William Morris, Our Country Right or Wrong: A Critical Edition

(Edited by Florence S. Boos. William Morris Society, 2008, 95 pp, pbk. £7.00. ISBN 978-0-903283-26-7.)

When I was told this booklet was an edition of an unpublished lecture by Morris, my assumption was it was newly discovered and had previously been unknown. That is not the case, though, since extracts, amounting to a third of the text, were included by May Morris in William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 2 vols, 1936), II, pp. 53-62 - her indispensable supplementary volumes to the Collected Works. Morris signed the manuscript ‘W.M. Jan 30th 1880 / 2.30 a.m. / Kelmscott House Upper Mall Hammersmith’ (the holograph concluding folio is reproduced most attractively inside the covers of Our Country Right or Wrong), his daughter commenting: ‘In 1880, towards the last of Morris’s days of Liberalism, he was lecturing (to some Radical body) on War and Peace and [this is] the MS. he was preparing…’ (ibid, pp. 52-3). Eugene D. LeMire lists it in The Unpublished Lectures of William Morris as ‘Our Country, Right or Wrong’. (Incidentally, it makes considerably better sense to use the punctuated title rather than the one Florence Boos has chosen; ‘Our country, right or wrong’ was the title of as well as a line from a pro-Union recruiting song in the American Civil War and how Morris quoted it in his manuscript.) Although nobody knows whether this lecture on ‘War and Peace’ was actually delivered, the likelihood is that it was either to one of London’s numerous Radical Clubs or to a similar organization of working men.

The overall context is ‘the Eastern Question’, the issue that had politicized Morris, leading him to become treasurer of the Eastern Question Association in 1876 and enter public life (though his first speech was to come several months later when he chaired the foundation meeting of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings). The Eastern Question, Britain’s central foreign policy problem for most of the nineteenth century, concerned the pressures on the sclerotic Ottoman Empire occasioned by Russian expansionism – there were successive Russo-Turkish wars, the last being subsumed in the First World War - and the increasing restiveness of her subject peoples, in not only the largely Christian Balkans but also Asia and north Africa. The interests of British commerce and hence the British State were clear: to protect against the intrusion of Russian naval power the Mediterranean and communications with the Near and Middle East – and beyond the routes to British India, with the Suez Canal being opened in 1869 – and the preservation of a large area susceptible to British economic penetration, Turkey being an important component of Britain’s informal empire. Castlereagh, Foreign Secretary from 1812 until his suicide in 1822, concluded that ‘barbarous as it is, Turkey forms in the system of Europe a necessary evil’.

Successive crises ensued, with sections of the British public often heatedly embroiled: the Greek struggle for independence in the 1820s; the Crimean War of 1854-6, enthusiastically supported by radicals, as Russophobic as their rulers, and at the time incensed by Russia’s suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1849 on behalf of the Austrian Empire; the Bulgarian atrocities of 1876 in which some 13,000 Christians were massacred, bringing Gladstone out of retirement and causing him to write his best-selling pamphlet, The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East; further horrendous bloodletting (a recurrent feature of Turkish rule) in the 1890s to suppress Armenian unrest, followed by insurrection in Crete; and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, in which the future novelist Joyce Cary fought on behalf of the Montenegrins. Turkey’s defeat in the First World War, leading to the dismemberment of its remaining empire, brought the Eastern Question largely to a close.

In 1877 the establishment of an independent Bulgaria was rejected by Turkey. Russia therefore went to war once more and by the Treaty of San Stefano of March 1878 achieved all its demands, with Turkey agreeing to a ‘big’ Bulgaria (as well as the full independence of Serbia). The other Great Powers then proceeded to work for the nullification of Russia’s gains; and in June-July 1878 a European Congress, meeting in Berlin under Bismarck’s chairmanship, substituted the Treaty of Berlin for that of San Stefano. Disraeli (Earl of Beaconsfield since 1876) with the Marquess of Salisbury as his Foreign Secretary (a position he had only occupied since April) achieved almost all of their aims. The ‘big’ Bulgaria did not materialize, instead being divided into three: only the northern part became independent, ‘Eastern Rumelia’ was to be a Turkish protectorate, and in the south Macedonia was to remain within the Ottoman Empire. (The British fear that new Balkan states might be independent in name but in reality become Russian satellites was soon to be shown as groundless.) Herzegovina and Bosnia (where revolts had initially broken out in 1875) were handed over to Austria-Hungary, which occupied without annexing them. As for Britain, she acquired Cyprus, a valuable naval base, but otherwise guaranteed ‘Turkey-in-Asia’ (in contrast to the increasingly untenable ‘Turkey-in-Europe’ and ‘Turkey-in-Africa’). All in all, Russia was given the opportunity to retreat without too much loss of face; and the diplomacy was regarded as an enormous personal triumph for Disraeli - save by radical opinion, including Morris and the Eastern Question Association, in his own country.

In Our Country Right or Wrong Morris lambasts with considerable eloquence what he calls ‘National Vain-glory’, which he explains is

both begotten of ignorance and begets it: a legacy of the injustice of past times, it breeds injustice in us in the present that we may be injustly dealt with in the future: it gabbles of the valour of our forefathers, while it is busy in undoing the deeds that their valiant lives accomplished: it prates of the interests of our country, while it is laying the train of events which will ruin the fortunes, and break the hearts of the citizens: it scolds at wise men and honest men for what it calls a policy of isolation, while itself it would have nothing to do with foreign nations except for their ruin and ours: its great offence is for ever to cry out for war without knowing what war means: all other nations, it deems, pay the price of war; but we never do, and never can pay it, and never shall. The price of war – a heavy price is that; confusion and reaction at the best, ruin at the worst.

‘Yes’, he concludes, ‘that is National Vain-glory’ (pp. 53-4). It, he says later,

must be appealed to, before any set of men in this country can get us to start them off in the quest of gain by foreign conquest or foreign embroilment: people at large do instinctively feel that a war in which one side at all events cannot appeal to the highest principles of truth and justice is a scandal to the world, a ruinous blow to the hopes of humanity. I know that it is unhappily true, that over and over again we have allowed ourselves to be satisfied, to be gulled, by wretched travesties of justice, and, I am ashamed as I say it, seldom more grossly than in the luckless year we have just passed through…(p. 71)

Two pages on he refers to ‘the dreadful deeds of the past year’ (p. 73). The crisis of 1876-8, as has been seen, was resolved by the summer of 1878. The very justified fears of war had occurred early that year with the Mediterranean fleet being ordered by the British cabinet in January to steam through the Dardanelles to Constantinople to support Turkey against Russia. It was in these weeks that the ‘Jingo song’ had great popularity in the London music halls (sung by overwhelmingly
middle-class enthusiasts, it has been shown) and the words ‘Jingo’ and ‘Jingoism’ entered the language:

We don’t want to fight;
But, by jingo, if we do,
We’ve got the men, we’ve got the ships
We’ve got the money too.

Morris himself remarks that the words, ‘Our country, right or wrong’, had been ‘taken as the motto of a banner, as it were: the banner of a tribe clamorous once, now somewhat subdued by force of circumstances, but which may as circumstances change become clamorous once again, and unless they are well looked after dangerous also: that tribe has been called the tribe of the Jingos’ (p. 53). So he appreciates that war dangers of early 1878 had, for the time being, evaporated. 1879, in contrast, was ‘luckless’ and stained with ‘dreadful deeds’ because Britain,first suffering humiliating defeats in Zulu and Afghan wars, countered with punitive
campaigns.

Interestingly, Morris does not especially blame Disraeli – or his ministers – for the adventurism and imperialism of his government of 1874-80:

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…it is unfair to lay the blame of the dreadful deeds of the past year, of the anxious toil of two years ago on the Tory House of Commons or on Lord Beaconsfield, and his ardent friend, admirer, & follower Lord Salisbury. Lord Beaconsfield and his tail rule England at present? Too true – but why? Who made the House of Commons a Tory one?....It was ourselves, Sirs, Ourselves (p. 73).

Responsibility is, then, attributed to the electorate (which he in no way acknowledges as still extremely restricted: householders in the boroughs enfranchised, but only the £12 ratepayers in the counties, and exclusively male), an electorate that in 1874 had had the audacity to oust ‘a great statesman’ (p. 74): Gladstone. Our Country Right or Wrong is effusively, embarrassingly Gladstonian. This is surely the principal reason why neither Morris himself nor Eugene LeMire chose to publish it and his daughter no more than selected passages. The future anti-parliamentarian is revealed in 1880 as a gullible worshipper of a politician. It was going to take the inglorious record of Gladstone’s government of 1880-85 – with the occupation of Egypt; coercion in Ireland and the imprisonment of Parnell; articipation in the partition of west Africa - to move Morris on to socialism.

Still there are excellent things in the lecture (as I trust my quotations indicate) and it certainly needed to be printed in its entirety. On the other hand, I regret to say, Florence Boos is an inappropriate editor. She has produced (unlike May Morris) a fussy, literary scholar’s text, not the reader-friendly edition that is called for; and struggles with the fearsome convolutions of the Eastern Question, but is no more at home with general British or European history and politics. For example, Britain did not ‘stay’ from 1882 till 1956 (save in the Suez Canal Zone) in Egypt, which became independent in 1922 (p. 42). It is oxymoronic to say (twice!) that MacMahon was the President of France during the Second Empire (it was the Third Republic) (pp. 61, 91). She predictably puts her boot into Salisbury in an endnote: ‘During three subsequent terms of office as Conservative prime minister, Salisbury’s advocacy of Disraelian “peace with honour” led him to block Irish Home Rule, co-broker the partition of Africa, and preside…over British entrance into the Boer War’ (p. 92). But it was Salisbury, combining the premiership and Foreign Secretaryship, who extricated Britain in 1897 from her traditional support of the Ottomans (Germany moving rapidly to take over from her). (The old Chartist and lifelong friend of Engels, George Julian Harney - born in 1817 - judged Salisbury’s administration of 1886-92, with its innovative social policy, as the best within his memory.) And readers baffled by the note on ‘the New Road’ (p. 91) – occasioned by Morris’s ‘Say 3 men shot stone dead: no great harm to them perhaps: but how would your hearts have been frozen with horror if you had seen that done in the New Road this afternoon…’ (p. 64) – may like to know that was how the modern Euston and Marylebone Roads were known for much of the nineteenth century.

That Boos is agonized by contemporary US foreign policy and particularly the occupation of Iraq breaks through several times into her introduction. She introduces A.J.P. Taylor’s essential distinction, popularized by Martin Ceadel, between ‘pacificism’ - ‘the assumption that war, though sometimes necessary, is always an irrational and inhumane way to solve disputes, and that its prevention should always be an over-riding political priority’ - and ‘pacifism’ - ‘the belief that all war is always wrong and should never be resorted to, whatever the consequences of abstaining from fighting’ (Pacifism in Britain, 1914-1945: The Defining of a Faith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), p. 3); yet immediately declares, without explanation, that she proposes to speak of, not pacificists, but ‘anti-bellicists’ (p. 16). Her programme is to enlist Morris, not merely as the pacificist, or ‘anti-bellicist’, he clearly was, but as a pacifist. This seems implausible given his general character and long-term admiration for the valour of the warrior north. She is able, however, to trump Morris’s pacificist ‘acts of violence…are still acts of violence, and therefore degrading to humanity, as all war is’ (p. 31 – and Morris’s emphasis), with a pacifist statement a year later in 1893 that suggests a significantly new attitude: ‘I will say once for all, what I have often wanted to say of late, to wit, that the idea of taking any human life for any reason whatsoever is horrible and abhorrent to me’ (p. 32). She continues this with a section on ‘Violence in Morris’s Literary Writings’ (pp. 33-38), at last analyzing literary texts and commanding my respect.

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