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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

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Christian Auer

VII. Politics, radicalism and national identity

46. The British Empire, 1900

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1Lord Rosebery (Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, 1847-1929) was one of the most prominent Liberal politicians of his generation. He campaigned for the reinstatement of the office of Scottish Secretary, a post that had been abolished after the 1745 Jacobite uprising. The position was to be reinstated in 1885 with the Secretary of Scotland Act that gave the Scottish Secretary duties previously carried out by a variety of bodies. When Gladstone resigned in March 1894, Rosebery was appointed Prime Minister. Rosebery had to govern with a divided Cabinet and with a Tory-dominated House of Lords, which explains why his government lasted only fifteen months, falling over a vote of censure on military supplies in June 1895. The following is an extract of an address Lord Rosebery delivered as Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow on 16 November 1900.

2Lord Rosebery, Questions of Empire, An Address delivered as Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow, 16 November 1900, London: Arthur L. Humphreys, 1900, p. 34-36.

We belong to a nation which has ever been ambitious. Under the great Edwards and Harries and the mighty reign of Elizabeth, ambition grew and swelled and has never had leisure to shrink. But ambition, though an exalting, is an exacting virtue. It is made of stern stuff; it cannot endure apathy or even content. It exacts constant sacrifice and untiring endeavour. Planting a flag here and there, or demarcating regions with a red line on a map, are vain diversions if they do not imply an unswerving purpose to develop and to maintain. But maintenance requires that we shall be alive to all modern methods. Yet we are apt to forget this, and to imagine that our swaddling clothes will suffice for our maturity.

I urge you then, gentlemen, to realise in your own persons and studies the responsibility which rests on yourselves. You are, after all, members of that company of adventurers (used in the Elizabethan and not the modern sense) which is embarked in the business of carrying this British Empire through the twentieth century. Each of you has his share in that glorious heritage, and each of you is answerable for that share. Be, then, practical partners, intelligent partners, industrious partners, and so you will be in the best sense practical, intelligent, industrious imperialists. Be inspired in your various callings with the thought of the service that you can do to your country in faithfully following your profession, so that in doing private you are doing public duty too. The Church, the Law, and Medicine, those chaste and venerable sisters, will, I suppose, claim most of you, and in the service of each you have ample opportunities of rendering service to the commonwealth. The Law is the ladder to Parliament; and the tribunal of appeal is, and I hope will increasingly be, a constitutional bond of Empire. The missions of the Churches, and the Churches themselves, apart from their sacred functions and home labours, which directly serve the State so far as they raise their flocks, have incalculably aided in the expansion, consolidation, and civilisation of the Empire. And Medicine should tend and raise the race, on which all depends. For from my point of view there is not a close in the darkest quarters of Glasgow, or a crofter’s cabin in the Hebrides, which is not a matter of imperial concern; quite as truly, in its proportion and degree, as those more glowing topics to which that adjective is too often limited.

And mark this, in all that I have said there is no word of war, not even the beat of a drum, or the distant singing of a bullet. To some the Empire is little else, and that makes many hate the word. That is not my view. Our Empire is not founded on the precedents associated with that name. It is not the realm of conquest which that term has been used to imply. It has often used the sword, it could not exist without the sword, but it does not live by the sword. Defence and readiness to fight are vital enough in their way, but not less vital is the civil and domestic side; the commerce, the education, the intelligence, the unceasing leaven of a high and the sour decadence of a low ideal. War and conquest can fill the lives of but a part of the nation: a sane and simple duty to the Empire may well inspire the whole.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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