Why was Britain Able to Colonise India?

By Yaqoob Malik

1858 saw the establishment of the British Raj; the rule of the British East India company was transferred to the British Crown, establishing British rule in India.  The British Empire, at its peak in the early 20th century, covered a quarter of the world’s landmass, making it the largest empire in history. This, however, was only possible through the exploitation of Britain’s colonies, resulting in an increase of 248% in Britain’s GDP per capita between 1600 and 1871[1]. Edmund Burke, a British politician in the 1780s, criticised the East India Company, accusing them of ruining India’s economy. Historian Rajat Kanta Ray followed this viewpoint, building on Dadabhai Naoroji’s drain theory, he argued that Britain crippled India by sapping its wealth and blamed Britain for the famine of 1770. India at the time was going through a period of severe instability, with the economically draining rule of Aurangzeb ending with turbulent wars of succession, followed by the invasion of Northern India by Nadir Shah in 1738, signalling to the European powers to make their moves. India was seen as an immensely valuable resource by many of the European countries, being the producers of cotton, textiles, spices and opium, the last of which could be sold to China for tea. Encouraged by the vast potential of India, the European powers sought to establish trade and conquer India for benefit of their economies, with the first oceanic route to India being discovered by Vasco da Gama in 1498, allowing for the establishment of the Portuguese State of India 1505. The French, Dutch, and Danish attempts to colonise India all failed, overshadowed by the vast success of Britain. This essay aims to explain why Britain was able to take control of India between the 17th and 19th centuries, more specifically, what factors played the most significant role.

Popular opinion today suggests that Aurangzeb was a racist oppressor of Hindus and other cultural minorities, as Katherine Butler Brown puts it: “The very name of Aurangzeb seems to act in the popular imagination as a signi?er of politico-religious bigotry and repression, regardless of historical accuracy.”[2] However, since his reign ended in 1707, Aurangzeb’s image has been distorted by Indian nationalists to the point where his repression of the Hindu culture was sufficient to be able to portray him in such a light that the Taliban was compared to him as being the pinnacle of cultural destruction.[3] Aurangzeb did destroy temples, but the figures that have been used are grossly inaccurate. Indian historian Harbans Mukhia comments: “In the end, as recently recorded in Richard Eaton’s careful tabulation, some 80 temples were demolished between 1192 and 1760 (15 in Aurangzeb’s reign) and he compares this figure with the claim of 60,000 demolitions, advanced rather nonchalantly by ‘Hindu nationalist’ propagandists.”[4] The claims of Aurangzeb’s wanton and widespread destruction of Hindu temples holds little value; he sponsored the temples of loyal nobles[5] and eliminated political opposition through his powers as emperor, such as the Sikh guru Tegh Bahadur[6] [7], It was not a purge of non-Muslim citizens. Evidence for Aurangzeb’s tolerance Hindus can be seen from how 33% of positions of eminence under Aurangzeb were occupied by Hindus in the fourth decade of his rule, as opposed to the 24.5% in the time of his father Shah Jahan.[8] However the facts still stand that Temples were destroyed, and in some cases replaced by mosques, and that people were killed (most usually non-Muslims due to the circumstances; those who are most likely to oppose him politically typically wouldn’t be Muslim) regardless of whether the motive was political or not. To prepare for the Deccan campaign, the Jizya tax was reintroduced, which was a tax on non-Muslims who weren’t fighting for the empire and another discriminatory tax was levied on Hindu merchants at a rate of 5% compared to the 2.5% the Muslims had to pay. This discrimination of Hindus, who formed the majority of the population of India lost Aurangzeb his Hindu sympathisers, and in the long run, increased the desire for a new ruler, and so helped the British gain popularity.

During the mid-1600s, a threat had arisen in the form of the Marathas, led by Shivaji, who were encouraging insurgencies.[9] Aurangzeb led an army triple the size of Shivaji’s, but was repelled by a series of forts.[10] In 1980 Shivaji died, and the Mughals launched their attack, but it still took until 1689 for the Mughals to make any progress, when Shivaji’s successor Sambhaji was caught and executed. The Marathas defence continued until 1707, when Aurangzeb died, but the war had taken a huge toll on the country financially, crippling the empire. Historian Stanley Wolpert commented:

the conquest of the Deccan, to which Aurangzeb devoted the last 26 years of his life, was in many ways a Pyrrhic victory, costing an estimated hundred thousand lives a year during its last decade of futile chess game warfare. The expense in gold and rupees can hardly be accurately estimated. Aurangzeb’s encampment was like a moving capital – a city of tents 30 miles in circumference, with some 250 bazaars, with a ?1?2 million camp followers, 50,000 camels and 30,000 elephants, all of whom had to be fed, stripped the Deccan of any and all of its surplus grain and wealth … Not only famine but bubonic plague arose … Even Aurangzeb, had ceased to understand the purpose of it all by the time he was nearing 90 … “I came alone and I go as a stranger. I do not know who I am, nor what I have been doing,” the dying old man confessed to his son, Azam, in February 1707[11]

One of the reasons the war lasted so long was because of the number of Maratha sympathisers; The Marathas were Hindus and so naturally disliked Aurangzeb because of his repression of Hinduism. Aurangzeb had clearly overextended militarily, and one of the ramifications of this were that the government was bankrupt by the time his successor took the throne. Following Aurangzeb’s death, his son, Azam took the throne, only to be killed 3 months later by his brother Bahadur, starting the 12-year wars of succession, which saw 5 different emperors through its duration.[12] Which contrasts heavily to Aurangzeb’s 49-year rule, highlighting the instability of central authority. The very nature of the Mughal succession process is precarious; the emperor is to be succeeded by the son that overthrows him and eliminates any opposition from their family.

The Mughal empire was now considered by most historians to be in it’s state of decline, and quite rightly so; it is impossible for one man to control a whole empire. The Mughal empire was split into states that pledged allegiance to the emperor, who paid a tribute, and states that were under the emperors control, which had local rulers called Nawabs, to govern them. After the death of Aurangzeb, the bankrupt government’s authority collapsed; tributes stopped being paid and Nawabs stopped sending their revenues to Delhi, but instead took them for themselves.[13] The situation was made worse by the invasion of Nadir Shah, the ruler of Iran, in 1738, where the north-westerly territories were occupied by the Persians, including Lahore, by the end of 1738. Nadir Shah then defeated the Mughals at the Battle of Karnal in February 1739, looted Delhi and massacred around 30,000 citizens.[14] The Mughal Emperor was losing his power, and so the deep-rooted divisions between the different cultures that were kept in check by the emperor were surfacing, allowing the European powers to exploit them to gain support.

Britain did exactly that; in 1757 Robert Clive won the battle of Plassey against the Nawab of Bengal. Clive bribed Mir Jafar, the commander in chief of the Nawab, with control of Bengal, leading to their victory and control over Bengal. Clive claimed £3 million from the Nawab’s treasury and Mir Jafar became the Nawab, but in name only, as Britain took over the trade of Bengal. Mir Jafar was Later replaced by Mir Kasim, who wanted to reclaim land in North Bengal, however, Britain wouldn’t stand for this, leading to the Battle of Buxar, where Britain defeated the Nawab of Awadh and the Mughal emperor. This secured the Company revenue collecting rights for Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, giving them a huge economic advantage over their European rivals[15] The East India Company has had a strong footing in India since 1617, when the Mughal emperor Jahangir granted Britain trade rights at certain ports.[16] Britain’s navy was one of her greatest advantages over her European rivals, which was exploited to it’s full potential, allowing for the control of major ports.[17] Britain’s establishment in Indian ports and later Bengal through the use of her navy and exploitation of fragmented Nawabs allowed her to gain a very strong economic advantage over her rivals, further amplified by the industrial revolution that was taking place in Britain.

In 1662, Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, the Princess of Portugal, and as a result of the marriage treaty, Britain received Tangiers and Bombay, and trading access to Portugal’s Brazilian and Asian colonies. Britain and Portugal were now considered allies, further cementing Britain’s position in India. To further secure territory for themselves, Britain would enter into subsidiary alliances with local rulers, which stopped the rulers from maintaining their own army and from working with each other without the permission of Britain. This lessened the threat of an uprising, as no one was allowed to keep an army. Britain also implemented the doctrine of lapse, which allowed Britain to annex land if the ruler was either incompetent or died without a legitimate heir. This was exploited as the British were to decide whether an heir is suitable or whether a leader is competent enough. Britain used the doctrine of lapse to annex 6 states between 1848 and 1854,[18] gaining them territory without much financial or military struggle.

The other European powers vying for control in India were the Dutch, the Danes, the French and the Portuguese. Britain had an alliance with Portugal, and the Danes didn’t have enough influence to pose a threat, which left the Dutch and the French as their main rivals. The Dutch held a significant presence on the global market as a trader of tea, however, Britain began to enter the tea market when they started trading Indian opium for Chinese tea. Britain engaged the Dutch in 1780 in the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War. The battle was a one-sided victory to Britain due to the Dutch Navy being no match for Britain’s. France was struggling financially, regardless of whether they pursued India. The Austrian Wars of Succession drained the French navy, and then the Napoleonic Wars took place between 1803 to 1815, which put a huge strain on French resources. Napoleon also tried to make a junction with Tipu Sultan in 1798 to increase French presence in the colonies, however this failed due to the unsuccessful siege of Acre and battle of Abukir. If not for the overextension of Napoleon in the Napoleonic Wars, France may have had the military resources necessary to oppose Britain.

The French East India Company differed in nature to the British Company; the French Company was financed by the King, whilst the British Company was financed by shareholders. This meant that France had very little freedom compared to Britain[19] and consequently, the British were very motivated, as the harder they work, the more money they receive, but this is not the case with the French. Due to the French’s establishment in Pondicherry, which was ill equipped, Britain was able to cut off their supply source and defeat them.[20]  The French leaders also seemed to be ineffective, as G. S. Chhabra writes: “Dupleix made a cardinal blunder in looking for the Key of India in Madras; Clive sought and found it in Bengal.”[21] The shortcomings of the French East India Company show that there was a problem on the management side, if France had a better leader and had chosen a more strategic location, then they may have stood a chance.

To conclude, the main reason why Britain was able to colonise India was because of the divisions within India. The long-term divisions created by the intolerance of non-Muslims and the erratic wars of succession fragmented India into many small states, the majority of whom paid lip service and nothing more to the emperor. This vulnerability was the reason that Britain was able to succeed. The Battle of Plassey most likely would have resulted in Britain’s defeat if they were facing a unified empire, the same can be said about Britain’s use of the doctrine of lapse and the subsidiary alliance; if not for the lack of central authority, Britain would have never been able to annex territory. The strength of Britain plays a large part in the colonisation of India, as after taking Bengal, they gained a very strong economic advantage, boosted by their industrial revolution. However, if there was a strong central authority, then Bengal would have remained in Mughal control. The shortcomings of the other European powers may have played a major role if Britain didn’t have such an advantage in resources; Although Britain does have the strongest navy, if the French had chosen a more suitable location than Pondicherry and had a more suitable leader, then we may have seen French control of India only if Britain hadn’t become an economic powerhouse.


[1] Stephen Broadberry and Bishnupriya Gupta, Indian GDP Before 1870: Some Preliminary Estimates and A Comparison with Britain (2009) http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/staff/sbroadberry/wp/indiangdppre1870v2.pdf

[2] Katherine Butler Brown, Did Aurangzeb Ban Music? Questions for the Historiography of His Reign (2007) https://www.scribd.com/doc/81299631/Did-Aurangzeb-Ban-Music

[3] Katherine Butler Brown, Did Aurangzeb Ban Music? Questions for the Historiography of His Reign (2007) https://www.scribd.com/doc/81299631/Did-Aurangzeb-Ban-Music

[4]Harbans Mukhia, The Mughals of India (2004) page 26 http://historydepartmentphilos.weebly.com/uploads/2/6/6/1/26612531/harbans_mukhia_themughalsofindia.pdf

[5] Barbra D. Metcalf,Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India Second Edition (2006) page 21

[6] Barbra D. Metcalf, Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India Second Edition (2006) page 21

[7] Audrey Truschke, A Much-Maligned Mughal (2017) https://aeon.co/essays/the-great-aurangzeb-is-everybodys-least-favourite-mughal

[8] S. C. Bhatt, Land and People of Indian States and Union Territories: In 36 Volumes. Delhi, Volume 34 (2006) page 65

[9] Jamal Malik, Islam in South Asia: A Short History (2008) page 193

[10] http://historiarex.com/e/en/414-deccan-wars-1680-1707

[11] Stanley A. Wolpert, New History of India (7th edition) (2008)

[12] Firas Alkhateeb, Lost Islamic History (2014) page 186

[13] Barbra D. Metcalf, Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India Second Edition (2006) page 30 – 31

[14] https://www.britannica.com/place/India/Aurangzeb#ref485859

[15] Barbra D. Metcalf, Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India Second Edition (2006) page 52 – 53

[16] Barbra D. Metcalf, Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India Second Edition (2006) page 47

[17] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/britain_empire_01.shtml

[18] https://www.britannica.com/topic/doctrine-of-lapse

[19] http://www.historydiscussion.net/history-of-india/failure-of-french/top-8-causes-for-the-french-failure-in-india/5920

[20] G. S. Chhabra, Advanced Study in the History of Modern India (Volume-1: 1707-1803) (2005) page 126 – 130

[21] G. S. Chhabra, Advanced Study in the History of Modern India (Volume-1: 1707-1803) (2005) page 128

Vampires & Capitalism.

Upon hearing the term, ‘The Gothic’, our minds turn to tales of the dark, the twisted and the macabre – from Poe’s stories of death, somnambulism and premature burial to Stoker’s Dracula and Shelley’s Frankenstein, the Gothic provides an exhilarating experience of suspense, horror and disgust. Students of architecture associate the term with grandiose castellated towers, extravagant flying buttresses and vast, imposing stone structures that dwarf the onlooker. So, what is it that makes something characteristically Gothic? Literary critic David Punter defines it as “an important representation of deep-rooted social and psychological fears”, prompting our investigation into the reasons for Gothic literature’s consistent terror-invoking success since the Victorian era.

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Britain, the Aerial Tactician.

Britain has always been a country that has relied heavily upon her navy; years of total dominance at sea had taught her that it would be safe from the possible threat of invasion no matter who the opponent was and how carefully crafted their plan. It was therefore unknown territory that Britain had now found itself in after the fall of France on the 25th of June 1940. The invasion of her own shores that must now follow may still have to come by sea; but Britain had no means of repelling it if it did not have total superiority in the air. The Royal Air Force had been formed at the end of the First World War by the amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. Though at the time of the end of World War One it was the largest independent air force in the world, the inter-war years were relatively quiet for the RAF. It was only in the summer of 1940 that it would fight its most important and famous campaign – to defend Britain in the skies… or Britain would face defeat on the ground.

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Hiroshima: Was It ‘Necessary’?

J. Samuel Walker wrote, on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945, that ‘The fundamental issue that has divided scholars . . . is whether the use of the bomb was necessary to achieve victory in the war in the Pacific on terms satisfactory to the United States.’1 This piece tries to solve the ‘fundamental issue’—was the bomb necessary from Washington’s perspective? Continue reading

To what extent did Napoleon’s government during the Consulate bring benefits to France?

Between 1799 and 1804 Napoleon as First Consul instigated a series of sweeping reforms, fundamentally changing the institutions of France. He had a shrewd idea of what was necessary after a decade of Revolution: ‘My policy is to govern men as most of them wish to be governed. It is in this way, I believe, that popular sovereignty is acknowledged.’ Opposition notwithstanding, he was able to convert the majority of Frenchmen from being citizens to being subjects, and to impose on them a political, administrative and judicial system which reflected his own tastes for efficiency and uniformity. So, to what extent did Napoleon’s government during the consulate bring benefits to France? The answer must be that it did so only so far as to secure a regime at bottom authoritarian; that some benefited more than others as a result. However, for many if not all contemporaries the Consulate was ‘rational’, ‘modern’ and ultimately ‘beneficial’ notwithstanding.

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‘What did Attlee ever do for us?’ The 1945 Election

At the end of WWII, Britain’s national prestige was back at the level that it had been in 1919. She was a core member of the newly founded international organisations like the United Nations Security Council; she retained her strategic role as the main ally of the USA and had survived the war with her Empire still intact; pound Sterling remained the international currency; and the British people enjoyed some of the highest living standards in Europe.

From this position of apparent greatness, how was it that by 2000 Britain had a GDP per capita lower than that of either of the defeated nations? Why was her total GDP only $200,000,000 greater than France (12%), despite the average Frenchman working 16% fewer hours over the course of one year? Why did Britain no longer have an Empire, and why was the post-1945 world the ‘American’ half-century, pax americana as opposed to pax britannica?

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Frederick ‘the Great’: A monarch reassessed

  1. Introduction

Towards the end of the 18th century, a period largely dominated by war and diplomacy, a new ‘great power’ had surfaced in Europe – Prussia. Between 1740 and 1786 Prussia was ruled by King Frederick II, who went to extraordinary lengths to turn his country from a lowly state in the Holy Roman Empire, to a powerful threat to the Austrians. By 1786, Prussia had vastly increased its land mass, had connected the Duchy of Prussia with Brandenburg, and improved its economy.

Frederick II of Prussia is generally lauded as a champion of the enlightenment and one of the greatest military minds during the 1700s, but upon closer analysis, this may not be entirely accurate. This paper seeks to dispel the myths surrounding the Prussian king and attempts to present an unbiased evaluation of his forty-six-year reign to determine whether Frederick truly lives up to the common belief. Without sympathy to German patriotism, the question will be answered – is Frederick rightly termed “The Great”?

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‘What is the most underrated event of the past, and why is it so much more significant than people understand?’

On the night of 25 June 1850 Lord Palmerston asked the House of Commons ‘whether, as the Roman, in days of old […] could say Civis Romanus sum; so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him against injustice.’[1] This paper will argue that his words have been fundamentally underrated. They were, above all, a response to pervasive criticism of his foreign policy theretofore: manifested in the House of Lords’ antithetical resolution of 17 June that British subjects ‘residing in foreign states’ should be entitled only to ‘the full protection of the laws of those states’.[2] However, that they emerged from a fairly trivial affair – namely, the maltreatment of a Portuguese Jew born in Gibraltar, who went by the name of Don Pacifico – does not render them insignificant. On the contrary: if taken in context, and with a fuller understanding of the (latent) interplay between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics, their intrinsic import is quickly made apparent. Further, whilst it is true that there is no shortage of comments regarding the Don Pacifico debate and the foreign secretary’s contribution (in the words of Herbert Bell, an ‘amazing demonstration of his reserves of strength’),[3] the long-term, foreseen and unforeseen consequences of his words – on his career, the public and on foreign policy thereafter – have been persistently overlooked.

Most Palmerstonian scholars have not failed to acknowledge the short-term ramifications of the Don Pacifico debate.[4] However, in many a political biography it does not receive the emphasis due to an important turning point in Lord Palmerston’s career. As he later noted, his immortal peroration had effectively revitalised his political stock. ‘Towards the End of the Session Ld John [sic] brought [the subject of removal from the Foreign Office] forward and proposed to me a change of office. I replied that after what had passed in the House of Commons […] it was quite impossible for me to consent to any such arrangement’.[5] In other words – or so the standard narrative goes – he had successfully overcome a concerted attack upon his foreign policy to date, and he was subsequently able to resist pressure for his removal from above. What is often not articulated is that when he was in fact dismissed in December 1851, the popular indignation that resulted – a product of his standing in the aftermath of his success – did much to establish his claim to high office. For example, the Morning Chronicle described his loss as a ‘national humiliation’.[6] If he was, indeed, ‘l’inevitable’ as prime minister in 1855 (as he so modestly put it),[7] this status must be understood in the context of the Don Pacifico debate.

Was the foregoing intended on the part of Lord Palmerston? The answer must be that he was fully aware of what he was doing in June 1850: for two, not unrelated reasons. First, his contribution to the Don Pacifico debate is, in fact, resounding evidence for a political Machiavellianism. Greville rightly said that the speech was hardly a sufficient answer to all the charges made, but admitted that it was ‘adorned with a profusion of magnificent and successful claptraps’.[8] This was not merely dodging the question on the foreign secretary’s part but was, rather, a calculated bid to capture patriotic sentiment. The fundamental fact about British politics at this time was the breakdown of the old-two party system following the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. As a result, there was a clear window of opportunity for Lord Palmerston to rally non-Conservatives behind an attractive, libertarian banner and, in so doing, to win the battle for advantage within a future non-Conservative administration.[9] In construing the resolution of the House of Lords as ‘totally incompatible with the interests, with the rights, with the honour, and with the dignity of the crown’; and in suggesting that his removal would be inimical to the ‘deepest interests’ of the nation, he was able to present himself as the only representative spokesman in the midst of manifest autocracy: both at home and abroad.[10]

If the above suggests a high political battle, then this must be qualified by the second facet of Lord Palmerston’s manoeuvres; namely, his appeal to the nation outside the walls of Westminster. This has, indeed, been often overlooked; that through the press, he could solicit the ‘approbation of [his] policy and conduct […] from One End of the Country to the other’.[11] The Globe, for example, commented that the foreign secretary had earned his countrymen’s ‘affection and respect’;[12] and this can no doubt be attributed to the ‘Civis Romanus’ doctrine. Not only had he defended his alleged folly; he had also carved out an image of himself as the true ‘patriot hero’; the ‘most English minister’, no less.[13] Indeed, he was invariably seen to be the personification of Victorian John Bullishness thereafter.[14] When, in September 1853, he was awarded the freedom of the city in Glasgow, the words spoken by Lord Provost, highlighting ‘the courage and determination [he had] so often displayed in protecting the interests and the privileges of [his] countrymen abroad’, were merely an extension of this public mood and clearly show the extent to which the Don Pacifico debate resonated through the 1850s and beyond: underpinning Lord Palmerston’s political resiliency and success.[15]

Now, we enter the realm of a more longstanding significance or impact on the trajectory of 19th century politics. Most obviously, in his claim to be the representative spokesman of the people, and in the irresistible appeal of his emotive rhetoric, Lord Palmerston contributed to the evolution of a new political style. ‘The strength of the government’, he reminded Henry Brand, Chief Whip, in 1863, ‘consists not simply in the balance of votes […] in the Commons, but mainly in favourable public opinion.’[16]  This was surely a lesson learnt in 1850, if not a statement of a direct consequence of the Don Pacifico debate. The Leicestershire Mercury had, after all, suggested in 1851 that Lord Palmerston would be ‘carried back to office on the shoulders of the people’; and this, it would seem, is what had happened.[17] Thus, Don Pacifico and its effects mark a shift away from the traditional elitist (or autocratic) model of early 19th century government and toward a British polity built on public confidence. Later, both Disraeli and Gladstone, faced with a far greater electorate following the 1867 extension of the franchise, had to find new and exciting ways of courting national strength and dominance: the Midlothian Campaign of 1879 being one example. However, the advent of party government was but a short-term factor, where the legacy of Lord Palmerston was part and parcel of this change.

Even more important than the audience who Lord Palmerston addressed was the very essence of the foreign secretary’s rhetoric and the momentous impact that it had. As alluded to above, the underlying intention of his speech was to exploit and neutralise a common fear: the fear that somehow, the age-old ‘English oligarchy’ would shortly be usurped.[18] 1848 had seen pervasive revolution on the continent: ‘thrones […] shattered […]; institutions overthrown’;[19] and only in this context can the Don Pacifico debate be fully understood. If, in appealing to the nation’s primitive desires – desires ubiquitous and ‘classless’ – Lord Palmerston had forged a national community of interests, he had also imbued this community with an awareness (fanciful or otherwise) of the superiority of Britain’s liberal constitutional arrangements: as contrasted with the despotic nature of the continental governments. ‘We have shown that liberty is compatible with order; that individual freedom is reconcilable with obedience to the law.’[20] In turn, this presumed superiority became the lynchpin of a very British obligation to spread justice overseas. Fear had given way to a ‘trigger happy ebullience’,[21] and the ‘reproach’ of Britons on the subject of foreign policy had thus been wiped away; ‘All [were] interested in foreign affairs’.[22]

The immediate consequence of this transition was the ‘drift’ toward the Crimean War of 1853–56. The precise details surrounding said conflict are unimportant here; except to say that John Russell’s first administration had, by this stage, been replaced by a weak and ineffectual coalition: susceptible to a British public in an alarmingly ‘febrile state’.[23] M.E. Chamberlain has suggested that this state was a function of the ‘excitement which had led to the revolutions in continental Europe […] dammed back in Britain’ and left to run in other channels.[24] This seems plausible but needs to be drawn out and incorporated within a framework centred on the Don Pacifico debate and its effects. It was, at bottom, ‘the defence of popular liberty against menacing reaction, incarnate and triumphant in the Tsar, that brought Great Britain into the field’;[25] or, at least this was the rationale entrenched in popular imagination and indirectly propagated by Lord Palmerston’s speech of June 1850. In other words, to explain the conflict we should look, not toward the various external factors, but rather inward at the domestic situation as it stood in the years preceding. Yes, a major factor in the outbreak of the war was ‘the breakdown of the traditional understandings between the powers’;[26] however, this breakdown was itself driven by a British polity motivated (and united) by a Palmerstonian conception of the pecking order.

In the long run, this conception was not to go away: from the people, nor (reciprocally) from the political discourse and foreign policy of the years and decades following Lord Palmerston’s death in 1865. Don Pacifico had shown, above all, that foreign affairs were better suited to the construction of a cross-class domestic politics than, say, Reform or Ecclesiastical Titles;[27] and this became increasingly significant in the context of the late 1860s: when Disraeli, in particular, sought to ‘acquire the national colours for his own party’.[28] On succeeding to the premiership in 1866, for example, he could not fail to avoid the common movement for electoral reform: given the known dangers of extra-parliamentary discontent. However, the extension of the franchise created a reaction whereby certain ‘constitutional bastions’ were revoked.[29] The position of the ruling classes under threat – their ability to govern called into question – the need to exemplify the principles of national leadership and create a community, ‘instead of a number of mutually exclusive classes’, was once again the order of the day: thus prompting the Abyssinian Expedition of 1868.[30] War was, in effect, a national cause or patriotic purpose that would relieve domestic tensions; in which sense, Don Pacifico had emerged as the root political exemplar of the latter half of the 19th century.

The phrase ‘Civis Romanus sum’ might be forgotten, but the idea to which Lord Palmerston gave form on the night of 25 June 1850 deserves recognition as a significant factor in modern British history. In the first place, the Don Pacifico debate is underrated because ‘it awoke a sentiment through the length and breadth of England’ akin to the feelings felt in the run-up to ‘Free-trade and the [Great] Reform-bill’;[31] and yet it has not been venerated by the national consciousness, nor systematically analysed by historians in quite the same way. However, its status as the most underrated event of the past is due to the lasting impact of a speech synonymous with the debate itself. As Lord Palmerston put it, the resolution of the House of Lords – and, by implication, his own ‘principle of national policy’ – involved ‘the future as well as the past’;[32] that is, the future of a national hero, the future of the British polity and, perhaps most significantly, the future of British foreign policy aims and objectives. His lasting legacy, then, was to popularise foreign affairs for the first time and ‘to illustrate the political capital to be made from efficient representation of popular interests’.[33] The result – the Pax Britannica, or an unremitting (arguably delusional) sense of Britain as a ‘spectacle […] worthy of the admiration of mankind’[34] – may still be with us to this day.

Endnotes – 

[1] Hansard (3rd ser.), vol. cxii, c. 444.

[2] Hansard (3rd ser.), vol. cxi, c. 1296.

[3] Bell, H.C.F. Lord Palmerston (London, 1936), vol.  ii, p. 22

[4] See, e.g., Bell, Lord Palmerston, pp. 27–8; Chamberlain, M.E. Lord Palmerston (Cardiff, 1987), p. 74; Ridley, J. Lord Palmerston. (London, 1970), pp. 387–9.

[5] Broadlands Papers, GC/RU/343/enc. 1; cit. in Brown, D. Palmerston and the politics of foreign policy (Manchester, 2002), p. 112.

[6] Morning Chronicle, 25 Dec. 1851; cit. in [ibid.], p. 123.

[7] Ashley, E. The life of Henry John Temple, Viscount Palmerston: 1846–65 (London, 1876), p. 77; letter to brother, William, 15 Feb. 1855.

[8] The Greville memoirs, 1814–1860, Lytton Stratchey and Roger Fulford (eds.), 1938, vol. vi, p. 232; cit. in Southgate, D. The most English minister…’: The policies and politics of Palmerston (London, 1966), p. 276.

[9] Parry, J. The politics of patriotism: English liberalism, national identity and Europe, 1830–1886 (Cambridge, 2006), p. 65.

[10] Hansard (3rd ser.), vol. cxii, cc. 380–81.

[11] Broadlands Papers, GC/RU/343/enc. 1; cit. in Brown, Palmerston and the politics of foreign policy, p. 112.

[12] Globe, 26 June 1850; cit. in [ibid.] p. 113.

[13] Broadlands Papers, MM/GR/50, Sligo Champion [Irish Tory paper], June 1850; cit. in [ibid.] p. 117; Daily Telegraph obituary; cit. in Southgate, Most English minister, p. xxviii.

[14] Chamberlain, M.E. ‘Pax Britannica?’: British foreign policy 1789–1914 (Harlow, 1988), p. 99; cf. also Ritchie,  J.E. The life and times of Viscount Palmerston: embracing the diplomatic and domestic history of the British Empire during the last half century (London, 1866–7), vol. ii, p. 13: ‘Of his John Bullism the nation was proud’.

[15] Broadlands Papers, SP/B/3/1–4; cit. in Brown, Palmerston and the politics of foreign policy, p. 156.

[16] Palmerston to Brand, 14 Aug. 1863; cit. in Hawkins, A. British party politics, 1852–1886 (Basingstoke, 1998) p. 80.

[17] Broadlands Papers, GMC/52, Leicestershire Mercury, 24 Jan. 1852; cit. in Brown, Palmerston and the politics of foreign policy, p. 127.

[18] Nonconformist, 3 May 1848, p. 314; cit. in Parry, The politics of patriotism, p. 173.

[19] Hansard (3rd ser.), vol. cxii, c. 443

[20] Ibid.

[21] Parry, The politics of patriotism, p. 174.

[22] Ritchie, Lord Palmerston, vol. ii, p. 14.

[23] Chamberlain, Pax Britannica, p. 106.

[24] Chamberlain, Lord Palmerston, p. 84; cf. also Chamberlain, Pax Britannica, p. 106.

[25] Cambridge History of British Foreign Policy, vol. ii (Cambridge, 1923), p. 380.

[26] Parry, The politics of patriotism, p. 218.

[27] Ibid. p. 204.

[28] Blake, R. Disraeli (London, 1969), p. 283.

[29] Harcourt, F. ‘Disraeli’s Imperialism, 1866–1868: A Question of Timing?’ The Historical Journal, vol. xxiii (1980), p. 92.

[30] Morley, J. ‘Young England and the political future’, Fortnightly Rev. vol. i (1867), p. 496; cit. in Harcourt, ‘Disraeli’s Imperialism’, p. 93.

[31] Globe, 29 June 1850; cit. in Brown, Palmerston and the politics of foreign policy, p. 113.

[32] Hansard (3rd ser.), vol. xii, c. 381.

[33] Brown, Palmerston and the politics of foreign policy, p. 217.

[34] Hansard (3rd ser.), vol. cxii, c. 443.

Contributed by Jack Nicholson, History Editor

The Great Speaker

‘Great’ is an epithet rarely used in history. When it is, it is commonly attached to figures well known and ingrained in national consciousness: Frederick, Peter, Alfred and Catherine, to name a few. Here, I explore the career of a lesser known ‘great’; namely, Arthur Onslow (1691–1768), the Great Speaker of the House of Commons. 


Onslow entered Parliament on 16 February 1720 as a Whig MP for the borough of Guildford. He had been trained in the Law, but, perceiving that he ‘was not made for the business of [that] profession’, he had had a short stint as secretary to his ‘uncle Onslow’, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, and subsequently as Treasurer of the Post Office. [1] On taking up his seat, he soon made his mark: establishing himself ‘as a man of independent mind who voted in accordance with his convictions’. [2] He kept firm to his ‘original Whig principles […] and never deviated from them to serve any party cause.’ [3] For example, on 23 November 1722, he opposed a motion to plunder the estates of Roman Catholics: declaring ‘his abhorrence of persecuting anybody on account of their opinions in religion’. [4] At the same time, he gained the support of Sir Robert Walpole: being invited to his house on 14 October, that same year, to consider the suspension of Habeus Corpus on the discovery of the Atterbury conspiracy (or a plot to overthrow the king).

Onslow’s early career, then, makes it hard to recognise him as the bridled member depicted by Lord Hervey as Walpole’s choice of Speaker in 1727: [5] ‘As he had no great pretensions to it from his age, his character, his weight in the House, or his particular knowledge, […] Walpole imagined that he must look upon his promotion entirely as an act of favour, and consequently think himself obliged […] to show all the complaisance in his power to his patron and benefactor’. [6] In reality, the man had already proven himself to be a leading personality of the Commons; important enough to rise with prominent members on 13 March 1727 to express ‘highest indignation and resentment’ of recent behaviour by the Imperial ambassador. [7] Hervey might have been correct in suggesting that one motive behind Walpole’s decision was a desire to avoid advancing a possible rival. However, Onslow was chosen, above all, for his genuine ‘independency’ and ‘unshaken zeal in the service of the kingdom’. [8] He was called to the chair, by ‘the most general concurrence that was ever known’, on 23 January 1728. [9]

This independency would serve him well in his new role. ‘He was the first Speaker to recognise the crucial importance of distancing the chair from […] discreditable activity’ or corruption, [10] and corruption was manifest in the long eighteenth century. Indeed, in 1740, Onslow wrote to Sir More Molineux: ‘God knows there is so much of it about everywhere […] and to tell you the truth I am quite sick of the world’. [11] Jumping forward slightly to 1742 – and jumping is required, for want of primary source material – there is one example which illustrates his integrity. At this time, a secret committee was called to investigate the affairs of the Walpole-Townshend ministry. There being a tie for the last two places, Onslow was required to name these members: only to be criticised for choosing those friendly to the fallen minister. In order to refute the assertion that he was influenced by personal interest, and so ‘remain active as the custodian of constitutional correctness’, [12] he resigned from his (lucrative) post as Treasurer of the Navy the very next day.

Onslow also set the pattern for the impartiality of the Chair (although he did not shed his party associations). Again, he recognised that to be successful in his role he could be no respecter of persons, and ‘the lash of his tongue’ fell on such leading members as Pulteney, Pelham, Pitt and Fox. [13] As he put it on 4 February 1734, ‘It is no business of mine to appear on either side of the question. But it is my duty to take notice, when gentlemen are disorderly.’ [14] On the other hand, he was not impartial according to our modern conception of the speakership. He apparently voted, for example, in six out of seven divisions in Committee for which lists survive during the first twenty years of his tenure in office. [15] In particular, he actively criticised matters relating to the army, about which he held strong prejudices. Then, in his fifth and final parliament he was ‘obliged to speak his opinion’ on two legislative measures he disliked; namely, the Regency Bill of 1751 and Lord Chancellor Hardwicke’s Marriage Bill of 1753. [16]

The foregoing is evidence for two, not unrelated themes. First, Onslow’s contemporary fame as Speaker was based primarily on his success as Chairman of the House. Horace Walpole recorded for posterity an account of how, as a young Member, he once baited Speaker Onslow into a ‘great rage’ in the chamber, and, in 1764, he commented on Sir Fletcher Norton’s notorious comparison between the Commons and a group of drunken porters, that ‘had Onslow been in the chair […] he would have knocked him down with the mace’. [17] In other words, ‘he filled the Chair with unblemished integrity during the long reign of George the Second’ and, consequently, earned the unanimous acclaim of his fellow-members. [18] Richard Rigby, for example, made this critical comparison of Speaker Norton with Onslow on 14 May, 1777: ‘When Mr Onslow was Speaker, he would not let members stand on the floor, or by the chair, or behind the chair talking; and when the House was disorderly, he used to call out and say, he hoped the House would support him in keeping order’. [19]

Second, Onslow saw his role to protect the institution of Parliament. Indeed, ‘the distinguishing feature of [his] public character was a regard and veneration for the British constitution, as it was declared and established at the revolution’ of 1688. [20] On the Regency Bill, for example, ‘he professed that he would not have begun an opposition’ but, alas, he could not avoid declaring ‘that he thought the regulations dangerous’. [21] This was because the Pelham Administration proposed the division of power between the Princess of Wales and the Duke of Cumberland, contrary to the preservation of the constitution. His concern was also manifest in his staunch belief ‘that the form of proceedings, as instituted by our ancestors, operated as a check and a control on the action of ministers’ [22] – a belief which probably explains his reactionary stand in the matter of the reporting of parliamentary debates. On 13 April 1738, he brought this matter before the attention of the House and passed the resolution that publication was ‘a notorious breach of [parliamentary] privilege’. [23]

Onslow retired from the Chair and from the House on 18 March 1761. To mark the occasion, the House resolved that its thanks ‘be given to Mr Speaker, for his constant and unwearied attendance in the chair, during the course of above thirty-three years, in five successive parliaments’. Members praised, in particular, ‘the indefatigable pains’ he had taken ‘to promote the real interest of his king and country, to maintain the honour and dignity of parliament, and to preserve inviolable the rights and privileges of the Commons of Great Britain.’ [24] The House then called upon the King to ‘confer some signal mark of his royal favour’ upon Onslow ‘for his great and eminent services’, thereby laying the precedent for the Speaker’s pension. [25] Finally, Onslow was the first ex-Speaker to receive the freedom of the City of London, ‘as a grateful and lasting testimony of the respectful love and veneration which the citizens of London [entertained] of his person’.[26] He died at his home on Great Russell Street – close to the British Museum, of which he was a principal trustee – on 17 February 1768.


[1] Historic Manuscripts Commission, 14th Report, Part IX (1895), p. 501.
[2] Laundy, P. The office of speaker (London, 1964), p. 262.
[3] Historic Manuscripts Commission, 14th Report, Part IX (1895), p. 516.
[4] Cobbett, W. Parliamentary history of England. Vol. VIII (London, 1811) col. 51.
[5] Thomas, P.D.G. The House of Commons in the eighteenth century (Aldershot, 1992), p. 296.
[6] Some materials towards memoirs of the reign of King George II. By John, Lord Hervey. Ed. Roger Sedgwick. (London, 1931). Vol. I. p.74; cited in Thomas, The House of Commons in the eighteenth century, p. 296.
[7] Cobbett, W. The parliamentary history of England. Vol. VIII (London, 1811), col. 560.
[8] Historic Manuscripts Commission, 14th Report, Part IX (1895), p. 516; Cobbett, W. Parliamentary History of England. Vol. VIII, col. 630.
[9] Cobbett, W. The parliamentary history of England. Vol. VIII (London, 1811), col. 629.
[10] Laundy, P. ‘Onslow, Arthur (1691–1768)’, Oxford dictionary of national biography (Oxford, 2004); online ed., Jan. 2008 [accessed 25 June 2015].
[11] Quoted by Vullliamy, C. E. The Onslow family 1528–1874: With some account of their times (London, 1953), p. 107.
[12] Watson, J.S. ‘Arthur Onslow and party politics’, Essays in British history: Presented to Sir Keith Feiling. Ed. Hugh Trevor-Roper. (London, 1965), p. 154.
[13] Thomas, P.D.G. The House of Commons in the eighteenth century (Aldershot, 1992), p. 351.
[14] Chandler, R. The History and proceedings of the House of Commons. Vol. VIII (London, 1742), p. 64; cit. in [ibid.] p. 352.
[15] Thomas, P.D.G. The House of Commons in the eighteenth century (Aldershot, 1992), p. 299.
[16] Memoirs of the reign of King George the Second by Horace Walpole. Eds. Henry Fox, Lord Holland. (London, 1847), p. 126; cit. in Thomas, P.D.G. The House of Commons in the eighteenth century (Aldershot, 1992), p. 303.
[17] The Letters of Horace Walpole, fourth Earl of Orford. Ed. Paget Tonybee. (Oxford, 1905), vol. I, p. xxxix; vol. VII, p. 9; cit. in Thomas, P.D.G. The House of Commons in the eighteenth century (Aldershot, 1992), p. 351.
[18] Memoirs of the reign of King George Third by Horace Walpole. Ed. Henry Fox, Lord Holland. (London, 1894), vol. I, p. 39.
[19] Almon, J. The parliamentary register. Vol. VII (London, 1777), p. 194; cit. in Thomas, P.D.G. The House of Commons in the eighteenth century (Aldershot, 1992), p. 355.
[20] Hatsell, cit. in Cobbett, W. The parliamentary history of England. Vol. XV (London, 1813), col. 1014.
[21] Memoirs of the reign of King George the Second by Horace Walpole. Eds. Henry Fox, Lord Holland. (London, 1847), p. 126; cit. in Thomas, P.D.G. The House of Commons in the eighteenth century (Aldershot, 1992), p. 303.
[22] Quoted by Laundy, P. in The office of speaker (London, 1964), p. 265.
[23] Cobbett, W. The parliamentary History of England. Vol. IX (London, 1811), col. 812.
[24] Cobbett, W. The parliamentary History of England. Vol. XV (London, 1813), cols. 1013–1014.
[25] Cobbett, W. The parliamentary History of England. Vol. XV (London, 1813), col. 1015.
[26] Annual Register, 1761, p. 106; cit. in Laundy, P. The office of speaker (London, 1964), p. 272.

Contributed by Jack Nicholson, History Editor 

An Enlightening Look at the French Revolution

The impact of the Enlightenment on the French Revolution is hard to quantify. Practically every dimension of this critical phase in the history of European civilisation is shrouded in equivocality; and yet none more so, in my view, than the postulated lynchpin of it all. There is a tendency, quite naturally, to fall back on the Enlightenment as the sole causation and propagator of social turmoil – and here we must be careful, since to subscribe to this view would be to fall prey to an enduring fallacy, propounded by Edmund Burke in 1790, on the back of his intransigent belief in the Revolution as a “strange chaos of levity and ferocity, and of all sorts of crimes jumbled together with all sorts of follies.” (Burke, 1999, p.10) When it comes to history, persevering dogma is inadmissible.

There is little consensus on the precise beginnings of the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ – which is a pity, since this dispels any notion of a little bulb lighting up over Europe.  In France, the three musketeers – Rousseau, Montesquieu and Voltaire – epitomised this ‘revolution’ in human thought.   But was there actually any sort of trend between the ideas of these men? In a country which had no active politics, the intellectuals of the day were not in a position to dream up a coherent political system. Montesquieu’s ‘Spirit of the Laws’ (1748), predicated on the virtues of the English constitution, had been brutally distorted   come the third quarter of the century; the concept of the separation of powers was employed merely in defence of the claims of the French parlements, and the word ‘despotism’ had extended so pervasively that it had almost become meaningless – compare ‘deficit’ today. Likewise, Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762) was, and is, characterised by notorious paradox; did contemporaries understand it? Did it have a discernible impact during the Revolution’s course?

What is certain is that the public life of eighteenth century France was acted out before a burgeoning, communal platform of informed public opinion, which by 1770 had escalated beyond the government’s control. However, this is not to say that literacy was a nationwide phenomenon, and the ability to read, then as now, did not necessarily endow the ability to think. On the eve of revolution, just 37% of the population could read, and of them the preponderance were indulging exclusively in popular literature – almanacs, chapbooks, and cheaply produced collections of fictitious works. Enlightening works were not cheap; Diderot’s monolithic Encylopédie cost the equivalent (on average) of ninety-three weeks’ wages. What is more, for most Europeans the monotony of daily life did not call for any modification in thought, or for any revolution. With respect to France, therefore, the question must be posed: what did?

Any attempt to assess the Enlightenment singularly is inevitably going to flounder. This spurt toward the attainment of knowledge and progress, and thereby greater happiness or human perfection, was concomitant with an array of demographic, social and economic alterations in pre-revolutionary France, which were uneasily juxtaposed to the prevailing features of the Ancien Régime: population increase alongside a decline in agricultural output; a thriving over-seas colonial trade alongside a languishing hinterland economy; the assent of the bourgeoisie alongside (an attempt at) the consolidation of government power.  Louis XVI’s accession to the throne in 1774 roughly corresponded with the beginnings of substantial economic downturn; but the protracted recession, glaring in 1778, was by no means incurable. Come 1787 – post bad harvest and the calamitous decision to enter the American War of Independence (1775-1783) – the country had plummeted into a period of cyclical downswing, wrought upon an economy of low resistance; employment and production both fell by 50%. It would take some flare of imagination to resolve this crisis.

The calling of the Estates General in early 1789 was the ultimate product of the above. By no coincidence, in the first four months of that year 2,639 cheap political pamphlets were disseminated. For the first time, “journalism assumed its modern role of whipping up popular passion” (Cobban, 1968, p.25), and hundreds of thousands of starving poor were mobilised. “An unfavourable concatenation of events had brought together in a common opposition the bourgeoisie and the proteleriat” (Labrousse, 1958, p.72); had amalgamated “a political protest against the tyrannies and restrictions of the Ancien Régime, [with] a social protest of depressed [and] impoverished classes.” (Rudé, 1964, p.66) Which was the more important in building up to this point? Were socio-economic changes to “provide the soil in which intellectualism could germinate”? (Lewis, 1999, p.8) Was the Enlightenment the propagator, or a cleverly disguised manifestation of change?  Regardless, the conceptualisation of the French Revolution as a bloc with one inspiration is invalid.

Contributed by Jack Nicholson

Did life improve in Britain after the introduction of the Welfare State?

Following the outbreak of the Second World War the national government played a more important role in people’s lives, with tasks such as organising rationing helping towards Britain’s war effort. This was welcomed by the public and in December 1942 William Beveridge, a senior civil servant, released a report highlighting the five main issues Britain had to overcome in order to achieve a better society, this was to become the foundations of the Welfare State. The five ‘giants’ were want, disease, idleness, ignorance and squalor. The first of Beveridge’s proposals came into effect before the end of the war, in 1944, and by 1950 many key policies were introduced such as the National Health Service, the Education Act of 1944 and the National Insurance Act. Britain had undergone vast change within the 5 years after World War Two, but by 1950 had life improved in Britain as a result of these new reforms?

The first ‘giant’ highlighted in the Beveridge Report was ‘want’ – poverty and the lack of basics to live a healthy life. The National Insurance Act was passed in 1946, which provided comprehensive insurance against most eventualities such as illness, unemployment and retirement. Most people paid roughly 4 shillings and it was said that social provision was made for citizens from the ‘cradle to the grave’, catering for their needs from their time of birth to their death. Criticism arose however as there were limitations to who would receive insurance, for example married women and a number of self-employed workers were not included under the scheme. To counter this, the National Assistance Act was passed in 1948 which aimed to cover those who didn’t qualify for the National Insurance Act. However, benefits were set too low, in 1948 benefits were only 19% of the average industrial wage, which resulted in many citizens remaining below the subsistence level. Though there were some criticisms over both acts, Britain had taken a step forward and therefore it must be concluded that, in terms of ‘want’, Britain had improved by 1950.

The 1946 National Health Service Act became the first step towards eradicating ‘disease’. This made healthcare free on the basis of citizenship and need rather than the payment of fees or insurance premiums. The National Health Service launched in 1948 which instituted, for the first time in Britain, a universal state health service. The NHS provided free diagnosis and treatment of illnesses at home or in hospital, including dental and ophthalmic treatment – something which had never been seen before. Problems arose however, as the costs of the NHS rose over the following years and by 1950 the idea of free treatment for all was undermined when charges were introduced for dental treatment. Also, out of date hospitals hindered the development of the NHS as a full service could only be provided by the more advanced hospitals.  Although there were worries that the NHS would bankrupt the country, costing £358 billion per year by 1950, health improved and this was highlighted when the overall life expectancy rose in Britain. By achieving this and other subsequent advances the NHS has been considered the greatest single achievement in the development of the welfare state.

High levels of unemployment pose a threat to any successful society thus Beveridge sought to combat the perceived cause of this, idleness, as one of his five ‘giants’. One way in which the government kept almost full employment was through nationalisation. Following the principles of economist John Maynard Keynes, the government took control of certain industries such as iron and steel manufacture. Under this managed economy the government could use tax money to keep an industry afloat even if it faced economic difficulties. In addition to this, unprofitable industries were subsidised in order to keep people in work. The nationalisation of key industries helped keep unemployment rates low and by 1946, unemployment was reduced to 2.5 % and this was in spite of huge post-war problems such as shortages of raw materials and massive debts. Roughly full employment was seen as a great success and although the cost of paying for the new social services, combined with the debts incurred from fighting WWII, meant that Britain’s post-war economy was in bad shape, idleness was virtually eradicated.

The lack of education for all was seen as a worry, especially during the war, and the Butler Act, released in 1944, led to the large scale reform of schooling. Education was made compulsory until the age of 15 and three types of secondary school were introduced. The ’11+’was put in place to assign children to one of three types of school according to their ability. Those who passed this exam were placed in ‘grammar schools’ these children were expected to continue their education and possibly go to university and get jobs in management. Those who didn’t pass were placed in ‘secondary modern’ or ‘secondary technical’ schools, now known as ‘comprehensives’. Children who failed the exam were not expected to stay at school after they turned 15 and were expected to pursue apprenticeships or other forms of employment. Although education was provided for all children, little had been done to enhance the opportunities for working class children, most of whom left school at 15 with few if any paper qualifications.

Squalor, or poverty, was common during and soon after the Second World War. Most of Britain still had slum areas and overcrowding was a serious problem, this was made worse by bomb damage during the war. To deal with the problem of squalor the government concentrated on the building of decent homes for the working class after the war. The government aimed at building 200,000 houses a year and many of these were prefabricated houses which were assembled quickly onsite. To succeed these aims the New Towns Act and the Town and Country Planning Act were passed in 1946 and 1947 respectively. The New Towns act allowed the government to designate areas as new towns, and the Town and Country Planning Act established that planning permission was required for land development; ownership alone no longer conferred the right to develop the land. This led to the planning of 14 new towns in Britain, including Glenrothes and East Kilbride in Scotland. However, the 1951 census revealed that there were 750,000 fewer houses than households in Britain and this was approximately the same level of homelessness seen in 1931. Although the government faced serious economic and social problems following World War Two, ultimately the severe housing shortage meant that ‘squalor’ was not eradicated in Britain following the introduction of the Welfare State.

Overall, it must be concluded that life in Britain had improved after the introduction of the Welfare State. Although there was still much to do, such as handling the cost of the NHS and sorting out the housing shortages, four out of William Beveridge’s five ‘giants’ were mainly eradicated. Though it could be said that examples such as life expectancy rising since the war were inevitable, the NHS still proved to be a success. Thanks to the National Insurance and Assistance Acts, previously virtually unseen insurance was now provided on a large scale and education was now made available for all children, regardless of their background.  Unemployment was tackled and the nationalisation of industry meant that the return of the soldiers was not the sole factor for this increase. Improvements were inevitably needed but the Welfare State was young and by 1950 despite these minor setbacks life in Britain had improved significantly.

Contributed by Freddie Carty

Is History written by the winners?

‘History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.’ Winston Churchill

The study of history and our remembrance of the past has become a battleground in recent years, with historians on all sides of the political spectrum weighing in on our collective understanding of history and the perceived bias and nuances contained within it. As Winston Churchill aptly surmises in the above quote, much of what we now believe to be fact was once conceived by a historian, with his own set of motives, presuppositions and purposes. But is history truly written by the winners? Or is that too a simplistic view to take of the rich multi-layered study of the past?

The writings concerning the American Revolutionary Wars show all too well the impact the victors have on the recording of their own histories. The Battle of Waxhaws or as many American historians and textbooks refer to it ‘The Waxhaw Massacre’ has had one of the most biased portrayals when looking at the history of the conflict. These American textbooks tell a tale of a one-sided massacre in which the Continental army led by Abraham Buford was slaughtered by the Loyalist force after they had raised the white flag of surrender. The pictorial sources of the time show Loyalists spearing the American force on their bayonets as they tried to flee and the leader of the Loyalist force, Banastre Tarleton, has been portrayed by many American written sources as a tyrant, who unmercifully slaughtered the surrendering opposition. However even though it is true that the Continental army suffered serious losses during the battle, the American perspective of it appears to be both overblown and inaccurate. Even though, like all events in history, what actually occurred at Waxhaws will never truly be known. A more balanced view of the conflict can be seen by ignoring the supposed ‘first-hand’ accounts that have come to define our knowledge of the time. The first of such primary sources was written by Henry Bowyer three decades after the event.  Henry Bowyer was the primary advisor of Abraham Buford during the battle and he claimed that he was tasked with taking the white flag to the British before fleeing after he faced heavy fire, he then stated that: “The rage of the British soldiers, excited by the continued fire of the Americans, while a negotiation was offered by flag, impelled them to acts of vengeance that knew no limits.”  The second of the sources was written by Doctor Brownfield, who dictated his story forty years after the battle took place. He too claims to have carried the white flag to the British but similarly to Bowyer he claimed he was “cut down” and could not deliver the flag. But when these accounts are compared to Buford’s own record of the conflict, clear errors arise. Buford stated that the bearer of the white flag returned to him after the surrender was rejected and makes no mention of them being fired upon or struck down.  This contradicts directly the accounts of both Bowyer and Brownfield, neither of whom recalled returning to Buford. The picturesque accounts of both Bowyer and Brownfield do however resonate with the overriding American narrative of the War of Independence, in which an oppressed people overthrew their cruel and violent rulers. A discourse perpetuated in both the textbooks and collective consciousness of American’s today.

The example given above is just one of many instances in the recording of history in which sources are ignored or inaccuracies forgiven to ensure that the national view of events is continued and validated, as Enoch Powell stated in his 1964 lecture at Trinity College, Dublin:

 All history is a myth. It is a pattern which men weave out of the materials of the past. The moment a fact enters into history it becomes mythical, because it has been taken and fitted into its place in a set of ordered relationships which is the creation of a human mind and not otherwise present in nature.

In effect the sources of yesteryear are melded and linked by historians to create a view of the past based on their prejudices and preconceptions. So in this sense history is not written by the winners but by whomever wishes to leave a mark on the records of our past. However if we wish to truly progress from some of our archaic assumptions about the past we must begin to question the supposed bedrock of our collective historical understanding and move toward a more balanced and nuanced view of what came before.

Contributed by Joe Tyler-Todd

What was the Main Reason for the Outbreak of WW1

World War I lasted for 4 years between 1914 and 1918. The total number of military and civilian casualties was over 37 million. It seems that the main reason for the start of this war was militarism, though both imperialism and nationalism played a part as well and without all three, war may not have happened.

Nationalism and patriotism were significant factors in causing World War I. If a person is nationalistic, then they have a strong support of the rights and interests of their country.Each of Europe’s Great Powers developed a firm belief in its own cultural, economic and military supremacy, creating a fatal misconception that any war would produce a victory within a matter of months. This arrogance and over-confidence was fuelled by the press in each country promoting extreme nationalism. Various forms of propaganda, including newspapers and banners, were packed with nationalist rhetoric and ‘sabre-rattling’. It could also be found in other cultural expressions, such as literature, music and theatre. For example, even well-known songs made the people of countries like Britain, Germany and France more bellicose – the British sang ‘Rule Britannia’ declaring Britons ‘will never be slaves’ and the Germans sang ‘Deutschland uberalles’, portraying Germany ‘above all, over everything in the world’ . Songs like this produced nationalistic spirit and were almost catalysts for promoting nationalism in some countries. As each nation became more convinced of the integrity of its position and the prospects for victory, the likelihood of war increased. Politicians, royals and diplomats did little to deflate the public appetite for war, and some actively contributed to it by making provocative remarks themselves.

In an age where countries were becoming more nationalistic, all nations wanted to assert their power and independence. This led to colonies and similarly countries under foreign rule aiming for independence, and this was ultimately a reason for World War I as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was fuelled by nationalism and the Slavs wanting to break free from Austrian rule. On 28th June Ferdinand visited Sarajevo, capital of modern day Bosnia, which had just been taken under Austrian rule. The Black Hand gang were a group of nationalistic terrorists who wanted independence. After failed bomb attempts in the morning, Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and subsequently killed him. Austria then blamed Serbia for ‘supporting’ the terrorists. They, supported by Germany, send Serbia an ultimatum which included taking full responsibility for the assassination. Serbia failed to accept all of the points, which led to Russia mobilising its troops to protect Serbia. Germany then declared war on Russia and this led to the alliances coming into action, World War I had begun. Ultimately, the new found nationalistic beliefs of countries under foreign rule were always going to lead to attempts to claim independence. This is what led to the actions of the Black Hand gang and also tested the strength of the alliance for the first time. For these reasons nationalism must be considered as a factor for the start of World War I

Imperialism is when a country increases their power and wealth by bringing additional territories under their control, frequently in order to maintain or start an empire, or a collection of colonies. The imperialist nation – sometimes benignly called the ‘mother country’ – acquires these new territories by military conquest, political pressure or infiltration. This often requires skirmishes, or even a fully-fledged war against the local population. The British, for instance, had to seize control of South Africa away from hostile native tribes like the Zulus, and then the Boers (white farmers of Dutch extraction). Both conflicts were more difficult than they had envisaged. Nevertheless, the strategic and economic benefits of new colonies usually outweighed the risks. Once control was established, the region became a colony, the primary purpose of which was to benefit the imperial power. Usually this involved the supply of precious metals or other resources, cheap labour or agricultural land. The British Empire, for example, was largely based on trade, particularly the importation of raw materials and the commercial sale of manufactured goods. Military advantages also arrive when obtaining a colony, such as strategic locations for naval bases or troops. By 1914 there were relatively few parts of the world still open to imperial conquest. The ‘scramble for Africa’ saw much of that continent already claimed by European powers. Imperial competition, layered atop intense nationalism, contributed to the tension and rivalry of the pre-war generation.

The increased sense of imperialism led to two ‘crises’, both based in Morocco. In 1905 Morocco was one of the few African states not occupied by a European ruler. France hoped to conquer Morocco and add it to their ever growing list of colonies. In an agreement lasting four years to finalise in 1904, the French Foreign Minister at the time, Théophile Delcassé, it was concluded that Morocco would come under French control. Originally in November 1901 an agreement of this was signed with Italy, but Spain was unsure and insisted on informing the British government. Originally the British refused to support Delcassé but changed their minds in April 1904 and in October 1904 France got the agreement of the Spanish. However, France hadn’t asked Germany, and on 31st March 1905 Kaiser Wilhelm visited Morocco and promised them protection against anyone who threatened them. The French were outraged and Britain saw it as yet another attempt by Germany to build a German Empire to rival Britain’s empire.A Conference was held at Algeciras starting on 16th January 1906 to settle the dispute. Of the 13 nations present, the German representatives found that their only supporter was Austria-Hungary, while then others including Britain and Russia supported France. Germany was forced to promise to stay out of Morocco and France agreed to yield control of the Moroccan police, but otherwise retained effective control of Moroccan political and financial affairs. The Agadir Crisis, or Second Moroccan Crisis took place in 1911. At the start of 1911 a rebellion broke out in Morocco and subsequently France sent in an army to quash it. On 1st July, a German gunboat ‘Panther’ was sent to the port of Agadir under the pretext of preserving German trade interest. In the middle of the crisis, Germany was hit by financial turmoil. The stock market plunged by 30 percent in a single day, the public started cashing in currency notes for gold and there was a run on the banks. Faced with the potential of being driven off the gold standard, the Kaiser backed down and let the French take over most of Morocco. France and Germany underwent negotiations on 9th July and ended with Germany accepting France’s position in Morocco in return for territory in the French Equatorial African colony of Middle Congo (now the Republic of the Congo). The crisis led to Britain and France making a naval agreement where the Royal Navy promised to protect the northern coast of France from German attack, while France concentrated her fleet in the western Mediterranean and agreed to protect British interests there. The ultimate outcome of these two crises was the strengthening of the alliance between Britain and France and German embarrassment, increasing the likelihood of them wanting to bounce back stronger and the pathway for war was almost set.

Another factor in the developing mood for war was militarism, the attempt to build up a strong army and navy in order to give a nation the means and will to make war, and its incipient arms race. Powerful new weapons were produced in the decades before 1914, capable of killing on an industrial scale. Utilising new mass-production techniques, the Western nations could churn out these weapons and munitions in great quantities and at a rapid pace. But the descent into war was not only driven by new weapons; it was also fueled by militaristic cultures and attitudes. Military elites strongly influenced, and in some cases, dominated the governments and aristocracies of the Great Powers. The government became plagued with admirals and generals whose only focus was to expand the country’s military force by demanding increases in defence spending and promoting military solutions to political and diplomatic problems. War plans were also drawn up and so corrupted governments like this made war even more likely. As the former German army officer Alfred Vagts would later write, militarism was “a domination of the military man over the civilian, an undue preponderance of military demands (and) an emphasis on military considerations.”

It’s natural for military leaders to be obsessed with modernising their forces and equipping them with new technology, and the decades prior to 1914 saw no shortage of this. One of the most significant examples of weapon development was the heavy artillery. Marked improvements were made in the calibre, range, accuracy and portability areas of this powerful, but previously slightly unreliable weapon. The changes meant that artillery shelling and bombardments would become standard practice, particularly after the emergence of trench warfare. Millions of metres of barbed wire, an invention of the 1860s, would be mass produced and installed around trenches to halt charging infantry. Various types of poison gas including chlorine, phosgene and mustard were developed. In the naval areas, the development of the dreadnought – a large battleship, the first of which was launched in 1906 – prompted a flurry of ship-building and naval rearmament.European military expenditure catapulted between 1900 and 1914. In 1870 the combined military spending of the six great powers (Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Italy) totalled £94 million. By 1914 this had quadrupled to £398 million. German defence spending during this period increased by a colossal 73%, dwarfing the increases in France (10%) and Britain (13%). Russian’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 seemed to be a catalyst for their defence spending to rise by more than a third after the loss prompted the Tsar to order a massive rearmament program. By the 1910s, 45% of Russian government spending was allocated to the armed forces, while just 5% went on education, which shows the great effect militarism can cause.

As previously mentioned, it wasn’t just the amount and quality of weapons that was improving. Of the Great Powers, all of them except Britain had conscription. By 1914, Europe’s powers had increased their armed forces dramatically. Germany, France and Russia had over 1,000,000 soldiers while Britain, Italy and Austria-Hungary had between 710,000 and 810,000 men. In order to keep the amount the amount of soldiers increasing, the main countries of Europe started to train their young men as backup, so that if there a war broke out they could call, not only on the standing army, but on huge numbers of trained reservists. It was once estimated that the total number of men (including reservists) that the countries could thus call upon totalled as high as 8.5 million for Germany and 3-4 million for the other powers. This is an example of the ‘knock-on effect’ of militarism and why the countries were so eager to get the largest army as possible. As one country increased its armies, the others felt obliged to increase their armed forces as well in order to not fall behind and to keep the ‘balance of power’. Overall militarism was important in starting WWI as it not only made countries strengthen their armies, but it also increased suspicion and hatred between nations as well as giving nations the wherewithal to wage war.

Overall nationalism, imperialism and militarism all played a key role in starting WWI. Militarism made nations switch their focus to military needs, they all wanted to have the strongest army, and so gave the resources for war in 1914. Imperialism created the early tensions between the main European powers. France’s imperialistic aims led to them trying to invade Morocco and in doing so, created the early sparks between them and Germany and fortifying the alliance with Britain. Finally, nationalism formed the ‘last piece of the puzzle’. Though it could be said that war was always likely, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was fuelled by nationalism and ultimately that it was lead to Germany declaring war. Overall, it would seem that militarism was the main reason for the outbreak of World War One. Without the strong sense of militarism, my nations wouldn’t have had the resources to spark a world war. However as each nation got stronger, they wanted to expand their territory and ‘prove their strength’, which is what led to imperialism and the invasion of independent countries. Though nationalism did set off the war, without militarism, which led to imperialism, there would be no beliefs to become independent and eventually with the high amount of resources the great powers had, war would’ve been inevitable without the actions of the Black Hand gang.

Contributed by Freddie Carty