The magnanimous gesture

There is a minority school of political thinking — perhaps it is confined to the High Doganate — which holds that the British Empire and Commonwealth became doomed on the 6th of December, 1906. This was the day that “responsible government” was granted to the Transvaal. On 7th June of the next year, the same was extended to the Orange River Colony (soon to be called, unctuously, the “Orange Free State”).

At the time, it was celebrated as the “magnanimous gesture” — the most liberal and enlightened act ever performed by a politician. It was Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s signature contribution to history: the restoration of self-government to those bands of Dutch-descended trekkers, who had gallantly stood the whole weight of the British Empire for a brief moment in the Boer War, before being utterly smooshed. It was what in turn made possible the negotiation of the Union of South Africa (1910–61), as a dominion or confederation modelled roughly on Canada and Australia. It was what then made possible the political domination of that Union by the Afrikaaner minority, and ultimately their apartheid policy; and the fallout from it, to the present day.

Sir Henry, or let us call him “CB,” the radical shipowner from Glasgow was, as I should explain, the first “prime minister” of the United Kingdom. (Before his accession to the Liberal Party throne in 1905, the job was called First Lord of the Treasury.) To contemporaries, CB was known as the one member of a cabinet of all the talents, who happened to lack talent. Which is why, I suppose, he rose to the top, and had he not made the mistake of dying in 1908, might have dominated British politics instead of H.H. “Squiffy” Asquith down the long slide across the glittering Edwardian façade, into the gas trenches of the Great War.

Perhaps I should also explain that “radical” in those days meant something different from what it means today. It meant radical free trade, along with Home Rule for Ireland, and the first cautious moves towards poor relief, pensions, and the welfare state. But then as now it also meant “enlightenment” and “idealism” and the “good guys” of media celebrity; and the dots between that and later, more degenerative forms of progressivism, are not impossible to connect.

Gentle reader will be aware that my own habitual prejudice is for the Tories, or let’s call us the Bad Guys Party; and that I look back with grave regret on the loss to history of the rotten boroughs and toff manipulation of the House of Commons in the bad old days before Wellington and his like were obviated.

Mistakes had been made in the conference of responsible government on the Canadas and Australias, too; we do not look for perfection in this world. But the radical experiment of empowering “the natives” — and thus inevitably, one group of natives at the expense of all others — became dear to the liberal mind. Along with that, or rather guiding it, was the settled liberal habit of thinking big.

These Essays in Idleness are not meant to burgeon into multi-volume annals (I leave my minions to do that; unfortunately I am fresh out of minions at the moment), so that I now propose to skip wingfully over a terrifying canyon of detail. Suffice I say the great “magnanimous gesture” did not, as Tories feared at the time, inspire the Boers to immediate opportunism. Rather it touched their hearts, and won their fleeting, qualified loyalty to the British Crown. The opportunism came naturally, with the cunning political exploitation of their ascendant place within the new Union.

South Africa was not ready for self-government, and especially not ready to be formed into a large multicultural federation. The result was a huge disaster, superficially masked by immense mineral wealth.

Yet South Africa became the model in turn for similar acts of Imperial magnanimity, through a half-century or more — in which the Empire was surrendered, piece by piece, to other multicultural federations, and expressly into the hands of small tribal vanguards of the politically adept — left in control of all other peoples. (Having often as not first been tutored in socialism at the infernal London School of Economics.)

We had, in little time, the forging of a new nation from Pretoria, from out of the mythology of the bearded Voortrekkers in their ox-wagons, whose twin principles were escape from the humanitarian notions of the soft English settlers at the Cape, and ruthless battle against the interior hordes of native “blecks.”

I suppose every nation is founded upon some mythology of flight and liberation. This is all slightly poetic so far as it runs, but “issues” arise when one national or racial mythology collides with another. Put all the scorpions in the same bottle together by an act of Union, and eventually one fat scorpion emerges.

The price to be paid for that typically Liberal (and, liberal) magnanimous gesture was paid by others: by the English of southern Africa and the great majority of “blacks” and “coloureds.” Later, by the South African example, it was to be paid by all the hundred millions of incidental peoples in India and Pakistan, for instance, through the machinations of a Congress Party and a Muslim League. Indeed, it was the mythology expounded by a liberal South African barrister, one M.K. Gandhi, that led to another grand constitutional imprudence; and through it to the sorry end of a British empire that had delivered to so much of the world a de-politicization, a live-and-let-live, in which not dozens but thousands of vaguely definable nations could find their own paths to development — each at its own pace, free of the imposition of centralized bureaucracy, and secure from the threat of constant invasion from their neighbours.

In the end the rewards for political “magnanimity” accrue only to the magnanimous party, and then only temporarily. The price must be paid by many, from near to far away in space and time.

I mention this because it seems to me that the story of Western Civ, through the last century and more, could be told as a sequence of ever more giddy and expansive “magnanimous gestures,” and of the real consequences of them.