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Hello all,

It's been a while. Some of the old-timers may remember me as the lunatic who ran The Presidents all those long years ago (for those who don't want to click through 500+ pages of posts, the links in Gloa's excellent recaps still work: 1836-1900 and
1900-1956). Or, perhaps, if you're into that sort of thing, you might remember me for various AARs that all fizzled out quickly after an initial burst of writerly enthusiasm.

With the Late Unpleasantness, I, like many of you, have found myself with time on my hands. Time enough to bite the bullet and do some AAR-writing. The specific format is one that I've had in mind for a while; often in the middle of a game, you'll find that there's a period you want to write about, or specific years and events, but you don't really have the willpower to begin the usual, full-fat '1836 and All That' AAR. My solution? Frame the AAR as a collection of essays. I can jump around the timeline, leave events completely untouched, or delve into the implications to my heart's content. In my dreams, this also solves the 'fizzle out' problem, as I can return to it whenever I want with little care for where we left off.

I am willing to answer questions on in-game events and periods that I do not intend to write about. A disclaimer must still follow:

For narrative clarity, some in-game events have been ignored, shifted left or right on the timeline, shamelessly manipulated, and otherwise subordinated to the purpose of creative writing by way of Victoria II play-through.

And now, without further ado:
 

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FOREWORD
Why 1901?

Why did I choose to name this collection after a year? The obvious answer is that it is the year Queen Victoria died. In the simplest sense, the moment of her passing marks the end of the Victorian Era. When Victoria died, on 22 January of the year in question, the nation that passed to her grandson, George V, was widely considered the most powerful to have existed since the height of Rome. In fact, many would have been quick to call that empire utterly eclipsed.

350 million people, more than one in every four human beings, lived under the Union Flag. Be they under the direct rule of HM Colonial Civil Service and HM Indian Civil Service in the Crown Colonies, the indirect rule of the Princely States of the Indian subcontinent, or the semi-autonomy of the Responsible Governments and Dominion of Canada, all owed their allegiance to The Crown. Most would never in their lives see the British Isles from where this grand project emanated, but almost all recognised the symbols and agents of its power.

From Port Stanley in the South Atlantic to Hong Kong in the Pearl River Delta, from Wellington in the South Pacific to St Johns in the North Atlantic, the ships of the Royal Navy steamed across the oceans. Even places as remote as Easter Island, 2,000 miles from any continent, would know the sight of a steamship carrying the flag of the incontestable force that ruled the waves. Even far away from the briny foam, the colonial administrator, the taxman, and the pith helmet would all be familiar.

In Britain itself, the signs of imperial power were everywhere to be found. Town Halls festooned with flags of the colonial ventures that had funded their construction. The statues of, and monuments to, the heroes of imperial expansion. In Westminster and the City of London, empire could be found in things as seemingly innocuous as the leathery skin and stiff gait of the former agents and commodities traders returning from far-flung possessions.


British Empire 1901 - Copy.jpg
The British Empire, 1901
Metropolitan Britain, Responsible Governments, and Crown Colonies are in bright red, the Princely States and Canada in dark

It was not only in the empire that rested Britain’s power. Though the title of world’s largest source of manufactures had, in fact, just passed to Germany, Britain was still considered the Workshop of the World. The factories of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Belfast, Dublin, and Cardiff daily belched smoke into the air. Deadly, yes, but a potent reminder of the nation’s industrial strength.

The Briton that toiled in those factories was well aware of his privileged position in the pecking order of the world. He considered himself part of a nation anointed just as much by God as the King soon would be at Westminster Abbey. He was heir to a democratic tradition that married the stability of monarchy with an equal vote for every man. So confident was he in that democracy, he had extended it to his wife and daughters nine years earlier.

When he heard or read of the death of Victoria, he could be confident that it would not change his rights or the politics of the nation. It is, however, hard to imagine he did not feel some sense of an ending. No sovereign had reigned so long, or presided over such dramatic changes in the nation. There was hardly anyone alive who could remember a Britain without her. Many an essay was written about what this moment meant.

In a historiographic sense, the answer is, of course, not quite so simple. Many of the historians whose essays are contained within disagree profoundly on when one could consider the ‘Victorian Era’ to have ended.

Some, such as Simon MacDonald, consider the election of 1900 to be the end, for its repudiation of Splendid Isolation. In a similar vein, others consider it to be the Liverpool Conference of 1899, where the first, tentative steps toward Atlantic Alliance were taken. Others still place the decisive moment later than Victoria’s death, at the christening of the HMS Dreadnought in October 1901, or in the ructions resulting from the Boer War.

These are all choices made for their geopolitical significance. Others choose to mark the end with domestic developments. Emma Woolrich goes back as far as the Representation of the People Act 1892 and the introduction of women’s suffrage. Thomas Irvine represents the other extreme, considering the era to have lasted all the way up to the autumn of 1911 and the outbreak of the Great War. Some place it in the Summer of 1904, when the consequences of the Boer War came home, and sparked the defining domestic debate of the 20th Century; the purpose of Empire, and what it meant to be English.

The literary world, too, has long been preoccupied with the end of what is often seen to be a golden age. Victorian Britain was able to engage in Splendid Isolation because of a pre-eminence that made it an unchallenged primus inter pares. While there have been periods where Britain has, arguably, been more powerful, in both absolute and relative terms, on the world stage, the cultural confidence in British power of the late Victorian Age has never been matched. Amongst the sheer devastation that followed in the wake of industrial warfare and in the fevered atmosphere of the post-war years, the time before the Great War, particularly the late 1890s - considered by contemporaries a stagnant and intellectually bankrupt period – became a Paradise Lost.


Diamond Jubilee - Copy.jpg
The Diamond Jubilee, 1897
Conceived as a celebration of Empire and British Power in general, the Jubilee has become a touchstone of nostalgia for the pre-Great War era

This cult of nostalgia, centred above all on the Diamond Jubilee of 1897, is present in the culture to this day. No English curriculum is complete without the works of men and women who, even as they decry the hubris of fin de siècle imperialism and the futility of the war it led to, cannot resist including a lament for the security of power and peace of mind that allowed that hubris to exist. Perhaps nowhere else is this clearer than in Henry Thomas Hall’s 1924 poem, Exequia Pro Victoria:

From Waterloo to Westminster
Cross the Great Artery of Empire,
Down Whitehall passes the cortège,
Britannia Regina,
Passing in her wake.

No more the soft comfort,
Of summer in Rangoon,
Nor Christmas in the country,
No sleepy Sermon by the vicar,
No lying in the grass,
On a lazy afternoon.

From now the Drum of Guns,
And the desperate prayers of dying men,
The crash of waves under warships,
The anxious blaring hum,
Of endless, constant vigilance.

Perhaps this is the best argument for 1901. To those who lived through the end of the Victorian Era, and the children they raised, it was the cold February of that year when Victoria herself was laid to rest that loomed large. It is also why this collection exists; the period of 1892 to 1911 that these essays discuss is impossible to escape. Modern Britain, often said to have been created by the Great War, is just as much a product of the two decades preceding it. Had the Britain of 1891, or even 1901, been subjected to the rigours of the great human disaster that engulfed the world in October 1911, a very different country would have emerged than the one we know.

The views and interpretations on the events of the period of the historians included here are many, and some, had they been tasked with covering the same event, would make entirely contradictory arguments. What we all agree on is that this was a momentous period. Contrary to the contemporary zeitgeist of a nation in the grips of stagnation, or the nostalgic reinterpretation of a harmonious Imperial Eden, this was a period of dizzying highs, tumultuous social change, and passionate argument over the nature of Britain’s role in the world and the Imperial Mission that animated the Victorians.

From all of us who produced work for 1901, I leave you with this; we hope you learn something new, find fresh angles on events and people you already knew, and above all - if we have created as good a work of history as we would like to think - enjoy.

W. A. S. Colthurst, December 1997
 
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stnylan

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Riveting introduction indeed.
 

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Now this looks like a treat! I never took part in the Presidents, but I remember it being around. Excited to see this starting up! :)
Excellent introduction. Looking forward to learning more about this world.
My God, you're quick, Densley. Happy to have you on board and interested.

Riveting introduction indeed.
Thank you very much, nylan.

A little housekeeping; I'm planning on posting an essay today, and another on Friday. After that, I'll try keep up a regular Friday afternoon update. Hopefully, the initial week or two of frenzied writing that tends to characterise the start of my AAR process will build up a sufficient backlog that this can keep chugging along smoothly, even if the reopening of pubs and return of friends and colleagues to the city from far-flung lockdown boltholes means I won't be quite so enthusiastic about using my free time to recreate uni by sitting at a laptop writing an essay a week.
 

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PANDEMONIUM
Suffrage, The Summer of 1892, and the Strange Death of British Labour

Emma Woolrich

There is a common narrative around the General Election of 1891 that it was decided by the issue of Women’s Suffrage. It is a fitting, triumphal end to the bitter arguments over the issue that dominated the preceding decade. After wrestling with his conscience, the British Man chose to do the right thing, and vote for the Liberals’ promise to make Britain the first major nation to extend the most basic of democratic rights to women. It is, however, a narrative built almost entirely in retrospect.

For one, the results in 1891 were far from a ringing endorsement of the Suffragist platform. The Liberal Party, while without a doubt the party of Votes for Women, did not enter the campaign shouting Suffrage from the hilltops. The defeat of 1886 stung still. The Conservatives would not even entertain the idea. Labour, quadrupling its seat total and doubling its vote total, said nothing. In the end, even if the Liberals had won on a strong Suffragist platform, a 17-seat majority and a 2.1 percentage point lead in the vote (itself a plurality rather than a majority) was hardly a ringing endorsement.


election 1891 - Copy.jpg
Results for the UK General Election of 1891

Sir William Arthur Sinclair, as he entered No 10 Downing Street on May 21st, 1891, was almost certainly aware that he owed more to the sheer exhaustion of the decade-long Conservative government than to any particular love of the electorate's for his platform. Lord Salisbury’s second ministry had been increasingly defined by scandal and frustration, both with the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. His grand bargain, that demands for domestic change could be mitigated by imperial conquests, had run out of steam.

The Scramble for Africa had reached its climax with the effective annexation of Egypt in 1887, and what had followed was report of misconduct after report of misconduct. Colonial administrators, drunk with power as imperial possessions expanded faster than HM Colonial Office could recruit civil servants, ruled fiefs more like feudal kings than the benevolent imperial missionaries they were supposed to be. Ministers handed plum contracts to friends with little care for so much as the appearance of propriety.

In the papers, Conservative Party politicians seemed incapable of adhering to the strict standards of social conduct that were supposed to be the moral foundation for the imperial mission. The conduct of Salisbury himself was known to be above reproach, but his total inability to control the party had eroded faith in him as Prime Minister. In truth, a depressive and neurotic man like him was never going to have much luck keeping the party in check once the initial fear borne of two decades out of power faded.

Sinclair then did not possess a mandate for radical change, so much as a mandate to not be the previous government. However, what Sinclair would soon prove he also possessed was an extraordinary ability to remould and remake his mandate. Having campaigned on quiet competence, he embarked in the summer and autumn of 1891 on a nationwide tour that was anything but quiet. With the Conservatives in disarray after Salisbury’s resignation, he could now make a full-throated argument for Suffrage.


sir was - Copy.jpg
Sir William Arthur Sinclair, Prime Minister, 1892
As Prime Minister from 1892-1897, Sinclair was the instrumental figure in the introduction of both Suffrage and the National Insurance system

Before introducing the necessary bill though, the Prime Minister needed proof that it would not endanger his razor-thin majority. With the Conservatives implacably opposed, the Nationalists abstaining from sitting, and Labour liable to go either way, he could afford only eight defections if every last MP showed up to cast their vote. Opportunity knocked when, on New Year’s Eve, 1891, Anthony Haverbrooke, Conservative Member for Dartford, suffered a fatal heart attack.

The resultant by-election, in a seat where the Liberals had made unexpectedly strong gains, but not enough to overturn Haverbrooke’s nearly 8,000-vote majority, could serve as a bellwether. If Sinclair could prove that his campaign was not costing the party hard-won support, he could push forward with the bill. The Conservatives could see this too, and poured everything they had into Dartford.

The result was a stunning success for Sinclair. On March 14th, 1892, the Liberal candidate, George Austen, did not just match his last performance; he overturned the majority. By the tiniest of margins, a mere 23 votes, the Prime Minister had been vindicated. Again though, we see not necessarily a result for Suffrage, so much as a government still in its honeymoon period and a seat that had lost a popular incumbent. What mattered was Sinclair’s ability to interpret the result in his favour.

The battle over the bill that was to become the Representation of the People Act 1892 was bitter, and dominated the spring of that year. Amendment after amendment was laid, and while the reintroduction of property requirements to the system for women alone was defeated by a relatively hefty majority of 19, the Prime Minister was forced to use all his considerable powers of persuasion to bring about the defeat by just a single vote (314 to 313) of the proposal to introduce Suffrage initially to only women over 30. When the bill finally passed its third reading by 332 votes to 325 - a climactic affair in which the terminally ill Sir Archibald Callender practically dragged himself in, unable to walk through the division lobby without help from the Leader of the Opposition – the cheer from the government benches echoed all the way to Westminster Hall. There it was soon answered by the cheer of 165 Suffragists.*

The debate in the Lords was, by comparison, considerably more sedate, almost sleepy. This despite including a threat by Lord Aberdeen to cross the floor of the House and cane Lord Lonsdale. Rumours abound about just what Victoria herself said to Private Secretary Sir Walter Fiennes when the bill finally came to her desk, late evening, Wednesday June 1st.

The celebrations by campaigners, supporters, and well-wishers lasted well into the weekend. If Suffrage was the raison d’être of the government, the mandate it was elected on, what followed should be almost impossible to explain; over the next three months, Britain experienced the most intense period of industrial strife and general unrest since the late 1850s. Why, if the government had delivered on its one promise, was this the case?


strikers - Copy.jpg
London Dockworkers, Summer of 1892
In July, nearly 300,000 workers in the dockyards of the capital laid down tools

The answer lies in the reality that there was, in fact, a gap between the government’s election campaign and its conduct. When they had expected quiet competence, most had been happy to lend their vote without expecting much. If, however, the government was willing to be radical, then why had they spent what seemed all their political capital on Suffrage? Labour had not made its gains on the back of a fluke, but that portion of the population truly ready for radical change.

Contemporaries noted the sweltering, almost oppressive heat of the Summer of 1892, and perhaps this did indeed contribute to the atmosphere of anger and impatience that rippled through the industrial heartlands of the midlands and North of England in June. First, coal mines in Lancashire shut down on June 12th, demanding better working conditions. Then the textile workers laid down tools, demanding unemployment support, for their industry was being battered more than any by the rise of German and American competition. As more industries joined, the situation in Lancashire began to resemble almost a general strike.

With the local constabulary nearly overwhelmed by the beginning of July as clashes with the strikers became more common, Home Secretary Jonathan Cole-Harries suggested sending in the troops to support them. Sinclair rejected the idea outright, instructing Cole-Harries only to allow police from neighbouring forces to be driven in as support. By July 27th, there was general uproar in the cabinet as the unrest had spread South. On August 1st, nearly 300,000 London dockworkers joined the striking masses.

Throughout that summer, Angus MacDonald of the Labour Party ran up and down the country on trains, so fervent in his speeches that Cole-Harries considered having him arrested for inciting revolution. Again, Sinclair blocked him. Again, the Cabinet drew closer to outright revolt. If they were apparently not going to offer anything, then why keep inadequate force on the streets? Early examples of professional opinion polling produced by the Liberal City magnate Lord Baring were showing a precipitous decline for the Liberals, a return for the Conservatives, and – most disconcertingly of all – a meteoric rise for Labour. A woeful performance in the Falkirk by-election of August 12th only confirmed these dire predictions.


a macdonald - Copy.jpg
Angus MacDonald, 1892
This Vanity Fair Cartoon depicts MacDonald, Labour leader from 1887-96, as he appeared on so many lecterns and boxes in the Summer of 1892

Finally, on August 18th, in a Cabinet meeting that began with Cole-Harries explicitly warning Sinclair that, were no action were taken by the end of that day’s business, there would be revolt, the Prime Minister unveiled his plan. For over a month, he and Chancellor Reginald Forsythe had worked round the clock to devise the most comprehensive welfare reform in history. A new National Insurance system would provide mandatory unemployment, pensions, and health insurance to every worker. Combined with an amendment to the Working Hours Act 1875, bringing the maximum down to eight from the existing ten, and expanded powers for the Industrial Safety Inspectorate, Sinclair and Forsythe intended to command a cavalry regiment in full parade uniform onto Labour’s lawn.

The plan split the Cabinet in three. A small plurality, including Secretary of State for War Sir Henry Coleridge supported the Prime Minister wholeheartedly.** A second, small faction wished to water down the proposals, and the third, led by the Home Secretary, found them anathema. The proposals were tantamount to socialism. The very heart of Liberalism was a small state; Cole-Harries reminded Sinclair that the Hospitals Act 1873 was just as much the result of the party’s electorally fatal split as the Representation of the People (Ireland) Act 1875, and lingered long after Gladstone had solved the latter.

As far as Sinclair was concerned, the argument over the Hospitals Act had never been solved. As with Suffrage after 1886, the question of whether Liberalism would stick to the small state or embrace the idea that equality of opportunity also required aid to those disadvantaged had been left unanswered after 1881. A solution to the split at the heart of the party was laid aside in favour of the hope that unity, however artificial, would deliver them again to electoral success. Sinclair himself had benefited from the unofficial truce by painting himself as somewhat indifferent to the argument, caring only about returning to government. It was what allowed him to become leader in the summer of 1888.

Now Prime Minister though, he was – as with Suffrage - prepared to lay his cards on the table:

We must make a decision. What are we to be? We cannot become Conservatives, seeking power for power’s sake with no mind for the forward progress of man, nor can we become Socialists, seeking total upturn of civilisation with no mind for what is correct and just. If, however, we cannot take what is good from both sides, and chart a course through the strait, we shall be dashed upon Mr MacDonald on the one side or [newly appointed Conservative Leader] Mr Brunel on the other. Let us then do so. Let us be Liberals. That is how we get through the strait.

At the end of the meeting, Cole-Harries and two others resigned. The rest acquiesced to not only the plan, but Sinclair’s great gamble; he was calling an election. Again, he had found a way to render his mandate entirely different from that received 15 months earlier, albeit this time only within the party, and only to some extent. Total victory would require the aforementioned election. So armed, with a clear promise to the electorate, he tendered the resignation of his government on September 1st, 1892. The Conservatives were blindsided, but overjoyed that they would get to fight on such a clear message; ‘No to Socialism. No to Radicalism. No to Revolution.’ Labour, which should have been able to capitalise by arguing that anyone who wanted real reform should vote Labour, not Liberal, proved shell-shocked.


election 1892 - Copy.jpg
Results for the UK General Election of 1892

As the returns came in on December 4th, it became clear that Sinclair’s gamble had paid off, but not quite as handsomely as he thought it would. As had been found in Baring’s opinion polls, women, who had been expected to be Liberal stalwarts, turned out to be surprisingly conservative voters. This led to the somewhat amusing result that the Conservative vote share stayed exactly equal to that of 1891. Later analysis of Baring’s polls, adjusted for issues resolved in later elections, found that the Liberals would have had well over 50% of the vote and a 400-plus seat haul, if it were not for a six-point gap with women.

Still, the Prime Minister had increased his majority from 17 to a fairly unassailable 50. Over the next year and a half, the National Insurance Acts 1893 and the Working Conditions Act 1894 both passed, despite stubborn opposition in the Lords. There, a couple opportune deaths and the threat of further ennoblements allowed the Prime Minister to win the day after two months of Consideration of Amendments for the first of the National Insurance Acts. Sinclair’s victory, his seizure of the mantle of workers’ protection, was so complete that Labour would not match its 1891 result until after the Great War.

What then, can be said about 1891 and the Representation of the People Act 1892? In the end, the public version of events is something of a myth. Suffrage surely would have arrived eventually, but it arrived when it did, not because the British voter truly wanted it and had expressed an unambiguous desire for it, but because Sir William Arthur Sinclair could play a mandate. The events after Royal Assent only prove this; amongst the electors that voted in both May 1891 and December 1892, it was radical economic change that received a stunning mandate, not lukewarm Suffragism. And yet, those events, which laid the foundations of the modern British welfare state, are practically forgotten by our shared memory.


* The public gallery being too full to allow for the whole group, Lady Millicent Hawkins had been furiously scribbling a makeshift transcript, and recruited a clerk of the House of Commons to run back and forth to the Hall to read it out.

** Sir Henry had worked in the very Lancashire coal mines where the unrest started from age 14 until, in 1849, aged 20, he had found an escape through the Army. Through the Crimean War and various colonial conflicts, he had become one of the first enlisted men to make officer on merit after the abolition of paid-for commissions.
 
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I'm sure all those statues will never cause any problems ever ;) :p.

This looks very interesting - I look forward to reading the first of the essays!

EDIT: And it appeared as I typed!
 

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It was ever thus. A simple narrative tends to oblierate the somewhat more messy reality.

Sinclair has proven to be a most able politician.
 

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A lovely snippet of political history - you know the way to my heart!
 

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Ministers handed plum contracts to friends with little care for so much as the appearance of propriety.
Just like reading the news, this.

Mr Brunel
Brunel, eh? How intriguing.

A tour de force of political drama, brilliantly done. Sinclair is quite the canny Westminster operator, as has been said. Lloyd-Georgism fifteen years before the fact is no unwelcome thing when the alternative is Gladstonian austerity. I do wonder what the Liberal coup will do for the Labour lot. How will they re-emerge in the next century?
 

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Fascinating work but why such incredibly low seat and vote numbers for the Irish Nationalists? Does that represent a Northern Ireland only electorate, with the rest of the country in Home Rule/Dominion status?
 

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I'm sure all those statues will never cause any problems ever ;) :p.

This looks very interesting - I look forward to reading the first of the essays!

EDIT: And it appeared as I typed!
A lovely snippet of political history - you know the way to my heart!
As everyone's mother told them, the way to a man's heart is through 2000+ word alt-history essays.

It was ever thus. A simple narrative tends to oblierate the somewhat more messy reality.

Sinclair has proven to be a most able politician.
Aye, 'twas.

Yes, very able. I was worried I'd made him a bit too able, but an unexpected joy of the 'collection of essays' format I've found as I've written up more of these is that it comes with an option the regular format doesn't readily lend itself to: I can offer a competing interpretation of the same events/people without undermining the internal narrative.

Just like reading the news, this.


Brunel, eh? How intriguing.

A tour de force of political drama, brilliantly done. Sinclair is quite the canny Westminster operator, as has been said. Lloyd-Georgism fifteen years before the fact is no unwelcome thing when the alternative is Gladstonian austerity. I do wonder what the Liberal coup will do for the Labour lot. How will they re-emerge in the next century?
Whatever do you mean, Densley? I hope you're not implying I've been influenced by events outside my own imagination...

I must admit, I had no intention of the name meaning much until I saw your comment, but have now incorporated the connection into later essays.

Thank you for the praise. All in good time for Labour.

Fascinating work but why such incredibly low seat and vote numbers for the Irish Nationalists? Does that represent a Northern Ireland only electorate, with the rest of the country in Home Rule/Dominion status?
I actually have an essay on Ireland half-way done. I was unsure of where to put it in the release order, but will bump it up to fifth, since there's interest. However, in the interest of not keeping you completely in the dark, a quick summary:

In 1891, the Act of Union 1801 still stands, but the Irish Question is in a sort of fallow period. The two major divergences for the GB-IE relationship are Peel's Conservative government choosing to go down the route of active famine relief from the outset, and a much more successful Chartist Movement. With the latter achieving Universal Suffrage in 1849, but poorly defined (i.e. 'can't discriminate on basis of property or age above 21,' instead of 'can only discriminate on basis of current criminal punishment or insanity'), and with registration in the hands of local government, the Ascendancy instituted a system of disenfranchisement for the poor, anti-Unionist, and Catholic similar to those seen in the Jim Crow South IOTL. The debate in the '60s and '70s thus had a middle ground between Home Rule and Nothing, in the form of Proper Representation. The Representation of the People (Ireland) Act 1875 instituted that franchise definition of 'can only discriminate on basis of current criminal punishment or insanity.' With an enhanced voice in Westminster, Irish politics has mellowed, and the Liberals and Conservatives have made inroads, to the point that the INP's parliamentary representation represents more the completely irreconcilable fringe than the IPP of OTL. That's not to say the centuries of oppression are forgotten or that current, informal discrimination has ceased to exist. It's all still there, bubbling under the surface.

Well, this is definitely one I'll have to keep my eyes on :)
Happy to have your eyes.
 
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BigBadBob

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A MINOR, BUT NOTICEABLE, COLONIAL VENTURE
How the Boer War Shook the World
Martin de Caestecker

On the 22nd of July 1902, Colonel James Francis Ormerod’s column of 45,000 men crossed into the territory of the Orange Free State. It’s route of march was practically a straight shot to the Free State’s capital of Bloemfontein. Some 300 miles north, Colonel Henry Buller’s 45,000 men crossed over into the Boer Republic of Transvaal, headed for Pretoria. While the two columns would quickly capture their objectives, and the British Empire would equally quickly annex the two states, the guerrilla conflict that followed would fundamentally change the shape of the world order.

The roots of the Boer War go back as far as the British acquisition of the Dutch Cape Colony during the Napoleonic Wars. The arrival of British settlers to compete with the existing Dutch slowly induced the latter to move further north in the 1850s, founding the two aforementioned ‘Boer Republics.’ By the 1890s, with the mad dash by the British Empire into the land west of the Boer States, even these had started to become untenable. British settlers began, slowly but surely, to move into the relatively sparsely populated Transvaal and Free State. In the late 1890s, the Boers had responded with increasingly violent harassment of these settlers. The government in London was then uninterested in hearing the petitions of the recently displaced, considering the settlers had chosen to settle in a foreign country, but two events in 1900 changed this.

The first was the victory of James Brunel, 1st Baron Brunel, and the Conservative Party in the UK General Election of July 1st. More aggressive in its imperialism and expansive in its view of the limits of the protection British law provided to British subjects, the party saw in the ‘Boer Question’ an opportunity to assert its credentials on both fronts. In addition to expanding the Empire with the soon-to-be-launched annexations of Zande and Luba, the last but one African kingdoms (the rump of Abyssinia, which would be annexed by Spain in 1904) unconquered by Europeans, taking on the cause of the settlers would show the party’s willingness to stand for British subjects, be they in British territory or not.

The other was the end of Splendid Isolation with the Entente Cordiale. When the new Foreign Secretary, Sir Evelyn Wavell, placed his signature, conspicuously above those of his American and French counterparts, on August 4th, the Boer Question took on a new dimension. Britain was now the guarantor of this defence pact housed within an ostensibly innocuous declaration of friendship, and Boer harassment, which had escalated recently to incursions into British South Africa, was a matter of proving Britain could stand up to aggression. A somewhat ridiculous idea, as a couple hundred armed farmers crossing a colonial border was hardly the kind of great power threat (namely Germany) the Entente was supposed to be for, but one that the new Prime Minister agreed with his Foreign and Colonial Secretaries on.


South Africa 1902 - Copy.jpg
Southern Africa, 1902
The Boer States can be seen bounded by British South Africa on all sides, but for Transvaal’s border with the Portuguese colony of Mozambique

It is not clear why the Boers chose to ramp up their incursions, even as belligerent rhetoric from London ramped up and Colonels Buller and Ormerod were sent down with 90,000 British troops. Perhaps they did not believe Britain would in fact choose war, or perhaps it was the discovery of gold in Witwatersrand in late 1901 that convinced them more aggressive action was necessary to deter a British gold rush. Indeed, a disconcertingly common interpretation of the war among Marxist historians has been that the British government wanted the gold, despite what would soon become the South African Expeditionary Force departing from Southampton weeks before news of the find had even reached Cape Town.

In any case, the final straw, or convenient excuse, depending on who one asks, was the June 23rd raid on the mining town of Kimberley, where so many settlers stopped before continuing on to Boer lands. 18 people were killed (14 local, 4 Boer) in what turned into an all out firefight. Just over a month later, the SAEF crossed the borders. As noted, the initial, conventional phase of the war was swift. Pretoria and Bloemfontein both fell by September, with the only major engagement being at Rustenburg, a battle Buller’s force won handily. It was in the second phase where the troubles began.

Once it was announced that the republics were to be incorporated into the Responsible Government of South Africa, rather than afforded their own governments and Dominion status like Canada, the Boers took up arms. Where this expectation came from is, as with the escalation of incursions, unclear. The Canada Act of 1867 was not an experiment that any serious politician in Westminster had broached repeating. It had long been seen as the result of a unique confluence of circumstances that would never happen again; a powerful rival directly bordering the colony, a temporary exhaustion with imperial exploits in the wake of the Mutiny, and a supremely powerful figure in Westminster with nothing better to do than drive for it in Gladstone, out of No 10, but not of power.

The guerrilla campaign that would soon require the dispatch of another 100,000 troops to South Africa kicked off with an ambush of a British Army company headed to respond to reports of unrest at Witwatersrand. Of the 250 men in the column, 38 were killed in the space of three hours. As the attacks of the Boer Flying Columns became more audacious, so too did the British response. First came the intensified patrols, then the burning of crops, and then the exile of captured Boer fighters (to Cape Colony if they were lucky, to elsewhere in Africa if they were not so lucky, and across the sea to Australia and India if they were truly unlucky).

The culmination of this was the creation of concentration camps, into which Boer civilians were herded. Reports in The Times of the squalid conditions in late 1903 elicited widespread condemnation both at home and abroad. Even for those who supported the camps as an 'unfortunate necessity,' it was a necessity that showed things were getting out of hand. Exiled Boer politicians, already gaining sympathy for their story of an oppressed peoples trying to escape the ravenous British, were handed a grand propaganda victory. Of course, much the same story had gained little traction in Europe when coming from the many African tribes and peoples that had suffered humiliation, degradation, and loss of homeland in the Scramble for Africa. The reasons for this are not particularly hard to guess.


boer camp - Copy.jpg
A British Army-administered concentration camp in Transvaal, 1903
While effective at starving the guerrillas of support, the camps severely damaged support for the war in Britain and the wider world

The camps, however, were only one aspect of how the war was beginning to shake the fragile order of the early 1900s. Britain’s inability to effectively suppress the Boers was doing more damage to its implicit guarantee of protection for France than the incursions that began the war were ever likely to do. In Europe, the great powers were already reassessing the extent to which the Entente had changed the continental balance of power.

German entreaties to Italy and Spain, long-sought allies to guarantee there would be no repeat of the short but bloody Franco-German War of 1887 (a fear that had been rapidly intensified by the entry of Britain into a continental accord), were suddenly receiving positive responses. In Istanbul, reactionary elements - which had never reconciled themselves to the 1841 August Revolution that formed an English-style parliament to check the Sultan’s power - now felt less fearful of a possible British response. In March 1904, they would execute a coup that turned the Sublime Porte into a de facto military dictatorship, one that was aligned to Germany, as much a conscious choice as it was a reaction the old parliament’s Anglophilia. Suddenly, what had seemed a ring around the Russo-German axis was a chokehold on the UK’s Austrian and French allies. The upshot was that German power now unnerved the Czar and State Duma in St Petersburg.

Domestically, and in the Responsible Governments, the Boer demand for Dominion status had lit the touch paper on the purpose of these semi-governments. If Dominion status was not the end-goal, what was? Some Liberals, long silent on the matter, started to echo the arguments now coming from Australia and New Zealand, that it was time for those Responsible Governments to move up in the world. This in turn created a need to argue against Dominion status, or offer an alternative. The debate was intensified in the summer of 1904, as Boer resistance in the former republics was finally coming to a slow, tortuous end. On July 22nd, the anniversary of the war’s beginning, a bomb exploded in a pub on Storey’s Gate, right next to the under-construction Government Offices Great George Street.

The bomb was, initially, without much thought, blamed on the IRA. That the near-defunct organisation was still the first suspect in a time of anarchist bomb-throwers and socialist, even communist, agitators had far-reaching consequences in Ireland. Suddenly, the settlement of 1875 - a settlement that had taken a decade to embed itself - came into question again. The forgotten terms of the Home Rule debate were soon no longer a dead language in Westminster.

The bomb had, in fact, been set by a disparate group of people, connected only by their sympathy for the Boers. The conspirators included two anarchists, a Boer immigrant, a German intellectual, an Oxford professor, and a communist. Unable to agree on their demands, the note they left expressed only disgust at the camps and reiterated the Boer story.


debate 1892 - Copy.jpg
H. L. Sykes-Emory, Secretary for the Colonies, at the despatch box on August 4th, 1904
Sykes-Emory was the leading light of the Conservative side of the Imperial Federation League

Faced with what they considered to be an existential threat to the empire if Dominion status became a common option, an alliance of Liberals and Conservatives formed the Imperial Federation League on August 16th. Rather than outright denying rights to the Responsible Governments, and so risking a repeat of the American Revolution, or ending the empire by so weakening the link to Westminster, they proposed to bring the Empire closer together by giving the Responsible Governments seats in the Commons. The IFL, headed by the Conservative Colonial Secretary, H. L. Sykes-Emory, and the Leader of the Liberal Party, H. H. Asquith, transformed the debate - and Westminster as a whole - overnight.

Sykes-Emory was immediately dismissed as Colonial Secretary. He, and many of his supporters, crossed the floor of the House to the Liberal side. The Liberals themselves split three ways into Federation Leaguers, Dominionists, and those who crossed to the Conservatives. While Asquith and Sykes-Emory were eventually able to reconcile the Dominionists to Federation through fear of an outright Conservative victory, for the second time in less than a decade, the two main parties had split. The dividing line in British politics was now one’s opinion on the core Liberal proposal; increase Commons seats to 700, and assign 50 of them to the new ‘Imperial Commonwealths’ of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

In the Responsible Governments themselves, the debate was equally, if not more, fierce. In Australia and New Zealand, there were demonstrations that could easily turn into brawls if met by a counterdemonstration. In early 1905, there were fears in Cape Town that the Responsible Government might experience an outright civil war, as exiled Boers and the newly integrated former republics attempted to convince the British ‘Anglo-African’ population that they had been right.

When Lord Brunel’s government sent Buller and Ormerod to South Africa in September 1901, they were expecting, as Wavell put it, ‘a minor, but noticeable, colonial venture’ that would consolidate the Conservative victory of 1900 and strengthen the Entente Cordiale. What happened, instead, was a two-year quagmire that reverberated all across the globe. It upended the European alliance system, contributed decisively to the March Restoration in the Ottoman Empire, and sparked the grand debate on the future of the empire that changed Britain forever.
 
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mad orc

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Wow a second Britain AAR on the subforum. This one is also very good!
I love the 1901 start date idea as it provides a cool variety. Your writing is good and actually our styles of writing somewhat match.
Just like me you also ask questions like,
Why, if the government had delivered on its one promise, was this the case?
and then answer them. I do the same.

Following. Good writing.
 

stnylan

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There is a great phrase I encountered in the series Chernobyl which seems most apt for Britain right now in this telling: "Our power is bsaed on the perception of our power". When that perception takes a hit, the power likewise crumbles.
 

DensleyBlair

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A messy time all round for diplomats and politicians the world over. Intrigued by hints of shifting battle lines in Europe, particularly the reference to the Franco–German relationship. Meanwhile, the Empire cutting the Commons into about six pieces does not strike me as a brilliant assurance of stability at an increasingly fractious time…

Also intrigued to see Asquith making an entrance when we’ve had so many invented politicians.
 

Specialist290

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Whenever I read a piece like this, I'm always reminded of the scene in The Man who Would Be King where Sean Connery's character (I forget the characters' names; it's been a while), after having set himself up as a god-king to the isolated Afghan tribe he and his partner in crime (played by Michael Caine) have encountered, he decides to take one of the village women as his new queen. During the wedding ceremony, she panics when he leans in to kiss her, because she's afraid the touch of a god will surely kill her. She ends up biting his cheek in the confusion -- not enough to do any serious harm, but just enough to draw a little blood.

And just like that, the illusion is broken. Gods aren't supposed to bleed, you see. Everything ends up going downhill (literally) for the impostor god-king not too long after.
 
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