South Africa: The Temptation to Intervene

  • Ronald Hyam


The question of how far self-governing colonies could be allowed unfettered control of their domestic affairs and especially of their native policy, posed a dilemma which was particularly embarrassing for British Liberals. They were torn between their desire to uphold and extend self-government and their desire to secure fair treatment for natives. In the early twentieth century, most people at home would have agreed with Bryce, when he wrote that self-governing colonies were never interfered with in internal affairs, ‘unless in the rare case where a matter primarily local may affect the general relations and interests of the whole Empire’.1 Interference in such circumstances was thought legitimate, but there was ample room for debate where the frontier line between matters of purely local concern and those of imperial magnitude should be drawn. There was widespread apprehension in Unionist circles in 1905–6 that a Liberal government would draw a frontier line favouring imperial control rather than local autonomy. So strong was Lord Cromer’s apprehension, that it was a major reason why he declined the offer of the foreign secretaryship in Campbell-Bannerman’s cabinet in December 1905.


Imperial Control Responsible Government British Government Liberal Government Political Prisoner 
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  1. 2.
    PD. 183/669, Curzon’s comment, 4 Feb 08, on the handling of the Transvaal Asiatic Ordinance, 1907, discussed below. Schreiner, the South African lawyer: ‘some of us in South Africa, who have never favoured unnecessary or ill-informed interference or intervention in the internal affairs of self-governing Colonies or independent States, discern in these contrary days a very real risk that the doctrine of non-interference may be carried to a most dangerous extreme at a time when both the great political parties in the Mother Country appear to be united in a weary feeling that Africa is “a Beast”, and inclined towards handing over all trusts and responsibilities to the European section of our population on such terms as these may design. This is the “elimination of the Imperial Factor” with a vengeanceȁ (E. A. Walker, W. P. Schreiner (1937), p. 321, Schreiner to Dilke, 1909).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For some details see E. A. Walker, W. P. Schreiner (1937), pp. 272–303.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Whilst a clerk in the colonial office, Keith, and Keith alone, had wished, under Crown Colony government, to repeal the Transvaal law of 1885. The other officials felt this would unite all white colonial opinion against Britain; moreover ‘H.M.G. could not in justice stop at the Indians. The “Cape Coloured” people have far more grounds of complaint’ (CO. 291/84/26270, minute by Graham 13 Mar 06). This should be borne in mind in evaluating Keith’s later judgment, that Elgin ought to have taken a stand on the principle of equality for Indians (A. B. Keith, Responsible Government in the Dominions (1928), ii, 828).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    J. Morley, Recollections (1917), ii, 214, MM. 2/100,9 May 07.Google Scholar
  5. 2.
    See B. Porter, ‘Radical and Labour attitudes to Empire, 1896–1914’ (Cambridge University Ph.D. dissertation, 1967, to be published by Macmillan).Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    A. Chamberlain, Politics from inside (1936), pp. 72, 76.Google Scholar
  7. 1.
    CO. 417/413/32485, Selb. to S/S 21 Aug 05; GP. 52, Crewe to Grey 22 Jun 08; J. E. B. Seely, Adventure (1930), p. 133, quoted by Thompson, Unification, p. 399.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Ronald Hyam 1968

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ronald Hyam
    • 1
  1. 1.University of CambridgeUK

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