Forgot your password?

Impact of the Boer War on British politics and society in the twentieth century

By Edited Nov 21, 2013 1 0

The Boer War (1899 - 1902) represented a turning point for British politics and society at the beginning of the twentieth century.

A turning point is an event marking a unique or important change of course, or series of new developments. The Second Boer War did undoubtedly have a series of effects on Britain, yet whether these effects mount to a turning point for British politics and society remains to be seen. The Boer War is probably best remembered, in terms of its effects on Britain, for; the 'Black Week'; Anglophobia; the 'Khaki Election'; and the 'camps'.

British Soldiers in the Boer War
Joseph Sramek (The Boer War (1899 - 1902): Britain's Wakeup Call) wrote in 1998 that; at the start of the Boer conflict in 1899, Britain did not have any allies in Europe due to their state of 'Splendid Isolation', which meant that they need not rely on any other countries. He also writes that the series of adversaries Britain had in Europe would quickly turn on Britain if they had the chance. Sramek suggests that the Boer War highlighted the need to form alliances in Europe and move away from the ideal of Splendid Isolation; Britain did in fact change their foreign policies quite notably and Sramek concludes that " the Boer War provided the wakeup call for this transformation."

Thomas Pakenham (Extracts from The Boer War) describes 'Anglophobia' during the Boer War and his work corroborates with that of Joseph Sramek. Pakenham suggests that two months of war with the Boers had revealed that there was another side to Splendid Isolation; Britain were alone and if her Continental rivals chose to intervene then she would be in, "a splendid mess." One can infer from this that Britain would have been unable to defend herself had the European powers intervened, again stressing the need to change foreign policy and leave behind Splendid Isolation. This potential intervention became a greater worry for Britain as the Press of all of the major European powers became, "rabidly anti-British," as fictitious stories were published about Britain. Germany also passed a great Navy Bill to double the size of their navy in order to pose a greater threat to the vastly superior British navy.

The decision to abandon Splendid Isolation was a massive political decision and appears to be a byproduct of the Boer War; the wave of Anglophobia across the Continent came about because of the nature in which the Boer War was fought, it was seen by many to be, "a bit of bullying by the big old British Empire." (Philip Gibbs, The Pageant of the Years, 1946). This intense Anglophobia in the Press enabled the Continental Governments to more openly oppose Britain, and Britain undoubtedly felt further threatened upon hearing about Germany's Navy Bill.

Boer War Illustration
The Boer War had clear effects on Britain at home as well, 'Black Week' saw a series of military losses for the British that had a potent effect on society. Richard Danes (Cassell's Illustrated History of The Boer War) described the first battle of the conflict in1899, it was later published in 1901. Dane adopts a clear bias view as he describes the white settlers as, "hardy," people who had been, "obliged to assert their dominion at the muzzle of a rifle (over the natives)." He goes on to contrast the whites by describing the original black population not to be equals of the white men, "either in arms or in policy." One can infer from this source that it was the opinion and attitude towards the Boer peoples of many British people; they were seen as inferior and easy to beat in times of war. Thomas Pakenham backs up this point when he states that the government and the people of Britain, "shared confidence in a walk-over."

Taking into account the attitudes of society before the shock of 'Black Week', one is able to see the effect that 'Black Week had on British society. Pakenham writes that Britain was "shaken," at home upon hearing about 'Black Week', as it came to be known. Restaurants, theatres and concert rooms were all empty in the proceeding weeks as people had nothing to celebrate, according to Pakenham. The public were, "disappointed," that victory was so long postponed with military surrenders at the root of public humiliation.

This bitterness and embarrassment did eventually pass however as patriotism swept Britain; publishers complained people only read war books. Indeed, the Daily Mail was extremely popular during the Boer War; its pro-war, nationalistic stance doing well to influence the electorate. The opposition parties found it difficult to oppose or criticize the government for fear of being branded a traitor. Campbell-Bannerman, the leader of the opposition, found it increasingly difficult to mount a serious opposition as it became clear that the war would continue for much longer than expected.

The war had also split the Liberal party; there was dispute as to their stance on the war and Campbell-Bannerman appeared unable to unite them. This, coupled with the anti-Liberal propaganda, gave the Conservative government an opportunity to hold and almost certainly win a general election. The Conservatives won a further term with a landslide victory and I think that the Boer War was influential in their securing of this term. Pakenham wrote his book in 1979 and so evidently has no reason to be bias or affected by events at the time; he describes the Conservative government of 1901 to have a reputation of incompetence and a talent for governing that was lowly reckoned. Therefore, the jingoism in the media regarding the war and a series of military victories were probably the deciding factor in their re-election. Had the war not happened or gone badly, then surely the Liberals would have stood a greater chance of being elected for the first time in their history.

It is also relevant, when looking at effects of the Boer War, to see how far the conflict was responsible for the outcome of the 1906 election; the Liberals won resoundingly. Albeit a military success, the Conservative government began to lose popularity for endorsing the Boer War as news reached the electorate of policies used in Africa to defeat the Boers. Emily Hobhouse had seen concentration camps being used in Africa to keep Boer prisoners or war, she told her story to any politician that would listen according to Thomas Pakenham. She talked about the wholesale burning of farms, deportations, and starvation and fever in the camps. Campbell-Bannerman donned the phrase, "methods of barbarism," in order to summarize Hobhouse's points. This revelation sparked a new unity for the Liberal party as they began to attack the government with increased public support; the people were unsettled.

Recruitment for the Boer War highlighted the extent of poverty within the unskilled labour classes which showed that there was a strong need for welfare reform. The successful Liberal election campaign in 1906 however ignored the need for these glaringly obvious reforms and so the war can take little responsibility for their victory. A welfare state would mean higher taxes which would not have been popular with the electorate. In fact the war had a greater effect on the Conservative government; they failed to recover from the 'camps' saga and were blamed for their incompetence and inhumanity. There were greater factors however that brought about the government's loss of power such as Joseph Chamberlain's attempt to broaden the basis of taxation and the influx of Chinese labourers in Africa that threatened British jobs.


Add a new comment - No HTML
You must be logged in and verified to post a comment. Please log in or sign up to comment.

Explore InfoBarrel

Auto Business & Money Entertainment Environment Health History Home & Garden InfoBarrel University Lifestyle Sports Technology Travel & Places
© Copyright 2008 - 2016 by Hinzie Media Inc. Terms of Service Privacy Policy XML Sitemap

Follow IB History