The war in South Africa between Britain and the Boers had barely reached its half-way point when Queen Victoria died. By the time it ended, in May 1902, its cost, in lives and money, had reached over 40,000 British dead and wounded and an expenditure of more than £200 million, the latter resulting in the imposition of an extra 7d in the pound on income tax. The war was important, beyond the confines of South Africa, for the way in which it hastened a reassessment of Britain’s foreign and imperial policies, leading to a greater emphasis on consolidating the Empire rather than expanding it and accelerating a search for foreign allies which bore fruit in the Anglo-Japanese alliance in 1902 and the ententes to settle colonial differences with France and Russia in 1904 and 1907. It had an important impact on attitudes and developments in Britain too. In its early stages it divided the Liberal party and enabled the Unionists to win a further period of office at the ‘khaki’ election of 1900, although their inability to bring the conflict to a swift conclusion subsequently lost them support. More substantively, the mismanagement of the war — rather like the earlier example of the Crimea — had revealed, or drawn closer attention to, serious defects in the administrative structures of the country and in the nation’s economic and social fabric. Much of the Edwardian period was taken up with attempts to remedy these defects, by redrawing the boundaries of responsibility between the state and the individual and dealing with the problems of poverty and ill-health which many believed might threaten Britain’s future as a great power. Because it was perceived as the focal point of an incipient social crisis, a consideration of the problem of poverty, and of contemporary responses to it, forms an appropriate point of departure for a study of the Edwardian crisis in its broader setting.
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