the imperial pressure group the Round Table, and more broadly in his advocacy of imperial federation, Curtis played a leading role in imperial affairs through much of the first half of the twentieth century. In his interests, then, he differed little from the scores of other Oxbridge men who looked to empire, rather than the bar, politics, or the City for their professional niche. What set Curtis apart from his peers, indeed what characterized his career in its entirety, was an industry of almost monastical intensity (3) and a proselytizing spirit that did not recognize defeat. He developed a reputation in imperial circles as a man above politics, a conciliator who could mediate between competing camps with fairness and equanimity. (4) His biographer, Deborah Lavin, has written that he was in the business of public relations before that calling had crystallized into a profession. (5)

The present article examines the role of Lionel Curtis within the world of early-twentieth-century British imperial thought and politics, addressing primarily his activities stretching from the Boer War to the beginning of the 1920s. It presents the argument that Curtis believed empire to be mankind's best hope of fostering and preserving peace. The means through which Curtis pursued this goal was imperial citizenship. Though this position strikes modern ears as naive, and not a little pretentious, it was consistent with the normative view of politics, and the belief that political service should be devoted to a search for a common good, that characterized much political debate, domestic as well as imperial, during this era. While Curtis has certainly attracted the notice of historians, his influence has been attenuated by two factors. First, he has often been studied in tandem with his Round Table peers, as a purveyor of the ultimately lost cause of imperial union, and thus unintentionally he can appear as "merely another clubman." (6) Second, his political and intellectual activities have not fit within the purview of much recent imperial historiography, whose attention has shifted from political themes to those of identity, especially race. Postcolonial history in particular seeks to provide a hermeneutic procedure aimed at dislodging and exposing the master narratives of race/class/gender that dominated European thought, and that underpinned imperialism. (7) A figure such as Curtis appears in this literature as an opponent of equality. While such works have much to tell us about the shape and scope of the British Empire, attempts to dislodge older "master narratives" of empire have also tended to portray the dependencies as the most prominent feature of British imperialism. …

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