After 1870, the global conditions in which a British world-system had first taken shape began to change rapidly. Between then and 1900, the political and economic map of the world was redrawn. New imperial powers, including Germany, Italy, the United States and Japan, entered the stage; old ones ballooned in size. Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific were partitioned leaving only patches of local sovereignty: Ethiopia, Liberia, Siam. The great Eurasian empires of the Ottomans, Qajars and Ch’ing hovered on the brink of collapse: their division between rival predators seemed imminent and inevitable. The old political landscape of mid-century, with its separate spheres, was being fused into a single system of ‘world politics’. At the same time, industrialisation, the huge rise in the volume of trade, the wider reach of inland transport, the deepening penetration of capital, the tidal wave of European migration and the lesser flows of Asian, were creating a global economy in which even basic foodstuffs were ruled by a world market and world prices.1 In this more intensely competitive setting, hitherto ‘remote’ societies were brusquely driven to ‘reform’. In many, the hope of building a new model state to beat off outsiders and suppress internal revolt, was forlorn at best and ended in crisis and colonial subjection. Meanwhile, in those societies already under colonial rule, or where European influence was being felt more acutely, political and cultural resistance came to seem much more urgent, and the appeal of ‘nationalism’ (in various forms) began to rise sharply. Even at home, or among overseas British communities, new kinds of mass politics reflected the sense of ever deeper exposure to external forces, and the need to create greater social cohesion by reform or exclusion.

An early source of alarm was a Near Eastern crisis that threatened to bring Russian power to the Straits (and thus the Mediterranean)

Map 3 Distribution of British troops, 1881

and make the Ottoman Empire a client state of the Tsar. It was rapidly followed by a general crisis in Egypt, and by a British invasion intended, said London, to restore order in Cairo before an early withdrawal. There was no withdrawal. Instead, within less than three years the British became party to an extraordinary plan for the territorial partition of Africa. Under the rubric of ‘effective occupation’, a bundle of treaties made with African rulers would justify a protectorate or even a colony. Whether intended or not, the result was a ‘scramble’, and the rush to partition was echoed in other parts of the world. But what had led British governments to react in this fashion? What risks did they run? How would opinion in Britain respond to the mass of new liabilities that scrambling imposed? Would it relish the triumphs that ‘new imperialism’ brought home, or remain sourly indifferent to these baubles of empire? Was this burst of expansion a sign of irrepressible confidence in Britain's ‘manifest destiny’ or the gloomy precaution of a power in decline and its hag-ridden leaders? Had British greed wrecked their diplomatic position in Europe and united their rivals in shared animosity? Some people thought so. ‘We have not a friend in Europe’, wrote a cabinet minister as Britain plunged into war in South Africa, ‘and…the main cause of the dislike is…that we are like an octopus with gigantic feelers stretching out over the habitable world, constantly interrupting and preventing foreign nations from doing that which we in the past have done ourselves.’2

The new geopolitics

Even in the 1870s, the alarm had been sounded about the speed with which the world was ‘filling up’. ‘The world is growing so small that every patch of territory begins to be looked upon as a stray farm is by a County magnate’, wrote the editor of The Times in 1874, in language he thought ministers might understand.3 By the 1890s, the idea was becoming a commonplace. Frederick Jackson Turner (in an American context), and five widely influential writers, Charles Pearson (1893), Benjamin Kidd (1894), Alfred Mahan (1900), James Bryce (1902) and Halford Mackinder (1904) all regarded the closing of the settlement frontier and the demarcation of the world's land surface as the beginning of a new epoch.4 Coupled with the growth of almost instantaneous communications, what the Canadian imperialist George Parkin called ‘a new nervous system’ of the cable and telegraph,5 they had brought about a phase of unprecedented delicacy in great power diplomacy. ‘In the post-Columbian age’, declared Mackinder,

we shall again have to deal with a closed political system, and none the less it will be of world-wide scope. Every explosion of social forces, instead of being dissipated in a surrounding circuit of unknown space and barbaric chaos, will be sharply re-echoed from the far side of the globe and weak elements in the political and economic organism of the world will be shattered.6

Mackinder's suggestion that the end of the open frontier of territorial expansion would have important effects upon domestic and international politics had already been anticipated by Pearson and Kidd. Now that the temperate lands had been filled up, argued Pearson, the pent-up force of surplus population would force governments in Europe to assume an ever larger role in social and economic life. Kidd believed that the closing of the temperate frontier of settlement had coincided with the arrival of a ‘new democracy’ in Europe, social as well as political, whose economic demands could only be satisfied by the exploitation of the tropics – ‘the richest region of the globe’.7 Both writers assumed that only large, well-organised states could survive in an age of increasing competition for resources.

These large predictions also reflected powerful cultural and racial assumptions. Pearson, whose views had been shaped by the antipathy to Chinese immigration in the Australian colonies where much of his career was spent, imagined a future in which the ‘higher races’ would have been driven back upon ‘a portion of the temperate zone’.8 He prophesied the rise of Afro-Asian states ‘no longer too weak for aggression’, with fleets in the European seas, attending international conferences and ‘welcomed as allies in the quarrels of the civilised world’.9 No doubt his readers could feel their flesh creep as the ‘yellow peril’ grew closer. But to most writers it was the relentless pressure of Europeans upon other peoples and civilisations that seemed more obvious. The Anglo-Saxon, despite his humanitarian sentiments ‘has exterminated the less-developed peoples…even more effectively than other races’, remarked Kidd sarcastically.10 Tropical peoples could offer no resistance to Europe's ‘absolute ascendency’. ‘Europe has annexed the rest of the earth’, remarked the historian-politician James Bryce, ‘and European ideas would prevail everywhere except China.’11 The close contact between advanced and backward peoples marked a ‘crisis in the history of the world’.12 Isolation was no longer an option: extinction or absorption was the fate of many tribes or peoples, and the ‘backward nations’ were condemned to be a proletariat. Nor was there any way of preventing Europeans from annexing and settling ‘countries inhabited by the coloured races’: the best that could be hoped for was to regulate relations between whites and blacks, Indians and Chinese to minimise friction and keep ‘some races…at the highest level of efficiency’.13 To an acute observer of Indian civilisation, it seemed certain that the old cultural realm of Hindu polytheism was under siege from external forces, and that a ‘moral inter-regnum’ would intervene before the Hindu reformation was complete.14 Lord Salisbury referred bluntly to ‘dying nations’.

It was hardly surprising that, among non-European writers, the irresistible advance of the Europeans was regarded with a mixture of awe at their technical prowess, and mistrust of their political motives. The overweening racial arrogance of Europeans was widely noted by Indian,15Chinese – ‘Westerners are very strict about races and they look upon other races as enemies’, said the influential mandarin-scholar K’ang Yu-Wei)16 – and Afro-American observers. Europeans would make little progress in spreading Christianity in Africa, thought the highly educated black West Indian Edward Wilmot Blyden. They were hindered by climate but also by their supercilious view of African cultures.17 Islamic intellectuals were divided between those who argued against any compromise with the subversive teachings of the West and those who insisted that a new synthesis could be found between its technical and scientific knowledge and a modernised Islam.18 Underlying much of this academic commentary was the sense of an impending cultural struggle to reshape the non-European world. For the ruling elites of Afro-Asia's remaining independent states, international politics after 1880 were a race against time to achieve ‘self-strengthening’ before the might of the European powers imposed ‘protection’, annexation or partition upon them.

On all sides, world politics were coming to be seen as a vortex in which only the strong would survive, and then at the price of a discipline and organisation at variance with older traditions of diversity and individualism. Among Europeans, the sense of intensifying competition was sharpened by crucial changes on their own continent. After the 1870s, the brief experiment of free trade was swept away and, in almost every large power except Britain, agriculture protected and industry built up behind tariff walls. At the same time, the political geography of the continent was reshaped by the emergence of Germany and Italy as great powers and (after 1880) would-be colonial powers as well. The old triangular imperialism of Britain, France and Russia had become hexagonal. Since the European ‘dwarfs’ (as the Dutch described themselves) could not always be disregarded, imperial diplomacy sometimes became octagonal – even before the rise of American and Japanese power in the Pacific. Henceforward, it became hard to resist the claim that the principle of equitable compensation on which the peace of Europe was held to depend should be extended to any region where a European power had enlarged its possessions. For the British, the shock of change was particularly severe. British opinion had blithely assumed that, in the new world economy of rising trade and rapid transport, international free trade would guarantee their commercial ascendancy. Secondly, they had every reason to fear that their large, loose, decentralised confederacy, with its wide zones of informal influence and fluid primacy, would be especially vulnerable to a new imperialism of partition.

The intensifying pressure to modernise in a world more and more subject to a global economy and to a single system of international politics thus threatened a double revolution in which old (Afro-Asian) states would disappear and a new, more fiercely competitive group of (European) empires would emerge. Its first epicentre was in the Near East. The Ottoman Empire had been under siege since the 1770s but it had shown a remarkable capacity for survival. In the Crimean War, Russia, its main enemy, had been hurled out of the Black Sea. The empire had been cautiously ‘reformed’ to strengthen its army and centralising bureaucracy. But, in such proximity to Europe and with large Christian populations in its western provinces, this was bound to be difficult. Drawing closer to Europe through trade and technology risked upsetting the delicate balance of its internal politics. Borrowing heavily in the West to improve its rule was a gamble on economic forces over which it had no control. In 1875, disaster came. The Ottoman government declared itself bankrupt, defaulting on large loans in London and Paris. In the political turbulence that followed, reprisals against its Christian subjects (the ‘Bulgarian Horrors’) became a cause célèbre in Europe. Amid a wave of passionate sympathy for ‘fellow Slavs’, Russian intervention in 1877 led swiftly to full-scale invasion and the imposition of a treaty (at San Stefano outside Constantinople) which openly reduced Turkey to a client-state. With the loss of their European provinces (the richest part of their empire) and an indefensible frontier in Thrace, the Ottomans had reached the brink of final collapse. Russia's control over the Straits and her predominance in the Eastern Mediterranean – the nightmare of British diplomacy since the 1780s – was only a matter of time.19

Disraeli's government reacted angrily but indecisively. A fleet was sent to lurk in the approaches to Constantinople and an Indian army contingent sent to Malta. London grandly urged the Turks to stand firm and embrace reform. But, with France still traumatised by defeat in 1871 and no sign of animosity between the Russians, Germans and Austrians, there was no chance of repeating the diplomatic triumph of 1856. After much huffing and puffing, the result was a ‘strategic retreat’ in British policy, carefully disguised by Disraeli as a diplomatic victory.20 The British took Cyprus, theoretically to guard Turkey's Asian provinces against further Russian encroachment, and staved off the ‘Big Bulgaria’ which might have brought Russian influence to the Aegean. But Salisbury (who became Foreign Secretary in 1878) was under no illusion that the ‘Eastern Question’ was settled.21 Indeed, the wholesale confiscation of Ottoman Europe and Russia's advance in the Caucasus, acquiring Kars, Batum and Ardahan, suggested that Turkey's decay had entered the terminal phase. In every court in Europe, Salisbury told his ambassador in Constantinople, ‘the Empire is looked upon as doomed’.22

This was the larger context in which the governments of both Disraeli and Gladstone tried to exert political and financial discipline on Egypt whose default had followed on the heels of Turkey's in 1876. Away from the Balkan cockpit, it was easier for Britain and France (the main source of Egypt's loans) to exert their joint influence through the so-called ‘Dual Control’ over Cairo's finances. The real difficulty was that the drastic reduction of government spending to meet the ‘coupon’ owed to the bondholders was bound to offend the powerful vested interests upon whom the Khedive's regime depended: landowners; the bureaucracy; above all, the army. It was hardly surprising that, while Ismail had been anxious to restore his credit and regain access to money-markets in the West, he also used every means to loosen the foreign control at the heart of his government. But, when France and Britain secured his deposition by the Ottoman Sultan (his formal overlord) in June 1879, in favour of the more pliant Tewfik, the whole khedivial structure began to disintegrate. By September 1881, an alliance of discontent had made Colonel Arabi, a senior army officer, the dominant power.23

The scale of Egyptian debt, Egypt's importance as the closest and most dynamic of Europe's new Afro-Asian trading partners and her strategic value as the ‘highway’ to the East (drastically increased with the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869) all made an Anglo-French accord with the ruling power in Cairo of the greatest urgency. But the prospects of an agreement with Arabi were always bleak. The Anglo-French officials of the ‘Dual Control’ regarded his movement as a roadblock in the path of financial reform. Without the wholehearted backing of a ‘native’ government, they feared the shrivelling of their influence. Their hostility was loudly echoed by the large European community (nearly 100,000 strong) who lived under extra-territorial privilege and largely exempt from taxation. They were regarded by Arabi's following as a parasitical class responsible for Egypt's misfortunes.24 The atmosphere of mistrust was deepened by the efforts of Tewfik to restore his authority, and by the natural suspicion on the Arabist side that sooner or later the Western powers would act against him and (as in Cyprus and Tunis) impose their rule. Under these conditions, reconciling autonomy, stability and financial reform would have needed a miracle.

For the British and French governments did not regard Egypt as a sovereign state whose independence had to be respected at all costs. Nor was this just a British view. ‘L’Egypte a une importance politique qui lui interdit l’indépendance’ was the terse Russian summary.25 Its uncertain status as an autonomous part of the Ottoman Empire, its protected European ‘settlers’, and the Khedive's acceptance of the Dual Control made it a region where international interests and influence were already uniquely entrenched, and where local rights were closely circumscribed. On this view, they were bound to regard Arabi's demand of ‘Egypt for the Egyptians’ as a dangerous and retrograde slogan. The result was an escalating campaign of pressure and threat to deflate his prestige and restore the Khedive as the prime mover in Egyptian politics. In June 1882, the appearance of a French and British fleet at Alexandria, Egypt's premier port and its window on Europe, led to a massacre of Europeans. In July, Admiral Seymour's bombardment of the city merely raised Arabi to the zenith of his fame as the champion of Egyptian rights against the alien oppressor.

The Gladstone cabinet was now in a quandary. A change of government in France had ruled out joint action. To do nothing would be to acquiesce in Arabi's supremacy. But did Britain's interests really justify a unilateral military intervention, courting international resentment, and risking domestic outrage at the shameless reversal of Gladstone's Midlothian principles of 1879? Gladstone was in two minds, if not more. But a strong ‘war party’ in the cabinet insisted that Egypt was on the verge of anarchy, that Arabi was goading a murderous xenophobia, and that only prompt action – an invasion – could save Britain's vital interest in the free passage of the Canal. With his mind on Ireland, Gladstone accepted defeat, and the vote for war credits passed triumphantly through the Commons. In September, an expeditionary force of 31,000 British and Indian troops swept Arabi aside at Tel el-Kebir and placed Egypt under a ‘temporary occupation’ that was to last for more than seventy years.

The real motives for this crucial decision, with its vast unforeseen consequences for Britain's world position, have been fiercely debated ever since. Was the Canal really in danger at the moment in July when the cabinet authorised an invasion? Was there any risk of France striking a separate bargain with Arabi and subverting British influence? Was Arabi the monster of anarchy that he was painted? Were British ministers as indifferent to the laments of the bondholders as they claimed? Was strategy rather than economics the true compelling force that drove the British into Egypt? Scepticism on all these fronts has been vigorously expressed.26 But the closest archival study of the decision shows convincingly that even those who came to favour invasion were extremely hesitant until the massacre at Alexandria, and all hope of persuading the Turkish government to ‘restore order’ had vanished. The bombardment of Alexandria was a ‘calculated risk’ to frighten Arabi and his followers into retreat, taken in the knowledge that he might then disrupt the Canal.27 The invasion was prepared on the assumption that this last effort to coerce the Arabists might make the Canal, hitherto untouched by disorder, a scene of confrontation.

Disentangling the motives at work in a group of ministers struggling to make sense of a faraway crisis and distracted by bitter simultaneous divisions over rural disorder in Ireland is a rough and ready task. But several points stand out clearly. It is unlikely that those in favour of military intervention drew a sharp distinction between Britain's wider interests in Egypt and her strategic interest in the Canal. It would have been quite illogical to do so. The Canal lay some distance from the Delta towns, but its commercial centres at Port Said and Suez could not be insulated from wider popular unrest.28 Even Gladstone acknowledged that ‘the safety of the Canal will not coexist with illegality and military violence in Egypt’.29 Nor, as Arabi's own actions showed, would the Canal be safe if the conflict between his regime and the Western powers intensified. The Canal was much the largest tangible British interest in Egypt, and its fate was bound up with the question of who ruled in Cairo.

But, in that case, if the Canal was so critical, why not come to terms with Arabi and ease the tension that endangered its use? Why jeopardise a vital interest by the clumsy attempt to suppress a movement whose capacity for harm was limited? Plausible or not, such an argument would have made little impression on the group of ministers for whom the Canal's safety loomed so large. Their leader, Lord Hartington, was Secretary of State for India; he would have liked to have been Viceroy in 1880.30 Lord Northbrook at the Admiralty was a former Viceroy, deeply suspicious of the loyalty of India's Muslims. Charles Dilke, junior minister at the Foreign Office, a close friend of Joseph Chamberlain and a key member of the ‘forward party’, shared the widespread post-Mutiny view that British rule in India was inherently fragile. For all these ministers, India was not only the second centre of British power but the prism through which they surveyed non-European politics. To have compromised with Arabi would have threatened the prestige on which authority in India was held to depend. To have done so after the Alexandria massacre, with its horrible evocation of the Mutiny, would have been inconceivable. Of all the ministers in the Gladstone cabinet, those most alarmed about the Canal (because of India) were those least disposed to treat with Arabi (because of India). They were the most susceptible to alarmist reports about a coming anarchy and the least likely to see Arabi as a ‘national’ leader fighting fairly for freedom.

But, in the end, what carried the Gladstone government over the edge into invasion was the weakness of the arguments against it. When Disraeli's cabinet had debated how to check Russia's advance in 1877, the colossal risk of a war without allies was so divisive that ‘in a cabinet of twelve…there are seven parties’.31 But, at the time that military intervention was considered in July 1882, it was clear that a brief occupation to ‘restore order on behalf of Europe’ would present few diplomatic complications and had the approval of both the Ottoman Sultan and the Khedive. The cost would be modest, and would be met partly by India. There was little danger of defeat. Power would revert to the Khedive, not pass to a British governor. On the other hand, if the crisis worsened, the Canal were blocked and more Europeans killed, the government's credit would suffer badly and it would come under irresistible pressure to invade in much less favourable conditions. The ‘geopolitical calculus’ in short was overwhelmingly for intervention and its champions too resolute to be outmanoeuvred by Gladstone.

The occupation was the single most important forward movement made by Britain in the age of partition which set in after 1880. There is no convincing evidence that it was undertaken primarily to recoup the fortunes of British investors in Egyptian bonds. But, equally, it is too schematic to argue that it was merely the culmination of a longstanding interest in the safety of the route to India: a pure question of strategy. The complex reaction to Egyptian politics in London did not spring from the wish merely to conservethe existing strategic link with India, still less to recover funds sunk before the crash of ’76. The leading ministers, and the wider public who had celebrated Disraeli's purchase of Canal shares in 1875,32 recognised that Britain's stake in the Canal (and therefore in Egypt) was growing rapidly. An entire shipping system was being built around it,33and the commercial and military value of India was rising steeply. The canal was not the symbol of a decaying mid-Victorian pre-eminence, but of the dynamic expansion of late-Victorian Britain. That, perhaps, was why its defence united Whigs and Radicals (like Chamberlain and Dilke – who had urged annexation in 187834) in Gladstone's cabinet. In the same way, the hard line towards Arabi reflected the late-century view that economic and social progress was too urgent to be obstructed by Afro-Asian regimes whose capacity for self-improvement was now regarded with ever heavier scepticism. In the decade after 1882, Egypt became the test case for arguments about ‘progressive imperialism’ and the matrix of a new imperial consensus on politics and strategy in the era of Weltpolitik.

The logic of partition

Whatever the logic behind occupation, the Liberal ministers soon found that they had entered Egypt on a false prospectus. Intervention had been meant to achieve a brisk reconstruction of Egyptian politics, locking out ‘disruptive’ elements and allowing Tewfik to organise a government committed to financial and political ‘reform’. Once a safe regime was firmly installed in Cairo, repaying its debts under the eye of the international Caisse de la Dette, the British could revert to their old policy of influence and their old partnership with France. But nothing went according to plan. It soon became clear that facile constitutional schemes (like the Dufferin report of 1883) would collapse as soon as the British garrison left Cairo. The internal crisis brought by economic change and deepened by foreign interference, was much too severe to be solved by a Whig formula. Amid all the promises of British withdrawal, Egyptian politicians were understandably reluctant to ally themselves to a transient force. Then, within a year of the British invasion, the Mahdist revolt in Egypt's vast southern colony of the Sudan – a possession which meant as much to Cairo as India to London – threatened to destabilise Egypt's politics still further and spread rebellion in its upper provinces.35 As these complications were rubbed in by Evelyn Baring, the British Agent at Cairo, the date for withdrawal receded until, by 1889, the occupation, however ‘temporary’, had become indefinite.36

The British now feared to leave because they were convinced that a chaos worse than that of 1882 would follow. The logic of intervention had become the logic of control. The strategic and diplomatic cost of this discovery was bound to be high. Turning Egypt into a virtual colony broke every rule of imperial expansion. Thus far, Britain's movement into the Outer World beyond Europe had served to insulate her interests more and more from the play of intra-European rivalry. Except in India (which had its own army and paid for British ‘help’), access to Britain's colonies and spheres was by the open sea, the element where her strategic advantage was greatest. This pattern of maritime expansion allowed the British to localise their conflicts and even to choose between fighting limited or unlimited wars. But Egypt was an exposed salient on the rim of Europe, a great hostage to diplomatic fortune. As the Ottoman Empire sank towards collapse, the eastern Mediterranean became the cockpit of European politics. It was one thing to organise a diplomatic defence of Turkey in the style of Palmerston, quite another to protect a territorial stake as large and important as Egypt. The British dared not lower their guard lest a sudden crisis bring on partition and wreck their status in Cairo. The price was relentless pressure on their naval power, already strained by technical change

Map 4 The Royal Navy and its stations, 1875 and 1898

and the building programme of France. Between 1885 and 1890, the Royal Navy kept six first-class battleships in the Mediterranean. In the fretful 1890s, the number rose to ten and, by 1902, to fourteen.37 The naval ‘scare’ became endemic and drove spending higher and higher: from £10.6 million in 1882 to £24 million by 1899. Even so, after 1893, fear of naval inferiority in the Mediterranean Sea was a governing factor in British policy. The sense of being dragged willy-nilly into a dangerous, expensive and inflexible commitment explains much of the continuing anger of the Gladstonians (until the mid-1890s) at what they regarded as the Egyptian folly.

Strategic insecurity placed a huge premium on diplomatic finesse. From the beginning, the British found themselves paying a diplomatic ransom for the occupation, and Egypt became, bizarrely, the fulcrum of their world policy. Having claimed a European mandate to reorganise Egypt's finances, the British were pressed by France and Germany (both with seats on the international Caisse which controlled part of Egypt's budget) to compensate the bondholders without delay. They pressed for wider international supervision of Egyptian finances, denounced the charge the British levied on Cairo for the cost of their garrison and threatened an international enquiry into the fiasco of the Sudan campaign. The British were to pay dearly for the privilege of staying. The result of this pressure was soon visible. To appease the Germans (who had less at stake financially), Gladstone referred a crop of colonial disputes to a congress in Berlin in 1884. There Bismarck wielded his baton Egyptien to good effect. To break the Franco-German combination and escape the general displeasure of Europe, the British abandoned a shoal of colonial claims. At a stroke, Bismarck gained an embryo empire in West, East and Southwest Africa and in the Pacific. To his lackey, the filibuster king of the Belgians, Leopold II, fell a giant crumb from the diplomats’ table: the Congo basin. The British took their reward in the easing of financial and diplomatic pressure on Egypt.38

This was just the first round, for the partition of Africa, like the reform of Egypt, had hardly begun. The real task of managing Britain's ungainly new commitment fell to Lord Salisbury, the supremo of foreign policy between 1886 and 1892 and from 1895 to 1900 when he was both Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary. (He remained Prime Minister until 1902 but gave up the Foreign Office in 1900). Salisbury was greatly helped by the ruthless skill with which Evelyn Baring (later Lord Cromer) created a ‘veiled protectorate’ in Egypt to minimise open dissent. Baring's ‘system’ preserved the fiction of Egyptian autonomy. But it rested on the tacit knowledge of the Egyptian ruler that defiance would mean deposition; on the studied manipulation of Egypt's internal stresses; and on the systematic infiltration of the government by British ‘advisers’ who were Baring's eyes and ears. With unrivalled political intelligence, a British garrison (of 6,000 men), a reorganised local army under British officers, and an extraordinary hold over his political masters in London (a measure of their trust), Baring was able to restore Egypt's solvency (by 1890) and ride out the crises of his eccentric regime.39 Salisbury's other advantage lay in the chronic mistrust between France and Germany and the gradual emergence of two rival diplomatic groupings: Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy on one side; France and Russia (after 1892) on the other. But he faced the constant risk that another crisis in the Near East might unite the continental powers behind a scheme of partition whose victim (apart from the Sultan) would be Britain's strategic link with India.

By outlook and training, Salisbury was well suited to this game of diplomatic poker. He took a disenchanted, ironic view of human motive. He mistrusted enthusiasm and laughed at nationalism (‘the philological law of nations’40). But he had thought deeply about statecraft and saw the virtue of an active policy in Europe.41 ‘Sleepless tact, immovable calmness and patience’42 he deemed the secret of success; the diplomat's victories were ‘made up of a series of microscopic advantages….’ ‘Serene, impassive intelligence’ was the mark of the statesman.43

Salisbury regarded foreign policy as a realm of technical expertise ill-suited to wayward cabinets let alone the rough and tumble of electoral politics.44 He preferred to work in secrecy with a small group of aides. From his room in the Foreign Office or at Hatfield, his country house near London, he kept a close, obsessive watch on the cauldron of Near East diplomacy and the manoeuvres of his European counterparts. He held the threads of policy tightly in his grasp. In the ‘inner zone’ of British policy, the security corridor to India, his authority was not easily challenged. The ‘official’ interest in India and Egypt was under his command; occupation had soothed the Egyptian bondholders. Public hostility to Turkey aroused by new Armenian ‘Horrors’ was the main constraint. But, in the ‘outer zone’ beyond, where diplomacy grappled with unofficial colonialism, his grip was less sure.

Yet Salisbury's whole policy depended upon the careful balance between the needs of Egypt and the Near East, where Britain was most vulnerable, and British interests in other regions of the Outer World. In essence, his technique was to use the open spaces and ‘light soil’ of tropical Africa to appease France and Germany, soften their irritation at Britain's unwarranted primacy in Cairo and stave off an anti-British coalition among the continental powers. This was easier said than done. By the 1880s, unofficial or commercial interest in African hinterlands was growing rapidly. In Senegal and the Upper Niger, the military sub-imperialism of the French colonial army was on the march.45 Rival groups of traders, missionaries and private imperialists were soon jostling each other and scrambling for ‘treaties’ granting commercial, mineral or religious rights. Worse still, they were remarkably deft at rallying public support at home for ventures easily repackaged as crusades against slavery or for the promotion of Christianity through commerce.

To Salisbury, the result seemed a nightmare of misguided if not fraudulent expansionism. At best it might be managed: it could not be suppressed. Left untended, it threatened to wreck the finger-tip delicacy with which he steered between the rival great power combinations. It might drive him into unwelcome friendships and towards unwanted confrontations. Many years before, ruminating on the sources of friction in European politics, he had argued that, when a state had become ‘permanently anarchical and defenceless’, its neighbours for self-preservation must impose a ‘tutelage of ambassadors…or…partition’.46 This insight he now applied to anarchic, defenceless Africa. The aim of policy must be to damp down the quarrels of Europe's frontiersmen by an equitable partition of spheres before they could inflame opinion and damage the interests that really mattered. To this most detached observer of human foibles, with his gloomy view of the burdens on British power, it seemed obvious that the diplomatic defence of Egypt depended upon a cartographic fantasy: the parcelling-up of Africa.

Salisbury may have been the grand architect of African partition, applying his diplomatic method to regions as remote and unknown, he once said, as the ‘far side of the moon’. But he had to tread carefully round vociferous ‘interests’ at home, and ruthless empire-builders on the ground like Goldie and Rhodes. Without the means (and perhaps the confidence) to counter their mastery of the press, he took a fatalistic view of public opinion. ‘I once told Salisbury’, wrote the German ambassador, ‘that it seemed to be the Government's duty to lead public opinion. He replied that this was harder than I appeared to realise.’47 Whatever his reservations about the methods and mentality of the private imperialists, he had little choice but to press on behalf of their claims. He mixed the careful palliation of Germany (exchanging Heligoland for Zanzibar) with the brutal coercion of Portugal (both in 1890). Portugal's claims in what is now Zimbabwe were dismissed with a growl – in favour of Rhodes. The contest with France, which had greater strength on the spot and, after 1892, an alliance with Russia, required much more finesse. Salisbury could not afford to let the French officiers soudanais and their ragtag black army hem in British interests on the West African coast and deny them their hinterland; or risk an armed struggle between them and Goldie's pale imitation of the East India Company (Salisbury was scornful of Goldie's Clive-like pretensions). Nor could he permit a French forward move into the southern Sudan, in case their arrival coincided with the expected collapse of the Mahdist regime in Khartoum. A French-ruled Sudan would have wrecked Cromer in Egypt. In the West African case, despite much bad-tempered diplomacy and some sabre-rattling in the bush, Salisbury largely achieved the partition he wanted. In the Sudan, his victory was much more complete. There Kitchener's (Anglo-Egyptian) army, with its light railways and steam launches, decisively smashed the Mahdist regime and captured Khartoum (in September 1898). With Marchand's tiny force at Fashoda hugely outnumbered, and the Royal Navy assembling in the English Channel, Paris abandoned its claim to the Upper Nile Valley.

Salisbury's triumph had been three-fold. He had secured Britain's position in Egypt, the strategic hinge of Anglo-Indian defence, without drawing down on his head a continental coalition. The price he had paid in African claims had been surprisingly light, guarding his flank against an outcry at home. Above all, he had avoided the diplomatic and military setbacks that dogged Disraeli and Gladstone and threatened electoral disaster. But, by the late 1890s, for all his success at Fashoda, it was no longer so clear that his deft combination of British strength on the ground, with an agile diplomacy and Britain's naval deterrent could protect British interests against the threat of attrition.

The main reason for this was the sudden emergence of a new epicentre of extra-European upheaval. China's shattering defeat by Japan in 1895 signalled a political bankruptcy as complete as that of the Ottomans twenty years before. The break-up of the Ch’ing empire seemed imminent. Even more alarming from the British point of view was the formation of the ‘Far Eastern Triplice’ – a coalition of Germany, France and Russia – to strip Japan of her spoils and impose their own terms for China's survival. Britain's commercial interests were centred on Shanghai and the Yangtse valley but spread out all over China. Neither Kwangtung in the south (the hinterland behind Hong Kong) nor North China and Peking could easily be given up. But with France looking north from Indochina, Russia south from the Amur, and German interest in Shantung, the British faced a squeeze and Salisbury a dilemma. He could fall in with an agreed partition and make the best terms he could. He could challenge the other powers to an open competition for the spheres and concessions which the Chinese offered in return for loans. Or he could hang back and wait, hoping the crisis would pass.

Salisbury's instinct was to wait. An early agreement with Britain isolated and the Triplice in harmony would be expensive and perhaps unacceptable to his colleagues and public opinion. An open competition risked extending the Triplice to the Near East, exposing the core of his system to the danger he tried most to avoid, and at a moment when the Armenian crisis and Anglo-French rivalry in Africa were coming to a head. ‘In Asia there is room for us all’, he soothed in November 1896.48 But delay was not an easy option. Salisbury's caution was out of tune with the mounting excitement among the British in China and their sympathisers at home. The Asia-Pacific had replaced the Near East and tropical Africa as the platform for imperial publicists and commercial alarmists. The young George Curzon, patrician, politician, scholar, traveller and ‘coming man’, proclaimed the Far East to be the only region left where British manufacturers could find and keep an open market.49 In the Transformation of China (1898), Archibald Colquhoun insisted that only in China could Britain hope to expand her Asian commerce and strengthen her position. The Times correspondent in China, George Morrison, regaled his foreign editor with dire warnings of French and Russian advance, while Chirol raged back against Salisbury's ‘infirmities’ and the ‘blundering and lying in which Downing Street excels’.50 Inside the Cabinet, Joseph Chamberlain pressed for a more forceful policy:51 outside it he intrigued for an ill-fated German alliance. Under this barrage, Salisbury moved crabwise. Peking was asked to promise that no territorial rights would be granted away in the Yangtse valley. Russian, French and German acquisitions were

Map 5 Britain’s position in China, 1900

‘balanced’ by a British base at Wei-hai-wei in North China and the extension of Hong Kong into the ‘New Territories’. But Salisbury also tried to reduce the danger of friction with Russia (his main fear) by acknowledging her claim to priority in Manchuria in the Scott-Muraviev agreement in 1899. If Russia, as France's ally, had nothing to gain from quarrelling with Britain, so he reasoned, there was little danger of Anglo-French antagonism in the Near East and Africa spilling over into war. This was an approach already vindicated by the French retreat in the Fashoda crisis and the successful resolution of Anglo-French differences in West Africa. But, in the middle of 1900, as Britain became ever more deeply embroiled in the South African War, the Boxer Rising and its xenophobic challenge to all foreign interests in China threatened to unite Britain's rivals in a general partition of the Ch’ing empire. ‘Her Majesty's Government’, Salisbury told his minister at Peking with gloomy understatement, ‘view with uneasiness a “concert of Europe” in China.’52

As it turned out, the Chinese were too resilient and the Europeans too divided to permit a replay of the African partition. Japan's victory over Russia in 1905 removed a Chinese share-out from the European diplomatic agenda. But the Boxer crisis in 1900 had brought the new geopolitics of British power to a climax. It signalled the birth of what became the grand dilemma of imperial strategy in the twentieth century: how to safeguard British interests simultaneously in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. With the great enlargement of scale brought by the new wave of rivalry and confrontation in Asia and the Pacific, Salisbury's delicate system of checks, balances, blandishments and threats, with its pivot in Egypt, seemed to have reached its term. In the world now imagined by Pearson, Kidd and Mackinder, and by Chamberlain, Milner or Curzon, old diplomacy was not enough. The tide of world politics, that had run so long in Britain's favour, now seemed to have turned against her.

Managing empire

Managing a worldwide empire under these new conditions threw a heavy burden of political management onto administrative institutions in London that had grown up haphazardly since the early part of the century. ‘The external affairs of Great Britain’, remarked a sarcastic observer, ‘are distributed without system between the Foreign, Colonial and India Offices. Their provinces overlap and intersect each other…like the divisions of some of the northern counties of Scotland.’53 In fact, responsibility for the faraway spheres of rule and influence that made up the British system was scattered across half a dozen departments. The shadow of the Treasury with its ‘Gladstonian garrison’ of bureaucratic skinflints lay over them all. The Foreign Office enjoyed primacy in external affairs as the guardian of Britain's stake in the cockpits of Europe – the centre of the world. It supervised relations in the ‘informal empire’ including Egypt (even after its occupation in 1882), the Sudan (even after conquest in 1898), China and the early protectorates in West and East Africa. The Colonial Office ruled over a jumble of ‘crown colonies’ (where local representatives had an advisory role at best), dependencies and protectorates; and reigned over the self-governing settler colonies, who resented this mésalliance. In the Mediterranean, parts of tropical Africa and even in China (Hong Kong was a crown colony) it was the recalcitrant junior partner of the Foreign Office, with its own view of priorities. The India Office had been constructed in 1858 out of the East India Company and the old Board of Control to preside over an Indian ‘empire’ enlarged by 1885 to include all of Burma as well western outposts in the Persian Gulf and at Aden. Control over imperial defence lay with the Admiralty and the War Office. The former regarded itself (like the Foreign Office) as the real guarantor of imperial safety and despised the army as a motley of colonial garrisons without strategic value.

Of course, the vast proportion of public business in the colonies and India lay ‘below the line’ and never came to the attention of officials or ministers in London. The self-governing colonies were almost entirely exempt from imperial scrutiny. In theory, the Colonial Office could disallow their legislation if it was deemed to infringe the imperial prerogative in external affairs, defence or constitutional change. In practice, this power was rarely needed and hardly ever used. Crown colony governors reported to the Office, but, even with the telegraph (still very expensive) and more frequent mails, its officials were ill-equipped to oversee their rule. Colonial governors were, by convention, masters in their own house. They could be rebuked or recalled for misdemeanours or acting ultra vires, but, provided they stayed solvent, kept order and avoided war, remote control from London was lax. The Colonial Office acted more as a regulator, monitoring colonial laws, expenditure and personnel, than as a policy-making department, certainly before Joseph Chamberlain's arrival in 1895.54 Much the same was true of the India Office, which faced a single ‘super-governor’ in the Viceroy. The Viceroy, selected almost invariably from the political elite at home, not from the ranks of British officialdom in India, had his own network of political friends, and his status approached that of a cabinet minister. As a temporary autocrat of tsar-like magnificence, the liege-lord of 600 feudatory states and an Asian ruler with his own army and diplomatic service (for India's frontier regions), he was hard to coerce and practically irremovable.55 The vast stream of paper that poured westward annually to fill the archives of the India Office was less a measure of its control than a relic of Parliament's obsession since the age of Burke with the misuse of Indian revenues by the home government for patronage or foreign war. In fact, the torrent of administrative minutiae enthusiastically supplied by Calcutta dulled parliamentary curiosity about India to the point of anaesthesia – and was meant to.56 The formal debates on the Indian budget were notoriously ill-attended.

Despite this pattern of devolution by accident and design, there were many issues that rose ‘above the line’ and required a decision in London. Any serious breakdown of internal order would mean reinforcing the colonial garrison from the pool of British infantry battalions – the reserve currency of imperial power. Using up this scarce resource (much of it already deployed in India) raised awkward questions about the balance between British commitments in Asia, North America, the Mediterranean and Southern Africa. Any constitutional alteration had to be inspected in case it implied new costs for the British taxpayer or had implications for other dependencies or imperial defence. Action by a colonial government which impeded British trade invariably set off an alarm at Westminster. London had to swallow the tariffs imposed by self-governing colonies, but vetoed any attack on free trade in India and the dependencies. Any aspect of imperial rule, or of the advancement of British interests in the informal empire, which produced international complications and raised the prospect, however remote, of conflict with a European power, attracted immediate scrutiny in London. More than anything else, it was the addition of new imperial liabilities carrying higher costs and the risk of friction with rival powers which exercised policy-makers in the late-Victorian period.

As a result, the problem of imperial expansion has come to be the main window through which we peer at the late-Victorian idea of empire. It raised in an acute form the question of what purpose the formal empire and the larger British system were meant to serve, on what grounds they should be extended, and for whose benefit. The response of British leaders was bound to reflect, however subliminally, their understanding of world politics, their notions of strategy, their grasp of economic realities, their views of race and culture, their sense of national community, their hopes of expansion and fears of decline. The tortuous decision-making imposed by conflicting priorities at home and abroad and the periodic sense of crisis, gives a powerful insight into the mechanisms through which primacy in a huge and unwieldy world-system was reconciled with representative government in an age of growing social anxiety. Indeed, the intricate connection sometimes revealed between domestic politics and imperial policy raises the hardest question of all: how far Britain had become by 1900 an ‘imperialised’ society, founding its values, culture and social hierarchy mainly upon its role as the centre of an imperial system.57

Not surprisingly, the process by which the central issues of imperial expansion were resolved politically has long been the focus of an intense debate. The older historians of late-Victorian imperialism emphasised crude motives of economic gain, diplomatic prestige, racial arrogance or electoral calculation as the dynamic behind the willingness of successive British governments to extend the formal empire of rule, practise the diplomacy of brinkmanship in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and China, and resort to a costly and humiliating colonial war in 1899. But, since the 1960s, explanation has been dominated by the powerful model put forward by Robinson and Gallagher and taken up by a large school of disciples.58 Robinson and Gallagher rejected most previous explanations as naïve conjecture or special pleading. They insisted that the motives for imperial aggrandisement had to be sought in the largely private thoughts and calculations of the decision-making elite who sanctioned territorial advance and chose between the forward policies that were urged upon them. They denied that the documentary evidence revealed any serious pursuit of economic goals and claimed instead that the overwhelming motive for intervention, annexation and acquisition was strategic: to defend the territories and spheres accumulated in the flush times of mid-century, above all the vast, valuable, vulnerable empire in India.

This conclusion, resting upon a close study of the African partition, was also based upon a radical reinterpretation of the place of empire in British politics and the outlook of the ruling elite. Whereas previous writers had stressed the growth of ‘popular’ imperialism and the anxious desire of party leaders to propitiate it with jingo excess, Robinson and Gallagher argued that public attitudes towards empire were mainly shaped by dislike of the financial burden it implied and distaste for the moral risks it imposed. The best kind of empire was informal (and therefore free from patronage), costless and peaceful. Expansion might be tolerated if it recouped its expenses and avoided disaster. But the Midlothian election in 1880 showed how the electorate would punish a government caught red-handed in imperial misadventure. Thereafter, they argued, ministers would only agree to a forward policy in extremis, as a painful remedy to stave off the general attrition of their world-system and its defences. Far from bowing to popular pressure or the pleading of commercial and financial interests, the ‘official mind’ – a key concept in their model – based its grudging decisions to advance on gloomy estimates of strategic and electoral danger. They mistrusted jingoism on principle and loathed all forms of imperial enthusiasm. The policy-makers’ rule of thumb decreed that, far from staging a forward march from the bastions of mid-Victorian imperialism, the British were condemned by secular change to run faster to stay in the same place.

In other hands, this ironic portrait of late-Victorian high policy broadened into a definitive view of British imperialism after the turning point of 1880. Reactive, defensive, gloomily conservative, it was built on regret for the golden age of mid-Victorian primacy and obsessive concern for the protection of India. Britain was a status quo power drawn into reluctant expansion by the crises in her spheres of influence, felt most acutely where strategic not economic interests were at stake.59 But, at the height of its influence, this ‘pessimistic’ interpretation was robustly challenged in a critique which pointed unerringly to its least plausible components. These were the implication that the mid-Victorian era had seen the apogee of British imperial power; the suggestion that late-Victorian expansion was economically sterile; and the view of the policy-makers as a Platonic elite guided by abstract principles of national interest. Cain and Hopkins60 insisted instead that politicians, officials and the commercial and financial world of the City of London were united by a common ethos of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’. The Victorian ruling elite sprang from a marriage of landed and commercial (not industrial) wealth, and its members were to be found as much in banks and finance houses as in Whitehall or the Houses of Parliament. A common education, shared values and linked fortunes meant that governments and their advisers were instinctively sympathetic to the interests of trade, but especially finance. The key decisions of late-Victorian forward policy, like the occupation of Egypt in 1882, the policy of spheres in China and the war against the Boers in 1899, were taken not on strategic criteria but to promote (or defend) Britain's financial stake. Far from marking the gloomy defence of a reduced inheritance, imperial assertiveness reflected an aggressive commercial and financial expansion and the deliberate channelling of new economic energy into a periphery which had to be ‘remade’ for the purpose. And behind this advance stood not a doubting, sceptical public opinion but a powerful vested interest enthroned at the heart of government.

The sheer scale of Britain's global activity from China to Peru, the inevitable intermingling of political and economic interests, the different conjunctures of international affairs and the economic cycle and the shifting cast of actors make any overview a heroic abstraction. But there are obvious ways in which neither grand model quite fits the evidence. Thus the furious arguments within the political elite after 1880 over Ireland, Egypt and South Africa show how useless it was to appeal to an agreed version of the ‘national interest’ as the lodestone of imperial policy. The ‘national interest’ was not a text to be consulted; it was a trophy carried off by force of rhetoric or the canny appeal to public sentiment; at best, it was an oracle of Sibylline ambiguity. However much it yearned for seclusion in a ‘hidden city’ barred to the uninitiated, the ‘official mind’ was forced to accept the discipline of popular government. Delegations had to be seen; newspapers read; questions answered; support rallied; public emotions appeased; opponents (and colleagues) outmanoeuvred, by fair means if possible. No policy-maker cultivated a more Olympian detachment than Lord Salisbury, the ‘great Unapproachable’.61 But, even Salisbury acknowledged that diplomacy must defer to popular prejudice. ‘The loss of Constantinople’, he told Lord Randolph Churchill in 1886, ‘would be the ruin of our party…The main strength of the Tory party…lies in its association with the honour of the country.’62 When governments were divided and control over imperial policy was disputed between ministers, as happened frequently between 1880 and 1900, indecision and the tendency to sniff the popular breeze were all the greater. The normal state of the ‘official mind’ was not cool certainty but chronic schizophrenia.63

This endemic turbulence made it all the less likely that any government would risk identifying itself openly with a single economic interest, however powerful. In fact, the relations between government and business in the imperial sphere were marked not by a sense of common purpose but by deep mutual mistrust and a conscious disparity in outlook and values. Businessmen raged against diplomatic ignorance of commercial realities. Ministers and officials sneered at the obtuseness of private entrepreneurs. The Royal Niger Company became Salisbury's bête noire in the quest for Anglo-French agreement in West Africa. ‘Goldie’ (its head), complained Salisbury, ‘is a great nuisance. His knowledge of foreign relations must have been acquired in a music hall.’64 Proconsuls jeered at the dubious ethics of their business counterparts. Salisbury's contemptuous dismissal of the British commercial population in Johannesburg (‘a people for whom we care nothing’65) is well known. To the exponents of ‘chartered imperialism’, the efficiency of their ‘company states’ organised along semi-commercial lines and answerable to shareholders, stood in dynamic contrast to the ‘cumbrous machinery’ of colonial administration.66 The hallmarks of colonial rule were heavy taxation, wasteful expenditure and vaunting official ambition. But, in official eyes, unofficial imperialists and the business interests behind them showed a myopic disregard for the framework of order that was needed to make their commercial inroads tolerable to indigenous populations and home opinion.

At bottom, there was a fundamental divide that could not be bridged by agreement on the logic of capitalism. If matters came to a crisis, the incentives and obligations that shaped business decisions were very different from those at work in politics and government. Status, merit, honour and success were judged very differently in these two worlds. Lost battles did not break banks but they could break governments. Trade monopolies made business sense but political trouble. Conscripting semi-servile labour – African, Indian, Chinese – lowered commercial costs, but (if discovered) could raise the home political temperature to boiling point. A diplomatic rebuff (unless of directly commercial significance) was of little moment in the City, but at Westminster it was the noose from which a government could be hanged. In theory, diplomacy and commerce might march in step, but at the first sign of trouble each followed quite different rules of engagement. It was grudging respect for each other's utility, not identity of outlook, that drove them into wary collaboration.

These objections suggest that there is no need to choose between two starkly different views of late-Victorian imperialism. It is possible instead to reconstruct the workings of the ‘official mind’ to take better account of the untidy reality. The starting point is to recognise that, as in earlier periods, the initiative for British imperial expansion rarely if ever lay with governments, ministers and officials in London. The Colonial Office, remarked one ardent unofficial imperialist, could not be a creative force: it was ‘the “governor” of the steam-engine, not the boiler’.67 The energy for advance had to come from elsewhere. After 1880, much as before, expansion was incremental and its agents usually local men (both official and unofficial) who enjoyed backing at home from the array of public and private bodies with interests on the periphery of empire. With the acceleration of trade and investment, and the ready means of switching capital from one region to another, it was not surprising that the speed with which the frontier of European influence was driven forward was getting faster and faster. Nor that zones of longstanding sensitivity (like the Near East) should have seemed at greater risk from a sudden shift in their political and economic fortunes. But the hinterlands into which British interests ventured differed widely in two crucial ways. In some cases, the unofficial presence had grown strongly enough, or rallied sufficient local support, to establish a visible British interest; in others, it had not. Some of these ‘bridgeheads’ enjoyed highly placed or well-organised sponsors at home, with backstairs influence or the means of publicity; others were much less well endowed.

The real task of the ‘official mind’ was to decide which of these interests deserved official support and in what form. For that purpose, arcane criteria of the ‘national interest’ were of little use – except as rhetorical cover. What counted was whether those who wanted to drag the ‘imperial factor’ after them, or enlist its support in their local struggles, could peg out their claim not just in Africa or Asia but on public attention in London. Newspaper coverage and a talent for propaganda were vital. At the height of its difficulties in the 1890s, the Royal Niger Company, struggling against commercial rivals, bureaucratic hostility and French advance, won the backing of the The Times in a series of planted articles.68 Its chairman, complained a British diplomat in West Africa, ‘is on the spot [i.e. in London] and has a ready and clever tongue’.69 Even to official agents in the field it often seemed that the best plan was to act first and wait for public opinion to rally behind. It was no good asking the Foreign Office for permission in advance, advised Milner in 1895. ‘The people on the spot must take things into their own hands, when, if the occasion of the decisive move is well chosen, public opinion here will surely approve.’70 But that meant careful attention to rousing public feeling and the artful depiction of a ‘forward policy’ as the defence of an existing (and valuable) interest. Even the great Lord Cromer was not above using the press ‘to work for a “forward game”’, and outflank his nominal master, Lord Salisbury.71 ‘Just like all British governments’, Cromer was reported as saying. ‘they will act more or less in a hand to mouth way on the spur of the moment, but they will not think out and adopt a steady policy.’72 Of course, the weaker the vanguard of British influence and the more exposed it was to local or international attack, the harder it would be to extract a commitment from the policy-makers. Nor was there any point ‘firing into a continent’ (in Conrad's graphic phrase): there had to be sufficient local agency to be the ‘transformer’ that would inject British power into local circuits. Reasonable certainty was needed that the cost would be minimal or could be recouped. The vital decision London had to make turned most of all upon a geopolitical calculus, in which the international risks of intervention were weighed against the local means of British leverage and the extent to which opinion at home had been mobilised for action.

It was hardly surprising that policy made under these conditions was often erratic and inconsistent, lurching forward, falling back, plunging from inertia to frenzy. The longer decisions lingered in the arena of opinion bounded by Westminster, the City and the Clubland of St James, the more likely they were to be improvised, opportunistic and unpredictable. The effects of this were felt more severely in some regions than in others. In the ‘inner zone’ which followed the Anglo-Indian ‘security corridor’ from Gibraltar to Bombay, the official interest was dominant. Here matters could often be settled privately between London and Calcutta, and strategy was a trump card. But, in the vast ‘outer zone’ beyond, the official interest was much weaker, and official concepts more protean. Here, even the master of Realpolitik could lose his way. Even Lord Salisbury became, as we have seen, the target of savage private criticism from insiders who saw in his chessboard diplomacy not a master-plan but muddle and sloth. It might indeed be argued that the whole pattern of Britain's territorial aggrandisement after 1880 had less to do with any grand strategy, than with the latent strength of the bridgeheads of influence and occupation established before the era of partition and the all-but-irresistible pressure on governments to support them, where practicable, against their enemies. But that is not the whole story. The most striking feature of the period after 1880 was precisely the uncertainty about how the ‘national interest’ could be defined in an era of such disorienting fluidity. But, if policy-makers, proconsuls, private imperialists, press and public opinion all displayed periodic signs of hysteria, it was partly because geopolitical disorder abroad seemed to be matched by the unnerving fluidity of the domestic political scene.

The late-Victorians and empire

Indeed, to many ‘imperialists’, alarmed by signs of imperial weakness, it was evident that the dangers abroad found an echo in disturbance at home. Far from providing a stable platform for the defence of a world-empire, British society was in the throes of upheaval. Far from springing to the defence of its vital interests, it was distracted by sectional strife. Far from recognising its need for resources overseas, it was at odds over the share-out of wealth at home. Partisan struggle sapped imperial will. This gloomy connection had been made by Lord Salisbury. In a notorious essay published in 1883, and brusquely titled ‘Disintegration’, he prophesied the imperial doom that would follow the rising clamour for radical reform.73 The radicals’ assault on ‘churchmen, landowners, publicans, manufacturers, house-owners, railway-shareholders [and] fund-holders’ was symptomatic of the sea-change in British politics. Its effects were magnified by the democratisation of the electorate. The ballot was a ‘regime of surprises’; the voters paid only fitful attention; ministerial power was held ‘on a capricious and precarious tenure’; the House of Commons had become the instrument of ‘sudden revulsions of feeling’ unimaginable in earlier times. The result was a social war – ‘civil war with the gloves on’. Society was atomising into hostile fragments. ‘The temper that severs class from class is constantly gaining strength.’ Patriotism was dead or dying. ‘The national impulses which used to make Englishmen cling together in face of every external trouble are beginning to disappear.’ Pride in the ‘stupendous achievement of thousands ruling over millions’ (a reference to India) had shrivelled. Instead, Britain was faced with the ‘loss of large branches and limbs of our Empire, and…the slow estrangement of the classes which make up the nation to which that Empire belongs’. And, of course, it was Ireland that was ‘the worst symptom of our malady’: to abandon the Union would be an avowal ‘that all claims to protect or govern anyone beyond our own narrow island were at an end’.

Salisbury's polemic was partly designed for his own party's consumption. But his acrid vision of democratic politics was shared (from a different angle) by his political opponents while his gloomy portrait of the decline of authority chimed with the prognostications of Herbert Spencer, the most influential social theorist of the age. Spencer had argued that social progress meant the advance from a ‘militant’ to an ‘industrial’ society: from rule by a prescriptive warrior elite towards voluntary cooperation between the myriad of specialised interests thrown up by economic and technological development. Ironically, at the same time as Salisbury was fulminating against disintegration, Spencer was warning (in Man versus the State) against collectivist interference with the free play of social competition.74 But Salisbury's fear that a mass electorate would turn its back on the arcana imperii of British world power, repudiate imperial obligations and thwart the exercise of consistent policy, became almost a political commonplace. John Morley, the radical editor and parliamentarian, had opined in 1880 that a working-class electorate would refuse to go to war.75 Joseph Chamberlain thought that ‘fighting can never again be popular with the people’.76 ‘The old ways of diplomacy are unsuitable to the new Electorate’, he told a friendly editor in 1885.77 Even after the fall of the Gladstone ministry in 1886, Salisbury's colleague, Lord Randolph Churchill, then high-priest of ‘Tory Democracy’, insisted that British policy was by its nature ‘always more or less a policy of hand to mouth’ since the government of the day ‘depends upon a Parliamentary majority…assailed and swayed by an enlightened, but at the same time by a capricious, public opinion’.78 Defending Constantinople, he told Salisbury, could not be done as it had been in the Crimean War or in the Eastern crisis of 1876–8: ‘I doubt whether the people will support that method.’79

The implication was that the imperial burden had become dangerously heavy at a time when British politics were inflamed by the social, ethnic and religious antagonisms unleashed by domestic radicalism and Irish Home Rule. For governments of either party, foreign or colonial entanglements brought with them the risk of war, embarrassment and expense in a period of exceptional instability in domestic politics. It was this that made veterans of either party like the Liberal Harcourt and the Conservative Hicks-Beach so wary of new commitments in Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa. Harcourt feared the entrenchment of British power in Egypt and the slide towards a de facto protectorate. He opposed the annexation of Uganda. Hicks-Beach warned Salisbury that spending on empire would rouse opposition at home and increase the pressure on the landed interest already beleaguered by agricultural depression.80 For both men, an expanding empire was an open-ended risk, an unlimited liability. Meeting its demands would drive both parties into conflict with their natural supporters, wreck the interests for which they stood and exhaust their electoral credit. Keeping the parties afloat in rough democratic seas meant reducing to the minimum their exposure to the high winds of competitive imperialism and its fearsome corollary, great power rivalry in Europe. But to ardent imperialists like Milner and his circle it was precisely this cringeing attitude to public opinion, the influence of ‘wire-pullers’ and party hacks, and the elevation of party over empire that explained the weakness and vacillation they saw in British policy. A decadent, hysterical elite, too timid to lead, too selfish to abdicate, blocked the constructive programme that was needed to fuse domestic and imperial politics and to educate the masses. From the opposite end of the political spectrum, the radical journalist J. A. Hobson warned that the irrational instincts of mass opinion made it an easy prey to propaganda and delusion.81

As we shall see, the imperialists protested too much and raised a false alarm. But it is easy to see why they were anxious. If domestic opinion turned against the defence of empire, the imperial system might unravel with astonishing speed. A ‘premature’ withdrawal from the exposed salient of Egypt would signal an immediate shift in the Mediterranean balance of power. The steady advance of British influence all along the seaborne approaches to India would go into reverse. The long-range defence of its landward frontier against encroaching rivals in Persia, Central Asia and Tibet would look less sure. It was a cliché of Anglo-Indian officialdom that a strong frontier policy was the touchstone of British rule in northwestern India, and the best warrant for Muslim loyalty. A second ‘mutiny’, however modest, would re-open the Indian question in British politics with a vengeance. In China and at the Cape, British interests, influence and prestige also depended upon the assumption that force would be used to prevent their attrition. Failure to win parliamentary support for naval expansion would be just as dangerous. Naval primacy, at whatever the cost, was the ultimate guarantee that the British could underwrite their own claims and those of their innumerable clients and subjects. Its loss or disavowal was bound (amid much other damage) to rouse the separatist tendency latent in the colonial politics of the ‘white dominions’ or, in the special case of Canada, to weaken the argument against political union with its southern neighbour. In the domino theory of empire that Salisbury had invented (but which was taken up by many Unionists), the fate of Ireland was crucial. Its strategic position across the Atlantic approaches to Britain,82 and its symbolic value as a proving ground of British institutions meant that Ireland was the exposed nerve of both domestic and imperial politics. The concession of Home Rule, and the failure to uphold the Union and ‘tame’ Irish nationalism, would be, on this view, the starting-gun for the implosion of British world power.

It is hard to tell how large a shift there was after 1880 in British attitudes to empire. There were no opinion polls to record public feeling on issues of empire and world power. In the election campaigns of the period, ‘imperial’ questions were absorbed into more urgent debates over Ireland in 1886, or wartime ‘loyalty’ in 1900. ‘Imperial sentiment’ played second fiddle to anti-Irish feeling, patriotic enthusiasm and the anxiety over employment and living standards at home. There is, anyway, much anecdotal evidence that, except in moments of unusual excitement, imperial questions stirred little public interest. It is true that contemporaries detected a persistent strain of jingoism in popular politics – a reserve tank of xenophobic prejudice. But to politicians like Salisbury jingoism was not a useful political fuel but a blind force, ‘a strain of pure combativeness’ at the base of society.83 It was a far cry from the traditional attachment to the national interest whose decay he had lamented. It had little to do with the intelligent cultivation of ‘empire-mindednesss’ or a new sense of imperial identity. Radical commentators attributed any sign of popular support for overseas expansion, conquest or adventure to the crude emotions stirred up by manipulative politicians and an unscrupulous press: behind both stood the sinister shape of financial influence.84 Playing upon the irrational instincts of an ill-educated urban mass, they created a jingo ‘false-consciousness’, transient and febrile. Working-class voters whose real interest lay in social reform and a redistribution of wealth were bought off with the fool's gold of imperial glory. Many historians have followed a similar line: that it took disillusionment with the South African War of 1899–1902 to prick the bubble of jingo-imperialism and usher in the sober age of liberal reform after 1906.

Indeed, a close study of popular culture suggests that the attractions of empire had little appeal except to those in the middle and upper classes to whom it might offer some material benefits – a career or a dividend. However stark they might seem in our selective rear view, the literary, musical or visual celebrations of empire were lost in the mass of non-imperial production. The efforts of imperialists to educate and inform testified not to their confidence in the imperialism of the masses, but to their fears of indifference or even downright hostility. Even after the trauma of the South African War, and perhaps because of it, this feeling persisted. ‘One must unfortunately explain to these d___d fools’, wrote Milner of his audiences in 1906, ‘why we want…an Empire, and it pinches one in dealing with the methods of maintaining it.’85

Certainly, if the records of policy-making are any guide, mass enthusiasm for empire-building, whether spontaneous or manufactured, was considered a will o’ the wisp. Far from bowing to a surge of popular imperialism or trying to drum up votes by derring-do on the imperial frontier, ministers of both parties viewed public opinion with deep mistrust. They feared (in Salisbury's words) a ‘jingo hurricane’ that could drive them on the rocks: an ill-conceived foreign adventure (like the relief of Gordon at Khartoum) ending in disaster. They were just as frightened of new commitments for which support at home might die away, leaving them helpless in the political doldrums. Both would be a huge electoral liability. But, equally, they could not afford to treat every demand for intervention or annexation with patrician contempt. Still less could they hope to ‘manage’ all public discussion of imperial issues, or reduce it to a soothing murmur of approbation. As a recent study has shown, a large part of the public interest in empire was expressed through pressure groups and associations lying outside the formal arena of parliamentary politics or straddling the usual lines of party loyalty. It connected with new political issues (like women's rights) and mobilised enthusiasts for a new kind of social politics.86 Working-class opinion might have been indifferent to the glories of the Raj, or the ‘civilising mission’ in tropical Africa. But it could hardly have been so to the value of overseas markets, some like India sustained by colonial rule. And their habit of migration displayed the tacit belief that British people were entitled to occupy the lands of others, provided their resistance was not embarrassingly stiff. This ‘demographic’ imperialism might not have been glamorous. But no British leader would have dared question its claims. In late-Victorian politics, ‘empire’ had come to mean more than the aggressive pursuit of new places to rule.

This suggests that we need a more complex explanation for the receptiveness of British opinion towards the huge growth of imperial liabilities after 1880 and the willingness to accept a large and growing burden of imperial defence. One obvious starting point is the capacity of interests connected with empire and Britain's spheres of overseas influence to maintain an influential presence on the domestic scene and win the political support necessary for their projects. In the past, the East India Company, the anti-slavery movement, the evangelicals, the China traders and the philanthropic businessmen of the South Australian or New Zealand Companies in the 1830s, had all enjoyed moments of special leverage in British politics. But they had all been vulnerable to the charge of ‘old corruption’ and to the ebb tide of public altruism. By the 1880s, however, imperial interests had dug deeper into domestic society and built a wider network of alliances. They also adapted with striking success to the new scale of popular politics and even to its language.

Behind this reinforcement of empire on the home front lay three great changes. The first was the sheer scale by the 1880s of overseas enterprise and settlement: a mass of overlapping mini-empires of traders, investors, migrants, missionaries, railway companies, shipping companies, mining ventures, banks, botanists and geographers. ‘In every large seaport or manufacturing town in this Kingdom’, pronounced the explorer H. M. Stanley in 1884, ‘an enterprising shipowner or…manufacturer…should know something of geography.’87 New geographical societies in Edinburgh and Manchester were followed by those on Tyneside (1887), Liverpool (1891) and Southampton (1897).88 Britain's huge stake in the foreign trade of the extra-European world made commercial and political conditions from China to Peru the object of anxious scrutiny in a host of industrial districts now dependent on far-flung markets. Lancashire cottons might still be Britain's premier export. But, for a wide range of other industries, commercial geography had gone global. From the Black Country round Birmingham, Walsall exported three-fifths of its manufactures, the greater part to India and the settlement colonies.89 Newcastle exported 30 per cent of its steel, almost all to ‘India and the Colonies’.90 ‘The Colonies and India particularly afford very large markets for the products of the district’, reported the Sheffield chamber of commerce in 1885.91 To businessmen around the country, emigration and railway building were favoured panaceas for the falling off in trade. Capital exports soared after 1880, doubling British foreign investment by 1900 (and quadrupling it by 1913). Migration from Britain also showed a strong upward trend. From 1880 to 1893, the numbers leaving for extra-European destinations never fell below 200,000 a year, peaking at 320,000 in 1883. For six of the thirteen years after 1901, it exceeded 300,000 a year, before reaching a new peak of 470,000 on the eve of the First World War.92 There were also many more ‘sojourners’ who spent their working lives abroad as soldiers, officials (in the new tropical dependencies), policemen, doctors, teachers, forestry experts, engineers and businessmen. Railway and steamship lines recruited their technical and managerial staff in Britain. The British India Steam Navigation Company alone employed 800 ‘Europeans’ (i.e. British) – almost as many as the Indian Civil Service. Schools, universities and newspapers in India and the white dominions looked to Britain for professional expertise. In 1899, there were more than 10,000 British missionaries around the world.93 By the end of the century, a career overseas, punctuated by home leave and ending in retirement at Cheltenham, Bournemouth, Bedford or other spots favoured by climate or schooling, had become a familiar pattern in middle-class life. Just as serial migration, punctuated by returns, was a feature of many working-class communities from Scotland to Cornwall.94

The volume of trade, migration and investment flowing overseas was symptomatic of the increasing integration of the domestic and international economy. It pointed to the growing attraction that its settler and colonial possessions exerted on the sea-power of the Old World. That had long been true of the United States. Indeed, much informed opinion by the 1880s was convinced that an introverted, militarised and dynastic Europe would be eclipsed by its dynamic offshoot beyond the Atlantic. In the ‘world of fifty years to come’, wrote the historian J. R. Green in 1880

how odd, how ludicrous, will be the spectacle of France and Germany…still growling and snarling over their little Alsace! To me all these Bismarcks and Dizzys and Andrassys are alike anachronisms…whose mighty schemes and mighty armies are being quietly shoved aside by the herdsmen of Colorado and the sheepmasters of New South Wales.95

By the last decade of the century, however, the role of the United States as the great recipient of migrants and capital was rivalled more and more by Britain's settler empire and India. New ‘Americas’ were rising in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Britain's colonial societies acquired a new scale and sophistication. Their communications improved; they became more open to external influence; their economies were oriented more firmly to international markets. The scope of colonial government expanded. New functions were assumed – in transport, education, public health, conservation and public works. The effect was to reduce the social and cultural distance between the Mother Country and what had once been a string of settler outposts and an oriental garrison state. The points of contact were multiplied. Tastes and lifestyles converged – even in India where family life became more common for the British and a ‘western education’ more common among Indians: between 1881–2 and 1901–2 there was a threefold increase in the number of Indians being taught in English at schools and colleges.96 A subtle but decisive shift occurred in British attitudes to the colonies of settlement. For Seeley, Froude and Dilke,97 who commented authoritatively on ‘Greater Britain’, they had become the future sources of strength, an extension of Britain, the basis of a ‘world-state’. Canada, thought Dilke, would support a population as large as that of the United States; Australia a ‘white population which may be counted by hundreds of millions’.98

Thirdly, after 1880, the channels through which images and information from the colonial and semi-colonial world reached public attention in Britain became wider and deeper. Not surprisingly, the growing mass of external activity and connections required an ever more extensive network of domestic agencies – to mobilise its funds, recruit its personnel, process its information and trumpet its virtues. Settler governments began to compete more actively for capital and emigrants through British newspapers99 and their high commissions in London.100 From the late 1860s, The Times had carried a long monthly article surveying Australian affairs. A vast audience of would-be emigrants, investors, subscribers and recruits (not to mention their friends and relations) had to be addressed through pamphlets, prospectuses, brochures, religious literature and travel books (some deliberately designed like Trollope's to promote emigration). The demand for foreign news went up. A specialised press arose to meet (for example) the needs of ‘Anglo-India’ in Britain.101 A tidal wave of print formed the backwash of empire. In Britain more than anywhere else, the new culture of worldwide mobility coincided with the coming of mass literacy (after the Education Act of 1870) and the appearance (after 1884) of mass politics.

It was in fact no accident that the promoters, lobbies, pressure groups and vested interests of empire and the wider ‘British world’ should have flourished in late-Victorian Britain. Their insistence that Britain's future lay in a deepening engagement with overseas communities, especially with those already bound by political ties to the Mother Country, chimed with some of the strongest social and cultural tendencies of the age. Late-Victorian society was decisively reshaped by the economic revolution in its food supply. From the 1870s onwards, the volume of imported food, grain especially, rose with dramatic speed – by three times between 1872 and 1903.102 Farmers on cheap or ‘free’ land in North America could undercut the agrarian economies of the Old World. Without the burdens of rent, tax and intensive husbandry (necessary on ‘old’ soils), all they needed to compete was cheap bulk transport and an organised commerce. By the 1870s, an extensive rail network and a streamlined market (including a huge ‘futures’ market in Chicago103) brought the output of the American Midwest straight to the consumers of Europe. With their vast Atlantic traffic, accessible ports, dense communications and large population, the British Isles were the obvious market for American food. Here, politics were as critical as economics. It was the decision, unique among Europe's larger states, to preserve free trade and the open economy which threw open the British market to unlimited competition from foreign foodstuffs.

The results were dramatic. As farm prices fell so did rents and wages. As agricultural depression set in through the 1880s, rural communities (especially in the ‘wheat countries’104) shrivelled. The distinctiveness and diversity of rural life began to atrophy. A tide of migration flowed towards the towns and cities. As a more uniformly urban society took shape, it adopted new social and cultural habits. Processing industries for imported food catered for a ‘national’ market, setting the trend towards mass retailing and the use of advertising to mobilise consumers. The falling price of food pushed up the living standards of families in work and created larger disposable incomes for new consumer goods: including ‘exotic’ foodstuffs, leisure, sport and ‘cultural products’ like newspapers, books and magazines. The literate urban consumer, with new tastes and interests shaped by marketing and the printed word, was a key figure in the remaking of late-Victorian society.

These changes in society at large were mirrored in the reshaping of the elite. The drastic fall of rents cut away the income of the landed class, or of that portion mainly dependent on agricultural receipts. Wealth and power within the aristocracy shifted towards those whose agrarian incomes were buttressed with earnings from finance, commerce or public employment.105 The titled ‘guinea pig’ became a familiar figure on the boards of companies: by 1896, one-quarter of the peerage held directorships.106 The pressure for inter-marriage with wealthy but non-landed families became more acute. The marriage market, like the food market, was opened up to American imports. New creations in the peerage marked the arrival of a neo-aristocracy for whom landed property was less a source of income and authority than an item of (very) conspicuous consumption and a leisure amenity. The independent ‘country gentlemen’, the traditional ballast of the parliamentary system against its ‘faddists’, placemen and adventurers, shrank in numbers and influence. New lifestyles, new sources of income, new social and geographical horizons,107 and perhaps a new urgency in wealth creation in the speculative nineties were all signs that the upper class was being recreated behind the facade of aristocratic continuity.108 To many contemporaries the outward sign of this change was the galloping expansion of the financial world, the brutal display of new wealth and the pre-eminence of London – that ‘vortex of gigantic forces’ as H. G. Wells called it109 – as the centre of culture, fashion and commerce.

Late-Victorian society was thus far from being dragged willy-nilly behind an alien imperial juggernaut. Imperial-minded interests, lobbies and pressure groups took easy root in a soil well harrowed by the side-effects of international economic change. ‘Empire’ was acceptable to a broad swathe of opinion because it appealed both to those alarmed by the stresses in late-Victorian Britain and to those exhilarated by its new possibilities. The stresses were real. Rather than surrender free trade, the ark of their social covenant110 as well as the talisman of national wealth, the late Victorians tolerated the external pressures transmitted inwards by their open economy. They accepted the rising mobility of capital and labour. But there were deep misgivings. Social commentators warned against a ‘rootless’ and ‘volatile’ urban proletariat,111 and sighed with regret for a more stable and ‘rooted’ agrarian age.112 The evidence of urban poverty recorded by observers like Booth and Rowntree suggested that the uneven distribution of wealth was a serious threat to the social fabric. Nervousness about a growing ‘under-class’ was coupled with alarm at the rise of a new asocial plutocracy, fattening on the profits of financial speculation.113 Both raised fears about a decline of civic virtue in an era of incessant change. Both implied the need for a stronger state: to remedy social abuses and hold society together. Indeed, a new state did appear in late-Victorian Britain employing four times as many public servants by 1914 as it had in 1870.114 To all these various concerns, some version of ‘empire’ offered hope: emigration (including child emigration) as a specific against unemployment and urban degradation; a grand imperial monarchy as the focus of popular conservatism and loyalty to established institutions – the object of the million-member Primrose League, which remained ‘vague, amorphous and sentimental in its imperialism’;115 a grander imperial state whose need for strength abroad would be the counterpart of social reform at home; an imperialised civic virtue that would rise above the petty squabbles and shabby compromises of the party system.

Late-Victorian imperialism grew out of this set of interlocking alarms and assumptions. It was bolted together by the recognition that Britain could not escape the process that we might call ‘early globalisation’ – the rapid dismantling of the economic and cultural barriers between Europe and the rest of the world. Contemporary opinion regarded it as irresistible and ‘progressive’, but also risky. Unlike its late-twentieth-century counterpart, late-nineteenth-century globalisation accelerated at a time when colonialism was already entrenched in Afro-Asia and when half a dozen states had the means and the will to carve out new colonial zones in its wake. This ‘globalisation in an imperial setting’ prompted an ambivalent British reaction: enthusiasm for the spread of commerce, ‘civilisation’, religion and (sometimes) settlement; anxiety that a fiercer and fiercer imperial competition would leave Britain worsted or set off a war. The polemical exchanges between self-styled ‘imperialists’ and their more sceptical critics were sharpened by this sense of double jeopardy. Britain could not turn her back on the new international economy. Her commercial life demanded it; her living standard (increasingly) depended on it. But, at the same time, the gross extension of her vital interests in a boisterous world, and the growing dependence on foreign food, foreign trade and foreign income made it harder and harder (or so it seemed) to balance the demands of security and prosperity.

Virtually all shades of opinion agreed, however, that, in whatever form, Britain must choose the Open Sea and not the Closed Door. Autarkic retreat to the Home Islands was not an option. ‘Many men have dreamt that it would be a pleasant thing to close the capital account of empire and to add no further to its responsibilities’, Salisbury told an audience in Bradford in May 1895. ‘That is not the condition which fortune or the evolution of the world's course has assigned to the development of our prosperity’.116 Like it or not, Britain's place lay at the centre of the world, a position graphically emphasised on a conventional map. ‘As commerce has grown more world-wide’, remarked Chisholm's Commercial Geography (first published in 1889), ‘as the New World has become more populous and more wealthy, the advantage of situation has come to belong to the British Isles, which are nearly in the middle of the land-surface of the globe’.117 In the Columbian epoch, insisted Halford Mackinder, the foremost geographer of the day, ‘Britain gradually became the central, rather than the terminal, land of the world’.118 Centrality derived from Britain's double openness, towards Europe and towards the ‘ocean highways’; from her having an eastern and a western shore; and from the dual qualities of ‘insularity’ and ‘universality’.119 But most of all it sprang from the part played by sea communications in a global system of economics and politics. ‘The unity of the ocean’, said Mackinder, ‘is the simple physical fact underlying the dominant value of sea-power in the modern globe-wide world.’120 The significance of Britain's geographic position and the logic of naval supremacy were both ‘rediscovered’ in the 1880s and 1890s. Fear of French, Russian and (later) German competition coincided with a great widening of maritime horizons towards East Asia (as a commercial jackpot) and the Pacific (as a sea and cable route). Naval ‘scares’ became a recurrent feature, and rival experts fumed and quarrelled. But there was no mystery about the entrenchment of seapower in the late-Victorian and Edwardian imagination. As the barrier to invasion from Europe, the guarantor of trade routes and food supply and the guardian of possessions and spheres more far-flung than before, the Navy seemed the key to Britain's place and prosperity in the new and uncertain ‘globe-wide world’. ‘It is the Navy’, intoned a Liberal minister in 1894, ‘which delivers us…from the curse of militarism.’121 This was all the more so with the rise of other world-states. ‘In the presence of vast Powers, broad based on the resources of half-continents’, warned Mackinder in 1902, ‘Britain could not again become mistress of the seas. Much depends on the maintenance of a lead won under earlier conditions.’122

The third element in the late Victorians’ reinvention of empire was a new view of migration. It was no longer regarded simply as the providential evacuation of waste (as in the eighteenth century) nor as the convenient redistribution of labour and consumption recommended by Malthus and Edward Gibbon Wakefield. By the 1880s, emigration was an established social function in the English ‘heartland’ as much as the Celtic periphery.123 Its value was still seen in part as an overflow for unwanted labour and a safety valve for poverty and despair. Emigration had become respectable: an acceptable choice for single women;124 a means of redemption for abandoned children.125 As the reaction against the consequences of industrialisation gathered pace in Britain, it acquired a new virtue. Emigrant communities in the Empire became the healthy alternative to the urban decadence of industrial Britain. This view increasingly coloured attitudes towards the white dominions by the 1890s. It was combined with the hope that the emigrant British would reinforce the solidarity of the settler countries with imperial Britain, an idea whose influence was still strong fifty years later in the report of the Royal Commission on Population.126

Lastly, the late Victorians accepted, though with much less enthusiasm, that their dependent empire of rule was bound to grow larger and to last indefinitely. To the mid-Victorians, their Indian Raj had been a grand exception, justified by John Stuart Mill as a rescue from chaos. But a powerful strand of radical opinion had never been reconciled to this oriental despotism. That was why the extended occupation of Egypt had been so controversial in the 1880s: it seemed to entrench the Indian mode of empire with all its risks and vices. It threatened to drag Britain into another Raj, and more mutinies, in a little India that was dangerously exposed to foreign interference. But, if Egypt occasioned much liberal unease, it also became the battering ram against liberal arguments. A series of powerful imperialist tracts, of which the most influential was Milner's England in Egypt (1892), insisted that Egypt was too anarchic to be left to itself. To do so would be to invite international crisis and threaten British interests. Cromer's regime as consul-general in the ‘veiled protectorate’ offered proof that financial acumen could calm the diplomatic storm. The old Egyptian hands clinched their argument with a shrewd appeal to liberal prejudices. Their veiled authority, they insisted, was the best trustee of foreign interests, the true guardian of peasant Egypt and the real engine of material progress.

Egypt was the proving ground for arguments originally formulated in post-Mutiny India to justify a Raj based not on consent but on force. To many Liberals, the 1880s were an intellectual watershed.127 The gloomy evidence from India that progress was advanced by authority more than by persuasion128 was driven home still more painfully by what seemed the failure of liberalism in Ireland against religious bigotry and backward-looking sectionalism. In the imperial sphere, this Indo-Irish disillusionment was the solvent of mid-Victorian liberal confidence. It paved the way for the rapprochement between liberalism and the authoritarian tradition of colonial rule brilliantly evoked by Milner. But it was not the only factor at work. The rapidity of global partition after 1880 served notice that under what a later generation would call ‘the strenuous conditions of the modern world’ there was little room for states that had failed the test of ‘social efficiency’.129 These ‘dying nations’ were a danger to themselves, a helpless prey to European predators and a source of friction between the emerging ‘world states’. They could not be left in festering decay. Nor, without affronting the tenets of free trade, could they be allowed to preserve their seclusion, closing off their resources to outside enterprise.130 The real question was not whether some form of external supervision was needed but the terms on which it should be imposed. In the British case, the prominent missionary and humanitarian lobby, the commercial allies of the ‘open economy’ and the powerful administrative elite associated particularly with India created a large potential constituency for a ‘new imperialism’ along these lines. Traces of evangelicalism, free trade, Ireland and India were fused in a new doctrine of administrative trusteeship – the ‘imperial idea’ whose clash with opposing democratic ideals imparted, said Mackinder, ‘a singular richness and resource to the modern British nation’.131

These were the overlapping, half-contradictory versions of empire that were by 1900 deeply embedded in Britain's political culture. Each had its stage army of supporters. Each was, at least minimally, compatible with the others. Collectively, they represented an overwhelming coalition committed to the British world-system. They explain why ‘empire’ was so protean a concept in late-Victorian Britain, and why the meaning of ‘imperialism’ was so elusive. But the diversity of interests, opinions and language mobilised behind ‘empire’ also explains why no single imperial ideology emerged and why the politics of empire in Britain often appeared more divisive than it really was.

Towards 1900

‘I quite agree with you’, wrote Lord Milner to Cecil Rhodes in August 1898, ‘that there is an enormous change in British opinion with regard to schemes…involving risk and expenditure in Imperial expansion, during the last few years. Things have been going very fast indeed – in the right direction.’132 Milner was writing on the eve of the conquest of the Sudan, at the height of Chamberlain's aggressive partition diplomacy in West Africa, and with his own struggle with Kruger very much in mind. The ‘forward policy’, reviled by the Gladstonians in 1880, had become habitual. The British system, hitherto content to leave its interests in large areas of the world under loose, if not negligible, supervision, had become formalised. With the coming of world politics, the British had played a central role in the partition of the globe. They had taken the largest slice of the territorial share-out – and were soon to have more.

This great expansion had not occurred because British leaders subscribed to new theories of economic imperialism nor because they thought that their electorate would be appeased by circuses abroad. Nor had it arisen, for the most part, from any deep-laid strategic design. It cannot be explained merely as a defensive reaction against the proactive imperialism of rival powers. But it was not random. The pattern of annexation and occupation closely reflected the distribution of existing commercial and strategic interests. The crucial variables that determined the scale of British intervention were usually the leverage those interests could exert at home, the agency they could command ‘on the spot’, and the diplomatic risk involved in the assertion of a territorial claim. With so many springboards of expansion around the world in place before 1880, it was hardly surprising that the late Victorians should have responded to the new geopolitics with an octopus-like ubiquity.

Yet even this can hardly explain the relative ease with which the British had piled up territorial gains in Afro-Asia by 1899. Here, paradoxically, they had benefited from the very circumstance that had seemed to threaten their older, looser world system. The imperialism of their European rivals may have been eager, but it was not single-minded. The continental great powers regarded the balance of power in Europe, and the status quo it guaranteed, as the magnetic pole of their diplomacy. Their outlook was conservative. None of them was prepared to risk its security or status in Europe for the sake of a foreign adventure. France had shrunk from confrontation over Egypt in 1884 (mistrusting German support) and accepted humiliation over Fashoda in 1898. Russian policy towards Turkey, Persia and China was far more cautious than British alarmists allowed. Germany dreaded the realignment implicit in an Anglo-French entente: Germany was happy to see the British in Cairo, noted the Belgian Foreign Office in 1898, because it drove a wedge between Britain and France.133 Revealingly, no two European powers went to war over a colonial issue between 1880 and 1914. For similar reasons, the continental powers found it difficult to combine against the ubiquitous British despite widespread European resentment against them. Where partition had been stalled by great power disagreements, the unexpected tenacity of the intended victim, or the intervention of a third party (Japan's role in East Asia), Britain's strategic (in the Middle East) and commercial (in China) interests had been the principal beneficiary.

Even where partition had been imposed, in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, its impact upon the British system had been much less severe than the Gladstonians had feared. Egypt had been a huge strategic burden. But the conquest and rule of tropical Africa had been astonishingly cheap. For all the colonial powers in Africa, an agreed partition was the means to ending local rivalry, and reducing the military and administrative costs of faraway colonialism to the minimum. The settling of claims allowed their paper empires to be lightly governed and lightly guarded: internal ‘pacification’ of the indigenous, not external, defence against each other, was the prime expense. The British, whose acquisitions weighed most heavily (in population if not acreage), gained most from this consensual colonialism. Thus far it had allowed them to absorb a vast new territorial empire without suffering any drastic imbalance in their world-system or risking its stability. Between the 1880s and the century's end that system turned out to be more resilient than contemporaries had sometimes feared and more successful than historians have usually allowed. By design and good fortune, but often by virtue of their prior claims on the spot, the British had been able to shield their most valuable interests against the effects of geopolitical change. They had also been able (as we will see in the next chapter) to turn the new world economy to their commercial advantage. But none of this would have been possible without a comparable process of change in Britain itself.

The real imperial issue in late-Victorian politics was thus not whether empire was desirable, nor even whether it should be defended. On both questions, a broad consensus emerged. Where opinion, and sometimes parties, divided was over how these objects should be secured and, more to the point, what extra burdens (if any) should be loaded onto Britain. What claims should the enterprise of building and entrenching a British world-system be allowed to make upon a complex industrial society with its own domestic priorities, its social and cultural divisions, and its liberal tradition? As we have seen, much of the intensity with which imperial questions were debated by the political elite after 1880 arose from its anxiety about the remaking of the political kingdom in the British Isles. The new mass electorate (after 1884), the revival of the Irish Question and the new ‘social politics’ of the ‘great depression’ together transformed the political landscape. Viewing their overseas commitments through the prism of rising domestic uncertainty, it was inevitable that ministers and officials should often dislike the expansionist moves into which they were forced by outside pressures or the logic of partition diplomacy.

In fact the political mood had proved surprisingly benign. After the Third Reform Act, which doubled the United Kingdom electorate and enfranchised some 60 per cent of adult males over twenty-one,134 the radical impetus so widely anticipated seemed to wither away. The political Armageddon for which Salisbury had planned did not materialise. As Prime Minister for much of the period between 1886 and 1902 (there was Liberal ministry in 1892–5), Salisbury had envisaged a Fabian defence of the Union, empire and aristocracy. Instead, the more conservative mood in Mainland Britain was sharpened by sectarian feeling in areas like South Lancashire where Catholic Irish immigration had been heavy. The shift towards single member seats in the Third Reform Act allowed the Conservatives to capitalize on ‘Villa Toryism’: the middle and lower middle class suburban property-owners on whose fears the party played skilfully.135 The fall of Parnell and his death in 1891 seemed to take much of the steam out of the Irish nationalist challenge, so that defending the Union came to seem practicable as well as necessary: the ideal combination from Salisbury's point of view. The mood of social crisis declined. Strong public finances underwrote heavier spending on defence. The Liberal cabinet of 1892–5 agreed to spend more on the Navy (a decision that led to Gladstone's retirement), stand firm in Egypt and annex Uganda. When Salisbury returned to power in 1895 after the Liberal interlude, a new political era opened up. The Unionist coalition, with over four hundred seats, overawed its divided Liberal opponents. The Union was safe (for the moment). Salisbury could pursue his cautious diplomacy of imperial coexistence and risk the small wars and confrontations that rose in the Sudan, West Africa, Siam and Venezuela with domestic equanimity. Here at last was the climate in which imperial enterprise might hope for a fair wind from opinion at home. Now was the moment to reconstruct British politics and erase the obsolete conflict between domestic reform and imperial defence. This was the aim behind Rosebery's efforts to rebuild Liberalism after Gladstone.136 It was the target of Chamberlain's cautious moves towards protection and imperial federation after he had entered Salisbury's cabinet in 1895. Indeed, to some of Chamberlain's more ardent supporters, the time was ripe to push aside the ‘old gang’ – the timid aristocratic leadership of Unionism – in favour of a dynamic chief who would grasp the challenge of mass politics in the coming age of competing ‘world-states’.

But before the South African War it was hard to proclaim that the British position was in imminent danger. The British had been the great beneficiaries of the imperialism of coexistence to which the great powers subscribed tacitly. In the aftermath of Fashoda, the French and Russian foreign ministers pondered gloomily how British assertiveness in the colonial sphere could be restrained.137 Far from falling apart, the British world-system was being drawn together more closely. Britain's imperial functions – as strategic guardian, colonial ruler, demographic reservoir, market-place, merchant and lender – were more deeply engrained in public attitudes, social behaviour and economic choice: the latter was evident in the rising volume of foreign investment and company formation. The settler countries had become larger and more important markets for British goods and capital. Through migration, trade and the exchange of ideas, they made closer links with Britain, the metropole of their culture as well as their commerce. In India, the rapid growth of an export economy made the Raj a better market for British goods and a huge commercial debtor whose earnings elsewhere in the world, when remitted to London, plugged a vital gap in Britain's balance of payments. In trade, currency and military organisation, India was being adapted step by step to an imperial role, a future envisaged (if with different emphases) by both civilian rulers and Congress nationalists.138 In the commercial empire, where British property and investment was not protected by sovereignty, the scales were being tipped more heavily against autarky or default. The widening use of gold as the standard of currency value reinforced the trade-promoting effects of the multilateral payments system pivoted on London. The management of overseas assets – once fraught with numerous perils – became safer and more straightforward in the age of swift telegraphic connections. The City could control its commercial empire with a speed and precision undreamt of by its mid-Victorian financiers.

Thus in an age conventionally seen as the zenith of predatory imperialisms, the British seem well placed to prosper. The Diamond Jubilee of 1897 expressed patriotic self-confidence. The Spithead review of the Fleet seemed proof that it was justified. But, there was, nonetheless, an undertow of anxiety. Global competition brought an endless round of commitments and confrontations whose risk and scale were hard to measure. Britain was a power without allies, and often without friends. A ‘scrimmage at a border station’ might unleash a war and threaten invasion. The danger of arrogance and complacency in the Jubilee year was the theme of Kipling's ‘Recessional’, published in The Times. Unless it paid heed, Britain would follow past empires into collapse and oblivion:

Far-called our navies melt away;

On dune and headland sinks the fire:

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,

Lest we forget – lest we forget.

The urgency of modernising – and unifying – the Empire to meet the challenge of other ‘world-states’ was obvious to Chamberlain and his followers. ‘The tendency of the time’, cried Chamberlain, ‘is to throw all power into the hands of the greater empires, and the minor kingdoms – those which are non-progressive – seemed to be destined to fall into a secondary and subordinate place.’139 The folly of vacillation or appeasement was the cry of those who denounced any compromise on British claims in China or the Middle East. To the self-proclaimed ‘imperialists’ the climax of the struggle was near. The world would soon be made anew and on lines very different from the old order of cosmopolitan free trade and an open maritime frontier. In the age of world states, politics, economies and society would have to be organised on an imperial scale and for imperial purposes. The deeper thinkers suspected that even sea supremacy was not enough to guarantee the survival of the British system.

The outbreak of the South African War in October 1899 thus served to catalyse a variety of hopes and fears in Britain whose political fall-out lasted for much of the following decade. But the most immediate effect of the war was geostrategic. For a decade or more, Salisbury and his Liberal shadow Lord Rosebery had perfected a diplomacy of opportunism. But British success had rested upon the skilful evasion of any large or lasting conflict that would soak up their limited manpower. In South Africa, however, Salisbury stumbled into a war that quickly became more than a colonial expedition. The European chancelleries rubbed their hands with glee. At last, perhaps, the British system could be brought to heel and a European price extracted for its global claims. In a world that was all but partitioned, where the undivided zones of East Asia and the Near East were cockpits of Great Power rivalry, and where the naval and military strength of the contending ‘world states’ seemed more finely balanced than ever, a new era of world politics was about to begin.

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