Wednesday, 27 February 2008

The one and only McGonagall


In response to popular demand (well, that's how I interpreted your polite interest) I'm supplying the link to William McGonagall's quite sensible poem on votes for women. You'll see he was on the right side.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

The Suffragettes

The situation before 1903
The end of the 19th century saw a new emphasis on the distinctive contribution women could make to politics, while at the same time improving themselves through their participation in public life. As elective local government expanded owing to the creation of school boards, county councils and parish, urban and rural district councils, women were able to stand for office. In the first London County Council elections of 1888 Jane Cobden and Lady Margaret Sandhurst were returned while Emma Cons was nominated as an alderman by the Liberal majority on the council. Jane Cobden (daughter of Richard) sat for Bow and Bromley, where the socialist, George Lansbury had ably managed her election. However, the legality of her position was questioned in a series of actions brought against her, with the result that, while she continued to serve on the council until 1892, she faced financial penalties and was not able to vote at its meetings; only in 1907 would women acquire full rights in local government.

In December 1894 Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) (left) was elected for the Chorlton-upon-Medlock Board of Poor Law Guardians. Women were also active in the Primrose League and (from 1887) the Women’s Liberal Federation. But the vote remained as elusive as ever, and no bills or resolutions for the female franchise came before the Commons between 1897 and 1904.

In part this was because many suffragists campaigned for a limited women’s franchise in which the vote was restricted to householders, who by definition would not be married women; but these tactics played into the hands of those who saw single women as failures. They also alienated many Labour supporters who believed it was wrong to add middle-class women to the electoral register while denying the vote to so many working-class men.

In July 1889 the Women’s Franchise League was formed with a committee that included Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst. It argued that no woman should be disqualified from the franchise by marriage, but it suffered from disputes with the advocates of partial suffrage, notably Lydia Becker and Millicent Fawcett, successively Presidents of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, founded 1897) who believed that only a limited first installment offered a realistic prospect of success.

The South African War highlighted the issue of women’s participation in politics. The war stimulated discussion about the nature of citizenship, but suffragists reacted in different ways. Josephine Butler and Millicent Fawcett thought women should have a role in politics because they would seek to save black South Africans from the Boers; this drew on a gendered model of service. But pro-Boer women argued that if the government were willing to go to war over the question of political rights for the Uitlanders, then women had the right to resist a government that did not acknowledge them as citizens. Dora Montefiore, a middle-class socialist propagandist and suffrage campaigner, resisted paying her taxes, and therefore raised questions about the obligations women had to a state that governed without their consent, and whether women should be governed by laws that they did not formulate. It was the old cry of ‘No Taxation without Representation’.

The NUWSS was a thoroughly respectable body. However, during the 1890s one of its affiliated bodies, the North of England Society tried to shed its image of middle-class gentility by campaigning hard among the female textile workers of Lancashire. Two of its most striking leaders, Esther Roper and Eva Gore-Booth, came from well-to-do backgrounds. Roper was a graduate of the Victoria University in Manchester, and Gore-Booth came from an Anglo-Irish Society. Both saw the vote as a means of improving the conditions of working-class women, several of whom emerged as campaigners in their own right. In 1901 and 1902 the Society presented the Commons with a petition signed by over 66,000 women factory workers. Pressure from the Society persuaded the NUWSS Convention meeting in 1903 to sponsor to sponsor a parliamentary candidate in the next general election.

On 16 March 1904 the Commons passed a pro-suffrage resolution by the very wide margin of 184/70 – though this was merely a statement of principle and didn’t commit MPs to action. Two years later the Liberal government was returned in a landslide and Mrs Fawcett believed that this had brought into the House as many as 400 sympathetic MPs. But the government nevertheless refused to give the vote to women.

The WSPU
In October 1903 Emmeline and Christabel (1880-1958) Pankhurst (right) founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in Manchester. In its early days the group devoted its efforts mainly to converting ILP branches to the cause of women’s suffrage. In its early days the WSPU relied heavily on the ILP and much of its membership was drawn from the Lancashire textile workers, notably Annie Kenney, recruited in 1905, who always introduced herself as ‘a factory girl and a trade unionist’.

On 14 February 1904 Winston Churchill, the current Tory member for Oldham but in the process of deserting his party for the Liberals, was addressing a meeting at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Christabel Pankhurst interrupted to ask about women’s suffrage:
‘the first militant step … the most difficult thing I [had] ever done’.
On the eve of the election of 1905, Christabel and Annie Kenney (left) interrupted a Liberal Party meeting addressed by Sir Edward Grey at the Free Trade Hall on 13 October by asking the question
‘Will the Liberal Government, if returned, give votes to women?’
[This was the first time the slogan ‘Votes for Women’ was used.] When the question was not answered and repeated, the two women were roughly ejected from the hall. Christabel deliberately committed the technical offence of spitting at a policeman in order to court arrest. Both were charged with obstruction and sentenced to pay fines or face imprisonment. An anxious Emmeline offered to pay the fines, a gesture that was refused by Christabel. When she and Annie Kenney refused to pay the fine they were imprisoned for a few days. This immediately put the WSPU in the public eye and the movement began to grow rapidly.

After the election, in the summer of 1906, the Pankhursts moved to London and the WSPU began to detach itself from its ILP links. Increasingly, support came from middle and upper-class women. In early 1906 the Daily Mail had coined the term ‘suffragettes’. On 23 October, following a demonstration for the opening of Parliament ten WSPU members, including Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Annie Kenney and Anne Cobden Sanderson, were arrested after a scuffle and imprisoned in Holloway. This raised the whole profile of women’s suffrage, drawing the support of celebrities like George Bernard Shaw, something acknowledged by Mrs Fawcett in an open letter to the Times. At this stage there was considerable overlap between the WSPU and Mrs Fawcett’s National Association of Women’s Suffrage Societies.

Internal disputes
The disillusionment that Emmeline and Christabel (though not Sylvia, who had become Keir Hardie’s lover) felt about the lukewarm attitude of socialists towards women's suffrage came to a head in April 1907 when both resigned from the ILP: the Labour Party now opposed extending the franchise to women if the ownership of property remained a qualification for voting. Although links between the WSPU and the socialist movement were never completely severed, especially at the individual level, the independent policy plus an autocratic style of leadership caused tensions within the union so that rumours of a coup surfaced during the summer. A group of dissenters, including Teresa Billington Greig and Charlotte Despard, formed another militant organization, later called the Women's Freedom League.
Although Emmeline Pankhurst was now regarded as the autocrat of the WSPU, in the years immediately following this split she chose to travel up and down the country speaking for the cause, rather than exercise direct personal control over the organization. The day-to-day running of the union was left to Christabel, to whom her mother always deferred. She was aided by Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, who had joined the movement in the autumn of 1906 and became joint editors of the WSPU's paper, Votes for Women, founded in October 1907. This began as a monthly publication priced at 3d in October 1907, but became weekly at 1d from May 1908. By May 1909 circulation had soared to 22,000. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence was the treasurer and such was her skill that by 1907 the WSPU annual income was over £7,000. She also designed the suffragette colours – white (‘purity in private as well as public life’, purple (dignity) and green (hope).

The growth of militancy
Mrs Pankhurst's first imprisonment occurred on 13 February 1908 when, still lame from an injury to her ankle, she led a deputation to the House of Commons and was arrested, along with her companions, for obstruction. She served a month in the second division, alongside common criminal offenders, and not in the first division where political offenders were placed.

Campbell-Bannerman had sympathised with the women’s cause, but Asquith who became Prime Minister in 1908 did not. On 21 June 1908 there was a great demonstration in Hyde Park at which it was estimated there were between a quarter and a half million present. Their methods were a continuation of the protests of Chartists and other radicals, but they did not fit with conventional ideas of female decorum, which provoked vigorous protests from male crowds. In 1908 a Women’s Anti-Suffrage League was founded by Mrs Humphrey Ward. It later combined with a male anti-suffrage committee to become the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage, led by Cromer and Curzon.

On 14 October 1908 Emmeline Pankhurst stood in the dock at Bow Street, together with Flora Drummond and Christabel, charged with incitement to disorder, based on a handbill that had been published encouraging the ‘lowest class of London toughs’ to ‘rush’ the House of Commons a tactic that disgusted Mrs Fawcett. The three accused did not employ counsel, but spoke for themselves. Christabel was especially eloquent and sub-poenaed cabinet ministers to appear in her defence. Emmeline was sentenced to three months' imprisonment and Christabel ten weeks.

The hunger strikes
By the summer of 1909 there was an impasse between the suffragettes and the government while the moderate NUWSS had dissociated itself from the tactics of the suffragettes. The impasse was broken by two new developments. On 29 June a group of suffragettes appeared outside the Home Office, the Treasury and the Privy Council and threw stones at the windows. On 5 July when on her own initiative, Marion Wallace Dunlop began the first hunger strike, in a bid to be granted political offender status and therefore be placed in the privileged ‘first division’ of prisoners. After fasting for 91 hours she was released. The hunger strike was soon adopted by 36 suffragettes, who were all released. But on 24 September two suffragettes were force-fed at Winson Green prison. This was condemned with burning indignation by Christabel (‘This is war’) and the other WSPU leaders.

The 1910 elections
January 1910 was taken up with the general election called over the peers’ rejection of Lloyd George’s budget. In the same month backbench MPs proposed a compromise bill for women’s suffrage: a vote for female heads of household and business occupiers of property worth £10 annually. But to its critics the bill appeared to allow wealthy men (Conservatives?) the opportunity to manufacture extra votes by bestowing pieces of property on their female relations; Liberals and Labour preferred to abolish plural voting altogether rather than run the risk of adding to it. The suffragette leaders cautiously accepted the Conciliation Bill and on 31 January Christabel called a truce: militancy was to end for the time being, though Liberal candidates were still to be opposed.

However the issue of women’s suffrage played only a small part in the two elections of 1910. Suffragette protest had hardened into a ritual - arrests, imprisonments, followed by release - and no longer moved the public. In the summer the government refused to support the Conciliation Bill. On Friday 18th November 1910 (‘Black Friday’) a huge demonstration was held on the reassembly of Parliament when women who attempted to rush the Palace of Westminster received rough treatment at the hands of an over-zealous constabulary. Mrs Fawcett privately railed against
‘those idiots [who] go out smashing windows and bashing ministers’ hats over their eyes’.
On 22-23 November in the ‘Battle of Downing Street’ Asquith’s car was damaged and he had to be spirited away in a taxi. On 25 November hostilities were resumed. Liberal ministers were constant targets during the election campaign in December 1910 (Churchill was horsewhipped as he got out of a railway carriage in Bristol). After the December election the vote seemed as far away as ever. But suffragette tactics were as inventive as ever: on 23 January 1911 the WSPU took over the Albert Hall for the launch of Ethel Smyth’s ‘The March of the Women’.

The escalation of militancy
By the end of 1911 internal Liberal divisions on the issue became so serious that Churchill warned Asquith that unless he took a grip soon his government
‘might come to grief in an ignominious way and perish like Sisera at a woman’s hand’.
On 7 November 1911 Asquith re-introduced his Conciliation Bill. He announced that the government would abolish plural voting and enfranchise the four million men currently excluded from the franchise; women’s amendments could be tabled as the bill went through committee stage. Millicent Fawcett later remarked that this would inevitably provoke militancy. Christabel denounced the bill as disreputable, and appealed for one thousand women to march to Westminster two weeks later. While the demonstration was taking place, however, a smaller group armed with bags of stones and hammers broke windows of government offices and businesses; 220 women were arrested. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson resigned from the WSPU in protest.

On 15 December Emily Wilding Davidson set three pillar boxes alight (a tactic that had not been authorized by the WSPU). On 1 March 1912 the suffragettes for the first time attacked private property in the West End (Emmeline Pankhurst had been taught by Ethel Smyth how to throw stones!) On 4 March suffragettes went on the rampage in Knightsbridge. On 28 March the Commons rejected a third Conciliation Bill by 208/222, chiefly because the Irish Nationalists switched sides: they did not wish to destabilize the government on the eve of the Home Rule Bill. In May Emmeline was tried for conspiracy and sentenced to nine months in the second division. The sentence was regarded as harsh but she was not forcibly fed and she was released after five weeks on health grounds. However Mrs Pethick-Lawrence was forcibly fed but suffered so much that she was released on the same day as Mrs Pankhurst. George Lansbury denounced Asquith as the man who would go down in history for the torture of innocent women.

From now on, militancy was driven further underground as widespread destruction of letters in mailboxes became common as well as arson, window breaking, and other acts of vandalism – much of it directed by Christabel from Paris. The government responded by prohibiting WSPU meetings and raiding its central offices. In October 1912 the Pethick-Lawrences were thrown out of the WSPU. After Lansbury lost the Bromley and Bow by-election in November, Sylvia began to break away from the WSPU and to campaign for universal suffrage for both men and women.

On 27 January 1913 during the committee state of Asquith’s bill the Speaker made a surprise ruling that amendments in favour of female suffrage were out of order because it fundamentally altered the purpose of the bill. This was effectively the end of efforts to enact votes for women before 1914. Instead the government withdrew the Franchise Bill and introduced a Plural Voting Bill (which had earlier been defeated in the Lords), which extended the male franchise from 7½ to 10 million, and which ended the Conservative advantage of plural voting.

The final phase
The final phase of the WSPU’s pre-war campaign took the form of a prolonged campaign of arson. In February 1913 suffragettes smashed the orchid house at Kew, set a railway carriage alight and bombed Lloyd George’s house. Emmeline boasted about it at a public meeting in Cardiffand was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude; she refused food, but was not forcibly fed and was released after a few days. In April the home secretary, Reginald McKenna, rushed through the Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Bill, nicknamed the Cat and Mouse Act. This was a very notorious measure, but arguably it worked.

On 4 June 1913 Emily Wilding Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Derby and died five days later – but most of the sympathy was for the horse, which had to be put down. The WSPU became increasingly isolated from the rest of the women’s suffrage movement and within the Society itself dissent was firmly suppressed. One in five women defected to the Women’s Freedom League; Sylvia Pankhurst was expelled because of her Socialist convictions. From Paris, Christabel wrote a pamphlet arguing that men were essentially wicked and the source of all the world’s problems. Millicent Fawcett believed that the WSPU had become a more serious obstacle than the anti-suffragists in the cabinet.
Although the suffragette tactics were counter-productive, the medium-term prospects for women’s suffrage were promising. The Liberal government had compelling reasons for ending a dispute that was tearing the party apart. Churchill:
‘It would be appalling if this strong Government and Party … was to go down on Petticoat Politics.’
A general election was due in 1915 and Asquith’s resistance to women’s suffrage was increasingly seen as a hindrance. There were fears that women Liberals were drifting to Labour and that Labour would form an alliance with the non militant suffragists. If war had not broken out, it is possible that the government would have committed itself to some form of women’s suffrage.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

The 1906 general election

On assuming office in December 1905 the elderly Henry Campbell-Bannerman formed a cabinet:
Herbert Henry Asquith: Chancellor of the Exchequer;
Sir Edward Grey: Foreign Secretary;
R.B. Haldane: Minister for War;
Herbert Gladstone: Home Secretary
Two younger men came into the government. David Lloyd George, aged 42, became President of the Board of Trade. Winston Churchill, recently defected from the Tories, became Under-Secretary for the Colonies. The Lib-Lab John Burns became President of the Local Government Board, the first working man to reach the cabinet.

The general election of 1906 was a landslide, giving the Liberals an absolute majority of 130 seats (nearly 50% of the vote). With their allies they had a majority of over 350.
Conservatives 157 (they had over 400 in the Khaki Election)
Liberals (and their allies) 400 (184 in 1900)
Labour 53. This was a sensation. 24 were closely allied to the Liberals and the other 29 were elected under the independent auspices of the LRC (now renamed the Labour Party) and of these only four had been involved in a fight with a serious Liberal opponent. The Labour MPs sat on the Opposition benches but their dependence on the Liberals made it hard for them to operate as a genuine opposition party.
Irish Nationalists 83.
Otherwise impregnable Conservative seats – Cheltenham, Eastbourne, Chelsea – fell to the Liberals. Balfour suffered the humiliation of losing his own East Manchester seat (he was later returned in a by-election for the City of London). He saw the result in wildly apocalyptic terms:
‘the faint echo of the same movement which has produced massacres in St Petersburg, riots in Vienna and Socialist processions in Berlin’.
The British electoral system - as so often - exaggerated the result in giving the Liberals such a huge majority with less than 50% of the vote, but even so it was a remarkable result for them. Twenty-seven Liberal candidates were elected unopposed. The Unionists were in disarray, constituency parties were depleted, Lancashire swung firmly behind the Liberals on the question of free trade (Churchill had captured North-West Manchester), Home Rule played well in the Irish areas.

Balfour was returned in a by-election in March (City of London) and his control over his party was assured when Chamberlain suffered a massive stroke in July 1906 and retired from active politics. He was determined to give the Liberals a very hard time indeed.

The Conservatives: from victory to disaster

In January 1901 Victoria died and was succeeded by Edward VII, for whom Salisbury felt little personal respect. Salisbury’s beloved wife, Georgina Alderson, had died in 1899 and by 1900 his burdens were telling on him. He was 70, his health was failing, and both his doctors and his colleagues pressed him to give up the foreign office. Lord Lansdowne took over while Salisbury soldiered on as Prime Minister.

In May 1902 the treaty with the Boers was concluded and the experience of almost falling asleep in cabinet convinced him that it was time to go. On 11 July 1902 he retired, having served the fourth-longest premiership after Walpole, Pitt the Younger and Liverpool. He died at Hatfield in August 1903. The end of his premiership can be seen as a symbolic marker of the end of the Victorian period.

There was never any doubt that Salisbury would be succeeded by his nephew, A. J. Balfour (hence [possibly] the phrase, ‘Bob’s your uncle’ - though it might have an earlier origin). Joseph Chamberlain, the only possible rival, was unacceptable to large sections of Conservative opinion (and was recovering from a fall through a plate glass window at the time).

The 1902 Education Act
The greatest achievement of the Balfour government was the 1902 Education Act, though the government got little credit for it. A new law was necessary in order to clarify the legal status of the ‘higher-grade schools’, the educational establishments run by the school boards, which catered for pupils of 12 and older.

The act swept away the 2568 school boards set up by the 1870 Education Act and made county and borough councils the local education authorities (LEAs) for both elementary and secondary schools. The Act provided some much needed rationalization, and set up a statutory system of secondary education, but at the expense of alienating two important constituencies, Radicals, angry at the loss of the directly elected school boards, and Nonconformists.

In drawing up the Act it had become clear that the great problem was what to do with the ailing church schools, some 14,000 in number, where over one third of children were still receiving elementary education. There was huge pressure from the Conservative back benches to use public money to save these predominantly Anglican schools from collapse. However, Robert Morant, the Board of Education civil servant in charge of the act, pointed out that the Boer War had depleted government funds and that the burden of funding voluntary schools could not come out of the central exchequer, but would have to come from the rates. This immediately roused the Nonconformists (‘Rome on the rates’), especially in Wales, where the village school was usually Anglican. [Compare with the earlier issues of tithes and church rates.] They waged a relentless campaign against the act, much to Balfour’s bewilderment (church schools had been aided by central government since 1833!). The Baptist minister, Dr John Clifford, refused to pay the share of rates he deemed likely to go to church schools; other Nonconformists had their goods distrained.

Some Anglicans, notably the MP Lord Hugh Cecil, were also outraged by the act because they feared that in the long run Anglican schools would be effectively nationalized and deprived of their sectarian features. Lloyd George achieved national prominence by making highly personalized attacks in the Commons on the Prime Minister, accusing him of an attempt to
‘rivet the clerical yoke on thousands of parishes’.
The divided Liberal party gained a new lease of life as those who had deserted the party over Ireland began to return to the fold. By-elections began to go against the government – there were sensational Liberal victories at Newmarket and Rye.

Retrospectively the Act can be seen as a major advance in the provision of secondary education, but politically it was an unqualified disaster.

Tariff Reform
Chamberlain had been absent from the debates on the act as a result of his accident. He felt betrayed by its final provisions (which denied church schools the right to opt out of LEAs) and as a consequence felt released from any reciprocal obligation to the Conservatives. It enabled him to embark on a campaign of ‘imperial preference’ which split the Conservatives in a manner reminiscent of Peel’s abandonment of agricultural protection.

There were two main factors behind the campaign.
1. Chamberlain’s passionate imperialism. Worried about British isolationism and unpopularity (as shown by the international reaction to the Boer War), he at first attempted to force an alliance with Germany. When this fell through he envisaged instead a grand union of the British Empire - seeing this as essentially a project for the Anglo-Saxon races.
2. Some disturbing economic facts. Between 1870 and 1900 Britain’s share of world manufacturing production had slipped from over 30% to less than 20%. The United States had overtaken her in 1880 and Germany in c. 1900. These two rivals had large domestic resources and markets, acquired through processes of unification. In 1896 Ernest Williams published Made in Germany. By 1902 the focus of hostility had shifted to America, but the principle remained the same - Britain was suffering from foreign competition.
In a speech in Birmingham in May 1902 Chamberlain declared:
‘The days are for great Empires, not for little states.’
He was then absent from the country on a tour of South Africa from where he returned in triumph in March 1903. In a speech in Birmingham on 15 May 1903 he opened his campaign, challenging the premises of free trade and calling for closer economic unity of the Empire. The Times likened this to Luther’s challenge to the Church of Rome at Wittenberg. The Liberals could hardly believe their luck. Herbert Henry Asquith:
‘Wonderful news today and it is only a question of time when we shall sweep the country.’
Whatever the merits or otherwise of the economic arguments, imperial preference had huge political problems that were in some ways a rerun of the debates of the early 1840s. The budget of 1902 had temporarily abandoned free trade and put a tariff on imported corn in order to pay for the costs of the war, but this was an unpopular measure. Chamberlain was advocating a fundamental change in the country’s commercial policy. Free trade had been the mid-Victorian gospel, and a group of Conservatives immediately went into action to defend it. Lord Hugh Cecil and Winston Churchill declared that if the Tory party became protectionist it would lose its soul.

Throughout the summer of 1903 Balfour tried to hold the party together and work out a compromise position. But he was unable to prevent the formation of rival groups. Free traders set up the Unionist Free Food League, Chamberlain’s followers the Tariff Reform League.
In September and October the cabinet saw resignations of both Chamberlain and the leading free traders. But as a token that Balfour wished to keep Chamberlain on board he brought in his son Austen to replace the free trader Ritchie as Chancellor of the Exchequer. The result was confusion – had Balfour struck a secret deal with Chamberlain? What did the Prime Minister really believe about tariff reform?

In the autumn of 1903 Chamberlain travelled the country arguing for imperial protection (duties levied on foreign but not colonial imports). At a speech in Glasgow on 6 October he called for a duty on corn, imported meat and all dairy produce except bacon, and a tariff on manufactured goods; to offset the increased charge to the consumer, the existing taxes on wine, sugar, coffee and cocoa were to be lowered. But this reminded many Conservatives of the way the party had split on the corn laws in 1846. On 24 October Winston Churchill wrote:
'I hate the Tory party. … I feel no sort of sympathy with them. … It is therefore my intention that before Parliament meets [late January or February] my separation from the Tory party and the government shall be complete & irrevocable & during the next session I propose to act consistently with the Liberal party.’
Meanwhile Asquith went on a similar speaking round arguing against imperial preference. The Liberal argument was the simple Anti-Corn Law League one: protection (in this case imperial preference) would mean dearer bread. Chamberlain’s argument had to be long-term: imperial preference would ultimately benefit British industry and tariffs would pay for social reform (for a while he floated the idea of old age pensions). In December 1903 tariff reformers won three by-elections. But the tide turned in 1904 as Unionist Free Traders began voting against the government.

Balfour tried to heal divisions by promising that if the Conservatives won the next election a colonial conference would be held to discuss imperial preference, and if this were accepted the British electorate would be consulted by means of a second general election.

The Fall of the Unionists
By 1905 Chamberlain accepted that the Unionists were going to lose the next election (though the Liberals were unable to believe that they would win it) but he hoped that after the election he could reconstruct the party round tariff reform. By this time the party was in a state of almost open civil war. In October 1905 Balfour appealed to his party conference for unity but in the following month Chamberlain launched a bitter personal attack. But in December Balfour resigned and the King sent for Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman. Balfour was the last Prime Minister to resign to an opposition leader without first being defeated in a general election.

The one and only, the wonderful McGonagall


Click here for access to all you need to know about Britain's greatest bad poet, William Topaz McGonagall. A national treasure.

Here is his one of his gems, his poem on the relief of Mafeking,

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Concentration camps

There is a useful context in Anne Applebaum's harrowing Gulag (2003, p. 19). She defines concentration camps as
‘camps constructed to incarcerate people not for what they had done, but for who they were’.
They were built for
‘a particular type of non-criminal civilian prisoner …a category of people who, for reasons of their race or their presumed politics, were judged to be dangerous or extraneous to society’.
According to this definition the first modern concentration camps were set up in colonial Cuba in 1895 when, in order to put an end to a series of local insurgencies imperial Spain began to prepare a policy of reconcentraci√≥n, intended to remove the Cuban peasants from their land and ‘reconcentrate’ them in camps. By 1900 the term had been translated into English and was used to describe a similar British project during the South African War. In 1904 the German colonists in German South-West Africa adopted the British model, but also made the inhabitants (the Herero) carry out forced labour. The first imperial commissioner of German South-West Africa was Dr Heinrich G√∂ring, father of Hermann.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Causes of the South African War

This is the name now most commonly given to the war usually called in Britain the Boer War (more accurately, the Second Boer War) and among South African whites the Anglo-Boer War. Both these titles are inadequate as they leave out the experiences of the black Africans, who were the real losers in the war.

The two Anglo- Boer Wars (1880-81, 1899-1902) were fought to prevent the independence from Britain of the two independent Boer republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

The Boer Republics
Ever since the British acquisition of Cape Colony was confirmed in 1815 Britain’s relationship with the Afrikaans-speaking white minority of some 20,000 people had been strained. From 1820 large-scale British immigration began in the Cape on land from which the Xhosa had been ejected, while the colony was reshaped in fundamental ways. The two ‘white tribes’ co-existed but did not intermingle, and the Boers always outnumbered the British settlers.

The Great Trek: In 1834 all slaves within the British Empire gained their freedom and the Boers were ordered to free their black slaves. In response to this and to other British administrative measures, between 1834 and 1840, some 15,000 Afrikaners (voortrekkers) trekked inland away from the Cape Colony in search of new land. The trek is commmorated in the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria.


In Natal some formed a short-lived colony but when this was annexed by the British in 1843 they crossed the Drakensberg and joined other trekkers to form what became the two Boer republics. The Transvaal was awarded independence in 1852 and the Orange Free State in 1854. The area of South Africa under European settlement had now doubled and this greatly expanded territory was divided between the two Afrikaner settlements in the interior and the two British colonies dominating the coasts.

In 1867 diamonds were discovered in Griqualand (Orange Free State) at the confluence of the Orange and the Vaal rivers and the economy of South Africa was transformed. The diamond town of Kimberley was created on the borders of the Orange Free State and the Cape Colony (and it was formally incorporated into the Cape Colony in 1880). In 1871 Britain annexed Griqualand West. In 1871 the English entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes (see opposite) bought up a claim to the De Beers mine in Kimberley (incorporated in 1888 as De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd).

The region became the largest producer of gems the world had ever known and between 1873 and 1883 tens of thousands of migrant labourers travelled there. The result of the aggressive British policy was an enhanced Afrikaner nationalism. As early as 1872 the Natal Times had declared:
‘The Anglo-Saxon race shall hold undisputed sway from Capetown to the Zambezi’ (New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Rhodes).

The First South African War
Afrikaner fears were intensified by British policy in the Transvaal. In April 1877 the republic surrendered to the British under Sir Theophilus Shepstone in April 1877 in the wake of financial and administrative disorders and in return for protection against the Zulu chief, Cetshwayo . In 1879 the Zulus were defeated at Ulundi, marking the end of effective African resistance to British rule throughout South Africa.

But having dealt with the Zulus, the British were then faced with the first Anglo-Boer conflict (1880-1), which was more a Transvaal rebellion than a war. It was the attempt by Paul Kruger to recover the republic’s independence.

Following the British disaster at Majuba Hill (27 February 1881) Gladstone restored the independence under British suzerainty of the Boer republics at the Convention of Pretoria (March 1881). In 1883 Kruger was elected President of the Transvaal for the first of four successive terms of office. The Boers were given further rights of self-government at the Pretoria Convention (1884).

The Transvaal Gold Rush
In 1886 a diamond digger from Kimberley named George Harrison discovered the largest gold field in the world in the Witwatersrand, a ridge running from east to west 30 miles south of Pretoria. This alarmed Kruger who predicted,
‘this will cause our country to be soaked in blood.’
South Africa suddenly assumed great importance in the eyes of the world and its gold supplies contributed to the underpinning of currencies and international trade. In a huge gold rush, African migrant workers poured in, the number reaching 100,000 by 1899. (The photograph on the left is of one of the gold fields.) Europeans, mainly of British and German origin, named 'Uitlanders' by the Boers also flocked to the Rand. The city of Johannesburg sprang up almost overnight. The Uitlanders rapidly outnumbered the Boers on the Rand, though remaining a minority in the Transvaal as a whole. There was a huge cultural divide between the migratory materialistic Uitlanders and the poor, rural god-fearing Boer population of the Transvaal. The nervous Afrikaners denied them voting rights and taxed the gold industry heavily. Every Boer was compelled to own a rifle, no non-Boer was allowed to. Johannesburg, with 50,000, mainly Uitlander inhabitants, was not even allowed an unelected municipal council. No open air public meetings were allowed. Judges were appointed by Kruger, who controlled all the government monopolies from jam to dynamite. In response there was pressure from the Uitlanders to overthrow the Boer government.

The Jameson Raid
Since 1890 Cecil Rhodes had been Prime Minister of the Cape. In the same year through the British South Africa Company he had annexed the territories later known as Southern Rhodesia, the territory of the Ndbele and Shona tribes. In 1894 he pushed north of the Zambesi where he carved out a new sphere for his company in what became Northern Rhodesia. In 1895 the British government annexed Northern Bechuanaland (Botswana). But no great mineral resources were discovered in these territories.

Recognition of this failure encouraged Rhodes to try to organize a coup on Johannesburg, aided from the outside by the Bechuanaland administrator Dr Leander Starr Jameson. Joseph Chamberlain, Colonial Secretary from July 1895, probably gave qualified approval to these plans on the assumption that the raiders would only cross into the Transvaal following a spontaneous uprising of the Uitlanders.

The raid, which took place in December 1895, was blatantly illegal, the internal insurrection never occurred and Jameson’s 500 men were quickly rounded up by Kruger’s police and handed over into British custody. The raid was a disaster for Britain’s good name. Rhodes resigned the Cape premiership. Chamberlain survived a parliamentary enquiry thanks to the good offices of Harcourt, now the Liberal leader, who laid the whole blame on Rhodes. Chamberlain was also saved because British attention was deflected by the congratulatory telegram (‘the Kruger telegram’) which Kaiser Wilhelm II, ever ready to make mischief, sent Kruger in January 1896.

The Jameson raid polarized the two white races in South Africa. Kruger never doubted that the British government and Chamberlain in particular had been behind the plot to overthrow their independence and their suspicions were confirmed by the rapid rehabilitation of those who had taken part. The Boer republics became even more defensive while the British government was drawn more fully into South African affairs.

In 1898 the new British high commissioner was Alfred Milner, an ardent imperialist who worked to mobilize pro-British elements throughout southern Africa. Kruger’s continued refusal to grant the vote to those Uitlanders who were long-term residents, though understandable, gave Britain the chance to assume the moral high ground. Salisbury disliked the growing jingoism at home and the cowboy capitalism of the mining interests, but in the last analysis he shared Milner’s analysis: what was at stake was a struggle to make sure that
‘we not the Dutch are the Boss’.
The dispute had escalated into ‘a deadly fight for racial supremacy.

A conference at Bloemfontein in May-June 1899 failed to resolve tensions. In September, believing that he was calling Kruger’s bluff, Chamberlain sent at ultimatum demanding full equality for British citizens resident in the Transvaal. The Boers declared war on 12 October.

The South African War

The war was the greatest challenge to British Imperial power since the Indian Mutiny. It was the most extensive and costly war fought by Britain between the defeat of Napoleon and the First World War. It pitted almost 450,000 imperial troops against 87,000 republican burghers (the Boers) and foreign volunteers, only half of whom were in the field at any time. It cost Britain £230 million, resulted in the deaths (mainly from disease) of some 22,000 soldiers on the British side, about 34,000 Boer civilians and combatants and an unknown number of Africans. But fewer British troops fell in the thirty-one months of conflict than fell in the first thirty-one minutes of the Somme.

The war had many modern characteristics. Though the bioscope, invented four years before, music-hall audiences could see moving pictures from South Africa. The war also saw a vast outpouring of stories and poems from writers like Conan Doyle and Edgar Wallace. The war correspondent came into his own – Churchill filed reports for the Morning Post, and used his experiences to launch his political career. For the first time generals knew they had to have a good relationship with the press corps. Press ‘spin’ created a war hero in the person of Baden-Powell. The war was wildly popular (at first) though there was a sizeable anti-war press: the Manchester Guardian, the Morning Star and (from 1901) the Daily News.

Click here to listen to an audio of a 1901 performance of 'Goodbye, Dolly Gray'.

Britain’s earlier colonial wars – Mahdist (Sudanese), Zulu, Asante, and Afghan – were no preparation for the sort of war she faced in South Africa. The Boers were mobile and resourceful, excellent shots and horsemen, were fighting (without a uniform) in territory they knew, and were well armed. Though they were portrayed as plucky farmers fighting a great empire, they harboured their own imperialist ambitions. On 4 September 1899 Jan Smuts (left) ent a top secret memorandum to the Transvaal Executive:
‘South Africa stands on the eve of a frightful blood-bath out of which our Volk shall come … either as … hewers of wood and drawers of water for a hated race, or as victors, founders of a United South Africa, of one of the great empires of the world … an Afrikaans republic in South Africa stretching from Table Bay to the Zambezi.’
Lord Salisbury, the prime minister who presided over the war, had a deep hatred for war: ‘a horrible and barbarous thing’. But he had formed a low opinion of the Boers since he came into contact with them in Cape Town in 1851:
‘as degraded a set of savages as any white men in the world: many of them can’t read – few of them can write’.
He had felt humiliated by Gladstone’s concessions after the British defeat at Majuba Hill in the First Boer War.

The war produced great bitterness in British domestic politics, dividing the nation in the same way that the Dreyfus affair divided France. ‘Pro-Boer’ became a term of abuse, and the queen declared herself
‘shocked at the shameful want of patriotism of the Opposition’.
Victorian regard for individual liberty meant that conscription was out of the question so the whole war was fought on a volunteer basis. As they embarked for South Africa troops were handed Songs for England, the war poetry of Alfred Austin.

The first phase
In the first phase of the war the Boers took the offensive by invading Cape Colony and Natal Colony between October 1899 and January 1900. The British fell back on the towns of Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley, which were besieged by the Boers. In ‘Black Week’ (10-15 December, 1899) Britain suffered a series of devastating losses at Magersfontein, Stormberg and Colenso. At Magersfontein the Boer general Koos de la Rey devised a plan to dig trenches in an unconventional place to fool the British and give his riflemen a greater firing range. The result was the loss of nearly 1,000 British soldiers to the Boers’ fifty.

These disasters wrong-footed the government though at the close of Black Week the queen famously told Balfour:
‘We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat’.
Sir Redvers Buller was superseded as chief commander and replaced by Field Marshal Lord Roberts, with Kitchener as his second in command. Roberts gave orders to Buller that he was to do nothing until they had arrived, but Buller attempted one last chance of a victory. On 24 January 1900 the disastrous battle of Spion Kop was fought under the incompetent command of Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Warren (the police commissioner who had failed to catch Jack the Ripper or prevent Bloody Sunday). The East Lancs Regiment were ordered to halt on the wrong hill peak in thick fog, where they were massacred on three sides. The next day the Boers photographed the British dead on the battlefield and published the pictures all over the world.

Some of the British survivors went to a football match to see Liverpool play. At the rear of one of the goals was a hill that reminded them of Spion Kop. The rest is well known.

The pro-Boers
Although there were moves to impeach the War Secretary, Lord Lansdowne, and there were fierce exchanges in the Lords between Salisbury and Rosebery, the Liberal leader, the government was in no danger for the Liberal Opposition was bitterly divided. The leaders of the pro-Boer faction were Harcourt, Morley, Labouchere, and Lloyd George. Behind them was a network of radical, labour, and trade union organizations, and the anti-war cause drew some liberals closer to labour. The journalist W T Stead was the leading light of the Stop-the-War Committee. Altogether, some 60-70 Liberal MPs were ‘pro-Boer’, but about the same number were Liberal Imperialists, led by Rosebery. Josephine Butler broke with her fellow radical Liberals when she supported British policy in South Africa. The Liberal spokesman in the Commons, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1836-1908) attempted to steer a middle cause. He found it impossible to defend Kruger’s violent overthrow of Gladstone’s post Majuba settlement and he was wary of attacking the war when British troops were dying.

The second phase
In February 1900 reinforcements arrived in South Africa under Lord Roberts and the fortunes of war changed. The British then advanced into the two republics. On 18 February General Cronje was surrounded by Roberts at Paardeburg in the Orange Free State and he surrendered, with his 4,000 starving men, nine days later. On 28 February Buller relieved Ladysmith (idealized here by the artist John Henry Frederick Bacon) from its four month siege. This was generally seen as a turning of the tide. Schoolchildren were given a half day’s holiday, Stock Exchange trading was suspended and Kruger was burned in effigy. Bloemfontein was captured on 13 March.

At Mafeking Colonel Robert Baden-Powell’s small contingent, which included Salisbury’s son, Lord Edward Cecil, continued to beat off Boer attacks. With 700 regular troops and 300 local volunteers, 1,000 white civilians and 7,000 non-combatant natives, Boer troops were tied down for seven months. By the use of homing pigeons and African runners they anaged to keep in regular touch with the outside world, and as the months passed, they gradually learned that they were becoming national heroes. On 17 May Mafeking was relieved after a 217 day siege. At 9.20 the same night the Lord Mayor announced the news at the Mansion House. That night millions of people emptied onto the streets of London. Churchill later believed that the crowds were greater than in 1918, Rebecca West that they were greater than in 1945. On 5 June Pretoria was captured. Kruger fled to Portuguese and Dutch protection and formal resistance ended. (He was taken to the Netherlands in a Dutch ship and died in exile in Switzerland in 1904. His body was brought back to Pretoria for burial. His house in Pretoria is now a museum.)

Many British observers now believed that the war was all but over. By September both the Orange Free State and the Transvaal had been annexed as colonies of the British Crown. Roberts returned to England leaving Kitchener in charge.

The ‘khaki election’

At home the ‘khaki election’ was called and was fought between 28 September and 24 October. Chamberlain’s campaign showed a determination to capitalize on patriotic fervour. The principal slogan of the election was:
‘A seat lost by the Government is a seat gained by the Boers’.
However, the extent to which the campaign was dominated by the war has been exaggerated. Liberal pro-Boers did not perform significantly better than Liberal Imperialists. The Unionists gained over 51.1% of the UK vote (1,797,444) to the Liberals’ 44.6% (1,568,141), the Irish Nationalists’ 2.5% (90,076) and the Labour Representation Committee 63,304 (1.8%). For the first time since Palmerston in 1865 an incumbent government had won a general election, even though their overall majority fell by 16 seats, and the general turn-out was down (74.6%). Churchill won Oldham from the Liberals, but on a swing of only 6%, which was just enough to gain the seat.

Salisbury, who distrusted the jingoism of the electorate and the democracy that had given him three landslide victories, constructed an administration full of his family and associates. His nephew Arthur Balfour was First Lord of the Treasury and Leader of the Commons; another nephew was President of the Board of Trade; his son-in-law was First Lord of the Admiralty and his eldest son Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. In the Lords Rosebery ironically congratulated Salisbury
‘on being the head of a family with the most remarkable genius for administration that has ever been known’.
The radical Liberal Labouchere dubbed the new administration the ‘Hotel Cecil’

The third phase
In the third phase of the war, the Boer commanders abandoned conventional engagements and waged the first of the twentieth century’s anti-colonial guerrilla wars, attacking telegraph wires and railroads. These new tactics changed the strategy of the war and made the traditionally large British military formations ineffective.

In March 1901 Kitchener, devised a scorched earth policy that eventually led to the destruction of 30,000 farmhouses and about 40 small towns. He also built 8,000 blockhouses linked by 3,700 miles of barbed wire in a defensive line that eventually stretched for over 4,000 miles, from which they conducted ‘sweeps’ across the veldt in an attempt to trap and isolate the enemy. Eventually over half the Boer male population of military age had been taken prisoner.

The concentration camps

The civilian population were rounded into concentration camps – a term which did not then carry its later malign meaning. Once the harsh policy of homestead burning was adopted, there was often no alternative accommodation on the veldt, and British commanders saw the policy as a humane alternative to leaving the Boer women to ‘be insulted or molested by natives’. A total of 45 tented camps were built for Boer internees and 64 for black Africans. The Boer camps held mainly the elderly, women and children. Attendance was largely voluntary, though in practice most of the internees had nowhere else to go. Voluntary schools were established in the camps and nearly twice as many Boer children received regular schooling received schooling during the war than before it. But the overcrowded conditions, poor diet and inadequate hygiene (often owing to the Boers’ own lack of sanitary knowledge) led to a large number of deaths – about 4,000 Boer adults and 16,000 children (25% of the inmates) and 12% of the black Africans died (though the African statistics are unreliable).

See here for an Afrikaner version of this story.

Between December 1900 and May 1901 Emily Hobhouse (1860-1926) visited the camps on behalf of the Women and Children’s Distress Fund, and her exposure of the conditions received wide publicity: she described what she saw as ‘crass male ignorance, stupidity, helplessness, and muddling’. But she also found that the conditions in the camps varied, depending on such factors as the superintendence, supply of fuel and water, and the date the camps were constructed.

In June 1901 she met Campbell-Bannerman. Following this meeting, on 14 June, he delivered a speech to the National Reform Union at the Holborn Restaurant before a predominantly pro-Boer audience, which included Harcourt and Morley:
‘A phrase often used was that “war is war”, but when one came to ask about it, one was told that no war was going on, that it was not war. When was a war not a war? When it was carried on by methods of barbarism in South Africa’.
This led to a press uproar. On 17 June Lloyd George accused the government of ‘a deliberate and settled policy’ of ‘extermination’. Outraged, the Liberal Imperialists threatened secession from the party and on 20 June Asquith publicly rebuked his leader. One insider described it as ‘war to the knife and fork’ within the Liberal Party. Speaking in the Commons, Lloyd George declared:
‘A war of annexation against a proud people must be a war of extermination … the savagery that follows will stain the name of this country.’
It was a common feature of pro-Boer propaganda not only to accuse the British army of deliberate cruelty – a tactic that delighted the Irish nationalists - but also to idealize the enemy. The Boers were presented as courageous and simple farming people and set in opposition to the shady Jewish speculators of Johannesburg.

Between August and December 1901 the all-female Fawcett Commission, headed by the suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett, visited the (white) camps, confirmed Emily Hobhouse’s findings, and made some useful recommendations (such as the sterilization of linen). In November 1901 Salisbury ordered a relaxation of the farm-burning policy.

By this time the ruthless British tactics were slowly working and the Boer ‘bitter-enders’ came to realize the futility of further resistance. The British too were wearying of the war – even the Primrose League Gazette reported the feeling in the working-class areas that the war ought to have been over by now.

The Treaty of Vereeniging
The Boers signed the treaty of Vereeniging (at Melrose House, Pretoria) on 31 May 1902 and formally recognized the British annexation of the two republics. But it was not a total defeat for the Boers. The British had not gained total predominance in South Africa and it was widely recognized that the Afrikaners would have to be incorporated into an eventual political settlement. English was to be the official language, but Afrikaans was to be taught in schools if the parents wished it, and to be allowed in the law courts; the British government was to grant £3m towards rebuilding and restocking farms. By the time the treaty was signed the British had largely lost interest in a war that in its last phase was costing the government £1.5m a week and forcing large increases in duties and income tax. The politicians, too, tried to forget it. The Conservatives had presided incompetently over its conduct and the Liberals had exposed their deep divisions.

Reconstruction and Unification
Now based in the Transvaal, Milner embarked on the post-war reconstruction of a devastated country. He was assisted by a group of young Oxford graduates known as his ‘Kindergarten’. The most serious grievances of the mine magnates were removed and an efficient bureaucracy was established. His policy of bringing in white people of British descent to outnumber the Boers failed as the British preferred to go to Canada or Australia. But the acute shortage of African labour was resolved by the importation of 60,000 Chinese, despite the bitter opposition of white workers. By the time he left in 1905 he had established the infrastructure for the development of the modern South African state.

After the war the Boer landlords were encouraged to return to their farms and African hopes of land redistribution were dashed. They were effectively disarmed, systematically taxed for the first time, forced into segregated areas and denied the vote. The foundations of apartheid were laid during British rule.

By 1906-7 the British were sufficiently confident of the new order they had established to grant self-governing institutions to white males. In 1910 in accordance with the Union of South Africa Act of the previous year, South Africa was incorporated fully into the British Empire with the conciliatory Louis Botha as Prime Minister; power was devolved to the white minority in a Boer-dominated union.