A ‘National Conference on the Eastern Question’ took place in Piccadilly, London, on 8 December 1876. The Convention was attended by 1,200 delegates and The Times noted “we have never known any association for a political object which has obtained support over so large a part of the scale of English society.”
But who is aware of this most significant political event in the life of Britain today?
On the morning of the event The Times said:
“To-day the ‘National Conference on the Eastern Question’ will be opened at St. James’s Hall, the Duke of Westminster in the chair… The name of ‘Conference,’ although not literally inapplicable to such a gathering, does suggest a deliberation for practical measures which is not likely to be found at St. James’s Hall… Resolutions will be proposed and discussed; the most popular orators will attract the largest audiences; the most spirited passages will receive the most spirited applause; and outbursts of denunciation will be more successful than a valuable but tiresome statement of facts. The result can only be to place on record a series of Resolutions, condemning in more or less stirring language the Turks and their proceedings, reproving the Queen’s Government, and declaring that the British people will obey the precepts of humanity, and will do their utmost to free the Christian from his Mahomedan oppressor. Such will be the results of the Conference, and no doubt they will be dwelt upon by its enemies in every tone of impatience and ridicule.” (8.12.1876)
The Times noted that whilst the ‘delegates’ at the National Conference was engaging in its deliberations the professional Diplomatists would be meeting “at Constantinople, to begin the work of a more practical Conference, and to discuss with large information and full powers of decision the difficult questions which are as dark to the amateurs of Piccadilly as to the rest of the world.”
But while the Piccadilly Convention was seen by those engaged in the practicalities of High Politics as a bunch of amateurs pontificating on a subject they had little knowledge of beyond righteous indignation, half-truths and exaggerations, The Times realised that what it was seeing in London was something very significant:
” The Conference can have no practical result… But it is not the less a most significant fact that at such a crisis and after so long a period of controversy a great movement should manifest itself… as a demonstration of opinion it is remarkable and powerful. It shows the deliberate judgment of a most influential class. In spite of continuous appeals to national jealousy, in spite of the authority of the Government… in spite of international traditions supported by great names past and present, a body of men representing the most cultivated as well as the most sober-minded and conscientious sections of the community have associated themselves to protest against an alliance with Turkish power. If nothing comes of the ‘National Conference’ except the publication of the list of ‘Conveners’ it will still have been successful. The names are those of men distinguished in every department of intellectual exertion, of men eminent by position or by service to the State, of men who may be fairly taken to represent the various interests of the country. It would be simple presumption in any one to affect contempt for a movement thus supported. Let those who would disparage the Conference try whether they can obtain any list of names in favour of their own Eastern policy. We have never known any political association for a political object which has obtained support over so large a part of the scale of English society. We have never known men combine who represented such diversities of opinion, or such traditional antagonisms. Putting aside politicians and philosophers… let us look simply to the signatures which indicate the tendencies of the religious world. At the opening of the Crimean War the powerful influences which proceed from this quarter were strongly in favour of Turkey… British Protestantism declared itself decidedly for the Ottoman. Lord Shaftesbury contrasted the tolerance of the Sultan’s Government for the missionaries with the fanaticism of the Czar and his Priests. Lord Shaftesbury is one of the Presidents of the Conference. There are High Churchmen in the list of ‘Conveners’; but at the same time there are prominent Dissenters of every denomination, and a cause must appeal to very general sympathies which unites the names of Pusey and Liddon with those of leading Baptists and Methodists… the list of names gives but a very partial indication of the number of prominent persons who are generally favourable to the objects of the Conference… Those only have joined the Association who think that a public demonstration is justifiable and expedient.”
This was indeed a kind of paradigm shift within British Protestantism – which was Britain, essentially. Edward Augustus Freeman, the influential historian, noted at the time: “what stronger argument can there be in favour of a certain object than that it commends itself alike to High Church and Broad Church, to Nonconformists of every sect…” (Contemporary Review, February 1877).
The remnant of English Catholicism decided to have nothing to do with the “National Conference on the Eastern Question”.
It was also a movement within civil society against the traditional pro-Ottoman Foreign Policy of the British State much more substantial, as The Times suggests, than even the impressive list of names participating. It was really something of a seminal event of the most fundamental character.
Britain had acted as an ally of the Ottoman Empire for most of the century. During this period Britain was determined to preserve the Ottoman State as a giant buffer zone between its Empire, particularly in India, and the expanding Russian Empire. It was part of what was known as the ‘Great Game’ in England that ‘the Russians should not have Constantinople’ and the warm water port that this would have given them. It was for this reason that England fought the Crimean War.
However, whilst Britain was determined to preserve the Ottoman Empire and was prepared to use force to prevent the Russians having Constantinople its relations with the Sultan were, of course, very disadvantageous to the Turks. England helped preserve the Ottoman Empire in a weak, dependent state through devices like the Capitulations so that Ottoman territories could be absorbed into the British Empire in a gradual process (for example, Egypt) when the opportunity arose. Its main concern was to preserve it until the day when it could be collapsed to the advantage of the British Empire and not that of its Imperialist rivals in Russia and France.
The two chairmen of the National Conference were the Duke of Westminster and Lord Shaftesbury – two ends of the political spectrum. On the platform were William Morris, J.R. Green, William Lecky, John Ruskin. Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer sent their support.
A.J.P. Taylor (The Troublemakers) noted that those in England who had fiercely supported Governor Eyre, who had brutally suppressed freed slaves in Jamaica (killing around a thousand) protesting against poverty in 1865 (Carlyle, Froude, Tennyson and Ruskin) were now the chief agitators against the Turks. Those who criticised Eyre (like Cardinal Newman, who became a Catholic) remained unmoved by the Bulgarian atrocity propaganda.
The Duke of Westminster opened the Conference. He condemned Lord Beaconsfield’s (Prime Minister, Disraeli) objective of “maintaining the integrity and independence of the Ottoman Empire” and said:
“Years ago a distinguished statesman remarked that only one government in Europe was worse than that of the Turks That was the then Temporal Government of Rome. Happily… the Temporal Roman Government has passed away – as we hope and believe, for ever. (Cheers) The worst Government now remaining in Europe is that of Constantinople, and it seems to us a most extraordinary thing that men in this country, and a portion of the Press, seem to think that the Turks have still a power of regeneration within themselves… England requires some form of self-government for the Christian Provinces. She also requires the disarmament of the population, particularly the Mahomedan civilians.It is impossible to suppose that the Emperor of Russia can recede from the demands he has righteously and properly made… There is a precedent for you in the establishment of a better state of things in the Lebanon. A friend of many of us, the present Governor-General of Canada, was sent on a mission to that country. The first thing he did was to hang a Turkish pasha (cheers and laughter)… It seems to me in this great question, above English interests, there rise the great interests of humanity (Loud Cheers). In former days England was proud to lead the van for the amelioration of the human race and for freedom. She shook off the shackles from the slave; and I should beg to ask deferentially why, if reforms cannot be brought about without actual military occupation, the fleets and the armies of England should not be sent to Constantinople, not to oppose Russia, but to coerce the Turk? (Cheers) “ (The Times 9.12.1876)
It is clear from this passage that what excited the passions of the audience was the anti-Catholicism and anti-Turkism. Something that I had a notion of, became clearer to me upon reading this passage: Here was Protestant/Liberal England which had found its only previous unity in its anti-Catholic centuries finding a new demon, after the Romanist threat had been subdued and Ireland subdued by God’s will and Famine. And it found the new unifier in the new demon – the Turk. Not since the Glorious Revolution had Protestant England been so drawn together in righteous common cause as over Bulgaria!
The Rev. Denton of St.Bartholemew’s in Cripplegate, London was a typical clerical attack on the Turk, which was so typical of the Orientalist racism pumped out for half a century after:
“He did not think that the question was one merely of Mahomedanism and Christianity, but rose rather out of the incurable incapacity of the Mahomedan race to govern than from the imperfect religion that they professed… the Christians of Turkey were living among a race who had been well described as tigers in disposition, and more sensual than even the most debased of human beings… in the midst of a population superior to themselves… There was no security for family honour or, indeed, for anything which men hold dear. The Christians, he might add, possessed noble qualities, which would show themselves whenever the Turkish rule was withdrawn. They… were living under a despotic Government with… no limit to the despotism of neighbours who were restrained by no law in the indulgence of their passions.” (Times .12.1876)
The “Bulgarian Horrors” united all of Britain’s greatest historians on the same side against the Turks – Freeman, Lecky, Froude, Kinglake, Bryce, Seeley, Stubbs, Carlyle and J.R. Green. Freeman startled the James’ Hall Convention with the challenge:
“Would you fight for the Freedom of the Empire of Sodom?… Perish the interests of England, perish our dominion in India, rather than that we should strike one blow or speak one word on behalf of the wrong against the right.”
It was actually Carlyle who coined the Gladstonian phrase “the unspeakable Turk”.
A.J.P. Taylor asked why this novel alliance of usually divergent voices within the intelligencia came about:
“What was there in the contemporary historical approach which made the leading historians of the day so fervent for morality, so enthusiastic for the Bulgarians, so eager to interfere?… They were not usually friends of national freedom; most of them became Unionists a few years later. Nor were they Radical in ordinary politics. Their specialist interests ranged widely over epochs and eras. None except Freeman really knew anything about the Balkans, past or present. What they had in common… apart from Carlyle was their belief in Progress. They were all secular missionaries, a role to which many historians still aspire. The outrages angered them by seeming to cast doubt on their faith. Again all, except J.R. Green, were men of Power, glorifying Empire and the rise of modern States. They were all, without exception, fervent patriots eager to crush anyone who would challenge the moral code of their civilisation. They were more concerned to batter the Turks than to liberate the Bulgarians.” (p.77)
As A.J.P. Taylor notes the ‘National Conference on the Eastern Question’ was much more an anti-Turkish affair than anything to do with concern for the Bulgarian. Its political objective was to demonise the Turks and loosen the British Government’s support for the Ottomans.
A.J.P. Taylor also notes a new development in British history in this event:
“These historians, for the most part, also managed to combine Progress and Christianity… The Bulgarian Horrors provided the only occasion in our history when the majority of the leaders of the Established Church were against the Government – the only occasion, at any rate, since the Glorious Revolution… This unusual response was no accident, nor even a conversion to humanitarianism. A few Evangelicals came in… But the High Churchmen predominated. In fact the agitation over the Bulgarian Horrors was in large part a byproduct of Ritualism. Liddon, the leading Puseyite, was the first Englishman to attack the Turk when he preached at St. Paul’s on 13 July 1876. Pusey himself sent a letter of blessing to the Convention at St. James’ Hall. The driving force behind the agitation was W.T. Stead, the first popular journalist and friend of Cecil Rhodes, who had suggested sending Gordon to Khartoum, started the Big Navy agitation and who went down with the Titanic. Stead wrote in his journal: ‘I felt that I was called to preach a New Crusade… against the Turks who disgraced humanity’.” (p.77)
T.P. O’Connor described Stead was “a Peter the Hermit preaching the Crusades out of their time.”
It was Stead who persuaded Gladstone to write his famous “Bulgarian Horrors” pamphlet. This contained the infamous denunciation of the Turks as “the one great anti-human specimen of humanity.” Disraeli, who had been subject to ferocious anti-semitic vitriol by the humanitarians, gave the stirring riposte to Gladstone’s pamphlet: “of all the Bulgarian horrors, perhaps the greatest.” (John Charmley, Splendid Isolation, p.42)
Stead’s great political project was ending the ‘Great Game’ against Russia in the interests of European peace. His ally in this was the mysterious Olga Novikov (who became known in England as “the Member for Russia”) who had come to England to reunite the Christian churches from the Rome/Byzantium split. Gladstone linked her arm when coming out of the National Conference sending out a powerful message.
Having seen the Great Game’s end with Edward Grey’s 1907 agreement with the Tsar, Stead suddenly realised that an even greater and more catastrophic game was afoot, with Germany. The Great Game had been called off to prepare for a Great War. But too late did Stead realise that his dream and work of 30 years had turned into a nightmare. He went down on the Titanic just after publishing his thoughts in a book about the Balkan Wars. After seeing events in Libya, when for the first time a British Foreign Secretary had stood aside as the Public Law and Treaties were flagrantly violated, the man who had “written more words against the Turk than any man alive” realised that something disastrous was afoot and peace had been a pretext for war.
According to A.J.P. Taylor the St. James’ Hall Convention was much more than just another agitational meeting:
“In name it recalled the Chartist Convention of 1839; in outlook it anticipated the Councils of Action of 1920. It was far more than a conference or a political demonstration; it was an anti-parliament, designed to represent the true spirit of England. Hence politicians were excluded: they were all part of THE THING. It was planned to have delegates elected from each town by a town-meeting, presided over by the Mayor. But the plan could not be worked in time… Most of the delegates were self-appointed… The speakers at the Convention – a two-day marathon of oratory – were clergymen, historians, novelists; Trollope, the Bishop of Oxford, Bryce, Liddon, Freeman. The presence of Sergeant Simon did not deter Freeman from referring to Disraeli as ‘the Jew in his drunken insolence’ – at this time anti-Semitism was still a Radical attitude. Gladstone was the only prominent politician who spoke, and he claimed to be in retirement. He spoke as a theologian and historian, as a moralist…” (p.81)
Why was Victorian England getting so worked up about a few thousand Bulgarians? After all this was the same society which had, let us say charitably, wasted Irish lives by the million in the same generation. After what the English called the “Indian Mutiny” (Why not the “Bulgarian Mutiny”?) Charles Dickens had said: “I wish I were commander-in-chief in India … I should proclaim to them that I considered my holding that appointment by the leave of God, to mean that I should do my utmost to exterminate the race.”
In War of Civilisations: India AD 1857, Amaresh Misra, a historian from Mumbai, suggests that Victorian Britain presided over an “untold holocaust” which caused the deaths of almost 10 million Indians over a decade beginning in 1857. British histories have counted only hundreds of thousands slaughtered by the English in immediate reprisals, but none have bothered to count the number of Indians killed by British forces desperate to impose order, claims Misra:
“It was a holocaust, one where millions disappeared. It was a necessary holocaust in the British view because they thought the only way to win was to destroy entire populations in towns and villages. It was simple and brutal. Indians who stood in their way were killed. But its scale has been kept a secret.” (The Guardian, 24.8.2007)
Perhaps Misra’s figures are inflated (like the National Convention). Perhaps England only slaughtered hundreds of thousands rather than killing millions in an internal security operation in its Indian Empire only a decade or so before the same people condemned the Turks for killing 10,000 Bulgarians.
Britain was not at all squeamish about the means it accomplished its destiny of achieving Greater Britain across the surface of the world and maintaining it. Gladstone’s hear apparent as leader of the Liberal Party Sir Charles Dilke, had boasted in his best-seller that –
“the Anglo-Saxon is the only extirpating race on earth. Up to commencement of the now inevitable destruction of the Red Indians of Central North America, of the Maories, and of the Australians by the English colonists, no numerous race had ever been blotted out by an invader.” (Greater Britain, 1869)
Sir Charles Dilke’s praising of the Anglo-Saxons as the greatest exterminating race the world had ever seen was hardly disputable. And there was no noticeable public dissent from the praise. It could not be said that the British were denialists – at the time, anyway!
So why were the boasting, swaggering, self-proclaimed, undisputed champions of the world at Genocide so concerned at the deaths of a few thousand Bulgarians? Was it simply a huge English blind spot that has enabled the British State to combine Progress and the extirpation of “inferior races”.
This was a peculiar point in English history. Christianity was ceasing to be a functional ideological medium of life for the English middle class which had become the critical mass of political life as a consequence of the 1832 Reform. The Times knew that it was central element of English life that was making an appearance in great substance at the “National Convention” in St. James’s Hall.
The British Empire had been made by the religiously sceptical ruling gentry, supported by theocratic Protestant passions from the populace. Active anti-Catholicism, which was sustainable on a base of either philosophical scepticism or a fundamentalist Biblical belief, was the cement between them that made for the Imperial joint venture.
English middle class was Nonconformist (non-Anglican Protestant) in origin and when it entered political power in 1832 there was a great revival of English Christianity. However, there was a simultaneous development of science alongside this Christian revival. The science was essential to the growing power of the Imperial State and the prosperity of the middle class, which was bound up with industry and what was called “Manchester Capitalism,” so it could not be let go of. The scientific Nonconformists tried to reconcile the two elements but found that the scientific had the effect of predominating and actually undermining the Christian belief system. This proved to be profoundly disorientating for them.
Ultimately the ideological medium that bound together the different elements in English society, including the new working class that was a product of the scientific/industrial development, was Imperialism. This was made into Social Imperialism to perform that function. The 1876 mobilisation at the “National Convention” was in some ways a last gambit to reunite British Protestantism in an alternative course. It failed as a project with that objective. However, as The Times noted, its great substance had to be taken account of by the State and could not be ignored.
The British State did what it always does in such circumstances. It absorbs, directing discordant and potentially dangerous impulses into positive service. And so Nonconformists became Imperialists with the more devout forming the Liberal humanist wing of the Imperial State and others developing toward Liberal Imperialism as Imperialism became the social cement of the society. The dissenters sometimes dissented from the worst of the savagery the English gentry of that period applied to the ‘savages’. But they understood that it was the rougher edges of the thing they were all in together – the thing called “Progress” and “Civilising” in England.
The first practical outcome of the Convention was the formation of the Eastern Question Association. It published a series of pamphlets contained in a volume about The Eastern Question. But the Convention did not result in the usurping of Parliament. Gladstone called for a British intervention in alliance with Tsarist Russia and the Concert of Europe against the Turks. Then he drew back. He assumed a place as a responsible member of the governing Imperial class.
The short-term effect of the agitation in England that culminated in the National Convention was to greatly increase the problems of the region and increase the death toll. The original killing that sparked off the “Bulgarian Horrors” was the massacre of around one thousand Bulgarian Moslems by Bulgarian (Christian) revolutionaries in May 1876, whilst the Ottoman army was away dealing with problems in Bosnia.
Irregular forces known as basi bozuks, made up of Circassians, who had been driven out of the Caucasus by the Russians, and local Moslems were employed to repress the rebels. Having defeated the insurgents the Ottoman forces exacted reprisals against local villages. Between 3,000 and 12,000 insurgents and civilians were killed.
The National Conference and the Gladstone agitation around exagerrated atrocities, which never mentioned the deaths of Moslems, had the effect of check-mating Disraeli and preventing the Government from deterring Russian intervention. Russian public opinion was worked up and the messages sent out by such a wide and varied section of British opinion at Piccadilly encouraged the Tsar to move his armies, where usually he would have feared to tread.
The situation had triggered a Serbian war with the Ottomans which was ending in an Ottoman victory. However, the Tsar demanded a division of the Balkans into Christian states. The Turks could not accept such a demand and the result was the Russian/Ottoman war of 1877-8 in which the Ottomans had to fight alone. The war in Bulgaria was ferocious after stout Ottoman resistance. Professor Justin McCarthy estimates the number of Moslem deaths in Bulgaria at 260,000 with over 500,000 refugees (Death and Exile: the Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922, p.339). Disraeli had to step in to save Constantinople from the Russians with a combination of military force and robust diplomacy. The Treaty of Berlin limited the Tsar’s gains, in Britain’s interest, but through its redrawing of the map of the Balkans in Great Power interest, rather than in relation to actual populations, it stored up trouble for a century and more.
The “Bulgarian Horrors” involved an utterly unsuccessful insurrection which produced a successful result due to Great Power intervention. The unsuccessful rising amplified into a major event in British politics by Gladstone and the “National Convention” led to a major war. The Bulgarian template was born – insurrection, Ottoman counter-measures, Great Power intervention.
This was the template used by the Armenian revolutionary groups in the 1890s. Except this time there was no final part.
In 1912/3 the Gladstonian Liberals saw one part of their “bag and baggage” dream fulfilled as the Balkan Christians united to ethnically cleanse the Moslem population from Europe. Marmaduke Pickthall, the son of an Anglican Minister from Suffolk (whose mother was one of the Irish O’Briens/Inchiquins), was disgusted. He wrote:
“In February of the year 1913 I made up my mind to go to Turkey for a few months in order to escape an atmosphere which sickened me. The English Press and pubHc had, in this twentieth century, responded with fanaticism to the cry of a Crusade against the Turk raised by some cunning Balkan rulers; and that fanaticism had been fostered, as it seemed to my intelligence, by British statesmen — not for their country’s ends, but for the ends and in the interests of Russia, our great Eastern rival. The solidarity of Christendom against a Muslim power was reckoned a fine thing by many people ; but it broke the heart of Englishmen who loved the East. For what had England stood for until then, in India and throughout her Eastern empire? Had she not stood for universal toleration, for a nationality which should be independent of religious differences? The Turks of their own will espoused the same ideal; since when they had been plundered and attacked on all hands. And what had England done but smile upon their persecutors ?
“The Concert of the Powers”—”The Peace of Europe” must be preserved at all costs, we were told: even at the cost — a slight one, in the view of politicians — of national prestige and honour. Oh, Europe! Europe! Is it all the world ? Nobody thought of Asia looking on. And if one mentioned it, he was informed that Asia did not count, being uncivilised and, what appeared to many a conclusive argument, outside the pale of Christianity. It seemed to me that there were two kinds of Christianity : one, which would limit its benevolence to Christian peoples; the other, which regarded the world with all its creeds and races as the theatre for Christian charity and Christian justice. The first, which still prevailed in Russia and the Balkan states, and still could claim adherents here in England, was essentially the same fanaticism which we blame so loudly when it appears in the more ignorant Mohammedans. The second gave the spirit of our Eastern empire, the spirit of humanity and tolerance which one associates with modern life. If we (England) discarded the second and embraced the first —though only in appearance, and from motives of high policy concerned with Russia — the literal-minded East, observant of our conduct step by step, would call us liars; we should have betrayed the faith which they had placed in us, and forfeited all moral claim to their allegiance…
“Turkey, a country in close touch with Europe, was the head of the progressive movement in the East, the natural head, the sanest head that could be chosen; for the Turk was capable of understanding Europe and acting as interpreter to those behind him. If we cut off that head, as Russia, our ally, and other Powers desired to do, a hundred mad fanatic heads would rise instead of it, a monster would be formed which would devour our children. Or so it seemed to me when I set out for Turkey, nor have I since seen anything to change my view.” (With the Turk in Wartime, pp.ix-xii)
How prophetic this turned out to be, as the process begun through the Revolution in British Foreign Policy that let loose the Balkan Wars and then the Great War, continues to effect events in the same region today.
As a result of these events Pickthall became Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall and translated the Qur’an into English.
In 1914 there was a further attempt to apply the Bulgarian template under the auspices of a Great War that was surely meant to be cataclysmic for the Ottoman Turks. There was insurrection, this time in conjunction with multiple Great Power intervention and there were Ottoman counter-measures of a very different character and magnitude to fit the existential threat.
The movement in British society that had begun with the National Convention of 1876 became the cheerleaders of insurrection and the Gladstonian “bag and baggage” policy, now extended to Anatolia. James Bryce was still there from 1876 to aid the propaganda effort in 1915 and he saw the catastrophe it helped bring about for the Christians of the Ottoman Empire.
The British ruling class of gentry knew how and when to make war advantageously and how and when to make peace advantageously. It did so until 1914, when it launched a World War rashly, expecting it to be a limited Balance of Power affair – limited in liability for the British island. But it fought the Great War as a moral crusade aimed at the destruction of Evil – the enemy states. And instead of feeling its way to an advantageous peace, as it had always done in the past, its catastrophic moral war had anything but limited liability. This appears to have been due to the great increase in the political influence of the Biblicalist middle class, shown in 1876 at the “National Conference,” and the respectable working class, who had been filtered into power in a series of electoral reforms.
John Buchan, who was to take over the Masterman propaganda bureau, Wellington House, during the Great War and direct its efforts against the Turk, was, of course, a very famous novelist before the War. In 1906 he published A Lodge in the Wilderness about a fictitious conference of Imperialists modelled on characters like himself, Arthur Balfour, Cecil Rhodes, Lord Curzon, Arthur Milner etc. who come together to discuss the future of the British State and its Empire. It deals with the problem of the “nonconformist conscience” that has to be taken into account by Imperialism now that it has won the General Election and is present in such weight on the Liberal backbenches. One of the characters, “A Conservative, sometime Prime Minister of England and philosopher” (who is most likely Balfour) says:
“With those of a particular religious persuasion it can best be described, I think, as the homage which a feeble present pays to a strong past. At one time with Nonconformists rested the liberties of England, and nobly they fought the battle. ‘Their lives were one long protest against wickedness and folly in high places. But the times passed, and our own day of easy tolerance dawned, when the only disability which Dissent has to endure is a social one and the worst accusation brought against it is vulgarity. But the honest fellows still maintain their air of shrill protest and unwearying dissidence. The burning wrongs of their forefathers, which were also the wrongs of England, have become petty discomforts which it requires an acute mind to discover, but the rhetoric is as vivid as ever. The attitude may seem an anachronism and a parody, but I prefer to look kindly upon it as a belated concession to romance. It is the tribute of the prosperous middle-class, seeking to make the best of both worlds, to the grim Ironside and Anabaptist who relinquished all to win the Kingdom of Heaven.’ ‘Why not call it hypocrisy?’ said Mrs Wilbraham. ‘It is precisely the quality which makes us the contempt of our European neighbours—an austere creed with a practice limping far in the rear.’ ‘Because,’ said Lord Appin, ‘no summary definition does justice to so complex a trait. It is the old desire to make an omelette without breaking eggs, and the curious thing is that we can discern in it both a firm intention to make the omelette at any cost and a sincere conviction that it is infamous to sacrifice a single egg in the process. Were both feelings equally strong we should be in a perpetual state of suspended animation. Only the inborn practicality of our race puts the weight on the former, and so—under protest—we advance. Till we learn to think clearly we shall always have the conflict between the two, yet till our vitality perishes the first will always carry the day.’ (Chapter VII)
It seems that the upper stratum of the Imperial State had a good understanding of the Liberal Nonconformists. They were the Puritan protest against the Whig aristocracy – an internal critique of the State. But, despite their “shrill protest and unwearying dissidence” and love of opposition, they were complicit with Imperialism and bound up with its fortunes. They would always choose the omelette above their concern for the broken egg.
But, of course, if there was a War with a great morale character that “shrill protest and unwearying dissidence” would be directed externally and become an asset to the Imperial State. So 1876 proved not only to be a template for successful insurrection in the Ottoman Empire but for global catastrophe on moral principle.
This turning-point in world history is identifiable. It happened when the Protestant/Calvinist impulse in the British State – the “Nonconformist Conscience” and its milieu – took command of the conduct of the Great War that had been prepared by the gentry, which for two centuries had been fighting wars to improve Britain’s position in the conflicts of interest which arise naturally in the world, and fought it as a total war of Good against Evil. It ruined a Balance of Power war by giving it the democratic force of Puritan morality.
As E.G.Jellicoe wrote:
“The truth could not be told. Public opinion – the ‘atmosphere’ – must be rallied by something of a just and righteous cause… it should be a war of ideas, with the holiness of something like a crusade for justice and freedom about it.” (Playing The Game, p.166)
Reasonable conduct/ limited liability in pursuit of short-term advantage became impossible when the spectre of Evil was raised in 1914 by those who had originally assembled at St. James’s Hall in Piccadilly in 1876. Moral absolutes were incorporated in a political culture which had prided itself since the early 18th century on having left such things behind it. They were let loose by the Liberal Government in August 1914 to cover the moral collapse of their position. The moralists like Bryce became State propagandists to cover their metamorphosis into war-mongers and expansionary Imperialists. It was war with a good conscience that sacrificed great swathes of humanity for the best possible of causes – the good-feeling of the English middle class. They redirected their morality and criticisms of Imperialism toward its enemies.
In 1876 there was still informed discussion of world affairs and realistic decision-making about Imperial affairs in England. The Times, representing the oligarchy with its independent knowledge of the world and informal means of contemplating things, took a realistic view of the Ottomans. The ‘National Conference’ took an idealistic and moralist position which, in the view of the Times, was impractical as Imperial politics. The Idealism of the middle class had to be curbed within the party system of the British State whilst it became implicated in Imperialism and developed a more realistic view of the world. The idealism of the middle class was never quite tamed and the Whig element within the Liberal Party, in which it engaged in politics, generated a Liberal Imperialist tendency to counteract it.
The Liberal Imperialist inner group planned a Great War behind the backs of their largely Nonconformist backbenchers from 1905, doing so in collaboration with their Unionist Party opponents. However, at the vital moment the War Plan had to be disclosed to what represented the democracy. The democracy was not a real democracy, representing only about a third of the adult population, but neither could it function as an oligarchy, being much too extensive for this.
The moral compass of the Nonconformist Liberals broke apart in August 1914 when presented with the fait accompli by Edward Grey – the existence of the War Plan and arrangements of honour concluded with France and Russia. However, to energise the masses on the voluntary principle and supply Kitchener with his mass army the mindless and rhetorical morality of the middle classes had to be indulged to present the united front necessary for the waging of the Great War. Practical thought went out the door and the production of fierce warmongering was the only game in town for all concerned. The force that first made an appearance in 1876 took centre stage in Imperial affairs and turned the world into a global killing field.
Note on Sir George Campbell
One of the speakers at the National Conference, a Scotsman, Sir George Campbell, published a book in the week of the Piccadilly meeting, A Handy Book on the Eastern Question. Sir George was an Indian administrator in Bengal who had a military role in putting down the “Mutiny” and was in office during the Bengal famine. He became a Liberal M.P. The Times provided a review of his book on 11 December. It was quite a surprising read. The Times noted that:
“On the national character of the Turks Sir George Campbell differs widely from Mr. Gladstone, and we may add, from Mr. Cobden… He does not believe that people to be ‘the one great anti-human specimen of humanity,’ but rather to be orderly and well-behaved by nature, with ‘some of the manly virtues of a dominant race’; though demoralised by a misgovernment of which they are at once the instruments and the victims. Sir George Campbell truly observes that ‘almost all those who have come into contact with the ordinary Turks are unanimous in their praise… The Turkish peasant is usually ‘honest, sober and patient’, Constantinople, like ancient Rome, is a sink of nations, ‘there is no great city in the world with such various elements, where there is so much security with so little police interference.’ In a word, the vices of Turkish rule are apparently not inherent in Turkish blood; they do not spring from below, but from above. In this case, as in so many others, ‘the fault is in the system,’ and if Turkish officialism could really be swept away as easily as Mr. Gladstone fancies, Turks and Christians might live side by side in comparative harmony.”
The review continued:
“In what, then, do the Christian grievances consist? Not in religious persecution at the hands of their Mahomedan neighbours, for ‘not only have they the most perfect freedom of religion and religious worship, but they are allowed to conduct their own ceremonies, processions, etc. with an unrestrained freedom which is perfectly astonishing. As for the exemption from military service, it is really a privilege of inestimable value cheaply purchased by the payment of a very modest tax – a privilege to which the Christians largely owe their numerical preponderance over the Musselman population, and the loss of which, in the form of enforced conscription, they would resent with far better reason.”
“The leading idea of Sir George Campbell’s treaties is that the grievances of the Christians in Turkey, however real, are not confined to Christians, but extend also to their Mahomedan fellow-subjects, being mainly due, not to any special vice in the Mahomedan religion, or in the Turkish character, but to an incredibly bad system of government. He does not admit Mahomedanism is so favourable to despotism or so incapable of development as it is alleged to be; still less than it is ‘a brutalising religion,’ as Mr. Cobden termed it. On the contrary, he maintains that Mahomedanism, as distinct from… its fanatical perversions, is a reasonable and humane religion; that ‘under Mahomedan law the rights of married women are preserved to a degree which we have not yet ventured on, and I hope never shall;’ that it anticipated the Code Napoleon in its rules of inheritance, and is not much worse than English law in its rules of evidence; that a Mahomedan ruler ‘is a strictly limited Constitutional Monarch… both the Mahomedan laws and the whole spirit of their religion are really extremely democratic… that the best Mahomedans are ‘models of toleration’ compared with many Christian states…”