Back to article index


The great watershed in British political life in the 20th century was the controversy over the Imperial Tariff in the years immediately following the Boer War. Joseph Chamberlain - the Birmingham Liberal who joined the Tories in the 1880s on the basis of a social welfare programme designed to make capitalism tolerable to the workers - proposed, in effect, that the successful conquest of the Boer Republics should be the last Imperialist adventure. He advocated Imperial consolidation, political and economic, and the abandonment of balance-of-power strategy against Europe which had been adopted by the Whigs in the years immediately following the 1688 Revolution for the purpose of achieving world dominance.

Chamberlain had been the statesman of Imperialism as popular political culture - Imperialism as Lebensraum for relieving social tensions in Britain, and for providing an adequate hinterland for the overdeveloped condition of Britain itself. It was on the combined issues of Imperialism and social welfare reform that he parted company with Gladstone. He thought about Empire and deliberately adopted an Imperial policy. Gladstone - the high Tory who became the classical Liberal - was anti-Imperialist-which meant in practice that he did what was necessary to maintain and expand the Empire, while refusing to reflect on what he was doing, or pretending that he was doing something else.

In that last generation of the 19th century, when the theological medium of popular thought evaporated, Britain came to understand itself as a kind of resurgence of the Roman Empire. That was the generation which formed Herbert Henry Asquith-the upstart Puritan who cultivated patrician attitudes, but who reverted to a kind of Millenarianism when he held the fate of the world in his hands in July/August 1914. But in the ruling elite it was only Chamberlain who dealt with Britain's world position with a free mind - a mind free of mimicry and affectation and humbug. And it was Chamberlain, who was not a Roman poseur, who tried to do for Britain what Augustus did for Rome according to Gibbon:

"The principal conquests of the Romans were achieved under the Republic; and the emperors, for the most part, were satisfied with preserving those dominions which had been acquired by the policy of the senate … The seven first centuries were filled with a rapid succession of triumphs; but it was reserved for Augustus to relinquish the ambitious design of subduing the whole earth, and to introduce a spirit of moderation into the public councils". [Augustus was convinced that indefinite expansion of the Empire would put it in jeopardy, and that] "it would be easy to secure every concession which the safety or dignity of Rome might require from the most formidable Barbarians … Happily for the repose of mankind, the moderate system recommended by the wisdom of Augustus, was adopted by the fears and vices of his immediate successors". (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter I).

The implication of calling a halt to the expansion of the Empire was that Britain should henceforth see itself as one of half-a-dozen Great Powers, should seek stability in the world-order on that basis, and should stop playing the balance-of-power game against Europe - because the purpose of the balance-of-power game was to keep Europe in turmoil so that Britain might have a free hand elsewhere.


Chamberlain proposed the establishment of friendly relations with Germany at a moment when Germany had become the strongest state in Europe, economically, politically and militarily. That was a fundamental breach of the rules of British foreign policy adopted around 1690.

Churchill explained the rules thus:

"For 400 years the foreign policy of England has been to oppose the strongest, most aggressive, most dominating Power on the Continent, and particularly to prevent the four Countries falling into the hands of such a Power. Viewed in the light of history, these four centuries of consistent purpose amid so many changes of names and facts and circumstances and conditions, must rank as one of the most remarkable episodes which the records of any race, nation, State or people can show. Moreover, on all occasions England took the more difficult course. Faced by Philip II of Spain, against Louis XIV under William III and Marlborough, against Napoleon, against William II of Germany, it would have been easy and must have been tempting to join with the stronger and share the fruits of his conquest. However, we always took the harder course, joined with the less strong Powers, made a combination among them, and thus defeated and frustrated the Continental military tyrant, whoever he was, whatever nation he led. Thus we preserved the liberties of Europe … Here is the wonderful unconscious tradition of British Foreign Policy." (From 1936 speech reproduced in The Gathering Storm, Chapter XII)

 Although Churchill was, on the whole, uneasy with moralistic humbug, this matter was too sacred for frankness. Britain maximised its own freedom of action in the rest of the world by preventing any stable order from being established in Europe through the operation of internal European forces. The notion that its balance-of-power interventions in Europe had either the purpose or the effect of "preserving the liberties of Europe" is very heavy moral spin indeed, and it is entirely groundless with regard to the Kaiser. The German state had no expansionist territorial ambitions in Europe, nor was it going around the world destroying older civilisations. In fact the great offence of the Kaiser in the eyes of the British Government was the conservatism of his attitude towards the older states outside Europe, especially the Ottoman Empire which Britain was intent on conquering. And its only territorial ambition within Europe was that France should accept the boundary that resulted from the French attack on Prussia in 1870. But Germany was undoubtedly the strongest state in Europe in 1914, and therefore Britain, in the grip of "the wonderful unconscious tradition", encouraged the other states to make war on it, even though Germany was content with the territorial status quo while Russia, France and Italy were expansionist (the latter two on the basis of irredentist claims),

And Churchill's argument that it was tempting and would have been easy for Britain to establish friendly relations with the strongest state in Europe instead of organising combinations of the others to make war on it, was simply perverse. It is neither tempting nor easy for an aggressive Imperialist Power, with generations of success behind it, to call a halt to its aggressive Imperialism and that would have been the practical consequences of establishing friendly relations with the Kaiser's Germany instead of plotting war against it.

Joseph Chamberlain did not act under the influence of "the wonderful, unconscious tradition". He was not a second generation bred for the elite. He was the only successful industrial capitalist who became a first-rank politician. He entered politics to enact social reforms because he saw with his own eyes that capitalist economy was sustainable in the long run only within a social framework. He became an overt and unashamed Imperialist for a mixture of social and commercial reasons. And then, as an outstandingly successful Imperialist statesman who masterminded the establishment of white English property in Rhodesia, he tried to make arrangements for the preservation of the Empire, because he saw with his own eyes that it needed them, just as he had seen with his own eyes what arrangements were needed for the preservation of industrial capitalism.