Francis Wrigley Hirst on Liberalism and Empire

I learn Dan Booth has been reading up on Francis Wrigley Hirst. I am happy to hear this, as Hirst was one of the last great proper liberals, who stayed true to those ‘old-fashioned’ values of liberty, peace, laissez-faire and limited government, when all the intellectuals and the politicians had abandoned them for the false gods of socialism, protectionism, imperialism and war. I certainly think it worthwhile for libertarians of today (who are that way inclined) to check out what our freedom-loving forebears, such as Hirst and Sir Ernest Benn, were writing back in the first half of the 20th century. You may be surprised by the similarities between the economic, social and political situation of (say) 1930s Britain and the mess we’re in now.

Amongst his work, I definitely think ‘Liberty and Tyranny’ and ‘Economic Freedom’ are worth a read (though sadly out of print). Some of his earlier work can be found in the Internet Archive, and the Online Library of Liberty has ‘Free Trade and Other Fundamental Doctrines of the Manchester School‘ which he edited.

Anyway, here’s a quote from Francis Wrigley Hirst, from the Introduction to “Liberalism and the Empire” (1900).

There is no sentiment in a nation so dangerous, there is no sentiment so easy to stimulate, as the false excess of patriotism. There is probably no country in the world from China to Peru in which the sub-conscious voices of national egotism do not persistently whisper in men’s ears the same intoxicating tale: ‘ “We are the pick and flower of nations, and (in one sense or another) the chosen people of God! Various foreigners may or may not have their good points, but only we are really whole and right and normal. Other nations boast and are aggressive; only we are modest and content with our barest due, though it is obvious that we are by nature specially qualified for ruling others, and no unprejudiced person can doubt that our present territories ought to be increased. That our yoke is a pure blessing to all who come under it is a plain fact, proved by the almost unanimous testimony of our own citizens, our historians, our missionaries, our soldiers, our travellers, and only denied out of spite by a few envious foreigners, whom no one believes!”‘

Sentiments like these, call them patriotism, jingoism, chauvinism or what you will, form a strong and persistent force, valuable when checked, dangerous when stimulated, and charged with all the elements of exasperation and explosion whenever there is most need for patience and for care.

There is also in most civilized countries another party, inspired, consciously or unconsciously, by the older school of English Liberals, who do not accept the extravagant pretensions of their own countrymen; who judge of national honour by more or less the same standards as they apply to private honour; who believe in international morality and in the co-operation of nations for mutual help; who, if they are to dream at all, will dream not of Armageddons and Empires, but of progress and freedom, and the ultimate fraternity of mankind.

One Comment

  1. The Prime Minister at the time the Victorian Empire expanded most was Lord Salisbury – he was also the same man who (not under his own name) wrote anti Imperialist articles for the “Saturday Review” DURING THE SAME PERIOD.

    History is complex and, at times, ironic.

    The British government often had little interest in Empire (for example Gladstone sent General Gordon to the Sudan with strict orders to evacuate civilains – NOT to fight the Mahdi, Gordon violated orders and set himself up in a position where he would be killed, thus making British intervention against “the Anointed One” unavoidable). But Empire came.

    For example, the life history of Lugard is instructive. Over wide areas of East and West African he would just arrive and declare them under British protection – freeing slaves and stopping such practices as human sacrifice (BBC histories of Empire tend to leave out such things).

    He had no authority from London to do all this, indeed he started out as man who left British India under a clowd (an alledged affair with a married women) and was prepared to run any risk (sickness, torture, violent death…..) in order to make a name.

    Raffles the founder of Singapore (and the British Empire in the Far East) was also a driven man – he faught pirates and headhunters, in the name of the British government (most of whom had never heard of him), planting the Union flag in areas of the world London had never heard of…..



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