Little Englanders? Wales, Scotland and Ireland in Liberal critiques of the South African War

Little Englanders? Wales, Scotland and Ireland in Liberal critiques of the South African War

PhD student Simon Mackley (University of Exeter) looks at how ‘pro-Boer’ Liberal speakers used analogies to Wales, Scotland and Ireland during the 1899-1902 South African War.

Few episodes of imperial conflict had as much of an impact on British politics as the South African War of 1899-1902, which saw the forces of the British Empire pitted against the Boers of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, Dutch-speaking settler republics in modern-day South Africa. The conflict proved heavily divisive in Britain, with many figures within the opposition Liberal Party adopting critical stances and in some cases outright opposition to the war. During the course of my research I have been particularly struck by the ways in which, in a period in which Britishness and Englishness were often used interchangeably, ‘pro-Boer’ Liberal speakers deployed analogies to Wales, Scotland and Ireland in support of their arguments. This post briefly surveys a few examples of such rhetoric, and suggests that these techniques played an important role in shaping Liberal critiques of the conflict.

That there was a Welsh dimension to pro-Boer rhetoric has long been recognised, John S. Ellis for example noting that Liberal speakers sought to stress an affinity between the ‘small nations’ of the Welsh and the Boers.[1] Certainly, this technique can be seen in the rhetoric of the former Liberal leader Sir William Harcourt, who in autumn 1899 declared to his Carnarvon constituents that the British had driven the Boers ‘from the place of their birth and made them abandon the lands of their fathers – words musical to the ears of Welshmen.’[2] Similar appeals were made by David Lloyd George, who in a speech at Bangor in April 1900 famously characterised the conflict as one which would ‘crush a little community the size of Carnarvonshire and Anglesey’.[3] Such strategies should not be seen as a Radical Welsh rejection of imperial politics however. Indeed, Welsh pro-Boer Liberals often explicitly staked claims to imperialism even as they condemned the war. The MP William Jones, for example, used a speech in January 1900 to declare his pride in ‘the great empire of which Wales formed a part’, insisting that there was no conflict between Welsh nationalism and the ‘principles of enlightened imperialism’.[4] The rhetoric of Welsh-Boer affinity was not therefore one of shared imperial victimhood, but instead one which laid claim to a vision of pluralistic imperialism, against the standards of which the war was unjustifiable.

Comparisons with Scotland likewise drew upon ideas of affinity with the Boers, stressing the courage and determination of the Scottish character in order to demonstrate the futility of demands for the Boers’ unconditional surrender. Speaking to his Arbroath constituents in October 1901, the English-born Liberal John Morley asked his audience to imagine a war between England and Scotland, in which the English were threatening extermination if their demand for unconditional surrender was not met. ‘If I know anything about Scotland’, he declared to loud cheering, ‘you would say, “Exterminate us if you can.”’[5] The following month, the Liberal leader Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman similarly attacked the government’s hard-line approach by drawing upon his own Scottish identity, questioning what ‘my country of Scotland would have said if the English Prime Minister of the day had declared that if they came into union with England Scotland would be left “without a shred of independence”’.[6]  Significantly, Campbell-Bannerman’s remarks were made not in Scotland but in Lancaster, demonstrating that such rhetoric of character and imperial partnership had the potential to resonate with English audiences also.

Whereas Scottish and Welsh analogies stressed notions of affinity and imperial partnership, Ireland by contrast was held up as an ominous example of imperial failure. Speaking ahead of the war in September 1899, Morley characterised a hypothetically annexed Transvaal as ‘Ireland all over again, with what is called a loyalist district, and outside of this an enormous territory… saturated with sullen disaffection.’[7] During the war itself, this analogy was again adopted with a view to critiquing the folly of British tactics: in a speech at Stirling in October 1901, Campbell-Bannerman criticised the government’s actions as creating ‘a new Ireland in the southern seas to be a weakness and a difficulty to the empire’, asking his audience ‘was not one Ireland enough?’[8] Ireland, in this rendering, represented the intractable problems of governing a white population bitterly divided along racial lines, and the cumulative legacy of British misgovernment. It is striking to note also that Ireland was generally referenced in a distinctly imperial framework, more often than not contrasted with Canada than with the other ‘home nations’. Undoubtedly the acrimonious legacy of the failure of Home Rule and the absence of any serious Liberal presence in Ireland in this period also played an important role in shaping such rhetoric, but it is significant nonetheless that the nation’s presence in Liberal anti-war rhetoric was almost entirely a negative one.

Naturally the speeches examined above only represent a selection of the rhetorical strategies deployed. Taken as a whole, the dynamics of Liberal anti-war rhetoric in this respect were much more complex, not least because Liberal speakers operated in a framework in which efforts were consistently made to stress English affinity, often along religious lines, with the Boers. Nonetheless, it is significant that ideas of Wales, Scotland and Ireland were deployed almost as rhetorical shorthand in conceptualising the Boer character and constructing alternative visions of imperialism, and there is potentially much to be revealed by further unpacking the meanings and uses of these national identities within the politics of the South African War. After all, if fin de siècle British politics was conducted within a framework of four nations, it stands to reason that the same was true of the politics of Empire.

[1] John S. Ellis, ‘”The Methods of Barbarism” and the “Rights of Small Nations”: War Propaganda and British Pluralism’, Albion 30:1 (1998).

[2] Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 21 Sep 1899.

[3] Liverpool Mercury, 12 Apr 1900.

[4] Liverpool Mercury, 25 Jan 1900.

[5] Manchester Guardian, 1 Nov 1901.

[6] Manchester Guardian, 27 Nov 1901.

[7] Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 6 Sep 1899.

[8] Aberdeen Journal, 26 Oct. 1901.

Simon Mackley is a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter based within the Centre for the Study of War, State and Society and affiliated with the Centre for Imperial and Global History. Simon’s doctoral thesis examines the British Liberal Party, the rhetoric of Empire and the politics of the South African question in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. His research has been supported by a studentship in Modern Imperial History funded by the Leverhulme Trust. He tweets from the handle @SimonMackley.


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