Back to article index
Back to Labour Values index


In the aftermath of the 1918 Election the British Labour Party was suddenly presented with the opportunity of leap-frogging to power in the state.  It was a minor arty in 1914, but emerged as the second party in 1918.  The Liberal Party had launched the World War but it undermined itself in the course of waging it.  In 1916, during the period when the election system was suspended, the top layer of the Party went into alliance with the Unionists to form the Lloyd George Coalition, while the bulk of the Party went into Opposition.  At the end of the War, the two Liberal factions could not re-unite, so Labour became the second party—the Official Opposition, with the status of the alternative Government.  And many of the Opposition Liberals defected to the Labour Party, to help it to be Imperialistically patriotic and prepare it for power.

What Gibbon implies about Sinn Fein was then true of the Labour Party.  It had in great part been an irresponsible party, far removed from the prospect of taking over the government of the state, and therefore free to hold ideals with little regard for their practicality.  But, if they were to achieve the great object that was put within their reach by the Liberal split, they would have to lay aside their fancies and their hobby-horses and show that the Empire would be safe in their hands.

The Labour interest in Britain was Imperialist.  That is, the working class in Britain was a construction of a capitalism that developed within the conditions set out for it by the British Empire.  It was not a development within a largely self-sufficient national capitalism that expanded overseas in the form of an Empire.  The Empire, with the Triangular Trade based on slavery as its economic power-house, was the cocoon within which it was hatched.

The founder of British Socialism as a mass ideology, Robert Blatchford, began with the ideal of restoring an English way of life that was being destroyed (Merrie England), but he soon came to see that the standard of life of the English workers, poor though it was in many respects, would become much worse if the fruits of Empire were lost.  He therefore became an Imperialist and a strong supporter of the dominance of the Royal Navy in the world.  

I have seen the slogan "My country right or wrong" attributed to him and, although I have not come across that actual form of words in his writings, there is no doubt that they express the substance of his position  And it had to become the position of the Labour Party when it became the probable next Government—phrased differently, in order to preserve a hangover of the disinterested idealism of earlier days.

The middle class socialism of the intellectuals of Fabian Society circles—G.B. Shaw, the Webbs, etc—became decisively Imperialist by supporting the Boer War of 1899.  This was a straightforward war of conquest, one which the British Empire could well have done without.  It appears to have been fought out of Imperial high spirits—and to show that England could still do it.  Since the Crimean War, which ended in 1856, England had only been fighting what were called Fuzzy Wuzzies.  With the Boers it took on white men, almost of their own stock, beat them, incorporated them into the Empire, and were very pleased with themselves.

In making war on the Boer Republics—or putting the Boers under extreme pressure to launch a pre-emptive war of defence—the British did not put the Empire in any danger, even when the war went badly at first, and therefore the Boer War was a war that English politicians could oppose without discrediting themselves  One could say that there was real freedom of choice in the matter, and that it therefore performed the function of developing incipient Imperialism in both Liberals and Socialists. 

The Liberals who came out explicitly as Imperialists in the Boer War (Asquith, Haldane, Grey) came to occupy the dominant positions in the Liberal Government in 1908, and they used the European War of July 1914 to launch the World War.  And, likewise, the Socialists who supported the conquest of the Boer Republics led the way for Labour participation in the World War.


One used to hear on the British Left a generation ago about how the German Social Democracy betrayed the cause by voting War Credits for the Kaiser, but the fact that British Labour supported the War and entered Government Office for the first time as a active war party in alliance with the Tories (Unionists) and Liberal Imperialists was somehow not regarded as being similar in kind.

Of course there were great differences in the circumstances of the two parties, but I cannot see that those differences condemn the German Social Democrats and justify the British Labourites.  The German Social Democracy was a much bigger part of the German body politic than Labour was of the British body politic and, by the time the SPD voted the War Credits, the German state was caught in a war on two Fronts against long-established Empires, both expansionist, and both experienced at waging war.  

The German Empire, established following French aggression against Prussia in 1870, had fought no wars—unless the suppression of rebellion in its colonial possession in South-West Africa is to be described as a war.

Britain joined France and Russia in making war on Germany in early August.  It was free to join or not to join.  Germany made no claims on Britain or on its Empire scattered around the world.  But Britain saw advantage in joining France and Russia to make war on Germany.  Its first act of war was to blockade Germany and stop its foreign trade by sea—which it was able to do because of the absolute dominance of the Royal Navy.  It then instructed its merchants to seize the German markets abroad.  And its war propaganda described Germany as an Evil Power, whose existence was incompatible with the peace of the world, and which therefore needed to be dismantled. [fn]

The British Labour Party might have opposed Britain's war effort without endangering the existence of the domestic state or its foreign Empire, and some of its leaders—those of the Independent Labour Party segment—actually did so:  Ramsay McDonald, Phillip Snowden, Keir Hardie.


[fn] This is a theme developed in Pat Walsh's article How we planned the Great War which can be found on the companion 'British Values' website - PB