The Palace of the Governor-General of the Sudan at Khartum
The Palace of the Governor-General of the Sudan at Khartum

The return of the Unionists to power in 1895 enticed one of the rising statesmen of that party to prophesy that there would be no more troubles with foreign Powers, which only took advantage of the weakness of Liberal Governments. The prophecy was hardly uttered before it was falsified. A dispute was already in progress with France in regard to Siam; and it was settled peacefully at the beginning of 1896 only because Lord Salisbury judged that the subject in dispute was not worth a war. In fact his diplomacy was habitually open precisely to the charge levelled against Liberals of making concessions in preference to insisting upon every claim for which a plausible justification could be brought forward. The plain fact was that the responsible leaders of both parties usually took very much the same view as to the general principles of action in foreign affairs.

British interests were to be safeguarded, but an aggressive tone was to be avoided, and practical considerations were not to be over-ridden by abstract objections to the methods which other nations chose to adopt, or by a desire to check the natural craving for expansion on the part of other peoples than the British. The rule of avoiding isolated interven­tion was to be strictly observed. And these principles were not always to the taste of the advanced members either of the one party which was unduly hasty in discovering that British interests were involved, or of the other which was too eager that Britain should constitute herself not only the advocate but the fighting champion of oppressed populations and nationalities. Thus in 1896 a grave situation was created by the threatening language of the United States, which in effect claimed the right to dictate the settlement of a boundary dispute between Britain and Venezuela; and extremists were far from being pleased when the case was submitted to arbitration.

Lord Salisbury's justification was complete, when after long delays the award of the arbitrators confirmed the British view in practically every detail. Again in 1896 there was a great outburst of popular indignation over ugly stories of massacres by the Turks in Armenia. In spite of the agitation, however, Lord Salisbury refused an isolated intervention, wherein he was warmly supported by Lord Rosebery, who, partly in consequence of the line adopted by a iarge number of Liberals, at this time resigned the leadership of the Liberal party and assumed the role of a candid and independent critic. But if Lord Salisbury declined to send armies to Armenia, Britain could take a definite lead in another case, in virtue of her position as the premier naval power.

China and Japan
In effect it was British interposition which saved Greece from paying the full penalty for challenging Turkey to a war in which she was very decisively worsted, and compelled the Turks to concede the establishment of an autonomous government in Crete with a Greek prince at the head of it in 1897. On the other hand, British diplomacy appeared to come off badly when the victory of Japan in a struggle with China led to a scramble among the European Powers for Chinese territory, and Russia appropriated some of the fruits of the war to which the Japanese seemed legitimately entitled. Lord Salisbury, in fact, did not want Chinese territory, though he desired and obtained from the Powers concerned the open door for commerce. Japan was to prove later that she was very well able to take care of her own interests.

Egypt and Sudan
Of much more importance than the remote East in the eyes of the Government was the position of affairs of Egypt. Since 1885 the Egyptian government had left the Sudan to itself. The Mahdi died in that year, to be succeeded by the Khalifa Abdullah, who continued to organise a sort of empire among the wild Sudanese. Now it was still in theory the desire of the British Government to withdraw from Egypt, but it was entirely obvious that a British withdrawal would leave Egypt a prey to the Khalifa. In 1896 it was resolved that in order to curb the dervishes, as the Khalifa's followers were called, it was necessary to push the Egyptian frontier to the south, up the Nile to Dongola. The jealousy of Russia and France caused those Powers to exercise their legal rights in restraining the Egyptian government from providing funds for a campaign.

The money was therefore advanced by the British Government, and before the end of the year Dongola was occupied without serious resistance. But the advance had only made it clear that the time had really arrived for the reconquest of the Sudan. With systematic precision Sir Herbert Kitchener prepared his plans not merely for a campaign of victories, but for an effective strategic occupation. In 1898 the regular advance began, and in September the Khalifa's forces were completely shattered at the decisive battle of Omdurman. Abdullah, however, escaped, and it was not till the end of 1899 that the last resistance of the dervishes was finally crushed.

Omdurman itself was followed by an incident which threatened to bring about a war with France. A French expedition, commanded by Major Marchand, had started some two years before from the French Sudan. In the summer of 1898 the intrepid explorer and his party penetrated into the Egyptian Sudan and reached Fashoda, where they hoisted the French flag and repulsed an attack on the part of the dervishes. It is impossible to question that but for the advance of Kitchener the little party would very soon have been annihilated. Hearing a report that there were troops commanded by white officers at Fashoda, Sir Herbert proceeded up the Nile, found Major Marchand at Fashoda, complimented him on his brilliant enterprise, and hoisted the British and Egyptian flags.

The indignant Frenchman declared that Fashoda was French territory, on which the French flag had been hoisted before it was in occupation by the British; and French sentiment became greatly excited. But the fact was too obvious that Fashoda had not been in effective French occupation, and that Marchand would never have been heard of again if the dervish forces had not been shattered by the British and Egyptian army. The French claims were ultimately withdrawn and the respective frontiers delimited.

War in China
In the sphere of foreign politics, as actively affecting this country, one other event remains to be chronicled during this period. China had received a very rude shock in the Japanese War, and a series of further shocks when one after another of the European Powers forced treaties and concessions upon her. At the same time a progressive party, which was becoming alive to the advantages possessed by Europeans, was temporarily dominant, and set about the introduction of a series of reforms by no means to the taste of the conservative Manchus, the dominant race to which the reigning dynasty belonged.

A coup d'etat restored the ascendency of the Dowager Empress and the old regime, and very soon afterwards began what was called the Boxer rising, directed largely against Christians and "foreign devils." There was very little doubt that the movement was fomented by the government, although nugatory edicts were issued against the insurgents. The legations of the European Powers at Pekin were besieged and cut off from all communication with the outside world; and the attempt to effect a relief by means of an entirely inadequate mixed force under Admiral Seymour failed. The relieving force itself had to be relieved. The Powers, working in reasonable concert, at length collected a sufficient force which marched on Pekin under the commarid of the German Marshal Count Waldersee. Happily it was found that the legations had held out successfully. A heavy war indemnity was imposed upon the Chinese, and the incident terminated without any rupture among the Powers.

In India the most prominent events were the two disastrous famines of 1897 and 1900, a severe and prolonged outbreak of the bubonic plague, and a somewhat exceptionally severe period of compaigning among the tribes in the north-west frontier presently followed by the organisation of a frdntier province separate from the Punjab.

In the sphere of domestic legislation Ireland again had its turn. Home Rule was for the time being put entirely out of court, and the still unhealed division in the ranks of the Irish Nationalists kept that party comparatively inactive. It was the main business of the Unionists to demonstrate that the people of Ireland could still be sympathetically and satisfactorily governed without having a legislature of their own at Dublin.

Mr. Chamberlain had not departed from his old desire to extend to Ireland methods of self-government which should not involve the separation of the legislatures. On the land question, while there was sufficient variety in the ideal solutions which individuals were inclined to propound, every­one wanted to improve the lot of the tenants without inflicting undue loss upon landlords. The main difference between the two parties was that one was somewhat more anxious on the landlords' behalf and the other on that of the tenants. Hence the Government introduced a Land Bill with the usual object of improving the facilities for land purchase. Being favourably received by the Nationalists, it was denounced by the Irish landlords as a betrayal of their interests. Being modified in their favour, it was denounced again with equal fervour by the Nationalists. Ultimately the withdrawal of sundry amendments left the landlords sore and the Nationalists on the whole pacified. This Land Act of 1896 was followed by the Local Government Act of 1898, which established elective county councils' and district councils. The working of the Act in Ireland has not differed conspicuously from the working of the earlier Local Government Act in England.

Here, however, the Unionists were not altogether satisfied with their own handiwork. The London County Council had exercised the powers bestowed upon it with an activity which inspired alarm, in Conservative quarters. A new Act broke up the great municipality into a number of boroughs, to which a portion of the powers of the London County Council were transferred. Three other measures demand brief notice. In 1896 an Agricultural Rating Act was passed to diminish the pressure of the rates upon the land. Ostensibly it was intended to relieve the tenant; in actual practice it was no doubt the landlords who benefited.

A comprehensive Education Bill was introduced in the same year, but its extremely complicated character compelled its withdrawal, and a simpler bill was introduced in the next year. In effect the intention was to free the voluntary or denominational schools from the disadvantages under which they stood as compared with those schools which were entirely supported out of public funds. The schools were relieved from liability for the rates, and were given a substantial capitation grant while the Church authorities still retained complete control of the management. The Opposition denounced the measure as appropriating public money practically in order to foster the denominational teaching of the Established Church, as they denounced the Agricultural Rating Act, as a "dole" to the landlords.

The third measure was an Employers' Liability Bill, making the employers in certain trades responsible in case of injury to their workmen, but this also was denounced by the Opposition on the ground that it permitted contracting out and was therefore practically valueless to the workmen. The clamour of the general election of 1900 had hardly died down when the nation was plunged into mourning by the death of Queen Victoria in the sixty-fourth year of her reign, the longest in our annals. The parliamentary situation however was not affected. The Liberal party was virtually paralysed by the extreme divergencies among both leaders and rank and file on the subject of the Boer War; and although on all sides there were wrathful denunciations of the blunders and miscalculations of which the administration had been guilty in the first stages of the struggle, the country had very definitely refused to displace ministers in favour of a party so divided on the most important issue of the hour.

When at the end of 1901 Lord Rosebery emerged again into activity, it seemed for the moment that the bulk of the Liberals and a large proportion of those who had only supported the Government faute de mieux would be ready to unite under Lord Rosebery's banner, but that statesman had no wish to create a party of his own. When it became clear that it would not be possible for him to act in harmony with the official Liberal chief, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, he reverted to the position of candid friend. But his intervention had not been without effect in emphasising the general feeling that more serious and more tactful efforts must be made to bring the hostilities to an end.

Arthur Balfour
Though Lord Rosebery had failed to re-unite the Liberals, their differences were in fact connected very much more with the past than with the future. When once the war was over there was nothing really to prevent a reunion, since the imperialist section had rejected the temptation to organise itself as a separate party. The Government made haste in 1892 to provide the Opposition with a bond of union by bringing in a new Education Bill, which was unanimously condemned by every section of the Liberals. More decisively than ever the bill asserted the principle of retaining the entire management of voluntary schools under clerical control, of preserving religious tests for the teachers, and of paying the greater part of the expenses out of public funds. But before the measure became law Lord Salisbury had retired from office and Mr. Arthur Balfour had become Prime Minister.

End of Empire
Here must be added the record of an important step on the part of the colonies, taken in the last year of the century. The Australian group federated themselves as the Australian Commonwealth, on the analogy of the Canadian dominion; although, as Newfoundland continued to stand outside the Canadian federation, so New Zealand continued to stand outside the Australian federation. This may perhaps be taken as the moment when it began to be recognised that the term "colony" was ceasing or had ceased to be properly applicable to the autonomous states of the British Empire. Thenceforth it gradually became customary to speak of them not as the Colonies but as the Dominions.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's point of view may not be currently accepted by modern historians, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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