Hobson choice

"It is, indeed, a nemesis of Imperialism that the arts and crafts of tyranny, acquired and exercised in our unfree Empire, should be turned against our liberties at home." John A. Hobson

I have been looking for a decent tagline for the Green Ribbon for some time now, and I’m still not sure I’ve found one.

Until I can come up with something that expresses the same idea a bit more snappily, I’ve decided to use the above quote from John A Hobson, an English liberal thinker of the late 19th/early 20th Century, which I think captures many of the themes of this blog. [Update: I have now dropped this idea in response to Alex’s comments below]

Hobson was an old school free trader who opposed Britain’s turn to imperial expansion as its industrial supremacy was challenged by the United States and Germany. In some ways, the US could be said to be in a similar position today as regards China.

Hobson’s 1902 book, Imperialism, A Study, is one of the most influential on the subject, and is available online.

My quote above comes from the chapter on The Political Significance of Imperialism. Hobson’s critique of the Liberal Party of his own day is strikingly relevant to New Labour’s adventurism of today. I have excerpted some of his particularly apposite comments at length below.

"Every important social reform, even if it does not directly involve large public expenditure, causes financial disturbances and risks which are less tolerable at times when public expenditure is heavy and public credit fluctuating and embarrassed. Every social reform involves some attack on vested interests, and these can best defend themselves when active Imperialism absorbs public attention. When legislation is involved, economy of time and of governmental interest is of paramount importance. Imperialism, with its "high politics," involving the honour and safety of the Empire, claims the first place, and, as the Empire grows, the number and complexity of its issues, involving close, immediate, continuous attention, grow, absorbing the time of the Government and of Parliament. It becomes more and more impossible to set aside parliamentary time for the full unbroken discussion of matters of most vital domestic importance, or to carry through any large serious measure of reform."

"There are individuals and sections among those who have comprised the Liberal party whose deception has been in large measure blind and involuntary, because they have been absorbed by their interest in some single important issue of social reform, whether it be temperance, land tenure, education, or the like. Let these men now recognise, as in honesty they can scarcely fail to do, that Imperialism is the deadly enemy of each of these reforms, that none of them can make serious advance so long as the expansion of the Empire and its satellite (militarism) absorb the time, the energy, the money of the State. Thus alone is it still possible that a strong rally of Liberals might, by fusion or co-operation with the political organisations of the working classes, fight Imperialism with the only effectual weapon, social reconstruction on the basis of democracy."

"Representative institutions are ill adapted for empire, either as regards men or methods. The government of a great heterogeneous medley of lower races [sic*] by departmental officials in London and their nominated emissaries lies outside the scope of popular knowledge and popular control. The Foreign, Colonial, and Indian Secretaries in Parliament, the permanent officials of the departments, the governors and staff who represent the Imperial Government in our dependencies, are not, and cannot be, controlled directly or effectively by the will of the people. This subordination of the legislative to the executive, and the concentration of executive power in an autocracy, are necessary consequences of the predominance of foreign over domestic politics."

"Autocratic government in imperial politics naturally reacts upon domestic government. The intricacy of the departmental work of the Home Office, the Board of Trade, of Education, and other important offices has favoured this reaction, which has taken shape in government by administrative orders in accordance with large powers slipped into important statutes and not properly challenged or safeguarded amid the chaotic hurry in which most governments are driven in legislation."

"At elections the electorate is no longer invited to exercise a free, conscious, rational choice between the representatives of different intelligible policies; it is invited to endorse, or to refuse endorsement, to a difficult, intricate, and hazardous imperial and foreign policy, commonly couched in a few well-sounding general phrases, and supported by an appeal to the necessity of solidarity and continuity of national conduct—virtually a blind vote of confidence."

"The Cabinet absorbs the powers of the House, while the Cabinet itself has been deliberately and consciously expanded in size so as to promote the concentration of real power in an informal but very real "inner Cabinet," retaining some slight selective elasticity, but virtually consisting of the Prime Minister and the Foreign and Colonial Secretaries and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. This process of centralisation of power, which tends to destroy representative government, reducing the House of Commons to be little more than a machine for the automatic registration of the decrees of an unelected inner Cabinet, is manifestly attributable to Imperialism. The consideration of delicate, uncertain intelligence affecting our relations with foreign Powers, the accepted necessity of secrecy in diplomacy, and of expeditious, unobtrusive action, seem to favour and even to necessitate a highly centralised autocratic and bureaucratic method of government."

*Hobson usually, although not on this occasion, puts this expression in inverted commas.







2 responses to “Hobson choice”

  1. Alex avatar

    Hmmm…I’d watch your step with Hobbo, after all he campaigned against the Boer war as “the Jews’ War”…

  2. Tom Griffin avatar

    I should have guessed. What brought me to the idea of Hobson was a conversation with a friend from the Connolly Association who also recommended the economics of Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein and another pro-Boer anti-imperialist. I pointed out to him that Griffith was an anti-semite, but I didn’t know about Hobson.
    He couldn’t understand why Hobson didn’t enjoy a greater reputation on the British left. I suppose you’ve just answered that question.
    It’s not much of a tagline anyway. I guess the search goes on.

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