British society

Support for the War

The ‘freak’ defeat at Majuba had been a sore point for a Britain intoxicated with Imperialism, and the majority had greeted the prospect of another war in South Africa with enthusiasm. Jameson became a hero for standing up to the arrogant Boers. The Kaiser had publicly congratulated Kruger for thwarting Jameson, and the endorsement from Britain’s fiercest rival hardened public opinion further. Following the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the unification of Germany had changed the balance of power in Europe. Worried governments began an arms race that would eventually herald the First World War. In Britain, Cardwell’s military reforms lead to a more professional army, introducing a series of Volunteer regiments for home defence. Another offshoot of militarism was the competition for colonies. Britain had a head start on Germany having pursued an Imperial policy for decades, but the newcomer forced the government to guard their acquisitions jealously and hold on to them at all costs. Kruger’s congratulations from the Kaiser were a deliberate piece of mischief making that aligned the Boers to Britain’s fiercest rival.

The government were not perturbed by these outbreaks of Jingoism, and encouraged anti-Boer feeling. Kruger’s treatment of the Uitlanders was a convenient outrage to stoke resentment. Victories over smaller countries and Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee had filled the British people with a confidence in the Empire that bordered on hysteria. The 1870 Education Act had produced near-universal literacy and new schools were run with military discipline, instilling reverence for the Empire from an early age. Alongside History and Geography lessons that were little more than propaganda speeches, some schools provided classes in Honesty, Loyalty and Self-Discipline. An apocryphal story of the time captured the mood, telling of a child asked who was the greatest man who ever lived, and replying, “Joe Chamberlain.” When told there was one greater, the child replied, “Teacher, I’m afraid you are a Pro-Boer!

Music Hall played a significant part in shaping public opinion. There were nightly performances of patriotic songs such as My Lulu is Half-Zulu and dramatic sketches to raise morale and funds for the war effort. The best known was Kipling’s Absent-Minded Beggar, a plea to remember the common soldier risking his life while you [the audience] are enjoying the show. As this was sung, the collection bowl would be passed. £340,000, an absolute fortune in those days, was raised.

The events of Black Week dashed any hopes for a quick war in the manner of a Fashoda or Sudan. The defeats suspended any criticism of Britain’s motives as the nation got behind the war effort. Even some of those who thought the war was wrong could not accept Britain losing the war. There was a rush to enlist for the regular army from the home defense regiments — the Militia, the Volunteers, and the Yeomanry — and from ordinary citizens. A further 16,000 extra men were sent out to Africa in January 1900 alone.

The Pro-Boers

The growth of humanitarianism over the century had encouraged the development of a pacifist movement, but in the Jingo atmosphere many of these people were frightened into silence. Those who questioned the morality of Britain’s actions were branded “Pro-Boers”, traitors to their country, and ridiculed.

One of the earliest organisations was the South African Conciliation Committee, a collection of middle-class intellectuals urging conciliation rather than aggression. The SACC was only concerned with practical solutions, but their rather correct methods paled in comparison to the Stop the War Committee and its figurehead, W. T. Stead. Moderation was never a word associated with Stead, who set out to shame the country for their treatment of “Brother Boer”. He denounced the war as a scandal against Christianity, blaming Chamberlain and Jameson for pushing the two nations into conflict. Stead’s extremism made the STWC attract its fair share of cranks, but had no appeal to a mass audience. It was though a popular target for the Jingoes looking for traitors to attack.

The traditional supporter of Radicalism, the Liberal Party, was unable to play a significant role in opposing the war. They were bitterly divided between their traditional Gladstonian foreign policy based on moral and ethical principles, and the Liberal Imperialists who wanted to modernise the party and lose the aura of anti-Imperialism. The leader, Campbell-Bannerman, tried to steer a middle course, but the accusations and counter-accusations between the factions prevented the party from deciding any specific policy on the war. The most outspoken pro-Boer Liberal was David Lloyd George, the future creator of the welfare state. His outspoken denouncement of war-fever made him a hugely controversial figure, and several of his public meetings were cut short by violent confrontations.

Mafeking and Mafficking

With Buller failing, the shocked British public needed to find a hero to reassure them that there was still someone who could live up to the glorious past. Fortunately there was Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, commander of the besieged town of Mafeking in Transvaal. His communiques from the town, “Four hours bombardment. One dog killed,” displayed a stoicism and flair for understatement against what was popularly believed to be overwhelming odds and captured the public’s imagination. He raised morale among the inhabitants by organising a wide range of theatrical, musical and sporting events. The small town’s safety soon became a national obsession that outweighed its strategic importance. When news came through that Mafeking had been relieved after on 17 May, London went wild. In scenes echoed all over the country, men, women and children poured onto the streets to celebrate the news and sing patriotic songs. A new word entered the language to describe the hysteria – ‘mafficking’. The celebrations were completely spontaneous and for the most part non-violent. contrasted with the events that followed over the next few days. Small groups would attack businesses that were suspected of pro-Boer leanings or had not joined in the previous day’s festivities.

The Khaki Election

The Unionist government’s victory in the 1900 election is often attributed to the changed fortunes in South Africa – hence the name. By this time Post-Mafeking hysteria had died down and the outcome of the war no longer seemed in doubt. The Liberal party were unelectable, and the best Campbell-Bannerman hoped for was a slim defeat. Lord Salisbury, the sitting Prime Minister, based his campaign around the war and patriotic duty, claiming, “Every seat lost to the government is a seat sold to the Boers.” The final result on the 6th October brought another term for the sitting government with an overall majority of 134 seats, but the actual votes cast showed 2.43 million voting for Salisbury against 2.1 million. Few Pro-Boer MPs lost their seat. Most of them were committed social reformers, and this was more important to voters confronted with high unemployment and poverty in their own constituencies.

The 1906 Election

The huge turnaround in the fortunes of the Liberal Party in the 1906 election was as clear a statement as possible that Imperialism had run its course. The death of Victoria appeared to draw a line under one, highly successful, chapter in British history and people were looking to the future. Britain had withdrawn the ‘Splendid Isolation’ foreign policy and was actively looking to sign treaties with France and Russia. The military system that had failed during the war was revised to provide Britain with six army corps, three of which were to be used as an expeditionary force, with the remainder providing an adequate home defence.

Domestically, social reform was once again an important issue, good news for the Liberals who had seen through most of the crucial reforms of the previous century. The two main reformers, the Liberals and Labour, agreed a non-aggression pact to avoid both parties dividing the vote in marginal Unionist seats to ensure that the much larger Liberal Party got into government. The majority won was as convincing as the Unionists in 1900, ushering in a decade of Liberal rule, including future Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Lloyd George.

Recommended reading:

State and Society: British Political and Social History:1870-1992, Martin Pugh,1994

The Pro-Boers: Anatomy of an Anti-War Movement, Ed. Stephen Koss, 1973

An Imperial war and the British Working Class, Richard Price, 1972