Monday, 24 March 2008

Towards 1914 (1)

For the complicated politics of the European alliances before 1914 I have been especially indebted to J. M. Roberts Europe 1880-1945, 2nd edition (Longman, 1989).

In the late nineteenth century new occasions of conflict arose in Europe caused by certain fundamental problems:
1. In 1866 Prussia had defeated Austria in the Seven Weeks’ War, also known as the Austro-Prussian War. This meant that Germany would be united under Prussian rather than Austrian leadership. In 1867 a defeated Austria re-formed itself as the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, and became a multi-national south-east European rather than a Germanic power. The dominating concern of the Dual Monarchy was the need to check Russian influence in the increasingly unstable Balkans.
2. A major problem since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was the place of the newly created German Empire (below) within the European world order. France was obsessed with Germany’s demographic and military superiority. French politicians were divided between revanchists and those who wanted to abandon the lost provinces of Alsace-Lorriane and seek an overseas empire.
3. The Ottoman Empire continued to decline. Although a Russo-Turkish war had been averted by the Berlin Congress of 1878, Russia and Turkey were still potentially hostile. In addition, Turkey faced the threat of growing nationalism in its subject provinces in the Balkans.
The condition of the military
Among the great powers of 1880 only Britain was not a land power. To continental countries armies were more important than navies. Military thinking was still obsessed with the idea of winning a decisive battle soon after the outbreak of war. It was assumed that wars would be short (as they had been in 1866 and 1870), and the five year experience of the American Civil War was discounted.

The success of Prussia in the 1870 war led to a rethinking of strategy. The ‘Moltkean Revolution’ involved compulsory military service to provide a short-service army with a large trained reserve and the creation of a permanent highly trained general staff. The ideal, except in Britain, was the ‘nation in arms’. The railway became an indispensable part of military strategy, but once away from the railway lines the army was still the Napoleonic cavalry, infantry and artillery.

Navies had changed much more than armies. By 1880 warships were armoured, steam-driven and screw-propelled. The British Royal Navy was the strongest in the world. Lord Salisbury told a German, ‘Nous sommes des poissons’. However, the extent of the British Empire presented it with the problem of over-stretch.

Bismarck's alliances
Between 1880 and 1890 international relations were dominated by the system Bismarck built on the Berlin settlement of 1878, which was to collapse in 1914.

Bismarck (shown here in 1886 towards the end of his career) was the major player in the geopolitical game. He saw Germany as a ‘saturated’ power. She was the leading continental nation but in order to consolidate her position, he was determined to isolate France. In 1873 he formed the Dreikaiserbund, a conservative alliance designed to maintain good relations with Russia and Austria-Hungary and to prevent them from coming into conflict in the Balkans.

He saw the integrity of the Habsburg Empire as essential for the stability of Europe, so his policy was to back Austria-Hungary in any conflict with Russia. In October 1879 the secret Dual Alliance was signed between Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Its terms were that if one of the signatories were to be attacked by Russia the other was to come to her support. Yet Germany was in no conceivable danger from Russia, so the assumption is that Bismarck’s aim was to attach Austria-Hungary to Germany so that he could prevent her from going to war with Russia. His over-riding aim was peace because he feared the unpredictability and revolutionary potential of war. The alliance was also a statement that the kleindeutsch solution of the German problem was permanent. There would be no re-run of the Austro-Prussian War.

Bismarck followed this up by making overtures to Britain, but nothing came of it. In 1881 and 1884 he renewed the Dreikaiserbund. In May 1882 Italy, furious at the French occupation of Tunis, came into the Dual Alliance, which then became the Triple Alliance. Germany and Austria-Hungary promised to help Italy against a French attack and vice versa.

Bismarck seemed to have made Europe more peaceful because he had contained the rivalries between Austria-Hungary and Russia and neutralized and isolated France. But rivalries in the Balkans could not be controlled and Bismarck ultimately failed in his attempts at bridge-building. The Balkans was the new flash-point of Europe.

The fall of Bismarck
In 1888 Emperor William I died and was succeeded by his son Frederick III, Queen Victoria’s son-in-law. But within three months he was dead of throat cancer and his son Wilhelm II became Kaiser. He wished to pursue his own policies both at home and abroad and saw Bismarck as a hindrance. In 1890 he forced his resignation over social policy.

Bismarck’s fall did not immediately change German foreign policy but it opened the way for the transformation of the European system which he had dominated since 1870. His achievements were thrown away in the next decade. German foreign policy became confused and dependent on the Kaiser’s unstable character.

The Dual Entente
The idea was not new as it had been advocated by panslavists and French nationalists, but it remained insignificant so long as Bismarck nursed Russia and encouraged France overseas. As Russo-German relations cooled, the Reinsurance Treaty was allowed to lapse.

This did not mean an alliance was inevitable as there was considerable dislike in Russia of France’s republican constitution. However, the two powers were becoming increasingly close economically and hostile to what they saw as Britain’s expansionism.

In July 1891 the French fleet paid a symbolic visit to Kronstadt and diplomatic notes were exchanged. In August 1892 Russia promised to go to war if France were attacked by Germany alone and in return France promised to come to Russia’s help if she were attached by Germany (but not if she were attacked by Austria-Hungary). This agreement was full of significance for the future: Europe was now on the way to being organized into two armed camps. At the end of 1893 a diplomatic convention was signed (and ratified in 1894) to reinforce the military one. In 1894 Nicholas II paid a state visit to Paris. So secret was this alliance that the public did not become aware of it until 1897 and most French ministers did not know its precise terms until war broke out.

Britain and Turkey
How did Britain come to abandon the support for Turkey that had been the keystone of its policy throughout the 19th century?

In 1895 another Balkan crisis loomed when a series of officially instigated massacres of Armenians took place in Turkey. Public opinion was greatly agitated in Britain though not in the rest of Europe. The British government wished to condemn the massacres but at the same time not allow a repeat of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877. Britain had now become thoroughly disillusioned with Abdul Hamid II who had failed to implement the promised reforms. It now seemed morally impossible to defend Turkey. At the same time the old strategic arguments for defending the access to the Mediterranean seemed out of date:
(1) the Straits could no longer be defended successfully against the combined Franco-Russian fleets;
(2) the route to India could be better secured by maintaining control of Egypt and was no longer dependent on the balance of power in south-east Europe.
On 19 January 1897 the British Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Lord Salisbury spoke in the Lords in the debate on the Queen’s Speech. This speech marked a dramatic reversal of British foreign policy by condemning the entry into the Crimean War.
‘The parting of the ways was in 1853 when the Emperor Nicholas’s proposals were rejected. Many members of the House will keenly feel the nature of the mistake that was made when I say that we put all our money on the wrong horse [my emphasis].
But this remarkable change in policy did not have an immediate practical outcome. In 1897 Britain was still isolated. She was at odds with France over the Sudan and relations with Germany were worsening.

Britain and Germany
In 1893 Britain had protested against German railway building in Asia Minor, which had begun in 1888 when a German syndicate obtained a concession from Turkey.

Germany took the side of Britain’s opponents in colonial disputes and wars. From 1889 Britain and Portugal were at odds over Delagoa Bay (Maputo Bay, Mozambique) which arose when the Portuguese seized the railway running from the bay to the Transvaal. In 1894 Germany sent two warships to) as a demonstration against British pressure on Portugal.

(The dispute was referred to arbitration, and in 1900 Portugal was condemned to pay nearly 1,000,000 pounds in compensation to the shareholders in the railway company.)

On 2 January 1895 news of the Jameson Raid, an excursion by British freebooters into the Transvaal, reached Berlin. On the following day the Kaiser sent a telegram to President Paul Kruger congratulating him on its suppression. British public opinion was outraged.
n July 1897 Bernard Heinrich von Bülow became secretary of state (and chancellor in 1900)
and Alfred von Tirpitz became head of the Admiralty.

This marked a new turn in German politics, the abandonment of Bismarck’s contention that Germany was a ‘satiated’ power. It coincided with increased anti-German feeling in Britain as newspapers whipped up a campaign against German goods.

In 1898 Wilhelm visited Abdul Hamid II and secured a Turkish concession to Germany to extend the Berlin-Baghdad Railway to Basra, which would give Germany access to the Persian Gulf.

During the Boer War Britain’s sense of isolation increased. The one consolation was her naval supremacy which enabled her to ride out world opinion.

The world c. 1900
Was the First World War inevitable?
In some respects the world was more orderly than it had ever been. Much had been done to mitigate the disorder of international competition. Colonial disputes had gone to arbitration and had been peacefully resolved. More questions were decided by arbitration between 1880 and 1900 than in the previous eighty years. Many people believed, with reason, that the world was becoming more peaceful.

There was also acceptance of the need to limit armaments, however difficult this might be to achieve in practice. The first Nobel Peace Prizes were awarded in 1901.

In 1899, at the instigation of Nicholas II, a conference met at the Hague, where it was decided that a permanent court of arbitration should be set up to which disputes could be referred and the International Court was set up in the same year. It was agreed to prohibit some modern weapons such as dum-dum bullets and poison gas.
A second Hague Conference met in 1907.

The enhanced prestige of the United States can be seen in the success of the Spanish-American War and Theodore Roosevelt’s mediation which ended the Russo-Japanese War in August1905. The treaty recognized Japan’s paramount interest in Korea and marked the formal abandonment by Tsarist Russia of her Far-Eastern dreams.

Britain’s alliances
In 1902 Britain ended its long period of isolation, which the Boer War had so strikingly demonstrated, by entering into an alliance with Japan. It was strictly limited and was inspired by concerns over Russian and German influence in China and Manchuria and was only to last for five years. This gave the Japanese the assurance of Britain’s neutrality if Japan went to war with Russia. But it did not address British concerns about Russian activities in Afghanistan and Tibet.

Relations with France remained bad over the Sudan and mutual hostility was inflamed by the Dreyfus affair and the Boer War. But Britain and France also had common concerns over Russia and the British Foreign Minister, Lansdowne and his French counterpart Declassé, sought ways to ease hostilities. In 1903 Edward VII visited France and tensions eased. The outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 made the need for an agreement even more urgent.

In April 1904 the Entente Cordiale was signed. Britain was allowed to consolidate its hold on Egypt and France was allowed to establish a protectorate over Morocco; Siam would be left an independent buffer between Burma and Indochina This did not, in practice, give Britain a great deal. Nevertheless, though the entente was not a formal alliance, it proved a diplomatic turning point.

Towards 1914 (2)

The first Moroccan crisis
The Anglo-French Entente had not been aimed at Germany, but it created problems for German policy makers. In March 1905 Wilhelm II made a deliberate attempt to break it. He paid a state visit to Tangier in which he made a speech emphasizing Germany’s commercial interests in Morocco and the importance of maintaining the independence of its Sultan. This was diplomatic bluster on Wilhelm’s part. Germany had no economic interests in Morocco and certainly did not want war. But it caused French and British diplomats to discuss the military possibilities of the Entente in the event of a war with Germany. The immediate outcome was the resignation of the French Prime Minister, Delcassé, in June, 1905.

Germany succeeded in having an international conference called at Algeciras in 1906.
The conference confirmed the integrity of the sultan's domains but sanctioned French and Spanish policing of Moroccan ports and collection of the customs dues. There was now no hope of a Franco-German rapprochement and the Anglo-French entente was solidified. The crisis revealed to British statesmen the importance of France and was the effectual end of the policy of isolation. It also revealed Germany’s potentially dangerous isolation, with only Austria-Hungary supporting its position.

The naval race
From 1897 Germany embarked on a drive for world power (Weltpolitik) which upset the relative stability of late nineteenth-century politics and posed a direct challenge to Britain. Germany felt that she was owed this status. She was by far and away the most advanced and dynamic of the great powers, but felt herself surrounded by both a backward Russia and a France that was smarting for revenge. She saw Britain as a declining power and herself best place to take advantage of this decline.

This drive expressed itself in naval policy, which was in part a response to a campaign whipped up by the Navy League. In 1898 the German Navy law announced their intention to build a battle fleet. A law of 1900 decreed that this fleet was to be strong enough to challenge the British in the North Sea. This committed Germany to a continuous, and expensive programme.

This did not mean that the German government was envisaging an offensive naval war against Britain. Admiral von Tirpitz (left) was following contemporary strategic thinking when he calculated that if Germany had two battleships for every three floated by Britain – which meant a German North Sea fleet of some sixty battleships - then the German navy stood a good chance of victory in a defensive war. If so, then Britain would have lost her one great advantage – her naval supremacy.

The Liberal government would have preferred spending on social reform, but it was pushed by events. British naval thinking, exemplified by Sir John ('Jackie') Fisher the First Sea Lord from 1904, was driven by the ‘two-power standard’ whereby the Royal Navy was to be stronger than the combined fleets of the next two maritime powers.

In 1906 HMS Dreadnought was launched. She was 1,500 tons heavier than the last pre-dreadnought built for the Royal Navy and three knots faster and had ten 12 inch guns. This meant that she could outgun and outsail all other battleships, rendering them obsolete until the Germans build their own dreadnoughts.

By 1909 it was suddenly realized that the Germans were going to be building 10 Dreadnoughts against the 8 British ones that had been ordered up to then. The ‘We want eight and we won't wait’ panic then ensued, and six battleships and two battlecruisers were ordered in the 1909 programme. After that, the pace was kept up. Germany would only give up her naval plans in return for a British promise of unconditional neutrality in a Franco-German conflict, and after Algeciras, such a compromise was impossible.

The Anglo-Russian entente
On 31 August 1907 Britain and Russia concluded the Anglo-Russian Entente in St. Petersburg. It ended decades of hostility by defining their respective spheres of interest in Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet, with Russia taking the northern areas of Persia and Britain taking the Persian Gulf area in the south. Its primary aim was to check German expansion into the area.
Along with the Franco-Russian alliance and the Entente Cordiale, this formed the Triple Entente between the UK, France and Russia.

Crisis in the Balkans
In 1908 Balkan issues re-emerged to destabilize Europe. Germany’s growing political and economic influence in Turkey concerned Russia in particular. In spite of the promises of reform Abdul Hamid continued to misgovern his empire and this had particular repercussions for Macedonia, which had been confirmed as a Turkish possession in the Berlin Congress. The province was in a continued state of turbulence and this gave encouragement to the other Balkan states to stir up trouble there.

In 1908 the Young Turks, a nationalist and westernizing group, led a successful revolution forcing Abdul Hamid to issue a new constitution. (He was deposed in a counter coup in the following year in favour of his brother and died in captivity in 1918.)

The instability in the Balkans convinced the Austrian foreign minister Aehrenthal, that the status quo was not in the Habsburg interest as the weakening of Turkey was stirring up the South Slavs within the Empire and also outside it. In October 1908 Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia- Herzegovina, taking Russia by surprise as it pre-empted negotiations over the Balkans that were already taking place between the two powers. In spite of misgivings Germany backed Austria-Hungary, mainly because of their annoyance over the Anglo-Russian entente - even though, as in Morocco, she had no direct interest in the question. Wilhelm subsequently asserted that he stood beside his ally, Austria-Hungary, ‘in shining armour’, while von Bülow declared that the ‘German sword had been thrown into the scale of European decision’.

The annexation was a humiliation not only for Russia but also for Serbia which regarded itself as the protector of all South Slavs (‘Greater Serbia’ or ‘Yugoslavia’) including the Bosnians. There were massive demonstrations in Belgrade, where parliament voted emergency funds for war.

The crisis ended in March 1909 when the Treaty of Berlin was revised. The annexation was reluctantly accepted and Austria made formal amends to the Turks by agreeing to pay for crown property in the provinces but the damage had been done. There was now a distinct possibility of open conflict between Russia and Austria-Hungary in the Balkans.

The recognition of the annexation was followed by a secret treaty between Austria and Bulgaria. But Serbia was now implacably hostile to Austria and it began to support openly the South Slav revolutionary movements. Meanwhile Russia began to step up her arms programme.

The second Moroccan crisis
After 1908 the central powers and the Entente grew ever further apart. The next conflict arose (again) over Morocco. Like China and Turkey, it was a crumbling state and a pretty to the interference of the European powers. When a Berber rebellion took place in 1911 the French sent an expedition to occupy Fez, the capital, thus putting central Morocco under direct French control. The French remained in Fez after the crisis had died down. On 1 July the Kaiser ordered the gunboat Panther to Agadir on the grounds that German nationals in Morocco needed protection (even though there weren’t any!).

This stirred up alarm in Britain, forcing Lloyd George to state publicly that Britain could not be treated as of no account in a question that affected her interests. This was read as a declaration of support for France in a war against Germany. In November France and Germany reached a compromise (Morocco would become a French protectorate in return for economic concessions to German interests and a slice of territory in the French Congo) but the French Prime Minister Caillaux fell from power and was replaced by the more hawkish Poincaré who accurately reflected the revised revanchisme. In Germany too public opinion was inflamed. The Kaiser and Tirpitz resisted Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg’s urgings to accommodate Britain and increased their dreadnought programme. The British then stepped up their production.

In September 1911 Italy declared war on Turkey and landed troops in Tripoli. When the Italians bombarded the Dodecanese the Turks closed the Straits, and this launched a new crisis in the Balkans.

The First Balkan War
With Turkey embroiled in a war with Italy, the Balkan states moved in. In March 1912 Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro formed the Balkan League under Russian auspices to take Macedonia away from Turkey. The war began when Montenegro declared war on Turkey, on 8 October 1912, to be followed by Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece. The league was able to field a combined force of 750,000 men was soon victorious.

The Turkish collapse was so complete that all parties were willing to conclude an armistice on Dec. 3, 1912. A peace conference was begun in London, but after a coup d'état by the Young Turks in Constantinople in January 1913, war with the Ottomans was resumed and again the Turks were routed. Under a peace treaty signed in London on May 30, 1913, the Ottoman Empire lost almost all of its remaining European territory, including Macedonia and Albania. The creation of an independent Albania was a coup for Austria-Hungary as it cut off Serbia from the sea.

The Second Balkan War
This began when Serbia, Greece, and Romania quarreled with Bulgaria over the division of their joint conquests in Macedonia. On June 1, 1913, Serbia and Greece formed an alliance against Bulgaria, and the war began on the night of June 29/30, 1913, when King Ferdinand of Bulgaria ordered his troops to attack Serbian and Greek forces in Macedonia. The Bulgarians were defeated, however, and a peace treaty was signed at Bucharest between the combatants on August 10, 1913. Under the terms of the treaty, Greece and Serbia divided up most of Macedonia between themselves, leaving Bulgaria with only a small part of the region.

The war was a foretaste of what was to come. For the first time a military aircraft (Romanian) was seen flying over a large civilian centre (Sofia). There were appalling atrocities on both sides. 21% of the Bulgarian troops were killed or wounded or died from disease.

The political consequences of the wars were considerable. An enlarged Serbia was now the prominent Balkan power and Russia’s only ally in the region. The Austrians were deeply anxious about Serbia’s ability to stir up trouble among their Slav subjects.

The coming of war
In 1913 the European powers were preparing for a possible war in what has been called ‘the great acceleration’ of the arms race. In March the German government introduced a new army bill designed to provide superiority over Russia in the following year. In confidence the party leaders in the Reichstag were told that the increases were justified by the expectation of the ‘coming world war’. The French urged on the Russians the necessity of completing the railways which would enable them to present Germany with a war on two fronts. The British government was proceeding with its naval programme. Russia was so fearful of the implications of the Berlin-Baghdad railway that she began a huge expansion of her forces and even contemplated seizing the Straits.

Yet none of the powers wanted a world war, and right up to 1914 imperial difficulties were negotiated on a case by case basis. Less than two months before the war broke out an agreement was signed between Britain and Germany over extending the Baghdad railway to Basra. But it has been argued that the Junker elites wanted a war and that Germany wished to be the dominant power in Europe.

Germany was prepared to fight a limited land war while it still had the military and economic advantage over Russia and was prepared to encourage Austria-Hungary to bring it about. On 8 December 1912 the Kaiser told Moltke, Tirpitz and two senior admiralty officials that if Russia was ready to defend Serbia against Austria, then Germany would consider war unavoidable. Moltke: ‘the sooner the better’. On the other hand, it has been argued that all the European states had expansionist ambitions and that the 8 December meeting did not come out with detailed war plans.
‘The “disputes” arising out of the Balkan wars sere settled because in 1913 the German Army was not ready for war. The “dispute” between Austria-Hungary and Serbia over the Sarajevo incident was not settled because neither Austria-Hungary nor Germany wanted it settled’ (L.C.B. Seaman, Post-Victorian Britain, 1966, 56).'
The answer to the question of who is to blame for the war? (if there is an answer) does not answer the question of why the war happened. J. M. Roberts argues that the war arose ‘from the incapacity of Austria-Hungary to solve its domestic problems’. The over-riding factor was Austrian fear of Serbia. Because of the Magyars’ power in the Dual Monarchy Austria could not make concessions that might stave off conflict and instead its policy was to show the Serbs that they could not rely on the Russians to defend them. This meant being prepared to go to war with Russia in order to make this point. Austria was willing to go this far because she could rely on German support and Germany was prepared to back Austria because of her new interest in Turkey and her calculation that if there had to be a war, it should come sooner rather than later.

The entry of France into the war was made inevitable by the plan drawn up in 1905 by the German chief of staff, Alfred von Schlieffen and arouse out of his concern that Germany could be ‘encircled’ by simultaneous attacks from France and Russia (as Frederick the Great had been). This required that if war broke out with Russia, France should be eliminated by a pre-emptive knock-out blow. Since this attack was to come through Belgium, it risked bringing Britain into the war, since Belgian independence was guaranteed by treaty.

Sarajevo and after
On 28 June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne, and his wife were murdered in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip (right). Princip was a member of the Young Bosnians, one of a group that sought an independent Yugoslav state. The group had been supplied with weapons by an ultra-nationalist organization called the Black Hand.

The assassination gave the Austro-Hungarians the excuse needed to deal with Serbia. On 23 July, egged on by Berlin, the Vienna government presented an ultimatum to Serbia that was designed to be humiliating and to be rejected. At this stage Britain tried to mediate and Russia told the Serbs not to resist but they could not force the Serbs to accept the ultimatum. In support of Serbia, the tsar ordered the partial mobilization of Russian forces. Serbia then accepted most though not all of the terms.

On 28 July the Austrian minister Berchthold declared war, which meant that the Russians felt bound to support their ally. They then began a slow mobilization. Russia mobilized against Austria-Hungary on 30 July.

On 31 July the Germans began to mobilize. On 1 August Wilhelm was told by his generals that the forces that had been prepared for a war in the west could not be redeployed on the Russian front - the Schlieffen plan had to go ahead- Germany now had to attack France. On the same day Germany declared war on Russia. On 3 August it declared war on France.

At this stage British opinion was too divided for their government to act, but on the same day the Germans invaded Belgium (see left for Mr Punch's view) and on 4 August Britain declared war in Germany. On 6 August Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia. J.M. Roberts sees this as final indication that the real decisions were made in Berlin.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

The Liberals and Ireland

Of the three rebellions which presaged the ‘strange death of Liberal England’, Home Rule and Ulster were undoubtedly the most intractable.

The Liberals were committed by their need for Nationalist votes to pass a Home Rule act, but this had never been approved by the British electorate, and it involved coercing a quarter of the population of the island of Ireland into (as they saw it) giving up their British allegiance.

In the meantime the South African War had radicalized Irish politics, with many Irish Catholics supporting the Boers. On his return from South Africa Arthur Griffith developed an ideology of Irish self-sufficiency and ‘abstentionism’ - the withdrawal of support from British institutions. In 1905 he began the process of bringing the various nationalist factions and societies together as Sinn Féin. In its early stages it was a feminist and pacifist organization, but after 1916 it would morph into a very different party.

One pressing problem was over how Irish Home Rule would affect the rest of the United Kingdom. Churchill advocated the division of the UK into ten or twelve separate ‘provinces’, each of which would have its own assembly, but his proposition was greeted with derision: why should Britain be dismembered just to please the ‘disloyal’ Irish. However, Asquith continued to home that Home Rule would be a first step towards a wider devolution.

Unionist opposition: Another problem was what to do about Ulster, a province that, in spite of its large Catholic minority, was fast becoming socially, economically and culturally distinct from the rest of Ireland.

Unionists were not united about how to react to Liberal proposals. Lansdowne, who had estates in the south, wanted to stop Home Rule altogether, but Bonar Law, whose roots lay in Ulster, was prepared to accept it provided Ulster, suitably defined, was excluded. But there were other reasons for Unionist opposition: a desire to expunge the humiliation suffered over the Lords’ veto and to avoid a fourth successive general election defeat.

Well before the passage of the Parliament Act removed the legal barrier to Home Rule, Ulster was girding its loins to resist. In 1910 the Ulster Unionist Council brought in the charismatic Dublin lawyer, Sir Edward Carson (1854-1935). On 23 September 1911 shortly after the passage of the Act, Carson addressed the first great demonstration on Ulster (100,000 people) held at Craigavon, the home of the Unionist, James Craig (1871-1940):
‘we must be prepared ... the morning Home Rule passes ourselves to become responsible for the government of the Protestant province of Ulster'.
To propitiate the Ulster loyalists, Lloyd George and Churchill proposed in Cabinet on 6 February 1912 that the predominantly Protestant counties should be allowed to opt out of Home Rule, but they were over-ruled even though a minority of Liberal MPs continued to support the idea of a Protestant opt-out. Arguably, the government was turning down an opportunity to diffuse the issue, but they did not want to alienate the Irish Nationalists, who were set on a united Ireland. They were also mindful of the interests of the Catholic minority in Ulster.

On 9 April 1912, on the eve of the introduction of the Home Rule bill, at a great Unionist demonstration near Belfast, Bonar Law gave a pledge of support to Ulster. He then shook Carson’s hand. At a later gathering of 15,000 Unionist stalwarts at Blenheim on 29 July he pledged the support of the unionists of England:
'if an attempt were made to deprive these men of their birthright - as part of a corrupt Parliamentary bargain ... I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I should not be prepared to support them, and which, in my belief, they would not be supported by the overwhelming majority of the British people.'
These words, for which he has been much condemned, became known as the ‘Blenheim pledge’. In spite of his inflammatory words, he did not want armed conflict. He wanted to pressurize the cabinet (by frightening the king) into a suicidally premature dissolution.

The third Home Rule Bill was introduced on 11 April 1912. Although it offered only a mild degree of devolution to the proposed Dublin Parliament, the House had to be adjourned in disorder, amid cries of ‘traitor’ and ‘civil war’. Churchill, taunted with shouts of ‘rat’, waved his handkerchief at the Opposition and had a book thrown at him. The bill completed its passage through the Commons the first time on 16 January 1913. Two weeks later it was rejected by the Lords. The second passage and rejection took place in the short parliamentary session which lasted from March to August 1913.

Meanwhile, on 28 September 1912 (‘Ulster day’) another huge and emotional demonstration led by Carson initiated the signing of a Solemn League and Covenant.

One feature was the high turn-out of women to sign the Declaration - 228,991 women signed in Ulster compared to 218,206 men, and 5,055 women signed elsewhere as against 19,162 men, making a grand total of 471,414. The men and women who eventually signed it (three quarters of all Ulster Protestants over the age of fifteen) pledged themselves to refuse the authority of a Home Rule Parliament if it was forced upon them.

In January 1913 the Ulster Volunteer Force of 90,000 men was embodied. Steps were taken to set up a Provisional Government to take charge after the passing of a Home Rule Bill. Military drill was undertaken by the Orange Lodges and the Unionist Clubs.

In private the party leaders were trying to negotiate. Carson was prepared to accept the exclusion of Ulster but it would have to be the whole 9 county province. This meant that a proposal to exclude Antrim, Armagh, Derry and Down from Home Rule would not be accepted. And John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Nationalists, would not accept any partition.

In the meantime the situation was deteriorating in Ireland. The government was aware that Ulster Volunteer Force was preparing to import arms. This provoked a counter-move in the south, the formation of the Irish Volunteers. By early 1914 just before the Home Rule Bill was due to go on its third and final tour through Parliament, the possibility of civil war in Ireland was more real then ever. In the Commons Churchill spoke of Carson and his associates as
‘a self-elected body ... engaged in a treasonable conspiracy’.
The Curragh Mutiny: In March there occurred the Curragh Mutiny. It arose when Brigadier Hubert Gough, an Ulsterman, and 57 of his officers in the 3rd cavalry brigade took the option of dismissal rather than move north to quell any possible rebellion in Ulster. This highlighted the fact that many officers and their commanders were of Anglo-Irish stock and that Bonar Law was kept constantly informed of what was going on. Gough was reinstated and returned to Ireland in triumph. This led to outrage on the Left that the government had condoned the unlawful conduct of army officers.

In April another incident, a gun-running at Larne by Ulster Volunteers, further emphasized the difficulties of controlling Ulster.

On 24 May the Home Rule Bill passed the Commons. In June the Lords amended it, putting in the permanent exclusion of the nine counties of Ulster. On 21 July 1914 a conference was held at Buckingham Palace and the substance of the discussions was the area of Ulster to be excluded (for a period of years) from Home Rule. However the negotiations broke down on what Asquith called
‘that most damnable creation of the perverted ingenuity of man - the County of Tyrone’.
On 26 July Irish Volunteers landed guns at Howth. When the volunteers reached Dublin shooting broke out between a crowd and British troops. Three civilians were killed and 38 injured.

Home Rule postponed: On 15 September the Home Rule Bill was put on the statute book, with its operation suspended for the duration of the war. The Lords’ exclusion amendment was left in suspension. In a retreat from his previous position, Asquith declared the coercion of Ulster to be
‘an absolutely unthinkable thing’
which he and his colleagues
‘would never countenance or consent to’.
As the Irish historian Roy Foster notes (Modern Ireland, Penguin, 1988, p. 471), ‘Partition had been in principle secured.’

Monday, 10 March 2008

The Liberals 1911-14

Strange Death?
George Dangerfield has famously written of the ‘strange death of Liberal England’, Roy Jenkins in his biography of Asquith about the government's ‘strange ailments’. The extent of the government’s problems can be seen from the summer of 1911. The government was in the middle of the Agadir crisis (to be looked at later) and a railway strike which paralysed the North and the Midlands. This is symptomatic of a rash of troubles that beset the Asquith government in the years before 1914.

To make matters worse, during 1912 and 1913 the authority of the government was diminished by the Marconi scandal, which involved four ministers: Lloyd George, Rufus Isaacs the Attorney General, Herbert Samuel, the Post-Master General, and the Master of Elibank, the Chief Whip. Both Lloyd George and Isaacs had engaged in share transactions in the American Marconi Company, which while not dishonest, were unwise, as the government later awarded contracts to the British Marconi Company. Because two of the ministers involved were Jewish, the investigation was unpleasantly tinged with anti-Semitism.

But perhaps these should not detract too much from the government’s impressive record on social reform. [The information below is indebted to G.R. Searle, A New England? Peace and War, 1886-1918 (Oxford, 2004).]

Further Social reform
Labour exchanges: Both Lloyd George and Churchill claimed the credit for having introduced the principle of social insurance. In July 1908 Churchill appointed William Beveridge (left), a temporary civil servant in his department to assist in the setting up of labour exchanges. In February 1909 he announced in the Commons that he would introduce a national system of voluntary labour exchanges. These came into operation in 1910 controlled by a department in the Board of Trade of which Beveridge was the director.

The National Insurance Act of 1911 was really two separate Bills which for technical reasons had been amalgamated:

(a) Health insurance was an ambitious and controversial scheme. Lloyd George conceived it as a way of reducing one of the great causes of poverty, ill-health in the bread-winner. The Poor Law provided a major element in the medical services available to the five sixths of the population living in households of less than £160 pa. More than half the beds in public hospitals were in Poor Law infirmaries. To do away with the existing system meant complex negotiations with the Prudential Insurance, the Friendly Societies and the BMA. When the scheme was introduced in May 1911 it covered all insured workers between the ages of 16 and 70 earning £160 pa (the income tax threshold) or less. In return for contributions of 4d a week from men and 3d from women (as well as 3d from the employer and 2d from the state) it provided sickness benefit at 10s a week for men, 7/6d for women for the first thirteen weeks of sickness then 5s for the next thirteen weeks. In addition the Act covered the cost of medical treatment from a panel doctor. For the long-term sick there was a disability benefit of 5s. Two further fringe benefits were a maternity benefit of 30s and admission to sanatoria for TB sufferers.

The Conservatives opposed the scheme and made some political capital out of the unpopularity of stamp-licking. It was also unpopular with the socialist Left, who objected to the contributory principle as a tax on poverty, though the Parliamentary Labour Party was divided.

Over 12 million contributors started to buy stamps, 14,000 out of 20,000 GPs accepted panel practice. The claims for sickness benefit, particularly from women, turned out to be much higher than anticipated. This all involved an unprecedented involvement of the State in the lives of individuals and a consequent increase in bureaucracy. It went profoundly against the tenor of traditional Liberalism and led to Hilaire Belloc’s resignation from the party. Many middle-class people were profoundly alienated and National Insurance split the Labour and socialist ranks with many objecting to the element of compulsion.

(b) Unemployment insurance: This was created by Churchill and was a compulsory scheme, largely based on the German model, and applied to a limited range of trades particularly exposed to cyclical fluctuations, mainly building and construction. It was contributory, with payments of 2 ½ d each from workers, employers, and the State. In their final form they amounted to 7s a week payable for up to 5 weeks in any one year. The scheme was largely administered through the trade unions but it also made use of the Labour Exchanges which supplied the mechanisms which could test whether the applicant was genuinely seeking work.

The first contributions under the Act were paid in on 1 July 1912 and six months later the first benefits were paid out. As the scheme was limited to about 2 ¼ million men employed in only a few trades it could not have dealt with cyclical unemployment over the economy as a whole and in the inter-year years it proved inadequate to deal with the higher number of jobless consistently experienced.

Trade union militancy
An element in the Liberal espousal of welfarism had been the desire to pre-empt socialism. But parliamentary measures cut little ice with many on the left. From 1906 membership of socialist bodies rose and there were many tensions between these bodies and the Labour Party in Parliament, which worked in tandem with the Liberals. This Lib-Lab alliance was weakening in the constituencies, where the Miners’ Federation was becoming increasingly influential, and Liberals and Labour began to fight each other in by-elections.

The Trade Disputes Act:As a concession to Labour, Lloyd George provided for the payment of a salary of £400 go MPs in his 1911 budget. The Trade Disputes Act of 1913 enabled unions to raise a distinct fund for political purposes, subject to contracting out by individual members (in other words relying on apathy!). In March 1914 when a general election appeared imminent, MacDonald and Lloyd George began to discuss the possibility of another electoral pact, but they would have had difficulty selling this to their respective grass-roots.

Strikes: Between 1910 and 1914 an increasing number of days were lost through strike action. One of the most militant areas was South Wales. The implementation of the Eight Hour Day in 1908 added to tensions. During rioting at Tonypandy in the autumn of 1910 a man died from injuries sustained in hand-to-hand fighting with the local police. It was at this point that Churchill, now Home Secretary, ordered troops into the district to assist the police. In 1912 there was a national miners’ strike over a minimum wage. This was the most serious strike the Liberal government faced. Grey said during a cabinet meeting:
‘We are dealing with a condition of Civil War’.
South Wales, and especially its mining communities, was also an area where syndicalism made headway. The home of syndicalism was France and the central idea of the movement was to put economic or ‘direct’ action in place of the political action of the proletariat postulated by Marx.

In 1911 there were the great dockers/seamen’s, and railwaymen’s strikes. The militancy of the rank and file, and the (limited) rioting and looting, took union leaders by surprise. In Liverpool soldiers deployed in support of the police opened fire, killing two people. For four days in 1911 there was a national railway strike, which was only ended by Lloyd George’s formidable powers of persuasion. But the strike established the railway workers became along with the miners the most powerful element in the trade union movement.

The Triple Alliance: The final phase in the development of the trade union movement came in 1914 with the proposal for a Triple Alliance of miners, railwaymen and the National Transport Workers’ Federation. The main proposal for co-ordination was that the three unions should arrange to terminate their contracts at the same time. Although this looked like a move to the syndicalist idea of a general strike, in fact it was as much a move to pre-empt uncontrolled action from below.

Between 1910 and 1914 trade union membership had increased from 2.5 to over 4 million, and this was to form merely a base for a remarkable expansion during the war years.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

The Liberals in power (1906-14): I the problem of the Lords

Though the Liberal government of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (right) had been elected in a landslide victory, it made little initial progress in its general legislative programme. During the election campaign (in a speech delivered at Nottingham on 15 January 1906) the Conservative leader, A. J. Balfour had said:
‘the great Unionist Party should still control, whether in power or whether in Opposition, the destinies of this great Empire’.
This was no empty threat. At the beginning of the new Parliament there were 602 peers, including 25 bishops. Of these only 88 were Liberals, 124 were Liberal Unionists and 355 were Conservatives. In December 1908 only 102 peers took the Liberal whip as against 459 Unionists.

For several decades the Lords had been developing a theory of ‘plebiscitary democracy’ – asserting their right to hold up controversial bills until they had received the explicit endorsement of the electorate. In 1893 a Conservative dominated Lords had rejected the second Home Rule Bill. Between 1909 and 1909 the Upper Chamber rejected or wrecked ten Liberal bills.

The Education Bill: In April 1906 the government introduced an Education Bill, designed to appeal to its Nonconformist supporters by restricting Anglican privileges. It was its flagship piece of legislation and it dominated the 1906 Parliament:
1.All denominational schools receiving rate aid were to be taken over by the local authorities;
2.Teachers were to be appointed by the authorities without any sectarian tests and not be allowed to give religious instruction;
3.Religious instruction was to be limited to two days a week in transferred church schools (though concessions were made in areas where 80% of the parents requested them).
But the bill never passed into law as the Lords amended it, after consultations between Balfour and Lansdowne, the Unionist leader in the Lords, in a way that completely overturned its provisions. The bill was withdrawn in December.

Outraged, Campbell-Bannerman considered an immediate dissolution with a campaign on the straight issue of the supremacy of the Commons. But cabinet opinion was firmly opposed.

The Trades Disputes Bill: The Lords did not destroy the Trades Disputes Bill, because a prior mandate had been sought. Brought in under pressure from the Labour members, it granted unions immunity from legal action. In future a trade union was not liable for civil wrongs committed on its behalf. This established that peaceful picketing was legal even when its objects were to incite to breach of contract. But the Lords destroyed a plural voting bill, a major item in the government’s legislative programme. The result was that after a year in office the Liberals, for all their huge majority, had achieved little.

The King’s speech in February 1907 referred to
‘unfortunate differences between the two Houses’.
He was not exaggerating. A Licensing bill was postponed and replaced as the main legislative business of the early part of the session by compromise measures on Ireland - but they had to be withdrawn for lack of support.

It was a horrible paradox for the Liberals. They were being pressed by the Labour members to pass laws they did not really approve of and were prevented by the Conservatives in the Lords from passing their own legislation.‘ And they were beginning to suffer electorally as there were sharp swings to the Unionists and Labour in by-elections. In 1908 Lloyd George declared:
‘The House of Lords is not the watchdog of the constitution. It is Mr Balfour’s poodle.’
There were two possible solutions to the problem of conflict between the two Houses:
1. To alter the composition of the Upper House, mainly by reducing the hereditary element. This had strong conservative elements, for a reformed second chamber would be on stronger moral and political grounds in applying the brake on the first chamber. (Does this sound familiar?! ) For this reason in 1907 some Tory peers introduced a (failed) bill to alter drastically the composition of the House: the hereditary peers were to elect a quarter of their number to represent them and the places so vacated would be filled by the government of the day with life peers. But if passed, it would weaken the power of the Commons and invalidate its claim to be the sole representative of the will of the people.
2. Campbell-Bannerman’s preferred solution was to curb the power of the peers by ruling that a bill passed three times by the Commons would become law without the consent of the Lords.

The Liberals in power: II Asquith becomes Prime Minister

Early in 1908 Campbell-Bannerman’s health began to fail. He resigned on 3 April), and died two weeks later). On 4 April the King summoned the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Herbert Henry Asquith (left) to Biarritz.

Asquith was succeeded at the Treasury by David Lloyd George, (right) a man born outside the British elite. He had been an effective and high profile President of the Board of Trade: he had settled a threatened rail strike, had prepared legislation for the establishment of the Port of London Authority to take over the management of a vast area of London’s dockyards. The new President of the Board of Trade was Winston Churchill. The elevation of these two men gave the government a new aggressiveness which goaded the Conservatives into a succession of political errors. But all was not well for the government. Churchill, standing for re-election on his appointment as President of the Board of Trade was defeated in North-West Manchester and forced to find another seat in Dundee.

If you want to lower the tone and learn more about Lloyd George's colourful private life, then you might be interested in Ffion Hague's The Pain and the Privilege (2008).

The Licensing Bill

The session of 1908 was intended to give the temperance movement its due with a Licensing Bill. The main provision was the establishment of a fixed ratio of the number of public houses to the population in each licensing area. The Liberals had as clear a mandate for this as they had for their Education Bill (both bills appealed to the same constituency) but this was not a popular cause and the brewers were a powerful lobby. It was fought hard in the Commons and the Lords declined to give it a second reading.

The government was now in a dilemma. It had little to show for its impressive electoral victory. An economic slump meant that unemployment was rising and the Unionist cause of tariff reform (now official policy) was becoming more popular. As in 1907 the government was beginning to lose by-elections.

Economically the government was pulled in two directions. Since going to the Exchequer in 1905 Asquith had laid the groundwork for a taxation policy designed to finance social reform, notably old age pensions. But it was faced with the possible further increase in arms expenditure. The Liberals had cut defence spending when they came to power but in 1908 they were faced with fierce pressure from the Dreadnought building programme (see later post). The potential conflict between social reform and defence spending was painful and divisive for Liberals.

The Liberals in Power: III Old Age Pensions

Pensions were the main plank of the 1908 budget. The pensions bill received its second reading in the Commons on 15 June 1908. It was introduced by Lloyd George (though Asquith had devised the scheme) and came to be popularly known as ‘the Lloyd George’. The measure was a disappointment to those who had wanted universal pensions. It was finally agreed that: British citizens over 70 with incomes of up to £21 pa would receive the full non-contributory pension of £13 p.a. (5s per week) for single persons and of £19.10.00 (7s. 6d. per week) for married couples. Incomes of up to £31.10s would qualify for a pension reduced by one shilling a week for each shilling of income above £21. The minimum pension would be one shilling. Those with incomes as low as £26 p.a. would receive only 3s a week (this caused Labour members to vote against the amendment). Asquith estimated that about half a million persons would qualify for the pensions and that the annual cost would be £6m; but by 1912 the government was spending £11.7m. and by 1914 £12.5m.

The pensions provisions reduced some peers to paroxyms of anger. The former Liberal leader, Lord Rosebery described them as
'so prodigal of expenditure as likely to undermine the whole fabric of the Empire'.
The scheme’s main defect in the eyes of its critics was the high qualifying age. The Labour Party began campaigning for improved pensions: a minimum of 5s non-means-tested and applied to men and women of 60. But for all its inadequacy it was a milestone in social legislation, since it made it easier for the aged poor to avoid the workhouse and avoided the language of opprobrium associated with the poor law.

On 1 January 1909 ('Pensions Day') c. 490,000 people drew a pension – a relatively low number because of those disqualified from entitlement (paupers, some criminals, aliens and the wives of aliens and those deemed guilty of ‘habitual failure to work’). Most of the recipients were women. All had to learn the new procedure of completing forms available at the post office. The costs rapidly escalated and the numbers of pensioners rose after the removal of the pauper disqualification in March 1911.

Other social legislation
Between them Lloyd George and Churchill made major social innovations: the establishment of labour exchanges and trade boards (Churchill), the introduction of health and unemployment insurance (Lloyd George). The Board of Trade also produced the Trade Boards Act of 1909, which set up boards for the four trades in which, largely owing to the lack of trade unions, ‘sweated’ labour was found to be prevalent. The boards were to fix minimum wages, which then had to be confirmed by the Board of Trade. In 1908 the Coal Mines Act had established a statutory eight-hour day for miners, the first occasion in which the working hours of adult males had been limited by statute. However this was poorly received in some collieries where the miners were already working less than eight hours.