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February 1st, 1900

If on Tuesday the Bank of England had announced that it could not meet its obligations I imagine that there would have been a certain amount of uneasiness in the City and elsewhere, and that some at least of the rich men to be found in London would have put their heads together to see what could be done to meet a grave emergency.

On Tuesday a failure was indeed announced--a failure which must involve the Bank of England and most of the great banking and trading corporations of this country. But no one seems to have taken action upon it, and I see no visible sign of general alarm. The Prime Minister, speaking in his place in the House of Lords and on behalf of the National Government, said: "I do not believe in the perfection of the British Constitution as an instrument of war ...it is evident there is something in your machinery that is wrong." That was Lord Salisbury's explanation and defence of the failure of his Government in the diplomacy which preceded the war, in the preparations for the war, and in the conduct of the war. It was a declaration of bankruptcy--a plain statement by the Government that it cannot govern. The announcement was not made to Parliament with closed doors and the reporters excluded. It was made to the whole world, to the British Nation, and to all the rivals of Great Britain. Parliament did not take any action upon the declaration. No committee of both Houses was formed to consider how without delay to make a Government that can govern. The ordinary normal routine of public and private life goes on. Thus in the crisis of the Nation's fate we are ungoverned and unled, and to all appearance we are content to be so, and the leader-writers trained in the tradition of respectable formalism interpret the Nation's apathy as fortitude.

Lord Salisbury's confession of impotence was true. From the beginning to the end of this business the Government has lacked the manliness to do its plain duty. In the first half of July, before the official reports of the Bloemfontein conference were published, everyone but the disciples of Mr. Morley knew that the only honourable course, after the Government's declaration prior to the conference and after what there took place, was to insist on the acceptance by the South African Republic of the Bloemfontein proposals and to back up that insistence by adequate military preparations. It is admitted that this was not done, and what is the excuse now made? Mr. Balfour told the House of Commons on Tuesday, January 30th, that if in August a vote of credit had been demanded "we should not have been able to persuade the House that the necessity for the vote was pressing and urgent." The Government charged with the defence of the Empire excuses itself for not having made preparations for that task on the ground that perhaps the House of Commons would not have given its approval. Yet the Government had a great majority at its back, and there is no instance in recent times of a vote of credit having been rejected by the House of Commons. This shameful cowardice was exhibited although, as we now know but could not then have imagined, the Government had in its possession the protest of the Government of Natal against the intention of the Imperial Government to abandon the northern portion of that colony. The Natal Ministers on July 25th confidentially communicated their extreme surprise at learning that in case of sudden hostilities it would not be possible with the garrison and colonial forces available to defend the northern portion of the colony.

After shilly-shallying from May to September the Government began its preparations, and the Boers as soon as they were ready began the war. Of the conduct of the war the readers of The London Letter have had an account week by week, as to the truth of which they can judge for themselves, for the facts are there by which it can be tested. The attempt has been made to refrain from any criticism which could hurt the feelings of the generals, who are doing their duty to the best of their power in most trying circumstances. But is it not plain that the British Army has been hampered by a lack of sound strategy and of sound tactics such as indicate prolonged previous neglect of these branches of study and training? Who is responsible to the Nation for the training of the Army? The Government and the Government alone. If any military officer has not done his work effectively--if, for example, the Commander-in-Chief has not taught his generals rightly or not selected them properly--who is responsible to Parliament for that? Not the officer, even if he be the Commander-in-Chief, for the Commander-in-Chief is the servant of the Cabinet and responsible to the Cabinet, which if it were dissatisfied with him ought to have dismissed him. Authority over the Army is in the hands of the Secretary of State for War as the delegate of the Cabinet. Lord Lansdowne has held his post only since 1895, and cannot be held responsible for the training of the older generals; but before him came Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman who for some years had charge of the preparation of the Army for war as the delegate of the late Cabinet. For the state of the Army, for the strategical and tactical training which has resulted in so many failures, the politicians of both front benches, who in turn have neglected these vital matters, are responsible.

Here we are, then, in the middle of the war, without a Government, but with a body of men who fill the place of a Government while admitting themselves incompetent to do the work entrusted to them and for which they are paid. The war so far has consisted of a succession of repulses, which at any moment may culminate in disaster. Sir Redvers Buller has twice led his Army to defeat and is about to lead it a third time--to what? Possibly to victory; we all hope that it may be to victory. But possibly to a third defeat which would mean not merely the loss of the force at Ladysmith; it would mean that Sir Redvers Buller's Army in its turn would need succour, and that the plan, so much favoured by the strategists of the Army, of a march through the Free State would be hampered. For the final and decisive defeat of Sir Redvers Buller would be followed by the long-deferred general rising of the Cape Dutch, and probably enough by the action of one or more of the European Powers. The Times of to-day announces that a foreign Government has ordered a large supply of steam coal from the Welsh collieries. That can mean but one thing, that some foreign Power is getting its Navy ready for action.

What, then, is the situation to-day? That any day may bring the gravest news from South Africa, to be followed possibly by an ultimatum from a foreign coalition. In that event the Nation will have to choose between abandoning its Empire in obedience to foreign dictation, an abandonment which would mean National ruin, and a war for existence, a war for which no preparation has been made, which the Government is incompetent to conduct, and which would begin by a naval conflict during which it would be impossible to assist the Army in South Africa. That is the situation. It may take a turn for better; you cannot be quite sure that a storm which you see brewing may not pass off, but the probabilities are that the struggle for existence is at hand. What then is our duty, the duty of every one of us? To support the Government which cannot govern? Not for a moment, but to get rid of it as soon as possible and to make at once a Government that will try. Lord Rosebery at least sees the situation and understands the position. There is no other public man who commands such general confidence, and it is practically certain that if the Cabinet were compelled to resign by an adverse vote of the House of Commons Lord Rosebery would be the first statesman to be consulted by the Queen. Lord Rosebery could make a Government to-morrow if he would ignore parties and pick out the competent men wherever they are to be found. Any new Cabinet, except one containing Mr. Morley or Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, would be given a chance. The House of Commons would wait a few weeks to see how it bore itself. If there were prompt evidences of knowledge and will in the measures adopted, even though half the Ministers or all of them except Lord Rosebery were new men, there would soon be a feeling of confidence, and the Nation, knowing that it was led, would respond with enthusiasm. In that case Great Britain might make a good fight, though no one who knows the state of our preparations and those of the rest of the world will make a sanguine prediction as to the result.

Parent Category: Books
Category: Wilkinson: Lessons of the war
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