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Historians and the Great Crisis of 1903*

  • Alfred Gollin


The Cabinet crisis of 1903 was an event of major significance in recent British political history. The Annual Register declared of the 1903 crisis that it was “one of the most sensational political events recorded in the long series of volumes of the Annual Register.” Randolph Churchill, in his great biography of his father, referred to the crisis as a “remarkable and probably unique series of events.” Lord Blake, in The Observer, wrote that it was one of “the most drastic series of expulsions, resignations and reshuffles engineered by any Prime Minister in the twentieth century.” The present writer in a book entitled Balfour's Burden wrote of the 1903 crisis that “this Cabinet was a decisive moment in British history. Ministers had come together in order to decide upon the economic and Imperial future of their country.”

Historians have always recognised the high importance of the 1903 crisis in British affairs. But they have been unable to agree upon the details of it, and they have differed regularly about the role in it played by Arthur Balfour, the Prime Minister of the day. Nevertheless, material in the Public Record Office in London, recently made available to scholars, now enables us to resolve the differences which have occupied the attention of scholars for a long time past. Nor is it simply a matter of detail. Significant conclusions about British political practice can be made when the crisis of 1903 is understood, in all its aspects. The crisis occurred as the result of British failures during the Boer War which revealed that Britain was either unable or unprepared to defend the distant reaches of her Empire. Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, resolved to restore the situation.



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An earlier version of this article was read at the Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies, Santa Barbara, California, April 5, 1975.



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1 For Randolph Churchill's remark see Churchill, Randolph, Winston S. Churchill (London, 1967), II:65; Blake's, Lord statement is in The Observer, 12th December, 1965; see also Gollin, Alfred, Balfour's Burden (London, 1965), p. 132 hereafter cited as Balfour's Burden, which is the source for the background to the 1903 crisis adduced in this article.

2 For the exact details of the period of the Ministerial Truce see Balfour's Burden, pp. 66-80.

3 See Amery, Julian, The Life of Joseph Chamberlain, (London, 1969) V:365; and pp. 365-367 for some discussion of the “Blue Paper”.

4 For the attitude of the Unionist Free Trade Cabinet Ministers at this stage of the affair see Balfour's Burden, pp. 96 ff.

5 See ibid., pp. 108-111.

6 See ibid., pp. 101-3.

7 See Hewins, W.A.S., Apologia of an Imperialist (London, 1929), I:154–55; and Balfour's Burden, pp. 9-10 and pp. 120-122.

8 For an analysis of Chamberlain's reasoning which led to his offer of resignation, see Amery, Julian, Life of Joseph Chamberlain, V:390391.

9 Ritchie's Memorandum is printed in Balfour's Burden at p. 138.

10 For Lord George Hamilton's various remarks see Balfour's Burden, p. 142.

11 For an account of this exchange see The Times, 8th March 1904.

12 For the exact details of Arthur Balfour's conduct in the period after the Cabinet meeting of 14th September 1903 see Balfour's Burden, pp. 152-162.

13 See Encyclopaedia Britannica, eleventh edition, (New York, 1910), article on “Balfour, Arthur James,” p. 252.

14 Edward Raymond Thompson used a pen-name when he wrote his books. See Raymond, E. T., A Life of Arthur James Balfour (Boston, 1920), p. 138.

15 Churchill, Randolph, Lord Derby (London, 1959), p. 79.

16 For the background to Winston Churchill's account of Balfour in his Great Contemporaries see Churchill, Randolph, Lord Derby, pp. 79ff.

17 See Winston S. Churchill, Great Contemporaries, (London, 1947), pp. 189 ff. Great Contemporaries was first published in book form in 1937.

18 Churchill, Winston S., Great Contemporaries, p. 192.

19 Ibid., p. 190.

20 Ibid., p. 193.

21 See Balfour's Burden, pp. 141-147.

22 See ibid., p. 166.

23 See ibid., chapter X, for these conclusions.

24 Ibid., p. 168.

25 Churchill, Randolph S., Winston S. Churchill, II:66. The present writer stayed with Randolph Churchill at his house in East Bergholt, Suffolk, when the second volume of Winston S. Churchill was in the proof stage. At Randolph's request the proofs were examined and it was suggested then that the account of the 1903 crisis in them should be changed, and made to conform with the conclusions in Balfour's Burden. After some discussion Randolph Churchill agreed and summoned Michael Wolff, who directed his research, in order to tell him to make the suggested changes. In the end, however, the compromise reproduced above was fixed upon for the final published text.

26 Amery, Julian, The Life of Joseph Chamberlain, V:409.

27 Ibid., p. 412, f.n. 3.

28 Balfour's Burden, p. 165.

29 See CAB. 1/4 The Cabinet Crisis of 1903, marked “strictly confidential.”

30 See CAB. 1/4., p. 18.

31 See in this connection the general conclusion offered in Balfour's Burden at pp. 116-117 on the lessons involved for students of recent British political history.

* An earlier version of this article was read at the Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies, Santa Barbara, California, April 5, 1975.


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