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Vernon Bogdanor: The Strange Survival of Liberal Britain. Politics and Power Before the First World War (reviewed by Martin Plaut)

This magnum opus of 842 pages, plus notes, takes the reader from 1895, and the politics of Unionism, to the onset of the First World War. It deals with every subject a reader interested to understand modern Britain might want to know, from domestic questions like the rise of the Labour Party to imperial issues like Britain’s complex relationship with Japan. Each is handled with the subtlety and ease one would expect of the author.

This review will deal with just one aspect of the book: Britain’s relationship with South Africa, including the Second Anglo-Boer war. One of the 22 chapters is devoted to the subject, but the difficult relationship runs like a threat through the narrative. The material is extremely well handled, but there are problems with some issues. The material is extremely well handled, but this reader would like to address some issues with this part of the text. Rather than concentrate on the book’s many strengths, this review will consider some areas of misconception.

Importantly, no agency is given to South Africa’s black population. Professor Bogdanor explains their role in the war and how poorly they were treated by both sides, but he fails to consider that at this time they were, gradually, creating forms of organisation. South African historians have traced this in recent years, in particular Professor Andre Odendaal. He explains the complex origins of the African National Congress and how they began to emerge as a force, before and after the Boer war.(1) One of the key issues they had to contend with was the constitution of the Union of South Africa, which was under discussion by their white compatriots, but from which they were excluded. In 1909 the constitution was sent to London for ratification, but it gave the vote exclusively to white men, except in the Cape, where there was no colour-bar. All this is covered in the book. What is not explained is that black South Africans (Africans and coloureds) came together, led by a former Cape Prime Minister, W. P. Schreiner, in a last-ditch attempt to gain a non-racial franchise in the rest of what became the Union of South Africa in 1910. Their mission to London failed, despite the best efforts of the early leaders of the Labour Party, Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald, both of whom had visited South Africa and had experienced first hand the racism that the majority endured. The black visitors used their time in London to hold important discussions with Africans studying in the capital, talks which contributed to the formation of their country’s first national black organisation, the African National Congress, in 1912.(2)   

Professor Bogdanor covers the discussions and parliamentary debates that took place around the question of the vote in detail, but he appears to suggest that the failure to grant the vote to Africans outside of the Cape was a moral one. He rightly describes the hostility of the Afrikaners to any extension of the franchise, and quotes Lord Milner writing to Asquith, Prime Minister when this question was decided, saying that the price of white loyalty is high. It would require: “The abandonment of the black races, to whom you have promised protection.(3) Later this is described as a “betrayal.” There is no doubt a great deal of truth in this assessment, but the decision was more complex than Professor Bogdanor seems to suggest and is tied to another question that he touches on: naval re-armament. 

Why was the British government so determined to reach a settlement with the white delegation led by Smuts and Botha, even though this meant reneging on assurances to the black population? It was not simply a question of white solidarity. Rather, the answer lay far beyond South Africa’s borders. The rumble of war was already keenly felt. The Afrikaner leaders had arrived to participate in two important meetings. ‘The business that has brought these distinguished visitors to London is twofold,’ explained the Daily Mail, reporting the opening of the South African conference on the constitution that was held at the Foreign Office.(4) ‘They have to consider with the Government the final form of the Act of Union, and later to discuss with the Imperial and Colonial authorities the important question of imperial defence.’ While South Africans were naturally concerned about the former, their hosts were more interested in wider issues regarding the defence of the mother country and her Empire. 

The background to the British position was to be found in two trends. The first was the growing strength of Germany, particularly on the seas. With the largest navy in the world, Britain had dominated the oceans for generations. It was the security on which the Empire rested. This was being challenged by the German Emperor Wilhelm II’s desire to greatly expand his own fleet. The Kaiser’s plan was sparked off by the consequences of the failed raid by Rhodes’s friend, Dr Jameson, on the Transvaal in January 1896. The raid had been an attempt to overthrow the government of Paul Kruger, who was frustrating the plans of Cecil Rhodes (mining magnate and Prime Minister of the Cape) on the Transvaal gold mines. It was a botched plot in which the British Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, was implicated.(5) The attack soured relations between Britain and the Transvaal government. Germany, which had interests in the region as well as around 15,000 German subjects in the Transvaal, decided to intervene.(6) When the Kaiser heard what had taken place he summoned his Chancellor, Foreign Minister, and officers and drafted a telegram to Paul Kruger, as Professor Bogdanor outlines. The Emperor congratulated the Transvaal for having successfully fended off of ‘the armed bands which invaded your country … and in maintaining the independence of the country against attack from without’. Kaiser Wilhelm went further. He even discussed with his officials the possibility of sending troops to the Transvaal and turning it into a German protectorate.(7) The reaction of the British press and public was one of fury. ‘England will concede nothing to menaces and will not lie down under insult,’ stormed The Times. The windows of German shops in London were smashed and German sailors attacked in the Thames docks. German press reaction was equally furious, denouncing the British ‘buccaneering’ adventure. (8) Sir Francis Bertie, Under Secretary at the Foreign Office, called in the German Ambassador. Sir Francis threatened that unless Germany desisted from interfering in the Transvaal, the Royal Navy would blockade the German coast and attack German shipping. ‘A blockade of Hamburg and Bremen and the annihilation of German commerce on the high seas would be child’s play for the English fleet,’ Sir Francis told the ambassador. (9) The message was underlined by the halting and searching of the German ship Bundesrat in Delagoa Bay on the pretext that it was carrying contraband for the Boers.

The Kaiser took the threat very seriously indeed, ordering a programme of accelerated shipbuilding. Rear Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz welcomed the telegram and its after-effect. ‘The incident may have its good side,’ he wrote to Germany’s Navy Minister, ‘and I think a much bigger row would actually have been useful to us … to arouse our nation to build a fleet.’ The result was the Anglo-German naval arms race, with both sides constructing naval vessels, and ‘Dreadnoughts’ in particular, as rapidly as possible, in an attempt to win a decisive global advantage.(10)

By the early 20th century British politicians were well aware that war with Germany was a real threat. Officials and politicians across Britain’s colonies and dominions expressed a growing concern for the safety of the Empire. Foremost among these imperial civil servants was a group of South African-based Empire loyalists who had been brought together by Lord Milner. The so-called ‘Milner Kindergarten’ established groups to strengthen the Empire with the aim of bringing order to what had, by the early 1900s, become an incoherent hotchpotch of territories under the Crown. Some were self-governing dominions, others were colonies—and then there was India, with the Viceroy. Each had its own form of government and a different relationship with London. The resultant movement, known as the Round Table, became a driving force behind a series of Imperial Conferences designed to regulate relations between London and its increasingly independent-minded offspring. An article in the very first issue of The Round Table in November 1910 focused on Anglo-German rivalry. ‘The central fact in the international situation today is the antagonism between England and Germany,’ wrote the editor, Philip Kerr, a member of the Milner Kindergarten. ‘The solution to this rivalry between the great military power of Europe and the great sea power of the world is the most difficult problem which the Empire has to face.’ (11)

Even before the Union of South Africa came into existence in 1910 its politicians were involved in the Imperial Conferences. Louis Botha participated in the 1907 conference as the Prime Minister of the Transvaal, as did other white South African leaders. Just five years after the end of the Boer War, Botha was playing an important role in shaping the establishment of an imperial secretariat. When these South African politicians arrived in London in 1909, bringing with them the draft Union constitution, they were therefore already well known and respected in British government circles. The black delegation to London in 1910, led by Schreiner, was not. 

An Imperial Conference was scheduled for July 1909, coinciding with arrival of Botha and Smuts in London. There was also considerable public support among the white electorate in South Africa for the objective of imperial defence. A meeting of the Cape Town branch of the Navy League held in June 1909 discussed the forthcoming conference and how the dominions might ‘co-operate most effectively for the defence of the Empire’. The Cape Times reported: ‘The South African delegates ought then to be able to say that as soon as South Africa is united, she will be ready to take her proper place in the general scheme.’ (12)

The South African leaders and their British opposite numbers met to discuss the Union constitution on 20 and 21 July. The discussion concluded without real difficulty. The South Africans wanted the Protectorates of Swaziland, Lesotho, and Botswana included in the future Union, a request Britain rejected, but this was the only real disagreement of any substance. There was some tidying up of the draft, but apart from that the South Africans got everything they had come for. 

The second conference, to consider Imperial defence, was much longer and—for the British —of higher priority. It was held from 29 July until 19 August. The conference brought together senior politicians from the dominions: Australia, Canada, Newfoundland (still a separate territory), New Zealand, and the four South African self-governing colonies.(13) The South Africans were keen to participate, but made it clear that they were only attending ‘for completeness’, since they were not yet a dominion. They therefore could not bind a future South African government by ‘accepting the principles enunciated in the Imperial General Staff paper’,  which laid out how the forces of the Empire would collaborate in a time of war.(14)

The secret minutes of the conference provide an insight into what took place. The naval expansion was the first topic on the agenda, with the British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, opening the proceedings by talking of Germany, Austria and France accelerating their construction of warships, and of the Dreadnought class of battleships in particular. Britain was to commence building eight new warships that year and was looking to the Empire to play its part. John X. Merriman  (Cape Prime Minister 1908 – 1910) pointed out that South Africa already paid a tax per head of the white population to help meet the costs of its naval defence.(15) He told his colleagues that the Cape also shouldered another responsibility, which had been previously met by the British government: control over five million ‘black people’, who had in the past given London what he described as ‘a great deal of trouble’.

As the conference proceeded, the size of Germany’s huge army was discussed. Although, as the Secretary of War, Richard Haldane, put it, ‘Nobody contemplates marching to Berlin nowadays, simply because it is out of the question’, other theatres of war were considered. These might be Australia, Canada, South Africa or India. How might the dominions participate? Merriman dug his heels in. Rather testily, he explained that he had had the greatest difficulty in getting defence votes through the Cape Parliament for over 40 years and he was not about to pledge his troops to an unknown future war. ‘Supposing you had a war in the Balkans, I feel absolutely certain the colonists would be very reluctant indeed to send a force to engage in that. Supposing that by any misfortune or mischance your alliance with Japan was to bring you into collision or conflict with the United States, if any such calamity was possible, do you suppose that any colonist would for a single moment send an expeditionary force to help an Eastern Power? Never!'(16)

Smuts, speaking for the Transvaal, questioned whether colonists would rally to the Empire’s defence. ‘It all depends on what is meant by “the general defence of the Empire”,’ he explained. Agreeing with Merriman that ‘for a long time … our probable enemy is the native’, Smuts said he would resist the idea of a single Imperial General Staff, to which South African forces would be subservient. Instead, he preferred ‘an Imperial Staff here at headquarters in England, and with general staffs in the self-governing Dominions, working in close association and with exchange of officers from time to time with the staffs in other parts of the British Empire(17)

The implication was clear. The South Africans were prepared to play a significant part in British military planning, once Union had been achieved, but the white politicians demanded that they alone should settle their country’s domestic issues. ‘I understand the Dutch [Afrikaner] leaders have been impressing upon politicians in this country the wish of South Africa to be left alone to work out its own salvation,’ reported The Graphic.(18) ‘They have guaranteed they will play their part in the general scheme of Imperial Defence, more particularly since they have around them three European Powers whose policy may one day vitally affect them, but as regards all internal affairs they claim a free hand, and while they do not resent fair criticism, they will object to tactless and interested intervention on the part of the Home Government.(19) London had been warned: lay off our ‘native’ policy or pay the price.

Black South Africans returned home with little to show for their efforts, while Botha and Smuts had almost everything they came for. The debt Britain had incurred to Africans, coloureds and Indians for their support during the Boer war had not been redeemed. The British government was fully aware of this and found it painful, but the support of the Afrikaners was – in their view – essential to British security. The South African authorities were henceforth closely tied with those of the Empire.

As World War One approached the British policy of placating the Afrikaners paid dividends. Churchill wrote that in 1913 Botha had returned from a visit to Germany warning that the situation was ominous. ‘I can feel that there is danger in the air,’ the General had told Churchill. ‘And what is more, when the day comes I am going to be ready too. When they attack you, I am going to attack German South-West Africa and clear them out once and for all.(20) Botha was as good as his word. He sent South African forces into the neighbouring German territory (despite provoking a serious rebellion inside his own armed forces for supporting their former Boer war enemy). South African troops went on to play substantial roles on the Allied side both in Africa and in France. For black South Africans the loss of the franchise was catastrophic. Arguably it paved the way for policies that eventually led to apartheid in 1948. Britain had abandoned its responsibilities to its black subjects, but had won Pretoria’s aid in both World Wars. London was fully aware of what it was doing, but decided that the risk it faced was existential and it was a price it had to pay.


[1] A. Odendaal, The Founders: The origins of the ANC and the struggle for democracy in South Africa, Jacana Media, 2012.
[2] M. Plaut, Promise and Despair: The first struggle for a non-racial South Africa, Jacana Media, 2016.
[3] The Strange Survival of Liberal Britain by Vernon Bogdanor, London, Biteback publishing, 2022, p. 279
[4] Daily Mail, 19 July 1909
[5] John S. Galbraith, The British South Africa Company and the Jamerson Raid, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 10. No. 1, November 1970, pp. 145 – 161
[6] R. Massie, Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War, Jonathan Cape, London, 1992, p. 222
[7] H. Herwig, ‘Luxury’ Fleet: The Imperial German Navy, 1888 – 1918, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1980, p.50
[8] C. Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914, Allen Lane, London, 2012, p. 149
[9] R. Massie, op. cit. p. 231
[10] R. Massie, op. cit.
[11] P. Kerr, Foreign Affairs: Anglo-German Rivalry, The Round Table, November 1910, p. 7 – 40, quoted in John Kendle, The Round Table Movement and Imperial Union, p. 108
[12] Cape Times, 16 June 1909
[13] Imperial Conference, Correspondence and Papers relating to a Conference with representatives of the self-governing Dominions on the Naval and Military Defence of the Empire, 1909, HMSO, London 1909, Cmnd 4948. The South Africans representing the colonies were Merriman (Cape) Greene (Natal) Smuts (Transvaal) and Fischer (Orange Free State). The urgent need for a unified South African military to face potential threats, including from German South West Africa was discussed in detail by a member of the Natal Legislative Assembly. P. Silburn, The Colonies and Imperial Defence, Longman, Green and Co. London, 1909.
[14]Cd 4948, op. cit. p. 44.
[15]Cd 4948, op. cit. p. 45
[16] Imperial Conference on the Subject of the Defence of the Empire 1909, op. cit. p.24
[17] Imperial Conference on the Subject of the Defence of the Empire 1909, Imperial Conference Secretariat, October 1909, CO886/2, p.24-28  
[18] The Graphic, 21 August 1909
[19] The three European powers and their colonies were Germany: South-West Africa and Tanganyika; Portugal: Mozambique and Angola and Belgium: Congo.
[20] Johannes Meintjes, General Louis Botha: a biography, Cassell, London, 1970, p.205

February 2023
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