The British Empire attained its maximum extent just after the First World War, but the peak of imperial visibility and imperialist sentiment at home was arguably reached two or three decades earlier, most colourfully in the great imperial pageant that marked the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. The thumping Unionist electoral triumph of 1895 was confidently ascribed by Sir Robert Ensor (who had been a Winchester schoolboy at the time) to an upsurge of expansionist imperialism, while A.G. Gardiner, the biographer of Sir William Harcourt, spoke of 'a tidal wave of Jingoism', as 'the arrogant nationalism of Mr Kipling and the glamour of Rhodes's imperialism' led the country to 'strange adventures'. Nowadays the picture seems less clear. Imperial enthusiasm may have militated in favour of the Unionists, but it hardly created a 'tidal wave'. Their massive majority in seats was based on a much less impressive preponderance of votes, and the same is true of their victory in the so-called 'Khaki' election of 1900, fought during the greatest imperial crisis since the Indian Mutiny, the Boer War. It was the British electoral system, still heavily weighted in favour of the better-off, rather than the British voter, that seemed so resoundingly to acclaim the British Empire.
LRB 21 June 2001 | PDF Download