22 AUGUST 1958, Page 8

Lord Milner


LORD M ILNER was the greatest of those who, in the early years of this century, made them- selves the prophets of the Imperial idea. The Imperial idea is an idea of dignity, of which many in the changed circumstances of today know no more than the parody. At certain periods of the world's history cultures which have been hitherto separate come inevitably into contact with one another. It is for the general good that for a time at any rate men of the higher culture should take on themselves the . government of the lOwer and induct it into the new habits which the new circumstances demand. With the improvement of communications in the nineteenth century the white trader had, for better or worse, made his way into and disrupted he old cultures of Asia and Africa. White government must accept the responsibility which that new situation created. There must be. at any rate, a period of imperial rule in the newly colonised parts of the world, and, if there was to be an Imperial power, then in the conditions of the nineteenth century Britain was uniquely situated to be that power. She had almost a monopoly of the world's industry and was the predominant master of the world's capital. An island in a day in which it was only possible to reach an island in a boat, she could keep herself free from the entanglements of the Continent and the expense of a large conscript army. Therefore it could in the last century be readily argued—and indeed was readily conceded by many who had no drop of British blood in their veins—that the advance of Britain in those days was not the advance of a particular country so much as the general advance of civilisation. Indeed the Imperial theorists were at their weakest when they spoke of their idea as a peculiarly British—or a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon—idea and when they sometimes tied in with it theories of racial superiority that were only less barbaric and less As so often happens, the Imperial idea came to be most explicitly formulated at a time-'-the last de- cade of the nineteenth and the first decade of this century—when it was beginning to cease to be valid. Other countries—particularly Germany— were by then beginning to compete with Britain as exporters of capital and as a result beginning to demand to share with Britain in the imperial cake. There is much force in the contention that the Boers under Kruger were determined on driving the British out of South Africa altogether, that a conflict was inevitable and that the Boer attitude to the African was such that, the white man's permanent survival in a South Africa under Boer hegemony was impossible. Yet much more than the fate of English or Dutch in South Africa WU at stake in the Boer War. Continental opinion— to a large extent unfairly—saw in the conflict an example of insatiable British greed. The British, as the Continentals argued, who already possessed far more than their fair share of the world's colonies, were now determined to seize the pos- sessions of another European people just because wealth had been found there. The British, who had up till then held their Empire on the whole with the consent of the European nations, now found a united Europe arrayed against them. Frightened by such hostility, they were compelled to aban- don their independent policy—seek alliance with Japan and entente with France. The Germans threw down their naval challenge. By attempting to carry through in the teeth of the world an enter- prise which could only have been carried through with the good will of the world, we courted in- evitable failure.

Today the whole situation is changed. We no longer have the capital to finance the development of an Empire alone. We are financially dependent on a wealthier ally. The aeroplane and the new weapons have transformed a strategic position of special advantage into a strategic position of special disadvantage. The temporary Japanese victories in the last war have destroyed the legend of the white man's invincibility. Above all our subjects have learnt the lessons of nationalism which we ourselves taught them and our Imperial rule can no longer receive that general consent which it received in the last century. It is very arguable that it would have been better both for them and for the world had they learnt their lessons a little more slowly, but we have to come to terms with the world as it is. Milner, who had recognised from his early Egyptian days that our world posi- tion was inevitably ephemeral, would, we may be sure, have seen this as clearly as any one.

Is there, then, nothing that we 'can say save that Milner was a noble figure but a figure of a past age, wrestling with problems essentially different from the problems of today? Sir Evelyn Wrench wotild certainly like to say a great deal more than that and it would be very churlish not to sympathise with his loyalty and his ambition.* It is true that South Africa has today, as Milner foresaw from the first was all too likely to happen, been wholly lost to the Imperial idea. Was that loss inevitable, or were mistakes made that could have been avoided? It was surely inevitable pro- vided there was a war. Provided that there was a war at all, then the Boers were bound to win the peace whoever won the war. They were bound to win the peace because, although the ideas of Milner and his dedicated 'kindergarten' about the treatment of the African were enormously more enlightened than those of the Boers, the attitude of the English South African towards the African was a great deal nearer to the attitude of the Boer than it was to that of Milner. It is easy to say, as Milner said at the time and as Sir Evelyn Wrench seems inclined to say today (though he admits that he did not say so at the time), that the fault lies with Campbell-Banner- man for granting full Self-government too soon.

I doubt if that be true. Campbell-Bannerman's act at least gave us the support of South Africa * ALFRED LORD MILNER : TIIE MAN OF No ILLU- SIONS, 1854-1925. By John Evelyn Wrench. (Eyre,and Spottiswoode, 42s.) in two world wars. Had it not been for him there Would certainly have been a third Boer War in 1914. The only real chance of saving the situation lay in avoiding the Boer War at all—in playing for time until Kruger died and more liberal and realistic Boers like Botha were able to succeed. That meant in practice, in not breaking off the Bloemfontein Conference. Characteristically Mil- ner came to recognise the mistake that he had made, just as he came to recognise the mistake that he made over Chinese labour and the sanctioning of corporal punishment.

His South African policy, if a failure, was a noble failure, and his role in the 1914 war a noble success. Sir Evelyn Wrench, we cannot but feel, is a little too kind to the part that he played in the years between his return from South Africa and 1914—to his championship of the House of Lords and of what is called Ulster. The House of Lords after the 1906 election had recklessly defied every convention of the constitution by rejecting Wholesale measures which the electorate clearly approved, and Asquith's proposals for curbing their powers were astonishing in their moderation. It would have been inconceivable that such a body behaving in such a fashion should have been left with an absolute veto on legislation. A Con- servative appealing for revolution is always a slightly ridiculous figure because there are always so many others with so much deeper grievances Who are likely to profit from his example, and surely a more ridiculous and less inspiring cause for revolution than the House of Lords of 1910 can never have existed. Milner's 'damn the con- sequences' was a reckless and rather ridiculous 'appeal; even more dangerous was his support of Carson's plans for defying an Act of Parliament with civil war. Whether the Act was a good one or a bad one, the appeal to civil war is a desperate appeal and bound to encourage desperate imita- tors. The objection of the Unionists of the North- East to being submitted to a Dublin Parliament was not an unreasonable desire, but the Covenant in whose name they proposed to take up arms pledged them to resist any form of Home Rule for Ireland, and that was an ambition, if sincerely held, so unrealistic as hardly to be sane and, if insincerely proclaimed, desperately wicked. Mil- ner had from his early years recognised that some form of Home Rule for Ireland was inevitable. He was only opposed to all the forms of Home Rule that were actually proposed and it is a thousand pities that a great man who prided him- self on his independence of party did not dis- sociate himself from the reckless folly, of the Unionist leaders on that point.

We are often told that Communism is not so much a political programme as a religion. Some- thing of the same could be said of this Imperial creed of Milner and his friends. It is strange how largely his political ideas seem to have ousted from his mind any speculation about the ultimate mysteries which we should naturally have looked for in a man so highly intellectual. Yet there is, as Sir Evelyn Wrench well brings out, a moving dignity in a life dedicated without thought of self to the service of an idea, and Milner is one of those, with whom it is possible to disagree, but whom it is impossible not to respect. Sir Evelyn Wrench has put us in his debt by his portrait.