The Boer War helped shape modern and democratic Britain. That is the conclusion of The Making of Modern Britain a program currently running on the BBC.
The first episode starts off with the Boer War. Recounting in the involvement of politicians like Joseph Chamberlain and Lloyd George. And a conflict that “turned into imperial Britain’s own Vietnam“.
It tells of the deployment of the fascist Lord Kitchener and the resultant killing of live stock and burning down of all, yes all 30,000 Boer farm houses in the Free State and Transvaal – in an desperate attempt to douse their spirit. And then of course the 160,000 women and children sent to concentration camps in trains and wagons.
And 80% of them under the age of 16. It also tells the story of a Cornish women, Emily Hobhouse, who campaigned against these atrocities.
Lord Salisbury the Tory British prime minister at the time referred to voters – in private – as vermin. Still, only a quarter of the British adult population had the vote, all of them men. And the government were loaded full of aristocracy. Millions of Britons still went hungry and many did not own a single pair of shoes. Britain was not a democracy.
Andrew Marr is a very good broadcaster. But he makes one factual mistake and one omission. He does not mention that 14,000 black South Africans also died in camps. And he refers to the Boers as Dutch farmers. The Boers referred to themselves as Boers or as Afrikaners – particularly in the Cape – or as Transvallers or Vrystaters – never as Dutch. The reason was simple, the majority of them were from German and French decent, some were of Dutch decent, with a smattering of Swedish, Italian and quite a bit of Cape Malay blood.
In England Lloyd George lead a growing anti-war movement. He was to address a rally in Birmingham, the seat of Joseph Chamberlain’s power. Chamberlain dared George to attend – intimating that he might be killed.
A mob – 30,000 strong – of pro-war demonstrators stormed George’s rally. Two people died. George himself narrowly escaped with his life, disguised as a policeman. When Chamberlain heard George had escaped he was bitterly disappointed.
Marr goes on to tell how the Empire’s inability to put down the Boers without committing thousands of troops (260,000 at one time, more than the US had in Iraq) caused a lot of soul searching. A crisis even. One of the spotlights fell on the fact that British troops had been too poor and weak to fight. What to be done about the state of the British poor?
Marr tells a good tale. Of the rise of the Trade Unions, the Industrial competition with the USA and Germany and the fight for the right of women to vote. In fact, the first meeting of the Woman’s Social and Political Union was in October 1903 in Manchester.
And then in 1905 – for the first time – the Lloyd George’s liberals won the election. Very much against the expectations of the aristocracy and reactionaries. And their ticket? To improve the lives of the poor.
If your lucky to live in the UK you can see the program on the BBC iPlayer.
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