The New Liberalism: Military Failures in the Boer War Transformed Political Attitudes in Edwardian Britain

By Mokades, Raphael | History Review, December 1996 | Go to article overview

The New Liberalism: Military Failures in the Boer War Transformed Political Attitudes in Edwardian Britain


Mokades, Raphael, History Review


Britain in 1399 was not only fin de siecle but also fin d'epoque. Queen Victoria and Salisbury, those ancient relies of a bygone age, were still in power: Britain was unencumbered by alliances, still in glorious isolation. It would hardly be an exaggeration to claim that this period of calm, which marked the very end of the long Victorian era, represented the hubris to the nemesis of 1900-1914.

The events of the Boer War dealt an unquestionable shock to the arrogant frame of mind into which Britain had slipped. Rudyard Kipling, writing in The Times, apparently summed up the national mood:

`Let us admit it fairly as a business people should,

We have had no end of a lesson: it will do us no end of good.

It was our fault, our very great fault -- and now we must turn it to use;

We have forty million reasons for failure, but not a single excuse![1]

Britain had been tested -- and, in response, a notion of patriotic earnestness emerged. R. C. K. Ensor, writing in 1936, saw `a strong element of implicit conservatism' in this revival of feeling for England.[2] This idea was important in Baden-Powell's establishment of the Boy Scout Movement in 1904. A contemporary analysis, drawn from The Times History of the War in South Africa, 1900.[3] makes a similar point: `The war has been the nation's Recessional after all the pomp and show of the year of Jubilee. It has transmuted our complacent arrogance and contempt of other nations begotten of long years of peace and prosperity to a truer consciousness of both our strengths and our defects, and has awakened an earnest desire to make those defects good.'

For the first time, the Empire s future seemed uncertain. In this great mood of uncertainty and self-questioning, progressive ideas of societal reorganization became more widely favoured. The famous Times articles entitled 'The Crisis in British Industry', which began in November 1901, blamed Britain's perceived inefficiency on the unions, which had raised production costs by insisting on shorter working days, higher pay and safe conditions at work. However, the great body of opinion took a very different view, and decided that it was precisely the problem. It is claimed that out of the eleven thousand men volunteering in Manchester for service in the Boer War eight thousand had to be turned away because of their poor physical condition. The Elgin Commission on the Boer War heard time and time again that poor education had prevented soldiers from making vital decisions in the field. It seemed to many that the traditional Liberal State was producing a race of degenerates, and that a better ordered society, run by experts rather than amateurs, was needed. This strand of thought was common to men of every political hue: the Webbs' Co-Efficient Club, which was dedicated to the establishment of a collectivist society, included the banker Dawkins, the Unionist Amery, the Liberals Grey and Haldane, and the Fabians Webb, Russell and Wells. In South Africa, Britain had had its Mexican Expedition: it was vital that its Sedan should not follow. How was it to be avoided and who would pay for the social reform that seemed crucial?

It is usually acknowledged that the Boer War is intrinsically linked with the rise of 'National Efficiency' ideology. The question with which this essay concerns itself, however, is not whether the war was a factor in the new political climate, but rather how far the war changed the direction of British politics.

Immediate results of the war

In the very short term the Unionist government had to deal with significant unpopularity following the disasters of 1899-1900. `Black Week' brought to a head all Britain's doubts and insecurities. The battles of Stormberg on 9 December 1899 and Magorsfontein and Ladysmith on the 10th saw c. 3000 British casualties. These disasters were followed by another British reverse at Spion Kop on 24 January. …

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