Alfred Milner

The British statesman Alfred Milner, 1st Viscount Milner (1854-1925), served as high commissioner of South Africa and later as a Cabinet member. A public servant of great ability, he is closely associated with British imperialism.

Alfred Milner was born on March 23, 1854, at Giessen, Hesse-Darmstadt (Germany). He lived part of his youth in Germany and part in England. His parents were English, and his mother insisted that he be educated in English schools. Young Milner distinguished himself at King's College School, London, and at Balliol College, Oxford.

Milner started out on a legal career but then turned to journalism. He was interested in many facets of economic policy and political administration. Because of his known ability he moved about in influential government circles and held a variety of official assignments. In 1884 he took the job of private secretary to G. J. Goschen. The next year Milner helped Goschen win a seat in the House of Commons, but Milner himself lost a hard-fought contest for another constituency. Later, when Goschen was chancellor of the Exchequer, Milner became his official private secretary. He went from there to a financial position in Egypt under Sir Evelyn Baring (later Lord Cromer). In 1892 Goschen brought Milner back to England to become chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue, where under both Liberals and Conservatives he was widely acclaimed.

Anglo-Boer trouble in South Africa was approaching a deadlock when Milner was chosen to go there as high commissioner in 1897. He believed in British imperialism and the necessity of protecting British interests. Before many months had passed, he became convinced that war was unavoidable. Milner refused to alter Britain's policy, and he could not believe that the Boers were acting in good faith when they sought a peaceful compromise. The Boer War was the result, and it came to dominate the entire British political scene. The long war ended with British military victory; Milner was one of the signers of the peace treaty. He then put his efforts into rebuilding South Africa after the war's destruction. He is remembered for his part in the war and for his work in building up the country's physical and economic base. In both he was a party to controversial programs: concentration camps for civilians during the war and the importation of Chinese workers to solve the labor shortage following the war. Conditions of life in both instances led to widespread condemnation by humanitarian groups in England and around the world.

Milner went back to England in the spring of 1905 after his tenure in South Africa. He was respected for his abilities by leaders of both parties, but he was always associated with the unpopular events in South Africa. Although he was not a party politician, Milner's policy was closely linked with that of the Conservatives, who were overwhelmingly defeated in the election of 1906. Milner sat in the House of Lords after having been made a viscount in 1902. There he opposed much of the legislation sponsored by the Liberals.

When the crisis of World War I came, Milner was called on again, first to increase food production and then to be a member of Prime Minister David Lloyd George's five-man War Cabinet, which ruled England from 1916 to 1918. In the latter post he was active in every aspect of wartime planning. He became war secretary in April 1918 and colonial secretary in December 1918.

Milner retired in February 1921 after long service and at a time when his views on imperialism were waning in popularity. He died on May 13, 1925.

Further Reading on Alfred Milner

Milner's own record of events in South Africa is lucidly presented in The Milner Papers: South Africa, edited by Cecil Headlam (2 vols., 1931-1933). His work on the problems of governing Egypt in the Cromer era is England in Egypt (1894; last rev. ed. 1970). The best complete biography of Milner is John Evelyn Wrench, Alfred Lord Milner: The Man of No Illusions, 1854-1925 (1958). Milner's public career is recorded in a substantial scholarly work that uses private papers and public documents: Alfred M. Gollin, Proconsul in Politics: A Study of Lord Milner in Opposition and in Power (1964). Milner as a leading imperialist is the subject of several works which emphasize his views and experiences in South Africa: Lionel Curtis, With Milner in South Africa (1951); Edward Crankshaw, The Forsaken Idea: A Study of Viscount Milner (1952); and Vladimir Halperin, Lord Milner and the Empire: The Evolution of British Imperialism (1952).

Additional Biography Sources

Marlowe, John, Milner: apostle of Empire: a life of Alfred George, the Right Honourable Viscount Milner of St James's and Cape Town, KG, GCB, GCMG, 1854-1925, London: Hamilton, 1976.

O'Brien, Terence Henry, Milner: Viscount Milner of St. James's and Cape Town, 1854-1925, London: Constable, 1979.