MILNER, Alfred, Lord Milner (1854-1925)
Plaque erected in 1967 by Greater London Council at 14 Manchester Square, Marylebone, London, W1U 3PP, City of Westminster
Politics and Administration
Alfred LORD MILNER 1854-1925 STATESMAN lived here
Alfred Milner, later Viscount Milner of St James’s and Cape Town, was a colonial administrator and politician.
His hard-line imperialist views and his belief in the innate racial superiority of the British made him a controversial figure in his own time – and all the more so today.
Milner the imperialist: South Africa and the Boer War
Milner was born in Bonn, Germany, to British parents. After education at Oxford University he helped to found Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel, east London, an outreach ‘settlement’ house named after Arnold Toynbee, one of his Oxford tutors. He went on to serve from 1889 until 1892 in the finance ministry in Egypt, then under British occupation.
It was as High Commissioner responsible for governing British possessions in what is now South Africa (1897–1905) that Milner gained prominence. He took a strong stance against the Boers (settlers of Dutch origin) in the independent republic of the Transvaal, ostensibly to protect the rights of other settlers. But British colonial expansion may have been his real motive, with the gold mines of the Transvaal a particular prize.
The Second Boer War (1899–1902) has been described as ‘Milner’s war’, and he remains a hate figure for many in South Africa. This destructive and bloody conflict, in which Earl Roberts and Lord Kitchener played leading military roles, involved the establishment of British concentration camps for Boer internees and black Africans (of which Milner approved) and a scorched earth policy of burning Boer farms (which he did not).
After the Boer leaders surrendered, Milner gathered around him a group of young civil servants of a similar background to himself – known as ‘Milner’s kindergarten’ – to implement the post-war reconstruction of South Africa. Underpinning all this was his belief in the innate superiority of the British race over the Boers: he described Paul Kruger, their leader, as a ‘frock-coated Neanderthal’.
Milner once told Joseph Chamberlain that South Africa’s indigenous black population were ‘at best … children’. But later he railed against ‘the extravagance of the prejudice on the part of almost all of the whites – not the Boers only’, and regretted that he had allowed black people to be excluded from citizenship.
Milner left South Africa in 1905 after the flogging of Chinese mine workers for minor offences led to his censure in Parliament. He had been made Baron Milner in 1901 and was advanced to a viscountcy the following year.
Milner believed that colonisation was ‘the destination of the English race’, but the settlers he expected never came to South Africa, meaning the Boers effectively won the peace. Nor did his vision of an imperial parliament, with representatives from all over the British Empire, come to fruition.
War cabinet member and London home
After returning to Britain Milner was involved in the campaigns for tariff reform and against home rule for Ireland. His return to front line politics came in December 1915, when Lloyd George brought him into the war cabinet, at first without portfolio.
Milner advocated the central control of wartime planning – an idea whose time had come – and demonstrated his abilities as an administrator while he was War Secretary (1916–19) and Colonial Secretary (1919–21). He was a chief author of the so-called Balfour Declaration of 1917, for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Milner was interested in social reform, and was involved in the work of Toynbee Hall all his life. He was also a trustee of the fortune of another arch-colonialist, the diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes, and has been credited with steering the use of the fund away from politics to educational scholarships. By doing so, some would say, he helped to sanitise Rhodes’s reputation.
In 1921 Milner left cabinet office, married the widowed Lady Cecil, and took a London home at 14 Manchester Square, a terraced town house of around 1780 that bears his blue plaque. He died at his country home in Sturry, Kent.
C Newbury, ‘Milner, Alfred, Viscount Milner (1854–1925)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004) (subscription required; accessed 12 August 2020)
J Lee Thompson, Forgotten Patriot: A Life of Alfred, Viscount Milner of St James's and Cape Town, 1854–1925 (Madison, NJ, 2007)
J Lee Thompson, A Wider Patriotism: Alfred Milner and the British Empire (London, 2015)