The disciplinary roots of international relations are examined post-colonial. One intellectual figure who requires such a test is Halford John Mackinder, a founding father of geopolitics. Mackinder’s ideas, which are now over a century old, retain their influence. Perhaps most notably, his 1904 paper “The Geographical Pivot of History” on the strategic importance of Eurasia was sharply cited by hawks who defended the US occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Like her, Mackinder had imperial ambitions. His life’s work was dedicated to the renewal of the British Empire, which he feared would be overtaken by rival continental powers. True to his belief in the practice of geographical knowledge and territorial statecraft, Mackinder also aspired to a career in politics. The first signs of this transition were in 1900 when he ran in the general election for a largely forgotten faction of the Liberal Party, the self-defined liberal imperialists. The story of his election accident helps shed light on the ideological context in which geopolitics arose and the purposes for which it was used.
Mackinder started the new century as an aspiring man. On January 22, 1900, he triumphantly came to the Royal Geographical Society to discuss his ascent of Mount Kenya. Not only was he the first European to reach the summit, but he was also the first to use color photography to present his findings to society. With its combination of national prestige and scientific advancement, the expedition cemented Mackinder’s reputation as a pioneering geographer. At this point he was best known for his academic contributions as Director of Reading College and as a reader at the Oxford School of Geography, both of which were recently established largely thanks to his efforts. During the spring, he traveled the country giving lectures on Mount Kenya. On October 3rd, election day of the general election, he was supposed to address the incoming students at Reading Town Hall and receive scholarship applications for Oxford. But only two weeks left, he tossed these plans aside and decided to run for election in the constituency of Warwick and Leamington on the Central Plateau.
The sudden decision was curious. Mackinder had no political sponsor or constituency affiliation at the time, save for a few university expansion courses he had given at Leamington Town Hall a decade ago. It is possible that he was recommended to the local Liberal Association by J. Saxon Mills, a former Master of Leamington College and their first choice as a candidate. Mills would have known about Mackinder in the University Extension movement and would have had similar views on imperial issues. But why start the race so late? Maybe Mackinder was looking for a diversion. While he received public recognition for his exploits in East Africa, he experienced a painful separation from his wife in private. All we know for certain is that on the day he received the Liberal Association’s offer in Leamington, he immediately telegraphed back and made his way to meet them that evening.
The 1900 general election was a khaki election, so named because it was dominated by military questions about the British annexation of the independent Boer states. Mackinder was clear on this. He supported the Boer War and believed that any pacifist or anti-imperial sentiment had to be put aside for Britain to remain a force for freedom. Wanting to impress his position in the Liberal Association, Mackinder told them:
If we value our British freedoms, we must be ready to defend those freedoms when the opportunity arises, not just against small powers but against big world powers almost as big as we are. So … in such an age it was impossible to remain little English, whatever our desires. He was a liberal imperialist but did not believe that all wars were right, for war was a disaster at all times – (hear, hear) – but he would not be involved in failing to do anything that would make it less easy for them should cherish their British freedoms or retain the power to extend those freedoms.
This was a message that he repeated during his election campaign and urged the need for Great Britain to protect itself against the rapidly developing powers of Germany and the USA through the imperial federation of (white) Australia, Canada and South Africa: a united navy and an efficient army ‘. His bullish demeanor and famous oratorio evidently worried the opposition so much that the Union weapon Joseph Chamberlain traveled to Warwick and Leamington on the eve of the election to speak for the incumbent. After introductory remarks in which Mackinder was classified as a “mixed race” because of his indefinable political race, Chamberlain mocked his misguided allegiance and stated: “The only flaw I find in Mr. Mackinder is that he is not a member of our party … me I hope that after this election he will find it appropriate to join the Liberal Unionists.
Newspaper picture © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Many thanks to The British Newspaper Archive.
In this case, Mackinder’s argument for liberal imperialism did not convince voters. Although his opponent Alfred Lyttelton missed the entire government business election in South Africa, he increased his majority and won with 59 percent of the vote. Somewhat conceited, Mackinder attributed this defeat to poor organization of the local liberal association and reminded them: “Elections were not won by public gatherings, however enthusiastic they might be, or they would have won.” Nevertheless, the association took his thanks and said goodbye with a refrain of “He’s a funny good guy”.
But Mackinder wasn’t finished yet. A by-election was scheduled three years later because Lyttelton had been promoted to colonial secretary and had to contest his seat again. The promotion came after the resignation of Joseph Chamberlain, who had controversially left the cabinet to campaign for customs reform. Mackinder fully agreed with Chamberlain’s desire to make the British Empire a protected trading bloc. He joined the collective bargaining reform league and, in order to fulfill Chamberlain’s earlier hopes, actually switched to the unionists. He even offered to go to Leamington to speak for his former opponent, which he said was “the only male course I could take”. The reaction at the town’s Liberal Club was to take Mackinder’s photo off the wall, shoot it to pieces, and burn whatever was left.Mackinder was advised not to travel to town.
At least Lyttelton appreciated the offer. The following year, as Colonial Secretary, he led Mackinder’s illustrated lecture on the British Empire to be used in schools to cultivate patriotic imperial themes. The project would be realized in the textbooks prepared for the Colonial Office’s Visual Instruction Committee, which Lyttelton encouraged the colonial governors to adopt. Relations between the two men were cemented in the 1906 general election when Mackinder again offered to speak for Lyttelton as well as Arthur Steel-Maitland, another collective bargaining reformer, who was camping in the nearby rugby constituency. This time the offer was accepted, but it went down badly again. As reported in the London Daily Newswhen Mackinder stood up to speak at a public meeting at a Leamington school:
… It was the signal for a scene of deafening uproar, above which screams of “mongrel” rose up. He stood for five minutes and smiled somewhat sardonically. Then he asked in chalk for a blackboard and wrote in chalk: “Be fair as an Englishman”. Again, Mr. Mackinder took his place on the platform, patiently waiting for an opportunity that never came to address voters.
Unimpressed, the two continued their common platform and the following day Mackinder gave a long speech in support of the unionists’ position on customs reform, which he described as “a matter of life and death for the country”. Special efforts have been made to discredit the Liberal Party’s claims that protectionist tariffs would lead to higher food prices. Mackinder believed this could be avoided by using “the vast fields of Canada” as a guaranteed supplier of cheap grain. Voters disagreed again and Lyttelton lost his seat in the liberal landslide that swept aside the conservative and unionist alliance.
Mackinder finally made it to Parliament in 1910 as a Conservative and Unionist MP for the Camlachie constituency in Glasgow, but gave up party politics entirely in the early 1920s to take on a technocratic role as chairman of the Imperial Maritime Committee. He had become aware of the threat posed by representative democracy to expert rule and the social order; a direct response to what he saw as the Labor Party’s socialist indoctrination of workers, but perhaps also a lingering bitterness to those first ego bruises in Warwick and Leamington. He also had the feeling that he had not done justice to his talent or his cause in parliament and had never been accepted into the inner circle of government. At the end of his life he regretted that he “didn’t just stick to geography”. Perhaps things would have turned out differently if he hadn’t plunged into politics, especially for a party that he would later turn his back on. But who has heard of a cautious imperialist?
Further reading on e-international relations