Echoes of Britain’s Wartime Past: Gove’s Timeless Rhetoric of Justice and Liberty


Simon Mackley

Michael Gove’s recent assault, in the form of an article in the Daily Mail, alleges that the myths of the First World War continue to be perpetuated by an unholy alliance of left-wing academics and television sit-coms. The Education Secretary accused his ideological opponents of failing to recognise that the conflict was a ‘just war’, fought in defence of ‘Britain’s special tradition of liberty’. Since the piece went to press, the myriad problems inherent in Gove’s characterisation have been dissected at great length – including an excellent assessment by Marc-William Palen in this very blog. Yet while we might take particular exception to the tone and context of the Education Secretary’s position, such attempts to deploy the rhetoric of justice and liberty in defence of conflict are nothing new. Indeed, from my own research on the Liberal Party and the outbreak of the 1899-1902 South African War, I would suggest that Gove is merely rehashing the language and rhetoric of pro-war Liberals at the turn of the century.

The South African War divided Liberal opinion in Britain and escalated the formation of two distinct groupings within the parliamentary party. These were dubbed the ‘pro-Boers’ and the ‘Liberal Imperialists’ respectively, with the divide awkwardly bridged by a third body of support loosely grouped around the moderate position of party leader Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Although the split in the party cannot be considered as purely a result of the war, or even as an expression of divisions over the principle of Empire, the internal party divide nonetheless led to a situation in which the compatibility of Liberalism and imperial conflict was contested. The result was that Liberal Imperialist speakers were compelled to couch their support for the conflict in the language of Liberalism, so as to convince the wider Liberal-supporting public of the acceptability of their actions.[1]

As with Gove’s defence of the First World War as a just war, the pro-war Liberals of 1899 described their conflict in similar terms. For Lord Rosebery, the former Liberal prime minister and the figure most associated with the label of Liberal Imperialism, the conflict was the price that needed to be paid in order to rescue ‘our fellow countrymen in the Transvaal from intolerable conditions of subjugation and injustice’.[2] In a similar fashion, the Liberal Imperialist Sir Edward Grey, who was to go on to serve as Foreign Secretary after the Liberals returned to power, used an address to the University of Glasgow in order to publically insist that the war ‘is not an unjust one, but one which has been forced upon us’.[3] Clearly, the need for politicians to convince the liberal vote of the justice of a conflict is no recent innovation.

Sir Edward Grey, Viscount Grey of Falloden (Topham)

Likewise, Gove’s insistence that the First World War was a war fought for ‘Britain’s special tradition of liberty’ also has parallels in the turn-of-the-century debates over the Transvaal crisis. The notional spark that had set the British Empire and the Boer republics on the road to war had been the denial of the franchise to British migrants in the Transvaal and the alleged suppression of other liberties. And as fighting broke out in South Africa, such themes remained a key part of the Liberal justification for the conflict. Future Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, the highest profile Liberal Imperialist in the House of Commons, used a speech at Dundee on the outbreak of the war to accuse the Boers of having introduced ‘legislation more reactionary, administration more oppressive [and] military spending more profuse’, while denying British residents ‘the ordinary elementary rights of civil and political freedom’.[4] Similarly in his Glasgow speech Grey declared, in language that would not be entirely out of place in Gove’s article, that the conflict ‘was a war against an oligarchical and oppressive Government’, the defeat of which would spread ‘freedom and democratic government’ throughout South Africa.[5]

There were of course plenty of differences between the two wars, between Kruger’s Transvaal and Wilhelmite Germany, and indeed between the Britain of 1899 and the Britain of 1914, and these should not be understated. Indeed, from Korea to the Falklands to Iraq, politicians time and again have couched conflicts involving Britain in liberal language in order to win support from the perceived liberal instincts of the British public. Nonetheless, it is worth taking a moment to consider what it suggests about British political culture that, 100 years on from the outbreak of World War One and 115 years on from the outbreak of the South African War, so many still need rhetorical reassurance that British military action has always been compatible with our ideas of liberty and justice. It is a feeling that remains as powerful a force in public life as ever.

[1] H. C. G. Matthew’s The Liberal Imperialists: the ideas and politics of a post-Gladstonian elite (Oxford: 1973) remains one of the best assessments of the Liberal Imperialists as a faction within British politics. See also Bernard Semmel, Imperialism and Social Reform: English Social-Imperial Thought 1895-1914 (London: 1960); George L. Burnstein, Liberalism and Liberal Politics in Edwardian England (Boston MA: 1896); Leo McKinstry, Rosebery: Statesman in Turmoil (London: 2005).

[2] Bristol Mercury, 12 Oct. 1899.

[3] Glasgow Herald, 26 Oct. 1899.

[4] Glasgow Herald, 12 Oct. 1899.

[5] Glasgow Herald, 26 Oct. 1899.