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The reporters' war: 1854-1856

Recent developments in many fields make the Crimean War the first modern war, in the sense that the public at home becomes rapidly and intensely aware of what is going on at the front.

The first important changes are in transport and printing. When the editor of the Times in London decides to send a reporter out to join the British army in the Crimea in April 1854, he knows that reports will get back to London (with the best available combination of ship, train and electric telegraph) faster than from any previous conflict. And his mechanized steam presses will be able to supply a large readership with news of unprecedented immediacy.

His chosen reporter is William Howard Russell, whom the Crimea soon transforms into a national figure - Russell of the Times. Appalled at what he sees in British army camps and hospitals, Russell makes himself intensely unpopular with the authorities by describing the conditions in vivid detail. His account of British patients at Scutari, in September 1854, compares their condition unfavourably with the French hospitals. He makes a Passionate plea for 'devoted women' to come out from England to tend them.

It is a measure of the new immediacy that one devoted woman, destined to be even more famous than Russell, responds directly to his words. Florence Nightingale sails for the Crimea, with thirty-eight nurses, in October.

The Crimean war lives with similar immediacy in images. It is the first war assignment undertaken by a photographer. Early in 1855 a Manchester publisher, Thomas Agnew, decides to send a photographer to the front. He selects Roger Fenton, who becomes a familiar figure of great curiosity to the troops. He travels round in a converted delivery vehicle with the words 'Photographic Van' painted on the side. Inside is the dark room where he develops his large glass plates.

Needing exposure times of up to twenty seconds, Fenton's photographs are mainly of soldiers posed among the paraphernalia of war in the Crimean landscape. They are published by Agnew in five portfolios before the end of 1855.

Meanwhile a British print dealer, Dominic Colnaghi, has used the same approach in a more traditional art form. He sends out the artist William Simpson, who arrives at Balaklava in November 1854 and stays with the army until the fall of Sebastopol in September 1855.

Advances in printing mean that Simpson's watercolours can be rapidly produced in London as realistic tinted lithographs. Two series are issued in 1855-6 under the title The Seat of War in the East. Simpson, with his pencil and brush, can capture the drama and pathos of war in a way not yet available to Fenton. His picture of Florence Nightingale among the wounded at Scutari, published in April 1856, contributes to her legend.

British India: 1857-1876

A year after the Crimean War, and at the same time as the second Opium War in China, an event occurs which transforms British involvement in India. This is the traumatic Indian Mutiny. It suggests that the East India Company's interests in the subcontinent have reached the point at which they should more properly be the concern of government.

Until this time all the British in India, including even the soldiers, have been employees of the East India Company. The India Act of 1858, passed by the Conservative administration of Lord Derby, places the Indian army and the Indian civil service under the direct control of the British government.

This development introduces the 19th-century concept of empire, in which European states administer far-flung parts of the world - primarily for economic advantage and without their own nationals settling in large numbers as an indigenous ruling class (as happened in the earlier Spanish empire and that of the British in America).

By the end of the 19th century the European nations engage in a competitive rush to increase their portfolios, particularly in Africa. But India remains the most significant of these imperial possessions, becoming known as 'the jewel in the crown' of Queen Victoria. This status is emphasized in 1876 when her prime minister, Disraeli, secures for her the title empress of India.

Gladstone and Disraeli: 1868-1885

Political identities in mid-19th-century Britain are somewhat blurred, largely owing to the split in the Conservative party in 1846 over the repeal of the Corn Laws. The Peelite minority, which separates at the time from the mainstream Conservative party, contains many of the outstanding politicians of the period - who subsequently feature in several different contexts.

The scene is complicated also by shifts of allegiance as the Tories and Whigs of the era before the Reform Act transform gradually into Conservatives and Liberals. Thus Palmerston, who enters parliament as a Tory in 1807, later serves in a succession of coalition and Whig governments before finally aligning himself fully with the Liberals.

The coalition government of Lord Aberdeen, which takes the country into the Crimean War in 1854, is a good example of this flexibility. Aberdeen himself is a Conservative of the Peelite faction, as is his young chancellor of the exchequer William Gladstone (later to become leader of the Liberal party). Palmerston, the home secretary, is an old-fashioned Tory transformed into a Liberal. Lord John Russell, briefly the foreign secretary, is the only one with a clear pedigree - as a Whig who is now a Liberal.

Almost the only stable feature in British party politics at this time is a profound personal animosity between Gladstone and a very different politician five years older than himself, Benjamin Disraeli.

Gladstone and Disraeli are fellow Conservatives until the split over the Corn Laws in 1846. Gladstone leaves with the Peelites, Disraeli remains to become the most talented member of the mainstream Conservative party. Thereafter their careers are like mirror images, in a succession of personal clashes.

Disraeli's first major role is as chancellor of the exchequer in 1852. Gladstone's attack on his first budget contributes to the fall of the Conservative government, whereupon Gladstone follows his rival as chancellor. Similarly Disraeli's first brief spell as prime minister, in 1868, is brought to a rapid end when Gladstone defeats him in an election in that same year and forms a government.

Gladstone remains in power for six years (1868-74) and Disraeli then follows him for another six (1874-1880). This is the period when the Liberal and Conservative parties at last settle down into clearly defined opposition, personified in the hostility of the two leaders - and in their very different characters.

Gladstone is solemn and pious, concerned to safeguard the rights and welfare of the individual. Disraeli is flashy and opportunistic, with great personal charm and a liking for the grand gesture. Both administrations in the 1870s push through a great deal of social reform in their home policy. It is in foreign affairs that the difference between the protagonists is most clearly marked.

The Bulgarian crisis of 1876 is a case in point. It is Gladstone who touches the conscience of Europe with his campaign against the Turkish atrocities. But it is the aggressive Disraeli who wins the argument, sending out British battleships to defend the Turks against their Russian enemies and whipping up the inherent jingoism of the British public in support of his policy.

Similarly Disraeli has a foreign policy triumph with his cavalier and unathorized purchase of shares in the Suez canal. In 1875, hearing that the impoverished Egyptian khedive needs to sell, Disraeli borrows the money from the Rothschilds to buy a controlling share at a knock-down price before even securing parliamentary approval.

Above all, the contrast between the two prime ministers is seen in their relationship with Queen Victoria. The imperious but very feminine monarch finds Gladstone cold and aloof, complaining that he speaks to her as if she were a public meeting. But Disraeli she adores, in what becomes a famous friendship between the country's leading widow and widower (Disraeli's wife dies in 1872). Typically he is shameless about his methods: 'everyone likes flattery', he tells a friend, 'and when it comes to royalty you should lay it on with a trowel'.

Disraeli dies in 1881. Gladstone, grappling with Home Rule for Ireland, eventually becomes in the queen's eyes 'an old, wild, and incomprehensible man of eighty two and a half'.

Home Rule for Ireland: 1869-1893

By the time Gladstone is an old man of eighty-two and a half, introducing his Home Rule bill of 1893, Irish grievances have been an urgent issue, on and off, for ninety years - since the abortive uprising of Robert Emmet. And Gladstone himself has been actively involved in the Irish question for nearly a quarter of a century.

At the start of his first administration, recognizing the oppressive nature of Protestant rule in Ireland, he introduces a bill in 1869 to disestablish the Anglican church in Ireland. He follows this in 1870 with an Irish Land act, granting Irish peasant farmers secure tenure and compensation for improvements to their holdings. In the same year a Home Rule association is founded in Ireland.

During the 1870s the Home Rule cause, led in the house of commons by Isaac Butt, can count on the support of more than fifty members of parliament. Its programme is limited to Irish autonomy in internal affairs, with no demand as yet for the rupture of the union itself.

This soon changes after a much more dynamic figure, Charles Stewart Parnell, is elected member for Meath in 1875. He rapidly takes over from Butt the leadership of the Home Rule party and introduces a more vigorously disruptive policy. This includes active obstruction of parliamentary business at Westminster (to the extent that as many as thirty-six Irish members are at various times suspended) and the fomenting of rural unrest in Ireland.

In 1879 the Irish Land league is founded by Michael Davitt, recently released from a gaol sentence for sending firearms to Ireland for the use of the Fenians. The league's purpose is to promote insurrection among Irish smallholders (the predicament of Captain Boycott is an early result). Parnell becomes president of the league, but he disowns terrorism - in particular the murder in Phoenix Park in 1882 of the new Irish chief secretary, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and his under-secretary.

By 1885 Gladstone is converted to Home Rule for Ireland, partly from a sense of the justice of the cause and partly because the activities of the Irish lobby are making government impossible.

Gladstone and Parnell stand together on the Home Rule bill which Gladstone brings to parliament in 1886. But the issue is deeply unpopular with the English upper classes. It splits Gladsone's Liberal party just as the Corn Laws divided the Conservatives forty years earlier. Liberals in favour of the Union (calling themselves Liberal Unionists, and the origin of the subsequent Unionist party) join with the Conservatives to defeat the government.

Gladstone resigns and devotes himself in the following years to campaigning for the Home Rule cause. He does so in a continuing partnership with Parnell - until scandal intervenes.

Parnell and Kitty O'Shea: 1889-1891

There have been rumours for some time in political circles about a relationship between Parnell and Kitty O'Shea, the wife of one of his parliamentary colleagues, Captain William O'Shea. But the broader public is astonished when O'Shea, in December 1889, files a petition for divorce and names Parnell as the 'corespondent'. Astonishment turns to moral indignation when the charge is not even contested. Judgement is given in court in 1890 against Parnell and Mrs O'Shea. In the following year they marry.

Nonconformists in England are outraged at the adultery. Catholics in Ireland are offended at the remarriage.

The nonconformist reaction convinces Gladstone that he can no longer afford to be associated with Parnell, while loss of Catholic support erodes much (but by no means all) of Parnell's political base in Ireland. When he dies in 1891, four months after his marriage, his reputation may be tarnished but he is mourned in Dublin as a great Irish hero.

Gladstone soldiers on alone. In 1892, in extreme old age, he forms his fourth administration. The following year his sheer persistence gets a Home Rule bill through the house of commons - only to have it thrown out by a massive majority in the house of lords. The intransigence of the lords eventually proves self-defeating. But Gladstone dies (in 1898) before this final victory.

The slow trend to freedom: 19th century

Though the forces of reaction delay every step (particularly in the house of lords, which makes a habit of rejecting liberal legislation), there is a steady trend in Britain during the 19th century towards greater personal and political freedom.

The Catholic emancipation which allows O'Connell into the house of commons in 1829 without disowning the pope is eventually followed, after equally prolonged opposition in the lords, by an act enabling Lionel Nathan Rothschild to become in 1858 the first Jew to sit as a member of parliament (taking his oath on the Old Testament rather than the full Christian Bible). Similarly the atheist Charles Bradlaugh wins the right in 1888 to affirm rather than swear on oath.

There is a similarly gradual trend in the political freedom of ordinary citizens, as seen for example in the progress towards trade unions. The example of the French Revolution so alarms the government that Combination Acts are passed in 1799 and 1800 classing any association of labourers as a criminal conspiracy.

These acts are repealed in 1824. But freedom to combine brings so much working-class political activity, in the era of the Reform Bill, that the government attempts to quell it by making an example of six farm labourers from the Dorset village of Tolpuddle. Their establishing a lodge of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labours is no longer illegal, so the authorities find a new repressive device in 1834.

The six are prosecuted for administering unlawful oaths and are transported to Australia. The result is national outrage, contributing considerably to the growth of the Chartist movement.

The sentences of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, as they become known, are remitted in 1836 and the six are brought back to England. But the trades union movement now has some valuable martyrs, and it progresses steadily in respectability - even to the point of being able to establish, in 1868, the Trades Union Congress (or TUC) as an umbrella organization for the nation's affiliated unions. Three years later the Trade Union Act of 1871 gives the unions an assured legal status.

By this time London is something of a centre for left-wing political activity. Karl Marx arrives in 1849, finding it the safest place for an avowed revolutionary in the repressive climate following the events of 1848, and the city becomes his home for the rest of his life.

In 1864 an assembly in London of international workers' organizations results in the formation of the international, in which Marx himself plays the leading role. Seven years later, when Bismarck attempts to suppress the International throughout Europe, it survives because the British government refuses to outlaw its London activities.

The emergence of British socialism: 1881-1905

Britain acquires its own proto-Marxist party in 1881, when Henry Hyndman forms a Democratic Federation in London. In 1884 the group adopts a fully Marxist programme and changes its name to the Social Democratic Federation.

In that year, a significant one for British socialism, the new Federation suffers its first split when Engels encourages William Morris and others to break away and form an independent Socialist League. But far more important in the long run is a quite separate event of 1884. A group of intellectuals forms the Fabian Society, with the express purpose of working towards a democratic socialist state.

The Fabian Society's name indicates how far its intentions divert from Marx's policy of sudden revolution. It commemorates Fabius Cunctator, the Roman general who weakened Hannibal by a campaign of slow attrition. This approach is described in 1884 in one of the society's first pamphlets, entitled simply Manifesto and written by George Bernard Shaw. Other influential figures are the tireless left-wing couple Beatrice and Sidney Webb.

In 1889 the society publishes Fabian Essays in Socialism, edited by Shaw. Fabian policies by now influence many in left-wing British politics, including a trades union activist, James Keir Hardie, who has recently founded Britain's first labour party.

Hardie, who has gone down the mines in Lanarkshire at the age of ten, travels round Scotland from 1878 trying to organize a miners' union. In 1888 he founds the Scottish Labour Party. He has no electoral success in Scotland, but in 1892 he wins a seat in London as an independent Labour candidate.

In 1893 an Independent Labour Party is formed with Hardie as chairman. In 1900, at a congress of trades unions, this is expanded into a Labour Representation Committee. And in 1905, in preparation for a general election in 1906, the name is changed to the Labour Party. The party's candidates win twenty-nine seats. Labour is for the first time a democratic power to be reckoned with.

Jubilee Years: 1887-1897

Victoria's long reign draws to its close in triumphant mood, with the queen empress emerging from a long period of unpopularity to seem like the serene matriarch of much of the globe. In her middle years, after being widowed in her early forties, she withddraws from public affairs into her private grief. Even as late as 1886 there are hostile press comments about the queen's seclusion. But the celebrations for the Golden Jubilee in 1887, fifty years after her accession to the throne, change the picture.

The festivities have a common touch. Even in Westminster Abbey the queen refuses to wear her crown and robes of state, preferring instead a white bonnet - albeit a very special one, brimming with lace and diamonds.

That evening there are fireworks and bonfires all round the country, and the next day (June 22) the queen joins 30,000 schoolchildren for a huge party in Hyde Park. Each child is given a bun and a Jubilee mug full of milk.

The nation's sense of self-satisfaction derives largely from the existence of the British empire. A map of the world published at this time shows Britain's extensive colonies in their characteristic red, with Britannia lolling on a globe accompanied by a British soldier and sailor, a turbanned Indian with elephant and tiger, a bare-breasted Aborigine accompanying a kangaroo, and other such exotic fruits of empire.

Senior representatives of the colonies are naturally in London for the Jubilee, and the opportunity is taken to hold an assembly which can now be seen as the first in a long line of Imperial and Commonwealth conferences. Ten years later, for the Diamond Jubilee of 1897, the mood is even more ecstatic. 2500 beacons are lit on the nation's hills, four times as many as in 1887.

The queen, driven in an open carriage through six miles of London streets, notes in her diary: 'The crowds were quite indescribable,and their enhusiasm truly marvellous and deeply touching. The cheering was quite deafening, and every face seemed to be filled with real joy.'

The colonial leaders are in town again, and they hold a second conference. The sight of troops from all over the world, marching past in the procession, moves a journalist of the Daily Mail to sentiments of Imperial pride very much of their time (but politically as incorrect as it is possible to be by the standards of a later age).

At the royal level this international gathering is very much a family affair. Victoria's numerous descendants (thirty-seven great-grandchildren at the time of her death) have married into almost every royal family in Europe. Alas, this is no guarantee against family quarrels. In World War I one of the old lady's grandsons is the British king (George V), another the German kaiser (William II).

Salisbury, Chamberlain and the empire: 1897-1903

The imperial conference held at the time of the queen's Diamond Jubilee, in 1897, is a much more weighty affair than its predecessor ten years earlier. This time the prime ministers of the colonies have made the long journey to attend the festivities in person. And the colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain (appointed to this office in 1895), is a man with a passionate commitment to strengthening the commercial and political ties between the increasingly self-governing colonies.

His prime minister, Lord Salisbury, is a less ardent imperialist. But he is nevertheless much more interested in foreign affairs than in home issues.

The patrician marquess of Salisbury (a Cecil, whose family link in politics goes back to the reign of Elizabeth I) is the last British prime minister to govern from the house of lords. He is also the last to act as his own foreign secretary. He does not share Chamberlain's vision of a federal empire, but he is much involved in the diplomacy between the European nations which accompanies the frantic scramble for colonies in Africa in the late 19th century.

The era of Salisbury and Chamberlain sees extensive British activity in the southern part of the African continent. The region being developed by the commercial activities of Cecil Rhodes is proclaimed as Rhodesia in 1895, with its chief town named Salisbury in honour of the prime minister.

In that same year the disastrous Jameson Raid causes major diplomatic problems for the British government (Chamberlain is accused of complicity in it, but is cleared of any involvement by a commons committee in 1897). The raid increases the likelihood of serious conflict in the region, and this breaks out in 1899 as the Boer War.

At first the war is unpopular in Britain, with Liberal opposition to it reinforced by a succession of British defeats, but in 1900 the news from the front improves. Salisbury calls an election, branding the opposition as unpatriotic, and is returned with a greatly increased majority - causing this to become known as the 'khaki election'.

The next election, also fought indirectly on an imperial issue, is less successful for the Conservatives. Salisbury resigns from ill health in 1902, entrusting the premiership to his nephew Arthur Balfour. But in 1903 Chamberlain dramatically escalates his campaign for a strengthened empire. Speaking in his home town of Birmingham, he advocates a tariff on goods from non-colonial sources.

His purpose is to strengthen the colonies and their link with Britain, and also to raise funds for social measures at home. But the proposal goes against the principle of free trade, considered sacred since the repeal of the Corn Laws. Even worse, as a handle for political opponents, it represents a tax on food.

Chamberlain's policy immediately splits the Conservative party and leads to resignations, including his own, from the cabinet. Chamberlain takes the issue around the country in a programme of public meetings, until Balfour finally resigns at the end of December 1905 having lost control of the party. The Liberals are returned early in 1906 with a huge majority.

Free trade has carried the day. The trend in imperial policy is now towards more independence for the colonies rather than greater protection. Dominion status, already possessed by Canada and Australia, is granted to New Zealand in 1907 and to the four newly united provinces of South Africa in 1909.

The 1906 election brings the Liberals to power after twenty years (since Salisbury's first administration in 1885) during which the Conservatives have exercised almost uninterrupted control - with elected majorities in the house of commons and a guaranteed hereditary majority in the lords.

The country is ready for change, and the incoming parliament is radically new in including 57 Labour members (29 in the Labour party and 28 Liberals elected in the labour interest). The Liberal government immediately embarks on an energetic programme of social reform - which must lead, sooner or later, to a direct clash with the Conservatives in the house of lords.

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