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The Case of the United Kingdom and the British Empire

In the mid-nineteenth century, Britain was the leading global power. As the center of a worldwide empire that would extend over a quarter of the earth’s surface at its height, Britain was the world’s foremost manufacturing and trading nation, whose colonies, trade networks and global commercial interests were secured by its naval supremacy. Although still immensely powerful at the end of the Victorian age, Britain’s international pre-eminence was severely confronted by growing international competition, in particular from second-generation industrial economies such as Germany and the United States. By the early twentieth century, a relative economic decline ensued. Similarly, the rise of continental powers with imperial and colonial ambitions posed an unremitting threat to British colonies’ frontiers. Meanwhile, German naval armament resulted in an open-ended challenge to the global superiority of the Royal Navy. For Britain, however, military limitations in maintaining the Empire’s constituent territories were vividly exposed in the South African War (1899-1902). The military difficulties and unpreparedness exhibited against the small Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal dictated a redirection of foreign and imperial policies and aroused public and ministerial apprehensions about the growing vulnerability of Britain’s international position as well as renewed fears for Britain’s national security (anxieties about continental aggression from Europe had constantly punctuated mid- and late Victorian era). The setbacks and blunders of the war also promoted extensive military reforms and furthered the militarization of civil society, and particularly the youth, as illustrated by the paramilitary activities of Boys’ Brigade, Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts and the various army and navy leagues as well as the popularity of the Victorian volunteer movement. For many contemporaries, the complexities of imperial defense and the possibility of a major European War demanded compulsory military training for all male citizens (alone among the great powers, Britain did not have a system of military conscription and still relied on a volunteer principle), marksmanship and knowledge of firearms (on an experimental basis, rifle-shooting was introduced into state-aided schools). More profoundly, calls for military preparedness implied a response to fear that changes in modern society and culture were debasing military virtues (discipline, obedience, loyalty, self-sacrifice, unity of will and manliness) and that the will to fight, kill and die for the fatherland might fade away, leaving Britain defenseless and unprotected in the face of enemies.

On the domestic scene, after the Mid-Victorian age of equipoise, the late Nineteenth century witnessed widespread popular protest in behalf of political, economic and social reforms. The first cause of internal instability was provided by the growth of radical nationalism in Ireland. The American branch of the Fenian Movement launched a bombing campaign in England in the 1860s. In the early 1880s, a new Irish Party, under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell, campaigned for self-government for Ireland. The profound rift between nationalists and unionists over the cause of Irish autonomy perilously escalated during the third Home Rule crisis (1912-1914). With the organization of paramilitary formations, the unionist Ulster Volunteer Force and the nationalist Irish Volunteers, large gun-running and violent affrays, Ireland was put on the brink of a civil war that was only averted by the outbreak of the First World War.

The period between 1870 and 1914 also saw the rise of a mass labor movement. Trade union membership increased from about half-million in the 1870s to over 4 million by 1914, while cooperative movements grew from 600,000 in 1880 to 3 million in 1914. Escalating labor militancy was accompanied by a sharp increase in strike-proneness, with most strikes clustered in two major waves in 1871-1873 and 1911-1913 and in two lesser bursts in the late 1880s and mid-1900s. The emergence of the Labour Party at the turn of the century gave parliamentary representation to a more assertive, organized and class-conscious laboring class. The challenge of organized labor – in a climate of tense economic and imperial rivalries, jingoism and social Darwinist assumptions – brought anxiety among established circles and patriotic middle classes about the resilience, efficiency and loyalty of the national community. The extent of industrial disorder, social turmoil and violence led employers to ponder the necessity to form their own private police (the constitution of a private policing body found actualization in the constitution of Volunteer Police Force in 1911) and to a persistent recur to strikebreaking services.

The social consensus of the mid-Victorian years was similarly challenged by militant feminism. After J. S. Mill had attempted to introduce an amendment for universal suffrage in the Second Reform Bill of 1868, societies agitating for the enfranchisement of women were formed, but the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies had little success in convincing MPs to extend the vote to women. In 1903, the formation of Mrs. Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union witnessed the irruption of suffragettes’ violence into public policy – as indelibly immortalized by the martyrdom of Emily Davison at the Epsom Derby horse race. It would take the upheaval of World War One to advance the right of women to full citizenship.

Invasion scares, the threat of civil war in Ireland, the expansion of trade unionism and feminism came to the fore at the time the political system was shifting towards mass politics. The parliamentary reforms of 1832, 1867 and 1884 had expanded the electoral franchise, widening the political nation to include the middle and working classes. The gradual democratization of the political system made parties the key institution in mobilizing electoral constituencies for and through elections and representing sectoral interests in the representation policy. Inevitably, the formation of parties on the basis of distinctive electoral identities and the consolidation of their support among distinctive social, religious and ethnic groups elicited political polarization. The intensification of political divisions resulted in a prolonged constitutional crisis that deprived the House of Lords of its veto upon all measures of legislation, thus subordinating it to the House of Commons (1911).

Taken together, these events, which led to what George Dangerfield labeled “the strange death of liberal England,” produced a generalized and permeating sense of crisis. Fears of social disintegration and call for the regeneration of the community at a time when concerns about a major European war seemed a distinct possibility activated a non-state and informal [patriotic] armed volunteerism. This variegated phenomenon – that is the object of my research – included armed associations, crime-control vigilantes, strikebreaking firms and private security bodies. My investigation explicitly concentrates on the practices, imaginaries, mentalities and the patterns of violence exhibited by these actors. The goal is to expose the latent potential or disposition to violence that permeated British society before the war. At the same time, my research is interested in a comparative and transnational approach to the problems of armed volunteerism in late Victorian/Edwardian (or Georgian) Britain and other Western European powers in order to explore similarities, contrasts and dynamic intercrossing and interdependencies.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 677199).

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