Bernard Porter looks into Britain’s line over terrorism during the nineteenth century.
Britain has not always favoured a tough line against terrorism. During most of the nineteenth century she gave shelter to many of the most violent revolutionaries of the time. Some of them used her as a base from which to launch murderous attacks on the continent. The most notorious was Felice Orsini, whose Birmingham-made bomb slaughtered twelve innocent bystanders in the course of an attempt on the life of the French emperor in January 1858. Foreign conservatives were enraged at this, and even suspected Britain of deliberately nurturing terrorist plots against them for reasons of her own. When they asked her to co-operate with them to put down terrorism internationally, she always – from the 1840s right through to the eve of the First World War – refused. This gave her a reputation in Victorian times rather like Libya's and Syria's today.
Of course it was unfair Britain's toleration of her neighbours' men of violence was as inconvenient to her as it was to them. Scarcely anyone in Britain supported terrorism or political assassination, even when it was directed against regimes they abhorred. They were embarrassed by the activities in England of the more extreme refugees, and by the diplomatic bad feeling they aroused. But there were two obstacles in the way of co-operating with the continent to counter them. Firstly there was Britain's attachment to her liberalism, which made – for example – any modification of her policy of asylum impossible to contemplate. Secondly there was her deep-rooted distrust of less liberal powers, which in the nineteenth century effectively meant the whole continent. This immediately ruled out of court most of the suggestions – like easier extradition procedures, laws against anarchism, and international police co-operation – which the continent tried to press on her. And that in turn exacerbated the problem for her governments, which did not always share their people's prejudices, of what could be done to appease foreign complaints.
At least Britain tried: which may be the real difference between her then and Libya today. Her main strategy – the only one available to her – was to try to persuade the continent that her existing laws and law-enforcement agencies were adequate to detect and punish the worst sorts of political crime, without recourse to the illiberal measures they were advocating. Sometimes this blew up in her face. When Simon Bernard was tried in London in March 1858 for complicity in Orsini's plot, for instance, he was acquitted against all the evidence, and amidst scenes of wild popular rejoicing, which made matters very much worse. No government risked that again for twenty-three years. Then in 1881 the law officers were able to make a rather lesser charge stick against the German anarchist Johann Most, which opened the door for a trickle of similar prosecutions against violent foreign revolutionaries thereafter.
Most's conviction came at the start of mainland Britain's first-ever direct experience of terrorism, which was the Irish-American bombing campaign of 1881-85. That campaign affected popular attitudes a little, but not as much as one might suppose. 'It is very curious', commented Sir Algernon West after one dynamite explosion in London in May 1884, 'how calmly people take these outrages as matters of course!' Most newspapers made a great point of refusing to be rattled by them. Sir William Harcourt, the Home Secretary, was more rattled, partly because he was personally responsible for the safety of the Queen; but he found he could do less than he wanted in retaliation. The only new law the Fenian campaign gave rise to was an Explosives Act (1883) which for the first time put the onus of proof on the possessors of dynamite to show that they had it for a legitimate purpose. Otherwise nothing overt was done. Attitudes towards terrorism remained the same. Before, when it had only happened abroad, it had usually been attributed to bad government. It was reprehensible, naturally: but really its targets only had themselves to blame. In the 1880s many Liberals, to their credit, carried the logic of this argument consistently through. Hence the Home Rule bill: which it was believed would defuse Fenian terrorism by satisfying the just grievances on which it fed. In the long term it was still felt that the best remedies for political extremism were liberalism and self-rule.
That left the short term, however, still to take care of, both for the Continent's sake, and now for Britain's own. Frustrated in his efforts to carry through stronger legislation for this purpose, it was natural that Harcourt should turn to the police. The London Metropolitan Police (unlike provincial forces) was under his direct executive control, which meant that he did not need parliamentary sanction to deploy it against suspected terrorists. This was what was done. In March 1881 a section of the detective department was given the task of keeping a watch on foreign socialists. Then two years later an 'Irish Branch' was formed to tackle the Fenian menace. Plain-clothes men were also brought over from Ireland, under a man called Jenkinson who was more practised than the more scrupulous British police in the use of secret agents and spies. They got on badly together. The London police regarded Jenkinson's methods as immoral, while Jenkinson called theirs naive. In the end Jenkinson had to resign, and the two sections were combined into a single all-purpose political police agency now known as the 'Special Branch'. That happened in 1887: which means that the modern Special Branch (if it has the time to) can celebrate its centenary next year.
The origina1 Special Branch had two functions. The first was to be ready for any revival of the Fenian threat. The second was to reassure continentals that their exiles could do no harm to them from their exile in Britain, despite the laxity of her laws. Even the fieriest revolutionary could pose no danger to anyone while he was under the eagle eve of 'The Branch', which could be trusted to pass any reliable intelligence of conspiracies on to his enemies. That point was repeatedly made from the 1880s onwards to Britain's foreign critics, who came to accept it eventually. The Metropolitan Police acquired an enviable reputation abroad for effectiveness in this field. They were Britain's substitutes for new laws and international procedures against terrorism which are commonplace today, but were regarded as unacceptable by the far more liberal Victorians.
The Special Branch was not the ideal solution from a liberal point of view. It had been more commonly known about it might have been as highly disapproved of in late Victorian Britain as the alternatives. There was a widespread feeling at the time against detective police forces generally, which was even more pronounced when their targets were political. The reason why the Special Branch was sanctioned in spite of this was that its activities could be kept secret. But secrecy works in two ways. It also provided an opportunity for the Branch to act illiberally, if it wished. There is circumstantial evidence to suggest that sometimes it did. At worst, it may have 'provoked' some of the crimes it was credited with solving. This was a constant temptation, as successive police chiefs themselves acknowledged. As well as this, the Branch used its privileged position to diversify into other areas beyond strict counter-terrorism. The result of this was that by l914 it had in its files, as well as Fenians and anarchists, the names of suspected spies, colonial nationalists, suffragettes, syndicalists, pacifists, and men and women with unconventional views about sex.
All this, however, was mild by comparison with what probably goes on today. One way or another terrorism eventually drags every nation down, but it does not seem to have dragged Victorian Britain down quite as far as some of her neighbours. Britain's best security then was still supposed to lie in her liberalism, which would require more than a few bombs and assassinations to justify the betrayal of. That, at least, was her public stance; though in private her governments sometimes had their doubts.
Today that view seems more than a little innocent: but then we live in more worldly-wise times. Britain's anti-terrorist laws are tougher than most, and the agencies enforcing them a power in the land. We berate America for precisely the same reasons that we were berated by continental governments in the nineteenth century, and in turn are met with the same arguments we employed then. We have become far less tolerant and liberal in this regard, even if we may be more so in others, like sex. This may be inevitable, and realistic, but it is also sad. Victorian liberal capitalism throve on a vision of a world in which freedom was its own best defence. Now that freedom has to be seriously compromised, they tell us, in order to survive.