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Paradoxe(s) victorien(s) – Victorian Paradox(es)

William Findlay

I. Identité et image nationale

Britannia super omnes: Race theory and The Imperial Sentiment in Victorian Britain

Trevor Harris


The tensions and contradictions in the Jekyll-and-Hyde society of Victorian Britain, are clear evidence of, as well as an alibi for, the triumph of inequality: that durable imposition of a specifically British, liberal state. If liberal, indeed Whig, history was that state’s apology and a Victorian keynote, evolutionism became the socioeconomic extension of that historical justification. Its typical mode of thought was social Darwinism. Bowdlerized science “explained” the “progress” of Victorian Britain towards world domination. Insights from developments in biology or physiology, conclusions as to function and structure in the organic world were mapped, first, onto social function and structure, then onto geopolitical function and structure. Britannia magna, “Greater Britain” or the “expansion of England” became less the expression of the Empire-nation than of the manifest destiny of an imperial race...

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1In addressing the Victorian paradox I deal below with attitudes which are at once imperial and insular, adventurous and anxious. Indeed, in the brief discussion which follows, I address one aspect of, as it were, the “negative” stage of positivism: the climate of ideas in which faith in science shades into scepticism about the possibility of knowledge, and the Empire, from being a source of economic strength and political confidence, is progressively seen as a source of weakness: a perception fuelled by the increasing competition from rival powers–notably the United States and Germany–who were beginning to make serious inroads into British commercial domination. Indeed, the relationship with Germany, particularly, is at the heart of many of the ideas discussed below, and British attitudes to that country constitute another contradiction: Germany, for whom so many in Britain felt a natural attraction and affinity before the repulsion engendered by the First World War, and with whom British politicians had long considered the possibility of a formal alliance. The specific elements of this context which I wish to explore briefly are the attitudes of the British elite to race, the increasing mysticism and desperation which characterise the comments of scientists, politicians and intellectuals, and the longevity and continuity of these attitudes.

  • 1 The remarks were made during his speech on the final day of the Conservative Party Spring forum in (...)

2Seen from the present it is possible to argue that there exists a clear, though usually muted, British tradition of aggressive, white-supremacist imperialism, itself an offshoot of an aggressive nationalism, with its deepest roots to be found far back in patriotic English Protestantism. That tradition stretches back through the ethnocentric pronouncements at the far reaches of today’s Conservative Party–especially, but not only, in respect of what is portrayed as the malignant influence of the European Union-, including William Hague’s own remarks (as the then party leader) about Britain as a “foreign land”,1 to the notorious “cricket test” invented by Norman Tebbit, the “bovver boy” of the Tory right, to Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech, to the tormented ranting of an A Κ Chesterton, to the straw-fire fascist politics of Oswald Mosley, to the imperialist and nationalist politics of Henry Page Croft... and beyond. The ideological route followed by many of the nineteenth-century exponents of British racial superiority includes many of the influences on these later figures and highlights a continuity of thought: Goethe, Gobineau, Darwin, Spencer, to name only the most obvious stops along the way. I want to try to bring together some of these sources, to thereby underline the ideological coherence of the different contributions, and to allude, by way of a very provisional conclusion, to their possible place in the genealogy of a much broader Anglo-European misunderstanding.

3Charles Darwin’s work, and the broader evolutionist mindset which it underpinned, already had its own intricate genealogy by 1859, when On the Origin of the Species was first published. For example, the ethnologist, James Cowles Prichard (1786-1848), had provided what became the standard account of human evolution in his Researches into the Physical History of Man (1813). Darwin’s work was obviously indebted to, and built on, Prichard’s. The penetration of On the Origin of the Species also owed much to Thomas Huxley’s considerable talents as publicist for the more retiring Darwin. Above all, Darwin’s book was pressed firmly into a context whose receptivity was such that the impression was deep and clear cut: both within the scientific community and much further afield. One of the key figures in that context was William Carpenter (1813-1885), one of the leading natural scientists of his generation and highly influential, who had published a new edition of his Principles of General and Comparative Physiology in 1851. Carpenter, Darwin and others, would scarcely have been unaware of Arthur de Gobineau’s Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines, published in France between 1853 and 1855, while in Britain anthropologists were engaged in studies which were almost universally predicated on evolutionism, racial hierarchies and natural selection: John Beddoe’s early work, for example his Contribution to Scottish Anthropology (1853), falls squarely into this category. Herbert Spencer, who had reviewed William Carpenter’s book for the Westminster Review, published his own Principles of Psychology in 1855: this was deeply indebted to Carpenter–as well as to Prichard–and was already an application of evolutionism to the life of the mind.

  • 2 The Age of Capital: 1848-1875. London, Abacus [1975], 1997, p. 133.

4One bright young man from Somerset, Walter Bagehot, was in no position to evade this context. Indeed, as a pupil of both Prichard and Carpenter at Bristol College, the evolutionist ethic was acquired early, and with it the principle of “fitness” and an unshakeable belief in the superiority of the English nation. The fact that Bagehot witnessed first-hand the Anti-Corn Law League rallies of 1848 in London (he was actually sworn in as a Special Constable at the time in order to repel the expected onslaught on the Inns of Court) clearly confirmed his wariness of the principle of numbers. Staying in Paris at the end of 1851, he also saw many of the events leading up to Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’état in December of that year: a political solution of which Bagehot approved strongly, a change in regime perfectly suited to those headstrong, ill-disciplined French... In 1859 Bagehot published a widely acclaimed essay on “Parliamentary Reform” as the Derby government prepared its moderate, ill-fated Reform Bill. In that essay, Bagehot extols the manners and progress of urban(e) society, shows that he is above all an Establishment man, and sets out his convictions concerning a highly elitist form of government. The “theorist of harmless democracy”, as Eric Hobsbawm describes him2–though “neutered democracy” might perhaps be a more accurate assessment–went on to produce the classic account of The English Constitution in 1867, this time in the context of Disraeli’s successful introduction of a Reform Bill. Bagehot’s well-known defence of cabinet government and his concern to preserve the dim mysteries of the monarchy, rest on the dual principles of efficiency and hierarchy in, as the bullish caricaturist George Cruikshank would have put it, the “British Bee Hive”.

  • 3 London, Henry S. King and Co., 1872.

5The implied social Darwinism of Bagehot’s The English Constitution comes into sharper focus in his Physics and Politics: Thoughts on the Application of the Principles of ‘Natural Selection’ and ‘Inheritance’ to Political Society.3 Bagehot emphasises the fact that national character is “the continuous force which binds age to age... which makes each civilisation not a set of dots, but a line of colour, surely enhancing shade by shade” (8). He contemplates in awe the “mystery and power” of inheritance (9) and the way in which it divides civilised man from “the vague-minded savage” (209). Indeed, the latter must be ignored: “we need not take account of the mistaken ideas of unfit men and beaten races” (ibid.). The vast majority of races, it is claimed, are in decline or, at best, stationary. England has attained, by contrast, “the progressive state [which] is only a rare and occasional exception” (211). These remarks, although typical of a mid-Victorian attempt to make sense of the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the era of the masses, necessarily place a slightly different emphasis on the image handed down to us of Bagehot as the quintessentially enlightened parliamentarian.

  • 4 Roy Jenkins, Sir Charles Dilke: A Victorian Tragedy. London, Collins, 1958.

6It was during these same years that Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke (1843-1911) rose to social prominence and political office with the Liberal Party: to such a degree that Disraeli, who admired Dilke, tipped him as a future prime minister. A much-publicised divorce scandal was later to intervene and scotch that particular ambition: “Mrs Crawford Intervenes” in Roy Jenkins’ genteel phrase...4 As a direct result of the divorce proceedings, Dilke became a notable Victorian might-have-been. But in the late 1860s and early 1870s, his star was rising fast. Between June 1866 and June 1867, Dilke–as was then the custom for well-to-do young men–made a year-long journey abroad: in Dilke’s case, spending much of the time in the Americas. For our purposes, one of the main consequences of this trip was the publication, in 1868, of his Greater Britain: A Record of Travel in English-Speaking Countries. Roy Jenkins’1958 biography of Dilke, perhaps a little too anxious to make of his subject an early precursor of the enlightened left is rather coy where some of Dilke’s views on race and empire are concerned: “Dilke,” argues Jenkins, “could not have been counted a straightforward imperialist” (35). One is bound to ask: why? To a Bagehot, Dilke’s radical Liberal politics must have seemed highly questionable, and Dilke’s attack on the Queen–in Parliament in 1870-71–for non-payment of tax, at best a cheap, political stunt, at worst an ideological anathema which undermined the national interest. Yet Dilke’s radicalism at home was accompanied by a decidedly vigorous, elitist attitude to foreign policy: Jenkins himself points out the limits of Dilke’s liberalism, underlining that he was “a thoroughgoing radical, but without the slightest tinge of pacifism or Little Englandism” (29) and, still according to Jenkins, was never “a peace-at-any-price man of the Bright school” (49). Dilke’s republican politics in the domestic context, that is, were accompanied, in the field of foreign policy, by fundamentalist assumptions concerning British racial superiority.

  • 5 During the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, Dilke enrolled as a Prussian Knight of St John having fa (...)
  • 6 S Gwynn and G M Tuckwell, Life of Sir Charles Dilke, 2 vols. London, 1917, I, p. 104.
  • 7 Greater Britain. 8th edition. London, Macmillan, 1890, p. 63.

7Dilke’s Greater Britain was standard reading until the end of the century and represents an early, much acclaimed impetus to late-nineteenth-century imperialist thinking. Dilke’s “vague feelings of Nordic solidarity with the Germans”, as Jenkins puts it, were in fact rather more clear cut than that.5 In 1868 he asserted that “our true alliance is not with the Latin people, but with men who speak our tongue, with our brothers in America and with our kinsmen in Germany”.6 During his stay in America, he came into contact with Red Indians, (prompting the remark: “These Red Indians are not red”):7 wondering about the reasons for the Indians’ “debasement”, Dilke comes to the conclusion that “[t]he reason must lie in the blood, the race” (84); or again, “the Indian is mentally, morally and physically inferior to the white man” (88). It follows that the “gradual extinction of the inferior races is not only a law of nature, but a blessing to mankind” (ibid.). The superior race is clearly the Teutonic: “Saxondom”, Dilke confidently predicts, “will rise triumphant from the doubtful struggle” (564).

8Dilke’s attitudes were by no means atypical. In 1867, we find Napier publishing his “Table of Human Races”, complete with the mental characteristics associated with each of the major groups. Racial miscegenation was an important theme, too: mixing of higher and lower races was held to lead inevitably to the decline of the higher race. The Anthropological Review even recommended, in 1869, that any Englishman helping to reproduce racial hybrids should be severely punished. In 1870 Sir John Lubbock published The Origin of Civilisation and the Primitive Condition of Man. Mental and Social Conditions of Savages. Edward Burnett Tylor’s Primitive Culture appeared in 1871–the same year as Darwin’s Descent of Man. William Winwood Reade, one of the many emissaries of the Royal Geographical Society, and who had acted as war correspondent covering the Ashanti war for The Times in 1873, argued–from Darwinian principles and from personal experience–that it was quite useless to try to convert Negroes to Christianity since they were incapable of receiving it. The no doubt highly useful Notes and Queries on Anthropology, for Use of Travellers and Residents in Uncivilised Lands, appeared in 1874 under the auspices of the Anthropological Society. W Ε Forster’s Our Colonial Empire appeared in 1875: Forster went on to become the first chairman of the Imperial Federation League in 1884. A certain Macfie, produced in 1878 the ominously titled Impending Contact of the Aryan and Turanian Races, while Sir Bartle Frere, treated the Anthropological Society to a lecture on,

“The laws affecting the relations between civilised and savage life, as bearing on the dealings of colonists with aborigines” (1882)...

  • 8 Bristol, Arrowsmith and London, Trübner and Co, 1885.

9As can be seen from even this brief enumeration, Britain’s elevated position in the racial hierarchy and struggle was a fundamental assumption of mid-Victorian scientific investigation. John Beddoe was one anthropologist who was working to introduce some method into what was still at the time an emerging science. In The Races of Britain: A Contribution to the Anthropology of Western Europe8–dedicated to the French craniologist Paul Broca–Beddoe applied evolutionist methods to produce a mass of evidence in the form of skull measurements, column after column of data on eye and hair colour, as well as analyses of surnames and place names. On the basis of this evidence, and applying his “numerical and inductive method” Beddoe develops the “index of nigrescence” and in his conclusion asserts that “with a few notable exceptions [though we are not informed as to where or when these exceptions occur] conquering and ruling races have always been fair, while the vanquished and submissive races have been dark” (224); he adds that “there is a general consensus of opinion as to the superiority, as marksmen in shooting, of men with light blue and light gray [sic] eyes” (ibid.); his subsidiary aim is to “test directly whether, through natural selection or any other process, the colour type has altered among our upper classes” (225); he concludes in respect of Britain that “the Gaelic and Iberian races of the west, mostly dark-haired, are tending to swamp the blond Teutons of England” (270).

  • 9 A point Seeley returns to later “I tell you that when you study English history you study not the p (...)
  • 10 The struggle between England and France was ongoing, of course. Seeley’s book was published in the (...)

10There were further accounts by historians, too, which sought both to “explain” the success of Greater Britain and to guard against any dilution which might place this domination at risk. One of the best known, J R Seeley’s Expansion of England, appeared in 1883, but was actually a record of a series of lectures delivered as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge in 1881-82. Seeley, in the opening lines of his text, tells the reader that history “should not merely gratify the reader’s curiosity about the past, but modify his view of the present and his forecast of the future” (1).9 He confirms, a little further on, that he is interested in “the destiny which is reserved for us” (6) and proceeds to apply the criterion of race to that end. Having seen off the French in the eighteenth century–“ a struggle not of principles, but of races” (48)10–Seeley argues that the Empire came into existence “necessarily” (42), an expression of “the genius of the Anglo-Saxon race” (80). Like Dilke, Seeley takes “Greater Britain” to mean England, and the self-governing colonies and possibly even India, whose “Aryan, Sanscrit-speaking” (205) Brahmin caste he shows to be of the same racial origins as the Anglo-Saxons, underlining, if not racial purity, then “ethnological unity”. He emphasises the extent to which nations can become “cramped for want of room, as our nation is now” (59); he argues that the Spanish Empire failed because in “the Spanish settlements the Europeans were blended and lost in an ocean of Indian and half-Indian population” (127) and warns against “the deterioration of the national type by barbaric intermixture” (138). However, whereas the Spanish Empire had a “large part which had a mixture of barbarism in its blood and another larger still whose blood was purely barbaric” (138), the English Empire remains, throughout “of civilised blood” and reveals the “natural aptitude for colonisation and a faculty of leadership in our race” (295). Seeley’s wider point is that the domination of the English race must be converted into the domination of the English state throughout the Empire:

“There is no topic so pregnant as this of the mutual influence of the branches of the English race. The whole future of the planet depends upon it” (150).

  • 11 London, Longmans, Green and Company, 1888.

11The inevitable expansion of the English race and state was a subject of predilection among the emigrants to empire themselves and the historical determinism of proponents of “Saxondom” expands into a nascent fulfilment theology. For example, one of the many emigrants to New Zealand, J C Firth, who became a successful merchant and landowner there, published Our Kin Across the Sea.11 It was a book which received some attention, not least because it was prefaced by the historian and ardent imperialist, James Anthony Froude. Like the politician Dilke and the historian Seeley, the emigre entrepreneur, Firth, highlights the need to “strengthen the bonds which unite mother country and colonies” (17). Like many other “federationists”, Firth sees in an Anglo-American federation a potentially powerful alliance of “the two great branches of the Anglo-Saxon race” (ibid.), the evolution of which continues since the American “is none other than a second, and, in some respects, an improved edition of his English kinsman” (21). Faced with such palpable evidence of English domination, Firth takes the obvious step of asking himself the question: “Can... such a development as the wide dispersion and dominion of the English-speaking race have been permitted, without being intended to exert an influence upon the destiny of the human family greater than that exerted by any other people, ancient or modern?” (143). The logic of this argument takes him towards a far more sweeping conclusion: “The destiny of the English-speaking race is not merely to colonise two or three continents, but to control the world” (240). All that is lacking is common action by the United States and Britain, presently embroiled in a tariff dispute:

“But what are [the] difficulties when they are confronted by the mighty force existing in common laws, a common literature, in common religion, in a common love of freedom, in a common home life, and, greatest of all, in a common language? It needs but the conviction and establishment of a community of interest to enable the mighty forces I have described to work out in some coming time, the Confederation of the English-speaking race all over the world. That, I venture to think, is the Manifest Destiny of the people who speak the English tongue (246; Firth’s emphasis)”.

  • 12 Chamberlain was on a diplomatic mission to find a solution to that very tariff dispute (a fishing d (...)
  • 13 Joseph Chamberlain, Foreign and Colonial Speeches. London, George Routledge, 1897, p. 6. Speech of (...)

12The ideas of Firth, and many others, for an elaborate imperial confederation had, by the 1880s, made their way not only into the main stream of British politics, but into the very heart of government. The leading advocate of imperial confederation was Joseph Chamberlain. Speaking at the end of 1887 in Toronto,12 Chamberlain stresses the “greatness and the importance of the destiny which is reserved for the Anglo-Saxon race”, that race which is “infallibly destined to be the predominating force in the future history and civilisation of the world”.13 “Greater Britain” (7) in which all are “of the same race and blood” (ibid.), or the different ” branches of the English-speaking race” which he refers to in a speech delivered in Philadelphia two months later (8), boast “a thousand years of glorious traditions” (15), based on their “common blood and common origins” (25)... Chamberlain had been profoundly influenced by Seeley (allegedly sending his son Austen to Cambridge especially so that he might benefit from Seeley’s teaching). During his troubled years as Salisbury’s Colonial Secretary (1895-1902), of course, Chamberlain was unable to impose his vision of imperial confederation and tariff reform and eventually split the Conservative Party, as he had earlier split the Liberal Party over the Irish Question for similar federationist motives. Gladstone foundered on that particular rock and Chamberlain himself fell victim to the more distant shoals of the Boer War: like Dilke, indeed, Chamberlain effectively became a might-have-been...

  • 14 Dilke was Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs from 1880-82.

13However, Chamberlain’s imperialist crusade of about 1886 onwards, was not some sudden brainchild of a tour of the Americas: indeed, it was the principal reason for it, and had been one of the main reasons for his appointment as President of the Board of Trade under Gladstone between 1880 and 1885. That appointment, in turn, had owed much to a pact with Dilke, precisely, who surmised, correctly as it turned out, that the “GOM” would go along with a “both of us or none of us” arrangement.14 Chamberlain and Dilke had by that time already known each other for ten years, and Chamberlain would obviously have known Dilke’s book–published not long before they first started to correspond–as well as Dilke’s ideas, intimately. Like Dilke, Chamberlain was a true radical at home, and an imperialist abroad. That Dilke was also close to John Morley, who edited the Fortnightly Review from 1867 onwards–the place where Bagehot had first published his English Constitution as a series of articles–hints very strongly at the shared, evolutionist ideas and ideals of critical, sceptical Whigs and adventurous radicals in Victorian England.

  • 15 Mackinder (1861-1947) founded the School of Geography (the first of its kind) at Oxford in 1899, an (...)
  • 16 Sir Halford J Mackinder, Britain and the British Seas [1902] Westport, Cct: Greenwood Press, 1969.
  • 17 Sir Halford J Mackinder, “The Geographical Pivot of History” [Paper read to the Royal Geographical (...)
  • 18 See ibid, p. 12.

14Nor were such ideas and ideals an exotic Victorian excrescence, doomed to fizzle out with the passing of the great Empress and the eclipse of those figures discussed above. Within the scientific community, the influence of John Beddoe, for example, was carried over into the Edwardian period by the geographer, Sir Halford Mackinder,15 who makes extensive use of Beddoe’s work–notably the “index of nigrescence”–in his survey of the “racial geography” of Britain.16 Mackinder, from the late 1880s onwards, was a highly influential figure in persuading the Royal Geographical Society to adopt the “new geography” and in convincing informed opinion of the benefits to be derived from such a geography where British trade and diplomacy were concerned. Indeed, his keen awareness of the political implications of his discipline means that in many ways he must be seen as one of the early proponents of what was later to become known as “geopolitics”. Mackinder’s particular brand of holistic, organicist geography, with its central notion of Britain’s Darwinian struggle within “the world organism”,17 established Mackinder as a prominent imperialist and brought him into regular contact with such figures as H G Wells, J S Milner and L S Amery. Mackinder’s sense of urgency in respect of Britain’s world role and his conviction that geography was an essential element of overall strategy, were further developed in Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919), a book seen by many as an attempt to influence Britain’s representatives at the Versailles peace negotiations. Although the potential application of Mackinder’s ideas was not followed up in government circles in Britain, his concept of the “heartland” (which developed out of the “geographical pivot” idea) clearly had considerable impact on the thinking of a number of German strategists of the inter-war years, later prompting an aging Mackinder (in 1944) to make what would have been, in nearly all other circumstances, an unnecessary defence of his ideas.18

  • 19 Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts, F. Bruckmann A.-G., München.

15The Anglo-German connection which Mackinder had unwittingly fostered was perhaps best embodied by Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927), whose ideas, as expressed in his Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, first published in 1899, in German,19 had considerable impact. Chamberlain we may now safely regard, if we choose, as an effete cosmopolitan, a fin-de-siècle neurasthenic and something of an Anglo-German oddity (he became a German citizen in 1916). But as the young charge of a Prussian tutor, and later as Wagner’s son-in-law (he married Wagner’s daughter, Eva, in 1908), Chamberlain was heavily influenced by Gobineau (himself a close friend of Wagner) and Chamberlain’s popular social Darwinism developed into a full-blown pan-Germanism, then–arguably–into an apology for the future Nazi Reich itself. Decorated with the Iron Cross in 1915 by Kaiser Wilhelm II, for services to the German Empire, Chamberlain accused Britain of treason against the Germanic race when she entered the war on the side of France. He later became a great admirer of Hitler, who returned the compliment: indeed, the two men met in 1923.

  • 20 History as Literature. New York, Charles Scribner’s sons, 1913. On-line edition: Bartelby. com, 199 (...)
  • 21 Fabian News (n° 22 [June 1911]). Elsewhere, Shaw describes the Foundations as “the greatest Protest (...)

16Chamberlain’s race mysticism, as expressed in the Foundations, had considerable impact in Germany itself, but also in America and Britain, even before the English version was published. When the English edition of the book did appear, in 1910, it prompted a number of reactions which, taken out of context, might now appear rather strange. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, described The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century as “a really beautiful and solemn appreciation of true Christianity, of true acceptance of Christ’s teachings and personality”.20 The Times Literary Supplement enthused over “one of the rare books that really matter”. George Bernard Shaw went further and described it as “a masterpiece of really scientific history”.21 In the light of the imperialist convictions of a Dilke, a Seeley or a Joseph Chamberlain; in the light of the work of a Beddoe, a Winwood Reade or a Firth; in the light of the foreign policy of the Salisbury government (1895-1902) and its almost permanent search for some kind of Anglo-German rapprochement; in the light of the intermittent talk of an alliance between Victoria’s England and “[her] little Germany”, ruled by her favourite grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II, in whose arms Victoria finally expired at Osborne House; indeed, in the light of the pervasive Victorian imperial sentiment, the more supremacist ramifications of which I have attempted to sketch out here, it is perhaps not surprising that informed reaction in Britain to H S Chamberlain’s book should, prior to the First World War, have been so positive...

17Homely, smug, hypocritical mid-Victorian England: expansionist, imperialist, jingoistic late-Victorian England. Both are commonplaces. But neither is a very useful benchmark in itself. Rather than being a mere chronological succession separated by a hiatus, these two contradictory “moments” are, in fact, two facets of the same problem. The second stage, however, is a very singular intensification of the first. For Victorian confidence or imperialist attitudes are one thing. Conviction of one’s racial superiority, however, and a project for a federation of colonial powers erected on explicitly racial grounds, imposed by force whenever necessary and ardently advocated by leading politicians, thinkers, historians and industrialists: this is clearly something very different. It is not the least interesting aspect of such attitudes that enlightened or “radical” figures should have often had ambivalent attitudes towards them and sometimes subscribed fully to them. Views which today seem so thoroughly reprehensible can, of course, be partly explained away by a specific scientific context which conditioned opinions subsequently made untenable. And yet, given the reception of Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s ideas, as late as 1911, one is perhaps led to wonder to what extent it was geopolitical factors, for example, rather than scientific or intellectual justification, which dictated the subsequent and sudden rejection by the Establishment of hitherto widely held views: not the least important aspect of this rejection was the deterioration of the relationship with Germany. But that rejection was perhaps not complete or irreversible. Further research may show that white supremacist ideas were not completely jettisoned by Edwardian Britain, or even after that, by the bien-pensant political elite: the “left”, as evinced by George Bernard Shaw’s remark above, seem to have had their own particular difficulty in dealing with this...

18One reaction to the uncomfortable implications of some of the attitudes described above is first to project the reprehensibility back, en bloc, deep into the Victorian period, as though the leading minds of that time should all have been fully conscious of the terrible implications of their arguments, and then use the British imperialist ideology as a blunt instrument with which to beat Britain’s scandalous colonial past and everyone connected with it. The temptation to wheedle out the proto-fascists already lurking in the British establishment in, say, the 1860s can be a strong one indeed. But this is clearly inappropriate and is not the aim of this short article. It is appropriate, however, to wonder to what extent Joseph Chamberlain’s legacy, for example, survived both the Boer War and the First World War, to what extent social Darwinist thinking, in general, has found its way through (post-1914 and even post-1945) into Britain’s foreign, and especially European policy and to what extent the cross-party, anti-European current in contemporary British politics can be attributed, however indirectly, to a legacy of ideas which, in its day, made possible the alliance between imperialist Conservatives and Liberal Unionists, between political cultures which we now invariably assume, wrongly perhaps, to be mutually exclusive.



BAGEHOT Walter, Physics and Politics: Thoughts on the Application of the Principles of ‘Natural Selection’ and ‘Inheritance’ to Political Society. London: Henry S. King and Co., 1872.

BEDDOE John, The Races of Britain: A Contribution to the Anthropology of Western Europe. Bristol: Arrowsmith and London: Trübner and Co, 1885.

CHAMBERLAIN Joseph, Foreign and Colonial Speeches. London: George Routledge, 1897.

DILKE Sir Charles Wentworth, Greater Britain. [1868] 8th edition. London: Macmillan, 1890.

FIRTH J C, Our Kin Across the Sea. London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1888.

GWYNN S and G M Tuckwell, Life of Sir Charles Dilke. 2 vols. London, 1917.

HOBSBAWM Eric, The Age of Capital: 1848-1875. London: Abacus [1975], 1997.

JENKINS Roy, Sir Charles Dilke: A Victorian Tragedy, London: Collins, 1958.

MACKINDER Sir Halford J, Britain and the British Seas. [1902] Westport, Cct: Greenwood Press, 1969.

—, “The Geographical Pivot of History” [Paper read to the Royal Geographical Society, 25th January 1904], London: Royal Geographical Society, 1969.

ROOSEVELT Theodore, History as Literature [New York: Charles Scribner’s sons, 1913], On-line edition: Bartelby. com, 1998.

SHAW George Bernard, A Treatise on Parents and Children.


1 The remarks were made during his speech on the final day of the Conservative Party Spring forum in Harrogate, March 2001.

2 The Age of Capital: 1848-1875. London, Abacus [1975], 1997, p. 133.

3 London, Henry S. King and Co., 1872.

4 Roy Jenkins, Sir Charles Dilke: A Victorian Tragedy. London, Collins, 1958.

5 During the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, Dilke enrolled as a Prussian Knight of St John having failed to join the Prussian army itself, though by the end of the conflict, having witnessed the attitude of the conquering army, he admitted that he found the Prussians “overbearing”.

6 S Gwynn and G M Tuckwell, Life of Sir Charles Dilke, 2 vols. London, 1917, I, p. 104.

7 Greater Britain. 8th edition. London, Macmillan, 1890, p. 63.

8 Bristol, Arrowsmith and London, Trübner and Co, 1885.

9 A point Seeley returns to later “I tell you that when you study English history you study not the past of England, but her future” (174).

10 The struggle between England and France was ongoing, of course. Seeley’s book was published in the year the Alliance française was founded, among other things to protect and promote the French language in its struggle against English.

11 London, Longmans, Green and Company, 1888.

12 Chamberlain was on a diplomatic mission to find a solution to that very tariff dispute (a fishing dispute between Canada and the United States) to which Firth alludes.

13 Joseph Chamberlain, Foreign and Colonial Speeches. London, George Routledge, 1897, p. 6. Speech of 30th December 1887, at the annual dinner of the Toronto Board of Trade, made in response to the toast “The Commercial Interests of the Empire”.

14 Dilke was Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs from 1880-82.

15 Mackinder (1861-1947) founded the School of Geography (the first of its kind) at Oxford in 1899, and held the Readership in that subject from 1887 to 1905, He was also Director of the London School of Economics, 1903-08.

16 Sir Halford J Mackinder, Britain and the British Seas [1902] Westport, Cct: Greenwood Press, 1969.

17 Sir Halford J Mackinder, “The Geographical Pivot of History” [Paper read to the Royal Geographical Society, 25th January 1904], RGS, 1969, p. 31.

18 See ibid, p. 12.

19 Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts, F. Bruckmann A.-G., München.

20 History as Literature. New York, Charles Scribner’s sons, 1913. On-line edition: Bartelby. com, 1998, chapter 8, “The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century”, § 6. Elsewhere in the chapter, Roosevelt qualifies his judgement in a number of important ways. True, he feels that “Much that [Chamberlain] says... is not only perfectly true, but is emphatically worth considering” (§ 2), or that “His statement of the raceless chaos into which the Roman Empire finally lapsed is, on the whole, just, and, to use the words continually coming to one’s mind in dealing with him, both brilliant and suggestive” (§ 4) or, again, that “there are many pages of deep thought and lofty morality based upon wide learning and wide literary and even scientific knowledge”. On the other hand, Roosevelt underlines Chamberlain’s “startling inaccuracies and lack of judgement” (§ 1), considers him “quite as fantastic an extremist as any of those whom he derides” and is highly critical of the “foolish hatred” (§ 2) and the “dogmatic assertions” (§ 3) which show through in many places. Overall however, Roosevelt, despite misgivings about the book as being the thoughts of “an able man whose mind is not quite sound” (§ 5), appears to come down on the side of “a man who can warn us as clearly as he has warned about some of the pressing dangers which threaten our social fabric because of indulgence in a morbid and false sentimentality” (§ 6).

21 Fabian News (n° 22 [June 1911]). Elsewhere, Shaw describes the Foundations as “the greatest Protestant Manifesto ever written” and adds: “everybody capable of it should read it” (A Treatise on Parents and Children, in the section entitled “the Bible”: consulted at

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