Transvaal and Orange had been granted â€˜home ruleâ€™ by the Liberals in
1881: now they were being threatened by a Unionist government whose
Colonial Secretary, Chamberlain, was the bete noire of both the
Gladstonians and the Nationalists, and â€˜lecturedâ€™ the Boers on their
alleged ineptitude for self-government. â€˜Very rarely, even from the
English Colonial Office, has a document more unconstitutional, insulting
and misleading been issued to the world.â€™287 In such a context the chief
aim of â€˜Irelandâ€™s foreign policyâ€™ was â€˜to prove that the Hottentot system of
governing Ireland wonâ€™t pay the British Empireâ€™.
Thus the Nationalistsâ€™ pro-Boer stance in 1899â€“1902 should not be
regarded as a mere reflection of their Anglophobia. Nor was it an isolated
â€˜British armies on the Indian frontier: a protestâ€™, Yorkshire Quarterly Meeting of the
Society of Friends, held at Sheffield, 27 Oct. 1897, Sheffield Archives, H. J. Wilson
Papers, MD 2590â€“91. See also â€˜Scottish Liberal Associationâ€™, The Times, 27 Nov. 1897,
12; Davey, British pro-Boers, 39â€“4.
Wells, John Redmond, 58. 284 HPD, 4th series, XLI, 9 June 1896, 1440.
HPD, 4th series, LXXII, 8 June 1899, 667â€“8, 675â€“6.
â€˜Mr Gladstone on the Transvaalâ€™, FJ, 22 Jan. 1896, 5.
L. a., â€˜Mr Chamberlain lectures the Boersâ€™, FJ, 8 Feb. 1896, 4.
Social radicalism and the â€˜popular frontâ€™ 327
instance of Irish sympathy for the victims of jingoism.288 Moreover, it was
not unanimous: though in Ireland there was â€˜a powerful identification
across a wide spectrum of . . . opinion with the Boers . . . [and] abhorrence
at British actions in South Africaâ€™,289 many Home Rulers in Australia,
New Zealand, Canada and even in the USA protested strongly against
this approach, fearing that it would damage the prospects of Ireland
obtaining self-government. As Edward Blake â€“ himself a Canadian â€“
admitted, â€˜I was always conscious . . . of the injury . . . to the case of
Home Rule which would be done by an Irish National opposition to the
war. Nevertheless I personally believe . . . that the war was unjust and to
the highest degree impolitic.â€™290 John Redmond, the leader of the newly
unified party, was equally undeterred by the imperialist mood of the Irish
diaspora, ready to press on along essentially Gladstonian lines, and con-
cerned to voice the point of view of the Afrikaners against Chamberlain,
rather than against the British as a nation.291
These episodes generated a wave of emotion which transcended reli-
gious, class and party divides and indicated the potential for a popular
front, not one of progressivism, despite significant steps in this direction
in the north-west and elsewhere,292 but a Gladstonian popular front of
moral outrage. Even Keir Hardie seemed to adopt the cause of radical
unity. In Octoberâ€“November 1896, campaigning at Bradford East in a
three-cornered contest, he proposed â€˜a fusion of advanced forcesâ€™.293
Moreover, he reasserted his support for Irish Home Rule, church dis-
establishment, temperance reform and taxation of land values, claiming
to be not only â€˜the best Liberal candidate availableâ€™, but also the worst
enemy of â€˜the Sultan of Turkeyâ€™. Incredibly, however, he denounced
Gladstoneâ€™s stance on Armenia and praised Gordon of Khartoum as
â€˜the most Christ-like man this country had ever seenâ€™. He was defeated,
and finished at the bottom of the poll. In any case, his rediscovery of
radical unity seemed short lived and from 1897 he lapsed in his typical
McCracken, The Irish pro-Boers; K. Jeffery (ed.), An Irish empire? Aspects of Ireland and the
British Empire (1996).
Bull, Land, 113.
Blake to the Hon. M. Grace, Wellington, New Zealand, 27 Sep. 1900, Blake Letters,
2342, NLI, 4688. For a few examples of abusive correspondence by supporters of the
war in Canada and the USA see J. Connor to Blake, 10 Feb. 1900, ibid., 2328; TS,
â€˜A national disgraceâ€™, Ontario Free Press, 10 Feb. 1900 (on Blakeâ€™s vote for Redmondâ€™s
pro-Boer amendment), ibid., 2329; and R. E. A. Land (from Florida), to Blake,
11 Feb. 1900, ibid., 2330.
Redmond to W. Oâ€™Brien, 24 Apr. 1901, in J. Redmond Letters, NLI, MS 10,496 (4).
Clarke, Lancashire, 163ff.; Blaazer, Popular front, 60â€“85; Moore, â€˜Progressive pioneersâ€™,
â€˜Election intelligenceâ€™, Ti, 17 Oct. 1896, 10.
328 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
warfare against the Liberals, despite the fact that the latter showed signs
of revival in a series of by-election victories, while ILP candidates were
humiliated everywhere. But by the summer of 1898, as further electoral
results urged pragmatism, the ILP Parliamentary Committee (which
included Hardie, MacDonald and Brocklehurst) started covert negotia-
tions with the Liberal chief whip Ellis for an electoral pact in eight
constituencies, in return for ILP support for a future Liberal
From the end of 1899 the Boer War provided further fuel for a latter-
day Gladstonian revival, which started to attract well-known Liberal
Unionists like Albert Bright and Leonard Courtney back to the fold.295
When Morley delivered an electrifying peroration at the St Jamesâ€™ Hall in
Manchester in September 1899, it seemed that the agitations of the
previous years would now turn into a real movement, but he was unable
to sustain the enthusiasm for long and turn it into a national uprising.
Nevertheless, as Grigg has written, the war in South Africa gave â€˜new
urgency and relevanceâ€™ to the anti-jingoist vein in the radical tradition and
increased the standing both of the leaders who championed it, including
Campbell-Bannerman, and of the more ambiguous, though incredibly
resourceful, Lloyd George.296 Pro-Boer sentiment â€“ although divisive
within the parliamentary Liberal party â€“ was consistent with many of
the currents of radicalism which had contributed to the Liberal alliance in
1879â€“86. In particular, it attracted agrarian radicals throughout the
United Kingdom and mobilized both ethical socialists and unrecon-
structed Gladstonians in a â€˜popular frontâ€™ of moral outrage. It brought
together old friends and created new alliances, ranging from John Dillon,
Michael Davitt, John and Willie Redmond to Thomas Burt, John
Clifford, F. W. Hirst, Jane Cobden-Unwin and other representatives of
different shades of Cobdenism. It also attracted social radicals and New
Liberals such as J. Ramsay MacDonald, Lloyd George, C. P. Scott, J. A.
Hobson and J. L. Hammond. While Hobson had been a Liberal Unionist
in 1887, Hammond symbolized the ideological affinity between pro-
Boerism and Home Rule.297 At last there was co-operation between
Howell, Independent Labour Party, 189â€“93; Morgan, Keir Hardie, 90â€“4, 96.
Clarke, Lancashire, 178â€“9.
J. Grigg, â€˜Lloyd George and the Boer Warâ€™, in A. J. A. Morris (ed.), Edwardian radical-
ism, 1900â€“1914 (1974), 16.
McCracken, The Irish pro-Boers; Davey, The British pro-Boers, 150â€“1; Laity, The British
peace movement, 153; Cameron, Mackintosh, 211â€“12; A. Howe, â€˜Towards the â€˜â€˜hungry
fortiesâ€™â€™: free trade in Britain, c.1880â€“1906â€™, in Biagini Citizenship and community,
206â€“10, 214â€“15; J. W. Auld, â€˜The Liberal pro-Boersâ€™, Journal of British Studies, 14
(1975), 78â€“101; B. Porter, â€˜The pro-Boers in Britainâ€™, in P. Warwick (ed.), The South
Social radicalism and the â€˜popular frontâ€™ 329
socialists (including the SDF) and Liberals in many constituencies, par-
ticularly in Lancashire.298 While Davitt thundered for Boer freedom,
Hardie, to the astonishment of some of his supporters, adopted distinctly
radical arguments, which â€˜differed very little in kind from Brightâ€™s and
Cobdenâ€™s denunciation of the Crimean War almost fifty years earlierâ€™.299
Even more remarkable was the extent to which his former anti-Liberalism
was replaced by eulogies of the leading anti-war radicals. He even went as
far as making overtures to John Morley, whom he had long denounced as
the arch-individualist apologist of unbridled capitalism.
McCracken has argued that the British and Irish pro-Boers had little in
common. There is no question that the Anglophobia which accompanied
the Nationalist response to the war had no parallels in Britain. However,
Anglophobia was certainly not the main motivation for Michael Davitt, a
member of the Humanitarian League, which also included Keir Hardie as
well as a number of other socialists, radicals and feminists.300 As for the
rest of the Nationalists, one factor was the sympathy for the small nations
â€˜rightly struggling to be freeâ€™ â€“ a sentiment which was to prompt tens of
thousands of Nationalists (and as many Ulster Unionists) to join the
Crown forces in 1914, on behalf of â€˜gallant little Belgiumâ€™. Finally, if we
set aside for a moment the negative dimension of Nationalism (the
rejection of the British link) and compare the positive values with which
the Boers were associated in radical circles both in Ireland and Britain,
substantial common ground emerges between the two pro-Boer camps.
In particular, both shared a commitment to agrarian radicalism at home
and admiration for the Spartan democracy and public spirit of the people
of the Veld, exemplified by their readiness to serve the fatherland in the
citizensâ€™ army.301 Their â€˜neo-romanâ€™ virtue was praised by Keir Hardie,
and had long been celebrated by Tom Ellis. He may have been â€˜an ardent
admirer of Rhodes and the close colleague of Salisburyâ€™, as K. O. Morgan
has argued, but his views of the Boers were clear. The latter were
brave, dogged, independent, conservative, religious. The deep religious feeling
which still characterizes the Dutch population in South Africa is due largely to
the splendid stance made by Holland for the right of conscience, and largely to the
immigration into the Cape of the French Huguenots after the Revocation of
African war: the Anglo-Boer war, 1899â€“1902 (1980), 239â€“57; P. Cain, Hobson and
imperialism (2002), 83â€“9; D. Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald (1997), 64â€“5; Weaver,
The Hammonds, 57â€“62; Peatling, British opinion, 61.
Clarke, Lancashire, 312.
Morgan, Keir Hardie, 106. For Michael Davittâ€™s views see his The Boer fight for freedom
Gill, â€˜Calculating compassion in warâ€™, 117.
McCracken, Irish pro-Boers, 159; cf. Davey, British pro-Boers, 60â€“4, 137, and Newton,
British labour, European socialism, 133.
330 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
the Edict of Nantes in 1685. These Dutchmen or Boers as they are generally called in
South Africa, have plenty of manly stuff in them. The Transvaal war showed that
they had the courage of freemen. They refuse to let their language be swamped in
public schools . . . The Dutch farmer likes a lonely life and hates taxes, railways,
officials, bustle. His primary principle in politics is to be let severely alone . . . They
have no privileged class, no Established Church, no State-aided sectarian education.
They have not to struggle against militarism and centralization . . . their educational
system . . . seems to me framed in a liberal spirit, and it has lessons for us in Wales.302
Ellis died on 5 April 1899 â€“ well before the start of the Boer War. But it
is interesting that in the 1900 election Wales did not experience that
swing towards the Unionists which characterized other parts of the
United Kingdom: in fact, it was the only part of the country which
showed a shift towards the Liberals.303 Of course, the extent to which
the Welsh vote was motivated by pro-Boerism, rather than traditional
Nonconformist issues, is debatable.304 On the other hand, the govern-
mentâ€™s failure to capitalize on the â€˜khakiâ€™ issue â€“ which was improving the
Unionist vote elsewhere in Britain â€“ is in itself indicative of the weakness
of imperialism in Wales, where the Liberal Imperialist â€˜has little influence
and less interestâ€™.305 In any case, all scholars agree that the electoral
behaviour of all social, ethnic and religious groups in the United
Kingdom was influenced by a variety of disparate causes, with no simple
relationship to the rights and wrongs of the South African war. For
example, despite their supposed hostility to the war, some Irish electors
in Britain voted Tory in 1900 over the demand for a Catholic university
for Ireland, to which the Unionists were more favourably disposed than
the Liberals.306 Moreover, irrespective of politics or religion, any per-
sonal connection with soldiers at the front was enough to generate some
sort of emotional commitment to the army, if not to the war, among
working-class families both in Wales and in Ireland. In fact, in the latter
case, where pro-Boerism was general, the many relatives of Irishmen
serving in the forces could be passionately proud of British â€˜invincibilityâ€™
on the field and yet vote Nationalist.307
T. E. Ellis, draft article for the South Wales Daily News, MS dated 12 Dec. 1890, in
NLW, Ellis MSS, 2961 (a) and (b). Cf. Morgan, Rebirth of a nation, 31.
Davey, British pro-Boers, 128; H. Pelling, â€˜Wales and the Boer Warâ€™, Welsh Historical
Review, 4 (1969), 363â€“5.
K. O. Morgan, â€˜Wales and the Boer War â€“ a replyâ€™, Welsh Historical Review, 4 (1969),
368, 373. Although Wales as a whole went Liberal, there were important regional and
local differences, with the Welsh-speaking north and Welsh-language press being
strongly pro-Boer, in contrast to the Anglophone areas in the south.
Matthew, Liberal imperialists, 56. 306 Pelling, Popular politics and society, 93.
R. Price, An imperial war and the British working class (1972), 95; McCracken, Irish pro-
Boers, 120, 123. Cf. Morgan, Wales in British politics, 179.
Social radicalism and the â€˜popular frontâ€™ 331
Specific election results are not always easy to interpret. For example,
one of the pro-Boer Liberal candidates in Wales was John Albert Bright,
whose stance on the issue was certainly not â€˜explained by his parentageâ€™,
contrary to what Morgan has suggested.308 As we have seen (chapter 5),
he had been a Liberal Unionist and friend of Chamberlain for years. He
was then gradually attracted back to the Gladstonian fold first by the
Armenian agitation, and then by the South African war. That the
Birmingham Unionists were tired of him may have contributed to his
final decision to stand as a Liberal. In any case, his 1900 defeat does not
say much about the feelings about the war in the Montgomery District.
Organizational and broadly cultural factors must instead be considered,
bearing in mind that Bright was not only a newcomer to the constituency,
and therefore at a disadvantage, but also a notoriously ineffective politi-
cian and a lazy campaigner.309
Lack of leadership was certainly one of the problems for the pro-Boers.
Hardie was aware that only a strong and widely accepted leader could
effectively harness all these currents of radicalism to the cause of â€˜human-
ityâ€™. The new priorities created by the war again made him ready even to
contemplate co-operation with Morley. But, as in 1896â€“7, the latter
failed to rise to the challenge. He was clearly keener on writing
Gladstoneâ€™s biography than on following in the GOMâ€™s footsteps.
Hardie soon had reason to regret that â€˜[there was] no voice at
Hawardenâ€™.310 This was indeed both a problem and a paradox. Already
in 1898 an acute observer had remarked: â€˜the old hero of high political
morality is dying by inches at Hawarden Castle and all that goes on in the
world a sealed book to himâ€™. Yet, she concluded, â€˜How difficult it is to do
without him.â€™311 Then the unexpected happened: a radical newspaper
editor emerged proposing himself as the leader of a new popular
The National Democratic League
The foundation of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) did
not arouse as much interest as the launching of a â€˜democratic conventionâ€™