"Defending the Empire" by Rhodri Williams

Defending the Empire The Conservative Party and British Defence Policy, 1899-1915 Rhodri Williams

Publication date:
25 Sep 1991
Yale University Press
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Deference issues were of central importance in British politics in the years before the first World War, as naval and military policy absorbed the attention of politicians of both parties. The growing menace to Briatin of the German Navy focused public attention on questions of naval strength and home defense. However, the heavy cost of overhauling the British Empire’s stretched defenses clashed with the domestic political priorities of successive governments. This book is the first scholarly work to examine the vigorous political debates over defense policy in this era from the perspective of the Conservative party, who were in office from 1899 to 1905 and in opposition from 1905 to 1914. It focuses in particular on the ideas and actions of Arthur James Balfour, leader of the Conservative party from 1902 to 1911


Rhodri Williams assesses how effective the Conservative leadership was in realizing its policy objectives. By explaining the Conservatives’ approach to contemporary controversies over conscription and the construction of Dreadnoughts, he highlights the complexity o the problems facing British policymakers in the period after the Boer War when, against a bleak financial background, they sought to rationalize and strengthen the Empire’s defenses.


The book is important for many reasons. It significantly advances our understanding of the nature of Conservative politics in the early twentieth century. It sheds fresh light on one of the major areas of party political contention in the Edwardian era. It gives us interesting information on Balfour and on a key period of his distinguished political career. And it offers a new perspective on the process by which British defense policy ceased to revolve around the “Great Game” with Russia in Central Asia and came increasingly to turn on Anglo-German naval rivalry in the North Sea.

"Thoroughly researched, gracefully written, and attractively illustrated."?Choice

"This is an historical work, which does not seek to preach a message. Yet the modern reader must be struck by some parallels with today."?Malcolm Rutherford, Financial Times

"A stimulating book."?Ian F. W. Beckett, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History

"A detailed survey of a crucial period in British defence policy. [Williams] shows the influence of key politicians like Balfour on policy making, as well as describing the cross-party skirmishes and the activities of outside lobbyists, like the National Service League. Those interested in the formation and implementation of defence policy, as well as students of Edwardian British politics, will find this book worthy of study."?Michael Mates, Rusi Journal

"A stimulating contribution to historical scholarship, which may long remain the standard work on its subject."?Soldiers of the Queen (Journal of the Victorian Military Society)

"Based on the widest range of primary and secondary sources, this book makes a major contribution to our understanding of the defense debate before 1914 and should be required reading for all students of the period."?Andrew Lambert, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science

"Amid the considerable scholarly attention devoted to the politics of Edwardian Britain, the Unionist Party under Balfour and Bonar Law has been relatively neglected. This is broadly true even of the Unionists and defence, despite some excellent work on Balfour and the two armed services. Rhodri Williams concentrates upon the internal party debates; namely the pressures from within the party itself, electoral realities as interpreted by the leaders, the situation in Parliament, the relations between the two front benches, and the importance of `plain individual preferences'. . . . He challenges the conventional emphasis upon Balfour as an `intellectual' and a cross-party rather than a political statesman. . . . Particularly important are the chapters on reform of the army, and especially the issues of voluntary as opposed to compulsory service."?C. J. Bartlett, Times Higher Education Supplement