Refuge of the Aristocracy

Paul Smith

  • Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire by David Cannadine
    Allen Lane, 264 pp, £16.99, May 2001, ISBN 0 7139 9506 8

The British Empire attained its maximum extent just after the First World War, but the peak of imperial visibility and imperialist sentiment at home was arguably reached two or three decades earlier, most colourfully in the great imperial pageant that marked the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. The thumping Unionist electoral triumph of 1895 was confidently ascribed by Sir Robert Ensor (who had been a Winchester schoolboy at the time) to an upsurge of expansionist imperialism, while A.G. Gardiner, the biographer of Sir William Harcourt, spoke of ‘a tidal wave of Jingoism’, as ‘the arrogant nationalism of Mr Kipling and the glamour of Rhodes’s imperialism’ led the country to ‘strange adventures’. Nowadays the picture seems less clear. Imperial enthusiasm may have militated in favour of the Unionists, but it hardly created a ‘tidal wave’. Their massive majority in seats was based on a much less impressive preponderance of votes, and the same is true of their victory in the so-called ‘Khaki’ election of 1900, fought during the greatest imperial crisis since the Indian Mutiny, the Boer War. It was the British electoral system, still heavily weighted in favour of the better-off, rather than the British voter, that seemed so resoundingly to acclaim the British Empire.

It was, and remains, obscure how much or what the Empire meant to the mass of the British people. Selling it to them as the engine of the prosperity which would finance the improvement of their condition, Joseph Chamberlain was driven to wish, in the course of the 1895 election, that ‘the working classes would pay a little more attention to the history of the growth of this Empire. I wish they would think more of the questions connected with its further expansion.’ It would be interesting to see a detailed calculation of the proportion of the British population directly or indirectly connected with the Empire at its height. The numbers deriving immediate profit or employment from imperial investment, trade, administration and defence were perhaps not very great in relative terms, but the penumbra of their families and friends, the recipients of their earnings, their letters home, their souvenirs and reminiscences, must have been large. Add the impact of the proliferation of imperial motifs in imagery and artefacts of every kind, of imperial literature, of imperial festival, of imperial propaganda in schools, and it is hard not to suppose a widespread consciousness of empire among all classes. But informed interest and enthusiasm cannot safely be inferred. The 13-year-old Leo Amery, delighting his Harrow master by citing the Nizam of Hyderabad’s offer of money and troops to the Queen in the event of trouble with Russia as the most important political event of the summer holidays, was in a class of his own. Further down the social scale, the level of awareness was nearer that suggested in Walter Besant’s East London (1901):

The Union Jack is never seen in East London, except on the river, it does not float over the schools; the children are not taught to reverence the flag of their country as the symbol of their liberties and their responsibilities; alone among the cities of the world, East London never teaches her children the meaning of patriotism, the history of their liberties, the pride and privilege of citizenship in a mighty Empire.

For most working people in the great cities, the Empire was first and foremost where you saw Dan Leno and Marie Lloyd.

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