For socialists the Boer War of 1899-1902 was a prefiguration of their experiences in the First World War, and in many ways the similarities are quite marked. Jingoism had been growing for years, imperialism was at its height, the ‘rush for Africa’ – of which the Boer War was the culmination – all had contributed to a climate of the most extreme chauvinism.
War finally came on October 9th, 1899.
On October 22nd, the socialist movement around Islington, North London, a vocal and growing prescence on the streets, had its first test, when an anti-War meeting at Newington Green Road was broken up by a mob singing ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘We are Soldiers of the Queen’. The only arrest was the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) speaker Percy Kebell, a 21-year- old clerk.
But the meetings, and the attacks, continued. On March 5th, 1900, a ‘pro-Boer’ meeting at Highbury Corner was attacked by a mob which had gathered in response to leaflets calling on ‘all loyal Englishmen’ to turn up and oppose it. On March 11th and 19th there were further socialist meetings at the same venue, both of which were broken up by the police after there had been serious fighting. It was probably one of these meetings which is described in W. S. Cluse’s entry in the Dictionary of Labour Biography.
Will Cluse with other socialists was on one occasion holding a meeting at Highbury Corner, and the crowd were becoming hostile. The socialists decided it was time to go, if they wanted to escape manhandling. Making a sudden rush, they boarded a horse-bus at the junction of Holloway Road and Upper Street, with the crowd at their heels. They climbed the steep ladder to the top deck, and kept their opponents at bay by stamping on their fingers as they reached the top rung. Finally they were able to put themselves into protective custody at the police station in Upper Street.
T.A. Jackson, in his autobiography Solo Trumpet, described another of this series of Highbury Corner meetings which had a rather different outcome:
The Tories resolved to smash the meeting up; the radicals took the precaution of mobilising the gymnasium class of the Mildmay Radical Club [Newington Green] to act as ‘stewards’. Quite a pretty battle was in progress when the issue was decided by the local SDF, who when the fight started were pitched nearby. Abandoning their own meeting the socialists, led by their Chairman, a useful middle-weight of local fame, fell upon the Tories and routed them with ‘great slaughter’.
The active participation of the Mildmay Radical Club on Newington Green (still there, btw!!) in the agitation against the Boer War was no accident. The Club was one of the few remaining working mens’ political clubs which retained some remnants of the spirit they had embodied in the 1870s and 1880s. In particular these working-class radicals had a formidable record of anti-imperialism.; The regular and systematic attacks on ‘pro-Boer’ meetings were an ominous foretaste of the World War, as was the fact that it appears there was not a single arrest of those who attacked the anti-War meetings in North London. Another parallel with future events was the split in the ‘socialist’ movement. Both the Fabians and the Clarion newspaper supported the War. Robert Blatchford, the editor of the latter, which had by far the largest circulation of any of the socialist movement’s journals, wrote in its October 1899 issue:
I cannot go with those socialists whose sympathies are with the enemy. My whole heart is with the British Troops. . . until the war is over I am for the Government.
After the Boer War the socialist movement underwent a whole series of convulsions which reflected widely different approaches as to what socialism was and how it would be achieved. These divisions had deep roots, going back to and even beyond the formal emergence of the Social Democratic Federation in 1884. The Fabians, the Social Democratic Federation/British Socialist Party and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) all shared – although there were countervailing forces within all of them – a vision of socialism in which the main emphasis was on taking over the commanding heights of the economy by the state or municipal authorities.
(This post is a slightly edited excerpt from Ken Weller’s Don’t Be a Soldier).
An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar