November 8th, 1899
The war is doing us good. It is giving us the beginnings of political education in a department that has been utterly neglected. It may be worth while to review the whole situation of to-day, and to ask how the man in the street can lend a helping hand.
The British Government, primarily representing the people of Great Britain, has for many years been an affair of party; the dominant idea of the party leaders has been when out of office to get in, and when in to stay. The way to manage this was to cajole the man in the street, and as he was a busy man getting his living and not much concerned about watching the whole globe, the party leaders made bids for his support; votes to be distributed on the principle that one man was as good as another; taxation to be made light for him, and, consequently, as the money had to be found, heavy for some one else. Each party offered what it sincerely believed to be for the general good; but the kind of general good thought of was the personal improvement or comfort of each individual or of a mass of individuals. While this was going on in British towns and counties, something was happening on the neglected globe. There was a large part of the British Nation living on other continents without votes in any British town or county, yet looking to the British Government to champion something they loved, which has come to be called the Empire. There were also great nations emulating the British in the notion that the world was their inheritance, and that they would take possession of a fair share of it. Their quarrels had driven them to perfect their armies and to build navies. Each of them was annoyed to find that in the scramble for the heritage some one had been before them. On the best plots the British flag was flying, yet Great Britain had not much Army and was very careless about her Navy. The strong powers began to elbow her a little. The British Government was not disturbed by these hints from the globe. A Government made by a Parliament in which every member represented a town or a county or a scrap of a town or county, and in which no one represented the Nation, no one the Empire, and no one the Globe, felt bound to keep its eye upon towns and counties, the Opposition benches, and the next election. Why should it stand up for the British outside, and why concern itself about other Powers looking round the globe for claims to peg out? The colonists who looked to the British Government for championship were snubbed; the foreign Powers working for elbow-room were politely made way for, or if they brushed against the British coat-sleeve and caused an exclamation received a meek apology. This was the normal frame of mind of British party leaders and ministers, from which they have never quite emerged. They were asleep, dreaming of a parochial millennium.
But outside of cabinets there were a few men who used their eyes. Sir Charles Dilke took a turn round the globe, and when he came back said "Greater Britain." That was an idea, and ideas are like the plague--they are catching. Sir John Seeley took a tour through the history of the last three centuries, and said "Expansion of England"; that meant continuity in the Nation's life not merely in space but in time. Whatever the cause, a few years ago there set in an epidemic of fresh ideas, tending to reveal the Nation as more than a crowd of individuals and the Empire as the Nation's work and the Nation's cause. The Government did all it could to resist the infection. Instead of standing up for the Empire it was bent on passing measures in the sense of its own party. It ran away from Russia, from France, and from Germany. But the new ideas grew; every globetrotter became a Nationalist and an Imperialist, and shed his party skin. Then came Fashoda, and Lord Rosebery's action in that matter killed what was left of party.
The case of the British in South Africa cried aloud for British action. But the Government was still hidebound in bad traditions, thinking that democracy means the tail wagging the dog, not seeing that if the statesman leads straight along the path of duty the Nation is sure to follow him. Happily, a statesman was sent to Cape Town, probably because the Cabinet hardly realised how big a man he was. Sir Alfred Milner mastered his case, thought out his cause, and at the opportune moment put it before the Government. The first result was the Bloemfontein conference. There, with the prescience and the strength of a Cavour or a Bismarck, Milner put the issue: either the minimum concession which will secure the political equality of the two races or war. Kruger's obstinate refusal of the concessions required showed plainly that it would be war. There was only one possible way of averting war; if fifty thousand men had been at once sent to South Africa, Kruger and his people would have known where they were, and might have accepted possible terms, those offered at Bloemfontein. The moment of the breaking off of the conference was the crisis, and to appreciate men you must watch them in a crisis. Mr. Balfour expressed his unbounded confidence in Kruger's sweet reasonableness and in the justice of the British cause; he could not believe there would be war. Mr. Chamberlain entered into ambiguous negotiations, beginning in a way that made everyone, especially Kruger, imagine that the Government would accept less than the Bloemfontein minimum. Of preparing to coerce the Boers there was no sign. The Boers began to get their forces in order. In England big speeches were made; "hands" were "put to the plough"; but at the end of July no military force was made ready. At length, when Natal appealed for protection against the Boer army, ten thousand men were ordered so as to bring up the garrison of the colony to some seventeen thousand. After the ten thousand not another man was sent until October 20th.
The present situation is the necessary outcome of the Government's action between the beginning of June and October 7th, when the orders for calling out the Reserves and for mobilisation were issued. The Cabinet's decisions involved that Sir George White with his small force should have to bear the brunt of the Boer attack from the outbreak of hostilities until the time when the Army Corps should be landed and ready to move. That was at least five weeks[C] of which three have elapsed, and in the three weeks Sir George White, after one or two initial mishaps of no great consequence by themselves, is invested at Ladysmith, while Mafeking and Kimberley are waiting for relief, and the Free State Boers are invading the northern provinces of Cape Colony and trying to enlist the doubtful Dutch farmers. This is not a pleasant situation for the Nation that declares itself the paramount Power in South Africa. Three questions may be discussed with regard to it: What are the risks still run, what are the probabilities, and how can we help to prevent such a situation from recurring?
To see what has been risked on the chance that the force under Sir George White may hold its own we must look from the Boer side. The Boer commander hopes, or ought to hope, to destroy Sir George White's force before it can be relieved. He has a chance of succeeding in this, for an investing force has with modern arms a great advantage over the force it surrounds. The outside circle is so much larger than the inside one that it can bring many more rifles into play; it exposes no flanks, and the interior force cannot attack it without exposing one or both flanks. With anything like equal skill and determination the surrounding force is sure to win in time. But if the time is limited the surrounding force must hurry the result by assaults, in which it loses the advantage of the defensive. If Joubert and his men have the courage and determination to make repeated assaults it may go hard with the defenders of Ladysmith. But the defenders hitherto have had the counterbalancing advantage of a superior artillery. I think it reasonable to expect that with the better discipline of his force, its greater cohesion and mobility and the high spirit which animates it, Sir George White will be able to defy the Boers for many weeks. But suppose the unexpected to happen, as it sometimes does in war, and Sir George White's resistance to be overcome? Such a victory would have a tremendous effect upon the hopes and spirits of the Boers. It would almost double the fighting value of their army, and would probably bring to their side many of their colonial kinsmen. Joubert would become more daring, and, if Sir Redvers Buller had divided his force, would attack its nearest portion with a prospect of success. The failure of Sir Redvers Buller would then not be outside the bounds of possibility. What that would involve there is no need to expound--the Empire would be in peril of its existence. We may feel pretty sure that things will not come to such a pass; that another week will show Sir George White well holding his own and a part of the Army Corps preparing to move. Yet it would be prudent to guard against accidents by sending further troops to the Cape. Ten thousand men ordered now would be at Cape Town by the middle of December; but every delay in ordering them will mean, in case they should in December be wanted, a period of suspense like that through which we are now passing.
The moral of the present situation seems to me to be that we should scrutinise our political personages, noting which of them have betrayed their inability to see what was happening and to look ahead, bringing down their figures in our minds to their natural size, and exalting those who have shown themselves equal to their tasks. The man in the street might do well to consider whether the great departments of Government, such as the War Office and the Army, should for ever be entrusted to men who have not even a nodding acquaintance with the business which their departments have to transact, the business called War. Success in that as in other business depends on putting knowledge in power.
[Footnote C: We now know that the time was thirteen weeks.]