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Reference group
Pro-Boers (act. 1899–1902) were opponents of the South African War of 1899–1902, and were never a formal group, although their movement produced several formal organizations. The label itself was a term of abuse coined by the war's supporters, and although some critics of British policy in South Africa, such as the novelist G. K. Chesterton, claimed to welcome the designation, most opponents of the war resented the imputation of treachery that it carried. It was in general inappropriate: very few of the war's critics actively sought a Boer victory.

Most of those pro-Boers who did welcome a Boer victory were to be found in nationalist Ireland, where public opinion identified the Boers as fellow victims of British imperialism. The Irish Nationalist MPs cheered announcements of British military reverses in the Commons, while the novelist George Moore (1852–1933) described the chain of British disasters in December 1899 as ‘the greatest event that has happened since Thermopylae’ (McCracken, 61–2). The militant nationalist Maud Gonne campaigned across Ireland against British attempts to raise troops for the conflict, benefiting from a widespread public conviction that the army high command used Irish regiments as cannon-fodder in the Transvaal. John MacBride, whom Gonne married in 1903, commanded an Irish brigade of 300 volunteers fighting alongside the Boers in the Transvaal. ‘It was not for the love of the Boer we were fighting’, as one volunteer put it, ‘it was for the hatred of the English’ (J. Donnelly, quoted in McCracken, 158) .

In mainland Britain, where voicing any misgivings about the war's justification or its aims could lead to ostracism or worse, it remains hard to know how deep sympathy for the Boer republics ran among the war's critics. Many praised the Boers' sturdy civic virtues and most went to uncomfortable lengths to defend them from the charge of ill-treating the indigenous population; we cannot know how many privately coveted a Boer victory. In reality a conclusive Boer military victory was impossible, making it unnecessary for the war's opponents to take sides. In practice public debate revolved around the justification for goading the Boer republics into war and the morality of promoting empire by crushing small nations. On this basis, the number with misgivings about the war was probably considerably greater than the number of visible pro-Boers. Patriotic nationalism was at its most aggressive during this conflict, and public opposition was likely to bring poison pen letters and a real danger of physical violence. David Lloyd George was assaulted at Caernarfon in April 1900, had a meeting at Liskeard in July disrupted by violence, and had his life endangered at Birmingham in September 1901; his twelve-year-old son was subjected to verbal and physical abuse at Dulwich College. The term pro-Boer will therefore be taken here to include those opponents of the war who were willing to express their opposition in public.

Pro-Boer support was overwhelmingly drawn from the left and the centre. It is likely that many older Conservatives felt a degree of distaste for the provocative diplomacy of Milner and Chamberlain, and some Liberal Unionist critics of the war expected the prime minister, Lord Salisbury, to rein in his subordinates. But the rapid descent into war in the autumn of 1899, and the fact that the conflict was actually precipitated by the Boer republics' invasion of British colonial territory, meant that patriotism generally displaced any reservations in Conservative minds. The chief, though partial, exception was the independent-minded MP Sir Edward Clarke, who objected to the new imperialism on the Cobdenite grounds that promoting commerce by ‘the use of Maxim guns and Lyddite shells’ was ‘a crime in ethics as well as a blunder in policy’ (Clarke, 344–5).

Liberal Unionist opponents of the war, though again in a minority in their party, provided some of the most scathing criticism of British policy. In particular, those whose disaffection with Liberalism in the 1880s had stemmed from a perception that Gladstonian politics had become too demagogic were concerned at the developing climate of jingoistic enthusiasm, and felt contempt for those politicians, most obviously Joseph Chamberlain, who sought to manipulate public fervour. Endorsing calls for patience on the eve of war, Arthur Elliot argued that ‘the public can hardly be expected to take it, but the statesman may and ought’ (The Times, 27 Sept 1899). Leonard Courtney, who became president of the South African Conciliation Committee on its formation in June 1900, feared a revival of ‘the torrent of opinion that swept men away during the Crimean War’ (Courtney to Helen Bright Clark, 18 Oct 1899, Courtney collection). The generation of ‘old Liberal’ rationalists was offended by the vacuity of the pretexts advanced for war. This applied as much to sceptical Liberal Unionists like Goldwin Smith as to cerebral Gladstonians like Frederic Harrison and John Morley, the latter sharing a platform with Courtney at the large protest meeting in Manchester in September 1899 (The Times, 16 Sept 1899).

That meeting took place in the Free Trade Hall and was chaired by John Albert Bright (1848–1924), son of the great Liberal statesman. Aversion to bellicosity and support for the rights of small nations were intrinsic to the outlook of Victorian Liberalism, and provided reason enough for many Liberals to oppose the war. About forty-five Liberal MPs were prepared to risk political ostracism by voting against the war or its funding. Outspoken pro-Boers like Sir Wilfrid Lawson and Henry Labouchere considered themselves to be loyal to the party's traditional internationalism, as did the journalist J. L. Hammond, ploughing a lonely anti-war furrow as editor of The Speaker, who invoked the example of Gladstone's successful Midlothian campaign. The party's leadership, however, under Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, resisted any outright declaration of opposition. They were mindful of the divisive potential of the small but assertive group of Liberal Imperialists gathered around Lord Rosebery, but aware also that about a third of the parliamentary party was prepared to vote with the government on war issues.

Critically, the Liberal Party's nonconformist backbone, previously prominent in its ethical crusades, was by no means unambiguously hostile to the war. As was to be expected, many nonconformist ministers felt uncomfortable with the bellicose public mood. The leading Congregationalist Alexander Mackennal warned the second International Congregational Council in September 1899 of a developing ‘antagonism between the awakened Christian conscience and the consciousness of the necessities of militarism’ (Macfadyen, 246); a group of Congregational ministers signed a petition calling for an end to the war and independence for the Boer republics in July 1901. Those already associated with radical liberalism, like the London Baptist minister John Clifford, were often stridently anti-war. One idiosyncratic Congregationalist, the campaigning journalist W. T. Stead, who had previously lionized Cecil Rhodes, denounced the war as a perversion of Rhodes's ideals and developed the militant Stop the War Committee (founded by the United Methodist minister and novelist Silas Hocking) as a platform for his outspoken pro-Boer sentiments. The 1890s had seen nonconformity warm to the idea of empire's Christian mission (Bebbington, 120–22) and welcome the impetus that empire gave to missionary activity. ‘Every missionary tends to become a jingo’, suggested the Wesleyan Methodist veteran of the Chinese mission T. G. Selby (Cuthbertson, ‘Preaching imperialism’, 167). Selby was, in fact, opposed to the war, but he was in a minority among the Wesleyans, of whom three-quarters were said by a contemporary estimate to support government policy in South Africa. Revelations of British brutality during the guerrilla phase of the conflict after the summer of 1900 worked to diminish nonconformist enthusiasm for the war, but dissent never spoke unequivocally.

Campbell-Bannerman's caution prevented his party's disintegration over the war, and ensured that the ‘khaki election’ of 1900, bad as it was for the Liberals, did not see any significant decline from their unimpressive 1895 position. Growing public disenchantment with Kitchener's scorched earth policy during the winter of 1900–01, enhanced by the first-hand reports of conditions faced by Boer women and children in British concentration camps compiled by Emily Hobhouse, dampened Liberal Imperialism and produced a gentler climate for the pro-Boers, and in 1901 they acquired their first foothold in the London daily press when Lloyd George engineered the capture of the Daily News by a group funded by the Quaker confectioner George Cadbury. The journalist H. W. Nevinson, who had reported from South Africa for the Daily Chronicle, noted in June 1901 that ‘you could now go to a Pro-Boer meeting with your best trousers on’ (Laity, 146–7). This development turned the last year or so of the war into a prelude for Liberal recovery during the 1900s, but the initial reticence of the leadership helped ensure that the dominant—and enduring—critique of the war was not the Cobdenite–Gladstonian one voiced by most anti-war Liberals, but a more advanced fusion of socialist and ‘new Liberal’ doctrines.

Leaving aside the minority ‘patriotic’ labour strain identified with Robert Blatchford and some Fabians driven by national efficiency thinking, socialist and labour sentiment was overwhelmingly anti-war. The analysis of such Social Democratic Federation Marxists as E. Belfort Bax and H. M. Hyndman that the war was the work of capitalist speculators and profiteers was largely shared by the Independent Labour Party and by Lib–Labs like the Sheffield MP Fred Maddison, who denounced the war as the work of international financiers. The Independent Labour Party's opposition was directed vigorously by J. Keir Hardie, who subscribed to an uncomplicated view of the conflict as ‘a Capitalists' war, begotten by Capitalists' money’ (Howell, 345–6; Porter, 128) . Strikingly, though, the socialist critique of the war spoke to concerns about the moral decay of modern capitalism being voiced by an emergent generation of Liberal theorists. The young Cobdenite F. W. Hirst, fearful that military expenditure was crowding out spending on social reform, echoed the case made by Lloyd George since the onset of the war. The most sophisticated expression of this developing line of thought came from J. A. Hobson. Hobson's spell in South Africa as correspondent of the Manchester Guardian, under its pro-Boer editor C. P. Scott, convinced him that the war was not simply the product of malevolent diplomacy but was the work of a new manipulative finance capitalism, holding politicians and the press in its hands. His classic Imperialism: a Study (1902) argued that the determination of finance capitalism to find outlets abroad derived from the inadequacy of spending power at home, itself due to the maldistribution of wealth in Britain. The Liberal attack on militarism abroad was linked to the attack on poverty at home.

The resolution of the conflict in the spring of 1902 appeared broadly to justify the pro-Boers' claim that military victory would not justify the money and lives spent to secure it, and most if not all pro-Boers felt vindicated by events. It remains difficult, though, to assess their lasting influence. Courtney acknowledged in January 1902 that it was impossible to identify any constituency in England which had directly repudiated the war policy, and war fever would resurface in 1914. Within Liberal ranks the war had been too divisive an issue to have the galvanizing effect produced by the education and tariff reform controversies in 1902–3.

The lasting effects of the anti-war politics of 1899–1902 were arguably more subtle. First, growing public disenchantment with the war and the methods used to fight it during 1901–2 undermined the Liberal Imperialist belief that their fusion of imperialism and social reform represented the politics of the future, and whatever chance they had possessed of winning over the Liberal Party to a fundamentally illiberal programme disappeared. With party divisions sharpening over the question of empire, the social programme was effectively detached from the imperial agenda and appropriated by the Edwardian Liberal Party. Many of the leading ‘new Liberals’ of the 1900s had been pro-Boers: the founders of the League of Liberals Against Aggression and Militarism, an élite rejoinder to the imperialist Liberal League, in February 1900 included Hobson, Scott, and Lloyd George, and the new Liberal theorists L. T. Hobhouse and J. M. Robertson were also active opponents of the war. These men were radicals, but many in the Liberal mainstream, individualists by instinct, came to accept a measured programme of social reform as the only viable alternative to Chamberlain's bread-and-circuses policy in a democratic age. The Liberal Party did not collectively renounce capitalism—the pro-Boer ranks included, after all, such substantial entrepreneurs as Cadbury and the chemical manufacturer Sir John Brunner—but it became more receptive of the notion that a venal and malign plutocracy, discarding the idealism of Cobden and Bright, was seeking to pervert public policy to its own ends.

At the same time the fledgling Independent Labour Party, which before 1899 had directed most of its rhetorical fire at the Liberal Party, was drawn into co-operation with the Liberals in pursuit of a shared ethical objective. Liberals old and new noted, in Hobhouse's words, that ‘the Socialist leaders and the most notable spiritual descendants of Cobden and Mill stood on the same platform’ over South Africa (Collini, 87); the principled stance of the Independent Labour Party and much of the trade union movement was all the more laudable, in Liberal eyes, given the apparent susceptibility of the unorganized working class to the appeal of Chamberlain and the jingo press. Hardie attempted to persuade his party not to challenge anti-war Liberals in the 1900 election. He failed, but the experience of co-operation in the war years can only have facilitated the eventual Lib–Lab electoral pact of 1903. In ways that could not have been easily anticipated in 1899, the South African War proved a critical stage in the evolution of Edwardian progressivism.

John Davis


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