The Guardian and the Boer War


1900: A group of war correspondents in South Africa during the Boer War. Amongst them is a young Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965), middle row second from left, reporting for the Morning Post. The others include: back row, left to right: William Dinwiddie of Harper’s Weekly, Alister Campbell of Laffan’s News Agency, J Atkins of the Manchester Guardian, Douglas Story of the Daily Mail, GH Seull of the New York Commercial Advertiser, RC Booth of Pearson’s War News and RMB Paxton of the Sphere. Middle row, left to right: Basil Gotto of the Daily Express, Churchill, FW Walker of the Daily Express, and MH Donohoe of the Daily Chronicle. Front row, left to right: WB Wollen of the Sphere, JO Knight of the Times and Herald of Chicago and Ernest Prater of the Sphere. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Previously, we examined the role of the press and the “participatory journalism” of the Crimean war. We noticed the relationship between journalism and the culture of public discussion in Victorian Britain. One of the major points of this public discussion was the contested meaning of patriotism in this era and the employment of `patriotism’ as a device for challenging corrupt governments. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, a more rigid definition of patriotism predominated, associated with the right, and the radical definition of patriotism had gone on the defensive. By the end of the nineteenth century, patriotism had become less a critical edge than a device that, coupled with its sinister cousin, jingoism, could effectively stave off criticism of imperialist governments.

Here we examine the relationships between the practice of journalism, the culture of public discussion, and the contest over patriotism at the end of the nineteenth century and argue that C. P. Scott’s journalism (and his leadership of the Manchester Guardian) focused on promoting a politics by public discussion, even during wartime, precisely because he saw this culture of discussion as central to England’s national identity. In other words, for Scott, true patriotism required defending England’s culture of public discussion.

During the mid-nineteenth century, theories of the press prevailed that can be broadly called `educational’. Commentators optimistically expected the press to `influence’ readers to a proper understanding of political issues around the `true ‘ or the `common good’.

Beginning in the 1880s, however, these ideals came under concentrated attack from a variety of commercial, social, and theoretical pressures. The increasing concentration of the press among fewer and fewer owners, and the growing role of advertising, threatened the independent voice in journalism. The apparent `democratization’ of British society, including the expansion of the electorate and the rise of a `mass readership’, undermined elite optimism about the desirability –or possibility- of including all readers in the continuing journalistic discussion. Finally, even theories of communication began to suggest that people’s opinions grew out of historical situation, not rational persuasion. In this context, the `educational’ ideal largely yielded to an emerging theory of the press as `representing the people’. In this conception, the newspaper’s function was to articulate the supposed beliefs and interests of the readers, not to `influence’ them or draw them into a public discussion. This formulation cast readers as passive, and assigned to the editor the responsibility to decide which opinions or interests of the people needed to be represented.

This new understanding of the press had opponents and exceptions, particularly on the left. Scott was perhaps the most prominent journalist to maintain the ideal of an educational press. The Boer War allows a particularly concentrated examination of this journalistic culture. During this episode all of the worst fears of the `educational theorists ‘ of the press came together: commercial corruption, mass excitability, careless and `un-sober’ journalism.

The Boer War, therefore, constituted a serious challenge to the liberal ideal of rational politics by public discussion, bringing to prominence the `differing factors that characterized late-nineteenth-century imperialism and jingoism’) and apparently presenting the heirs of the Gladstonian mantle with a heightened example of the irrational `mass society ‘ that already terrified them. Moreover, the Government’s practice of demonizing the enemy and presenting them as a threat to the English way of life anticipated the propaganda of the Great War, making this war a key moment in the development of modern nationalist politics.

This nationalism in turn depended on recognition of a common white race; like the Great War, but unlike other colonial wars, the Boer War featured enemy populations of European descent. An examination of the Guardian, as a prime example of the rational, educationalist press, during this period of intensified ` jingoistic ‘ fervour thus brings into sharp focus the tensions inherent in attempting to communicate rational arguments during this key period in the `long revolution’ toward democracy.

Scott belonged to a radical tradition of imperialism and patriotism that had roots in the early nineteenth century. There was an enduring political critique of territorial imperialism, ranging from Charles James Fox through J. A. Hobson, in which critics argued that it tended to increase the domestic power of the military and governing classes. Rather than opposing empire itself, the critics distinguished this militaristic, annexationist imperialism from a `true ‘ imperialism that emphasized voluntary emigration `devoted to cultivation and commerce not conquest’, and self-supporting colonies patterned after the ancient Greek example rather than the Pax Romana.”

This critique of empire tended to resurface most strongly during periods in which liberalism at home seemed to be under strain, a quality that characterized British politics after 1895. This definition of imperialism coincided with a radical definition of patriotism that included an attack on centralized power and an emphasis on public over private interest, and the maintenance of what eighteenth-century theorists had called ` civic virtue ‘. One of Scott’s concerns was to bring this tradition daily before the British public.

He didn’t write all the editorials, to be sure, but dominated their tone through daily meetings. Also, other staff members had important contributions –especially J. A. Hobson. In fact, Hobson articulated one of the most important turn-of-the-century defences of the mid-Victorian educational ideal of the press, and the commitment to a journalistic public discussion. In The psychology of jingoiism (1901) and Imperialism : a study (1902), Hobson articulated an essentially negative defence of that ideal, by demonstrating its corruption by the increased concentration of the press among ever fewer large-scale capitalist owners. Hobson’s primary concern, of course, was not with defending the discursive function of the press, but with demonstrating the cultural factors that underpinned imperialism. Still, he is an important part of the present story not only because he shared Scott’s broad vision of journalistic public discussion, but because Hobson’s work as the Guardian’s South African correspondent served as his impetus for formulating his theories of the connection between journalism and imperialism.

Hobson became the Guardian’s South African correspondent in the summer of 1899, prior to the outbreak of the war. According to Krebs, Hobson’s originality consisted in moving beyond Cobden’s and Bright’s mid-century economic critique of imperialism, expanding it to include the political and cultural aspects of imperialism. In particular, Hobson defended the idea of a free and critical press, claiming, however, that the monopoly on South African news held by the South African mining interests undermined that free press.

It is impossible to determine how much of Scott’s own critical views of the South African press originated in Hobson’s correspondence. It is clear that Hobson was the source of most of the Guardian’s original South African news during the first eighteen months of the war, and that Hobson is, therefore, a major part of this story. Before considering Scott’s use of the Manchester Guardian to oppose the Boer War, it is worth examining his avowed understanding of a newspaper’s function. These pronouncements for the most part occurred several years after the war, and so we should be wary of uncritically applying them to the earlier period, but (as we shall see) they were generally confirmed in his practice as editor.

As stated above, Scott’s understanding of the press’s function placed him squarely in the tradition of mid-Victorian Liberals who identified the press’s `educational’ role. Reflecting on the Guardian’s centenary in 1921, Scott wrote that a newspaper `may educate, stimulate, assist, or it may do the opposite’. Thus it had a `moral as well as a material existence ‘ ; a newspaper was a business, but more than a mere business.” A decade later, in 1932, he asserted that newspapers should interpret the world to their readers. As he pointed out, `there are occasions in which nothing is so misleading as the bald fact. To be understood it must be seen in its whole connection, as part of a process, not merely as an incident.’ That is, like the mid-Victorian Liberals Alan Lee has identified, Scott saw the chief duty of a newspaper as influencing readers, helping to shape and direct a public opinion, rather than exploiting it in order to force a government’s hand, as `new journalists ‘ such as W. T. Stead advocated.

At the same time, however, Scott was influenced by the late nineteenth century’s increasing emphasis on newsgathering. Indeed, he saw newsgathering as a paper’s first duty. This position led him to emphasize, to a much greater extent than his mid-Victorian counterparts, the grounding of opinion in careful journalism. In his own words, `neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation must the unclouded force of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free, but facts are sacred.’ He went on to dismiss `propaganda’, insisting that `the voice of opponents no less than friends has a right to be heard’. Such were the reflective pronouncements of an editor in the twilight of his career, written in the safety provided by the rare opportunity to write about journalism, rather than practising it. These statements raise important questions: how did this rhetoric of journalism translate into practice? Did Scott, faced with a question about which he held strong opinions, give in to temptation to misrepresent opponents or falsify the news, or, alternately, to downplay his own opinions because of commercial pressures? If not, how successfully did he practise `educational’ or ` liberal ‘ journalism of public discussion in the era of the `new journalism’ and jingoism?

What message about the Boer War did Scott attempt to communicate to his readers? From before war broke out until its conclusion, he consistently argued that war was neither necessary nor in Britain’s best interests. Prior to the war he argued for a diplomatic resolution to the tensions; from the time the war began, he always insisted on carrying the war through to a speedy, negotiated conclusion, focusing on limited war aims. That is, he always insisted that the war should be fought only for clearly defined political ends. Moreover, he argued for conducting the war honourably and in a ` civilized ‘ manner, rather than along the lines of `total war’. Finally, he resisted the effects of a ` total war’ on the home front, calling for the preservation of English liberal principles of polite discussion and resolution of conflict. All of these arguments became interwoven within a broader attempt to recapture `patriotism’ from the Conservative party, which had seemingly won that mantle by the 1880s.

Scott’s opposition to the Boer War manifested itself not only in his journalism, but in his career as a Lancashire politician. He served as one of the leaders of the South African conciliation committee and helped to organize the Manchester Transvaal committee, which attempted initially to prevent the war and, once war began, to bring it to a speedy close. He made numerous anti-war speeches. More than three months before the war’s outbreak, in June 1899, he told the Liberal Forwards Club that ` it did not follow. that because there were evils demanding remedy in any country that another nation was at liberty to bully it, and go to war to redress those grievances’. Many of his antiwar speeches took place in the House of Commons.

Moreover, during the `khaki election ‘ of 1900, Scott’s position on the war became a key issue in his bid for re-election as member for the Leigh division. Scott, however, called upon voters to consider the entire record of the Conservative party, and not merely their stand on the war, before deciding which party to elect. He accused the Conservatives of strategically timing the
election, two years before required,

at a moment when tens of thousands of electors are absent in South Africa, and on an old register, which will disqualify hundreds of thousands mor . It is an attempt to turn patriotic feeling to party purposes, to hide the shortcomings of politicians at home behind the hard-won successes of our soldiers abroad . and to ride into power for six years more on a vote taken amid the heat and excitement of a great conflict.

Scott attempted, then, to expand the range of issues under discussion. Yet his attempt did not meet with success. An anonymously issued pamphlet, which Scott’s election committee attributed to the Conservatives, spent its entire four pages campaigning against Scott, solely on his stance on the war. Throughout the pamphlet Scott’s patriotism came under constant attack. For example, the pamphlet alleged, Scott failed to sympathize with the Outlanders because, “of course, they were only Englishmen, and not Mr. Scott’s friends the Boers”. Scott was accused of encouraging Kruger to resist the British demands, a point that Scott’s election committee denied strongly. Above all, “Mr. Scott was a founder and one of the chief supporters of that notorious pro-Boer organisation – THE MANCHESTER TRANSVAAL COMMITTEE. ‘ In conclusion, the pamphlet urged the `MEN OF LEIGH! ‘ that `When the election comes, [they should] tell Mr. Scott that no member of the MANCHESTER TRANSVAAL COMMITTEE shall ever again represent the Leigh Division in Parliament’. Scott’s election committee replied, issuing a pamphlet entitled `A lying leaflet’, which it called `AN ANONYMOUS LIBEL’. The pro-Scott pamphlet printed, in two columns, a list of `FALSE STATEMENTS and the FACTS placed side by side’.

Much of Scott’s public activity, then, was directed toward articulating his position on the Boer War. His journalism conveyed much the same content as his other `pro-Boer’ activities, and was in one sense merely an element in a larger campaign. Because of the nature of the newspaper medium and Scott’s appreciation of its potential, however, his journalistic activities became preeminent in his anti-war campaign. Scott’s contemporaries recognized the Manchester Guardian as one of the main nexuses of the anti-war movement. W. T. Stead, who published a single-issue newspaper to advance his radical `stop the war’ campaign, as well as sensationalistic anti-war pamphlets with titles like Shall I slay my brother Boer?, recognized the Guardian’s potential for persuasion, and he appealed to Scott on more than one occasion to help publicize his efforts. During the negotiations that ultimately collapsed, leading to war, Stead asked Scott to help sponsor a weekly newspaper `devoted entirely to war against war’. Scott rejected this request; as he told L. T. Hobhouse a few months later, he did not believe in starting a paper to meet `particular contingencies’, but preferred instead to employ existing newspapers.’ Nevertheless, he gave space in the Guardian to Stead’s writings. Moreover, when the Quaker chocolateer, George Cadbury, negotiated to purchase the Daily News, primarily in order to use it as an antiwar vehicle, he asked Scott’s advice on how to hire an appropriate staff; Scott agreed, and offered to meet with Cadbury in either London or Birmingham, and to meet occasionally with Cadbury’s editor, in order to advise him on the newspaper’s policy.(Scott’s efforts to `educate’ his readers to the harmfulness of the Boer War to the British national and imperial interest formed a significant part of his daily practice of journalism, but it is important to note that the Boer War was not the only important topic during these three years. Diplomatic trouble in China, Queen Victoria’s death, and the aftermath of the Spanish-American War were just a few of the many events that often claimed more column inches than the war. Indeed, it was not at all uncommon on a given day for none of the leaders to discuss the war. Moreover, despite Scott’s recognition that the paper could not be all things to all people,) he gave regular space in his leaders to such diverse topics as Tolstoy’s writing and the latest scientific developments.

In presenting the news, Scott attempted to make his newspaper into a vehicle for public discussion and `education’. Two types of news require distinguishing. First, there was the `hard news’ of the war: troop movements, casualties, rumours of a peace settlement. Second, like other `quality’ papers, the Guardian extensively reported speeches.

As a means of opposing the war, or of trying to bring the war to an early end, printing the news had obvious limitations. First, a commitment to impartiality raised the prospect that `the facts ‘ might not support Scott’s political aims. For this reason, Guardian proprietor J. E. Taylor counselled Scott that in hiring a special correspondent to South Africa to replace Hobson, they had to take care not to `send a man too far committed to even our views. He should be a justice loving, high principled strong man; but not a partisan’. Indeed, much of the news, if its presentation were not blatantly partisan, would be only tangentially related to the broader questions of war aims and peace negotiations that interested Scott. On a daily basis, then, the Guardian, like all other `quality’ papers, provided extensive coverage of the most recent war news, most of which was drawn from the various agencies, such as Reuter’s or Central News, or from the Daily Telegraph. Moreover, the development of such news agencies tended to diminish editorial control over the news content. In other ways, though, the presentation of news could be wedded to an effort to preserve a critical reading public, which in turn could create citizens less gullible to the government rhetoric. Scott saw the preservation of free speech and critical thought as intimately tied to his opposing the war, and one gets the impression that he opposed the decline of rationality signaled by the war as much as any atrocities against the Boers.

Such critical thinking could be emphasized by coupling wire reports with leaders questioning their validity. In the Guardian’s own words, more than halfway through the war, `Anyone who is still following the war closely has learnt by experience that if he wants the truth he must never take the surface meaning of a telegram, but must poke about until he finds it in a subordinate clause or an adjective, or in an implication that is unexpressed.’ Time and again, leading articles reminded readers that news could not be taken at face value, but that one had to maintain a healthy scepticism towards war reports. For Scott, that is, a ` fact ‘ should be defined neither according to ideological usefulness nor according to commercial potential, but according to notions of truth and reason.

Secondly, in some of the news produced by the Guardian’s own staff, the author self-consciously presented the Guardian as rational, open to discussion and persuasion, in contrast to its political opponents. For example, on 25 September 1899, even before the outbreak of the war, the Guardian reported a disrupted public meeting, in which the forces of jingoism prevailed over the forces of reason and calm discussion. Even the headline itself conveyed the subdued image the Guardian constantly tried to capture: `Demonstration in Trafalgar Square }A Scene of Great Disorder}Speeches Rendered Impossible’. The meeting had been organized as a demonstration against going to war, but several of the `lower class London papers [had] urged their readers to be present and to make a disturbance’. The report went on to claim for the meeting the mantle of politics by public discussion, assigning to its disruptors the guilt of irrational violence :

Outside this solid phalanx there gathered an ever-increasing crowd of respectable working men and middle-class people. Many of them were sympathisers with the objects of the meeting, many of them comparatively indifferent spectators, and all of them would have formed a good audience for a magnificent demonstration, if there had not been between them and the speakers a solid barrier of noisy and hostile ` patriots ‘. These were singing `Rule Britannia’ and other various popular music hall songs . Inarticulate clamour it remained to the end.

This news report, then, presented literally the structural and spatial obliteration of the public sphere. A `respectable ‘ audience, including many without predisposition to either side of the question, gathered to listen to speeches, but were forcibly prevented from doing so by roughs with all of the unruly `entertainment’ trappings of the music hall. Acknowledging that the `promoters of the meeting could hardly claim a success ‘, the author nevertheless concluded by pointing out that `instead of being defeated in argument or outvoted by a sensible and restrained audience, they were merely ignored by a rowdy mob’.” This linking of ` discussion ‘ with ` respectability ‘ was not accidental. Scott’s understanding of the public sphere, like that of others on the left, contained a definite class colouring.

The final means of employing the news to protest against the course of the Boer War consisted of reporting speeches of politicians and other prominent `public moralists ‘. Scott’s tactic here, though, reflected a commitment less to a specific platform regarding the war than to a liberal culture of debate that was increasingly threatened by the psychology of jingoism. The Guardian followed the once hallowed, but increasingly threatened, Victorian practice of reproduction of political speeches sympathetic to both parties. Early in the war, a leader outlined the purpose of this practice, at the same time implicitly distinguishing the Guardian’s readers from those of opposing newspapers:

people fall naturally into two classes. There are those who care to follow the argument and those who do not. Those who do care have now [the opportunity] of reading a masterly summary of the case against the Government in the speech of Sir William Harcourt, and to-morrow morning they will have the opportunity of reading a full reply by the person most able to reply, Mr. Chamberlain.

Naturally, in its leaders, Scott’s paper took up the cause of those speakers who opposed the war. Nevertheless, in its presentation of speeches on both sides of the issue, it provided a forum for the most eloquent arguments available to its opponents a forum provided not merely by the Guardian, but by every other `quality’ paper committed to a mid-Victorian standard of political reporting. In reporting speeches, as in reporting the `hard news’, a commitment to nonpartisan `newsgathering’ could limit the effectiveness of a particular policy advocacy. On the other hand, since the Guardian’s opposition to the war hinged as much on the threat war posed to public discussion as on the immorality of the war itself, it could not afford to compromise the `sacred’ nature of the ` facts ‘ upon which discussion was based.

Despite the growing emphasis on newsgathering, and the decreasing proportion of space given to leading articles, for many the claim of the quality political press to `influence’ still derived from a paper’s presentation of an editorial line. For this reason, C. P. Scott as well as other editors of `quality’ papers employed this space as a means of persuading readers of the positions articulated within. In the 1880s theorists of the press began to attribute this rational exercise only to the educated and professional classes, and not potentially to all readers.

Additionally, some argued that even this remaining site of rational argumentation was little more than a vestige, attracting only a small portion of a newspaper’s readership. Nevertheless, for Scott this portion of the paper remained central to the project of educating a liberal public. It was in this forum that he chiefly developed his alternative vision of patriotism. Scott followed a radical tradition of patriotism, defining it critically, in a manner that demanded of the patriot a willingness to work to improve the institutions and morality of national political life. This radical tradition often took the form of opposition to wars that could be perceived as wars of conquest or wars on behalf of sectional interests, as had the Crimean War of 1854-6, and it could be argued that the Boer War met both of these conditions. Above all, for Scott the Boer War threatened to undermine England’s liberal public sphere because it seemed to create an environment in which willingness to acquiesce in a government line became a test of one’s loyalty to country.

Charges of disloyalty repeatedly appeared in Scott’s mailbag. One reader complained of the `continued disloyal line of [the Guardian’s] leading articles ‘.’A purported reader of twenty-five years told Scott to `go to Hell ‘.( A `Yorkshire Lad’ lamented that he `dare not shoot you, or blow up your premises, as you deserve, so I will punish you in the only way I can’.) To be sure, Scott must have taken comfort from letters from London and other regions of the United Kingdom that pleaded for him to arrange to send the Guardian to their homes, since they could not find anti-war daily newspapers in their areas. Moreover, as editor of the Guardian for more than a quarter of a century by this time, Scott would have learned to expect hostile reactions from readers on occasion. Far more serious, as a threat to the character of public discussion, were similar charges, conveyed in only slightly more civil tones, in the ministerialist press and even from the lips of ministers. For example, prior to the outbreak of the war, in August 1899, the Leigh Chronicle claimed that

Mr. Scott appears to only aim at the discomfiture of the country of which he is unfortunately a representative in the House of Commons, and according to his speeches in that Assembly he will only be content when any power gets the better of the United Kingdom. He is the first advocate President Kruger can apparently rely upon, and during the past session he appears to have forgotten he was the representative of a Lancashire consituency in his earnest advocacy of the British subjects in the Transvaal. As Mr. Scott is so keenly interested in Kruger and South African affairs, may I suggest to him that the next question . will be `Is it true that President Kruger has paid £26,000 to a Lancashire daily paper to advocate his views? ”

Much of the Guardian’s editorial content thus centred on an attempt to challenge the official definition of patriotism, and an insistence that the so-called `pro-Boers’ were truly patriotic. In part, this called for a debunking of the official patriotism, which the Guardian constantly claimed was all shouting and no substance. Early in the war effort, therefore, on 17 October 1899, a leader pointed out that real patriotism did not call for `occasional shouts but call[ed] for humdrum work year in and year out for the country’s good’.'” Indeed leading articles regularly exposed the shallowness of jingoism, which passed for patriotism in ministerialist circles. In November 1899, for example, while commenting favourably on a speech by the bishop of Hereford, the Guardian wrote that the shallower form of patriotism ` advertises itself daily in exhortations to other people to go and fight a long way off, and in denouncing for their treasonous poltroonery anyone who deprecates the unnecessary shedding of blood’. Here the Guardian attacked the exclusivity of modern patriotism, its tendency to reject anyone who fell outside the straight and narrow. A few sentences later, the leader went further, questioning the sincerity of the prevailing concept of patriotism by asserting that `the typical patriot of these days loves to talk of the greatness of the Empire, but he hates to pay an extra penny on his income tax, and he has patriotic reasons by the dozen to prove why the bill ought to be sent to someone else ‘.

Finally, in a strategic move that simultaneously resumed the critiques of both restrictive and undemanding definitions of patriotism, a leader lamented: `That it may conceivably be more patriotic to state as strongly as you can what you believe to be really and truly best for your country is a thing which no patriot of this stamp will admit.’ Real patriotism dealt with intemperance, pauperism, sweating, and industrial welfare, ` details which can seem very dry and prosaic after the glories of war and the thrill of reading about the fighting and slaughter’. The leader concluded, `We do not want less patriotism. We want more.”

For Scott and his staff of writers, the prevailing definition of patriotism did not merely serve the political right, as Hugh Cunningham has pointed out,’ but it was entirely too undemanding and passive, for it required nothing more than merely voting for the Conservative party and acceding without discussion to all of its decisions. Such a definition of patriotism effectively excluded supporters as well as political opponents from formation of public opinion, for any acceptable participation in the public sphere was predetermined to accommodate itself to official points of view. In part, this popular acquiescence depended on mass delusion, on a supposedly ` patriotic ‘ failure to see reality. A true patriotism, by contrast, required concern not merely with national glory, but with true national greatness, a quality that included morality and honour. Two constant themes of the Guardian, therefore, were the necessity of counting the real costs of the war, rather than ignoring them, including financial and political costs, and the desirability of fighting the war in accordance with traditional English notions of honour and decency.

To be sure, both of these themes were interrelated. Dishonourable, indecent behaviour threatened to alienate and antagonize permanently the Boers in South Africa, rendering the desired stable post-war political order all but impossible. Then, too, the most disgraceful British behaviour during the war continued only on the false supposition that it actually produced desired military effects. Above all, the entire premise of the war was that British national honour had been slighted, and that failure to retaliate against this slight threatened the integrity and existence of the entire British Empire. Scott’s paper endeavoured to demonstrate both that true patriotism demanded realism and honour that were in short supply, and that a realistic understanding of the war and empire would reveal that the most dishonourable of the British practices were neither necessary nor desirable.

In communicating the first of these points, the Guardian’s tactics included the regular interrogation of telegrams and reports, which has been highlighted above. Elsewhere, however, the Guardian linked realism explicitly with patriotism. In February 1900, a leader referred to a `policy of delusion’ which had presumed a short and relatively easy war, and insisted that its perpetrators were `not quite patriotic enough’ to alter their opinions in accordance with the reality of a very difficult war.’ In October 1901, the Guardian praised a speech by Sir Robert Reid, acclaiming its `combined hard sense and keen patriotism that the country’s situation calls for ‘.’

Like Reid, the Guardian did not despair, for the British had `been in worse positions before and have come out of them honourably and successfully ‘. Successfully completing the war, however, called for following the example of earlier generations, who had forced themselves ` to see things as they were and not as they would like to see them . there is no other safe way out now’.” Two years of ignoring reality had produced `an ancient British colony overrun by invaders’, as well as 17,000 lost lives and £200,000,000 spent. Moreover, it had harmed Britain’s reputation abroad, and had lowered the `whole tone and temper of political discussion at home . to a level of barren and sour animosity equally unprecedented in our time’.'( `Patriotism’, or love of Britain, demanded a willingness to identify bad decisions and previous illusions, in order to correct them in the future. True patriotism entailed a willingness to call war news bad if it was bad. A leader in early 1900, for example, assessed the difficulty facing the British forces as they moved across the border into Boer territory. `So long as the spirit of his army remains unbroken’, warned the Guardian, ` it is not probable that Commandant Cronje will surrender tamely even if he is actually surrounded.’

At the same time, the Orange Free State, the site of future skirmishes, was not flat as attested by `prevalent superstition ‘, but there were `plenty of foot-hills and kopjes which serve admirably for defensive purposes, and Commandant Cronje has made skilful use . of the hills on either bank of the Modder’.’) Demands for ` loyalty ‘ so restricted the British public’s ability to face reality, according to the Guardian, that by May 1901, a leader could dissect a speech in which Chamberlain’s accusation that Harcourt was `unpatriotic’ was founded solely on Harcourt’s pointing out, in criticizing the Budget, that `the national resources are limited ‘.’

The second point on which the Guardian attempted to challenge the official definition of patriotism concerned the manner of conducting the war. For the Guardian, the Boer War was at best a regrettable necessity, requiring the quickest, least costly conclusion possible. Prior to the war’s outbreak, it was a dangerous potential that should be avoided at nearly any cost ; once it began, with a pre-emptive first strike by the Boers, the British naturally had to drive the enemy from their territory, at which time a negotiated settlement could be reached from a position of British strength and military victory.(In the most general terms, the war should be fought only for necessary and well-defined and limited terms. The Guardian rejected any notion of using war to `teach a lesson ‘ or avenge imagined insults. In advancing an ideal of honourable warfare, the Guardian again presented itself as the realistic, truth-telling organ in an era of mendacity and self-delusion. Two themes in particular recurred repeatedly in its editorial pages. First, the Guardian challenged the government’s version of the outbreak of the war, constantly reminding its readers that from the start Sir Alfred Milner had desired war, that the Boers had attempted to meet British demands but had been forced into fighting for their independence.(” Then, according to the Guardian, the Boers, believing war to be inevitable, had invaded British territory in order to fight a defensive war on their terms rather than on British terms.(In asserting these claims, the Guardian made a couple of assumptions about the character of British politics. First, it identified a growing tendency to justify aggressiveness and expansionist policies on the grounds of imperial necessity. Despite its frequent protests, the government was not interested primarily in ensuring the franchise for British subjects in the Transvaal, but in incorporating the Transvaal directly into the British Empire.( Second, however, the Guardian’s writers recognized a continuing moralistic approach to foreign policy, which forced imperial expansionists to justify their actions in terms of international morality. Side by side, therefore, existed government arguments on behalf of imperial necessity and government attempts to demonize the Boers, attributing to them all manner of atrocity, so that morality itself demanded war.(The Guardian rejected these ministerialist attempts, instead constantly presenting the enemy as freedom-loving Europeans who, backed into a corner, were prepared to fight for their freedoms just as the English themselves would in a similar position.( This comparison of the Boers with the English revealed, of course, an important limitation in the Guardian’s conception of the international community. In attempting to welcome the Boers into the community of civilized nations, Scott’s paper reaffirmed the suitability of the European races to rule over the Africans.

For the most part, this affirmation was implicit, by simply discussing the war as if the Africans were not there, for example, in presenting the war as foreigners must have seen it, as the ` greatest of Empires at war with the population of a Salford’.(‘ Elsewhere, however, the exclusion of the Africans from the contest became explicit. In February 1900, fairly early in the war, the Guardian insisted that

The distance which separates the new Imperialism from the old patriotism is measured by the contrast between the cheers with which the idea of setting the Zulus at the Boers was greeted by part of the House of Commons last night and the tone in which Chatham, almost with his last breath, denounced the setting of Red Indians at the Americans in the War of Independence.

Yet more than a year later, in August 1901, upon learning that the Boers had announced an intention of `shooting all natives in British employ, whether armed or not’, the Guardian asserted that the British should give up using natives for purely military tasks only if the Boers would do the same.() In this assertion, the Guardian showed a more sinister side to the Boers’ inclusion in the community of civilized nations. Bad behaviour by the Boers could sanction reciprocal behaviour by the English, with the Africans serving a purely instrumental role.

The Guardian insisted that the events leading to the war, and the British conduct of the war, demonstrated a disregard for conventional morality, and an adoption instead of a new imperialist morality.( This rejection of government attempts to redefine imperial morality led directly to the Guardian’s constant criticism of British military policy. In part, this criticism centred on publicizing the efforts of philanthropists such as Emily Hobhouse to make the British population aware of the suffering inflicted on Boer civilians, particularly women and children.)! Such appeals were largely emotional, and depended upon convincing its audience to sympathize with the Boers as fellow human beings. The Guardian also claimed a calculating realpolitik in its critique of the government’s conduct of the war. Time and again, it pointed out to its readers that at the war’s end, the British and Boers in South Africa had to coexist, and that there was a flaw in the logic that if only the British burned enough farms, and incarcerated enough women and children in concentration camps (and if only enough of them died there), then the Boers, who by then would have fought as long as they possibly could, would gratefully welcome the British as their rulers and forever give up ideas of rebellion. Instead, the Guardian insisted, ruling the Boers after the war required either conciliating them or funding a massive occupation force. Indeed, the Guardian repeatedly presented the enormous financial drain that the government’s imperialist policy had already cost, and would cost in the future.)” More broadly, for Scott and the Guardian, patriotism had to mean a willingness to criticize one’s country’s actions when the situation demanded it. Above all, the Guardian resisted the Conservatives’ attempts to equate patriotism with support for the government in power. For Scott, the patriot spoke freely out of a regard for Britain’s best interests ; how wickedly ironic, then, that the concept of patriotism could be twisted in a manner to exclude that very willingness to speak. In the interests of true patriotism, therefore, as well as out of concern for the newspaper’s mission as Scott understood it, the Guardian devoted much of its editorial space to attacking the notion that patriotism called for suppressing all criticism. The Guardian rejected the idea of a ` patriotic silence ‘.) It rejected the idea that politics must cease during wartime. That is, it agreed that the mere party political struggle over personalities must naturally cease, but ` politics in the wider sense of a struggle
between principles ‘ had to continue: `War is begun, continued, and ended for political ends. If political ends are lost sight of, it ceases to be war and becomes mere bloodshed.’)

Moreover, the Guardian insisted that the Conservative leaders deliberately deceived the gullible population: Chamberlain and his colleagues knew that Scott and other `Pro-Boers’ were just as patriotic as anyone else, but used that powerful shibboleth to stifle criticism.) Indeed, as early as September 1900, during his re-election campaign, Scott told an audience that Chamberlain was attempting to wipe out the Liberal party as a locus of opposition, having asked the electorate ` “Don’t give us merely an ordinary, but an overwhelming majority.” He wanted to blot out the Liberal party, and have his own way without check or challenge in order to work his will. ‘ In order to make his point, Scott then `humorously expressed disappointment at the unanimity of the meeting, and invited his audience to “heckle” him’.) These examples illustrate that in Scott’s mind, Chamberlain and the Conservative party had to be opposed at two separate levels : on their specific conduct of the war, and on their attempt to undermine the liberal tradition of politics by public discussion. Indeed, on the latter concern, the Guardian presented the war, and the Conservative conduct, as a challenge that forced Liberals to `withstand passions of the moment’. One of the dangers of democratic politics, it wrote, ` is their tendency to become too easy, to degenerate into a mere competition in pliability, a perennial trial of skill in detecting and “playing up to ” the passing inclinations of the large, listless part of the public which has strong and rapid impulses rather than settled and thought-out convictions ‘.)’ The war had forced the Liberals out of their complacency, and through `steady pressure’ they had helped to end the policy of farm-burning, no small victory. The Liberal efforts in opposing the war had earned the party the right later ` to place itself at the head of popular movements that it believes to be right as well as powerful’.)( For the Guardian, then, merely `getting our man in ‘ was never good enough; in a liberal society, it was necessary to change minds through discussion, not merely to change the state’s policies or to ride popular tides.

This article has examined the efforts of a prominent `New Liberal’ editor, and of his newspaper more broadly, to employ their medium as an agent for public discussion during an era in which readers were perhaps even less interested than usual in listening to reason. How successful were their efforts? On the one hand, the Manchester Guardian lost nearly one-seventh of its circulation, dropping to 41,900 copies sold daily,)) and no doubt many who remained loyal did so only because of its superior commercial news; many thus supported the
paper not because of but despite its political opinions.) At the same time, diminished Manchester sales could be partially recouped by providing special newspaper trains for London and North Wales.

On the other hand, as one of the most prominent anti-war voices, the Guardian played an important role in effecting the change of mood that occurred in Britain during the course of the war. For if the political right succeeded in the late Victorian years in monopolizing the discourse of patriotism, by the end of the Boer War this concept was once again a widely contested one. Among the war’s other effects, it destroyed the automatic association of patriotism with imperial expansionism.” To be sure, in good measure this opening up of the discourse of imperialism was a natural result of Britain’s finally having to face the reality that policing the Empire was a strain even on its vast resources. Expansion could not continue indefinitely, if a tiny population like the Boers could occupy the Royal Army for nearly three years. At the same time, however, the Guardian helped to shape the content of languages of patriotism and imperialism that increasingly allowed alternative interpretations. More germane to the question of journalism, Scott and the Guardian illustrated an important quality of the practice of journalism in relation to prevailing theories of the press. First, it was possible for a newspaper to pay its way without abandoning a liberal, educational ideal that had been more characteristic of the mid-Victorian era. Second, however, such a practice meant a bifurcation of the idealized `public’ into multiple publics. If the Guardian was to persevere in rational argument, attempting to see opponent’s points of view, and more broadly attempting to sustain a critical public sphere, its readership necessarily had to be limited. In the era of the `new journalism’, with overall circulations expanding dramatically, the Guardian remained narrowly tied to a `cultivated ‘ readership. As one of Scott’s correspondents noted a decade later, `among cultured and earnest people, on the one hand, and mere commercial men, on the other, the “M.G” is undoubtedly a great force. But . working men do not read the “M.G” ‘. Here it is significant that Scott blamed the Guardian’s flagging wartime circulation not on popular opposition to its anti-war line, but on the popular Daily Mail becoming available in Manchester. While we must of course be careful to remember that the content and format of the Daily Mail of the turn of the century was by no means as ` sensationalistic ‘ as in its present-day tabloid format, it was already a paper that could advertise itself on its masthead as the `busy man’s paper’. Scott could not have made such a claim for the Guardian, nor would he have wanted to do so. The Boer War gave further confirmation, if any were needed, that neither `patriotism’ nor journalism could easily maintain their links to a culture of politics by public discussion. At the same time, Scott, his staff, and the Manchester Guardian all served consistent notice that they did not intend to let the ideal die quietly.

This entry was posted in A Level History, Boer War, British Empire, Empire and Expansion, History, Victorian and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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