Liberal Imperialists


Liberal Imperialists
   A faction within Britain’s Liberal Party in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Liberal Imperialists were notable for their lack of enthusiasm for Irish Home Rule, for their defense of free trade within the British Empire, and for their support for moderate social reform. The Liberal Imperialists included some of the most talented figures in the Liberal Party, such as Lord Rosebery, H. H. Asquith, Sir Edward Grey, and R. B. Haldane, and as many as a third of the Liberal members of the House of Commons. The Liberal Imperialists were clever men looking for a new program for their party and for power within that party. They made their bid for influence at a time when the Liberal Party, always an uneasy coalition, appeared to be floundering. Yet the Liberal Imperialists failed and never came close to success. One contemporary sneered that they were politically inept “babes in intrigue.” In part the Liberal Imperialists failed because they were regarded as disloyal and not true Liberals and in part because their most important leader, Lord Rosebery, was self-destructive as a party politician. He had charm, eloquence, and intellect, but he lacked the personal ambition that might have motivated him to compromise. Unlike Rosebery, other Liberal Imperialists chose to advance their careers at the expense of their ideology. It is easy to date the end of Liberal Imperialism. In December 1905, leading Liberal Imperialists joined a ministry headed by a mainstream Liberal, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman.
   It is less easy to date the beginnings of Liberal Imperialism. Some historians see its origins in the 1880s or with the general election of 1892. Others date it as late as the Boer War (1899–1902). It is also difficult to identify Liberal Imperialism’s general theme. A revival of Lord Palmerston’s mid-century Liberal nationalism? Social imperialism, combining domestic reform with an emphasis on empire? A cross-party movement for national efficiency? Promoting the financial interests of the City of London? Placing less stress on program, some historians emphasize the intraparty struggle for power. The leading historian of the Liberal Imperialists focuses on the period 1888–1905 and identifies them as “a post-Gladstonian elite.” The Liberal Imperialists sought to reconstruct their party on lines different from that of its old leader W. E. Gladstone. Among other things, this meant freeing the Liberal Party from an electorally disastrous program that gave priority to Irish Home Rule and that included miscellaneous demands of “faddist” single-cause lobbies such as prohibition by local option. The Liberal Imperialists regarded themselves as representatives of the national interest and not of mere sectional interests. They despised the Newcastle Programme of 1891, assembled by the National Liberal Federation, as a miscellaneous collection of concessions to narrow factions.
   It is not easy to generalize about the Liberal Imperialists. Although they created two organizations - the Liberal Imperialist League in 1900 and the Liberal League 1902 - essentially they were a group of individuals who did not always agree with one another. More important, the focus that gave them a sort of unity changed over the years. At first, it had little to do with imperialism, and it never bothered much with India, the most important part of the empire. Perhaps the Liberal Imperialists can be understood as Liberals who wanted the Liberal Party to be a moderate and patriotic party that supported practical domestic reforms and kept foreign affairs and the conduct of wars out of partisan politics. The philosopher T. H. Green probably influenced their ideas. Many intellectuals outside Parliament hoped that the Liberal Imperialists might advance their agendas, as for example, Benjamin Kidd, H. J. Mackinder, and even the Fabian socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Vague slogans often substituted for detailed policies. For instance, Liberal Imperialists called for a clean slate in devising a party program. This rhetorical strategy sidestepped the practical political problem of how to deal with old commitments such as Irish Home Rule. Liberal Imperialists called for what they described as sane imperialism. This middle way between aggressive expansion and Little Englander dislike of empire did not provide clear guidance. It merely implied that realists should avoid making decisions based on ideology. The Liberal Imperialist desire for reforms that promoted national efficiency similarly lacked clarity. Bitter disputes over education and temperance, for instance, made compromise difficult. In many ways the Liberal Imperialists had much in common with Joseph Chamberlain, the Radical turned Liberal Unionist, at least until he advocated protective tariffs. Of course, Rosebery lacked Chamberlain’s ruthlessness.
   In the late 1880s, many of the politicians later identified as Liberal Imperialists developed the friendships that would provide the personal basis for Liberal Imperialism. In 1892, when Gladstone formed his last government, several of the future Liberal Imperialists obtained office. At one time they had admired John Morley, an old-fashioned Gladstonian, but increasingly they considered Lord Rosebery, the foreign secretary, as their leader. He briefly served as prime minister in 1894–1895. A year later he resigned as party leader and, although only 49, claimed that he had retired from public life. In practice, he intermittently quarreled with his immediate successor as party leader, Sir W. V. Harcourt, and then with his replacement, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. The relatively young Liberal Imperialist group regarded Harcourt and Campbell-Bannerman as elderly mediocrities and longed for Rosebery’s return. In the late 1890s, imperialism became a distinguishing feature of this factional revolt. How were Liberals to react to the Conservative government’s decision to send an army into the Sudan and the subsequent Fashoda crisis that threatened war with France? How were Liberals to respond to the war in South Africa with the Boer republics? As self-proclaimed patriots, the Liberal Imperialists almost always backed the government. In 1901, Campbell- Bannerman denounced British concentration camps in South Africa, where many women and children had died of disease, as “methods of barbarism.” Although Campbell-Bannerman had not attacked the war as a whole, the Liberal Imperialists reacted as if he had allied himself with the so-called pro-Boers, such as David Lloyd George, who opposed the war itself as wrong. The Liberal Imperialists wanted Campbell-Bannerman out as leader. In 1903, when Joseph Chamberlain called for tariff reform, he helped heal the Liberal divisions at least partially. Free trade was a principle on which all Liberals could unite. At the end of 1905, most prominent Liberal Imperialists such as Asquith accepted office under Campbell-Bannerman, despite their previous criticisms of him. Rosebery was isolated and politically irrelevant. As a coherent faction, the Liberal Imperialists no longer existed.
   See also <>; <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Matthew, H.C.G. The Liberal Imperialists: The Ideas and Politics of a Post-Gladstonian Elite . London: Oxford University Press, 1973; Searle, G. R. A New England? Peace and War, 1886–1918. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004.
   DAVID M. FAHEY

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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