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British Foreign Policy - Splendid Isolation - 1860-1905

Following the Crimean War, since Lord Palmerston's time [Prime Minister 1855-1858], England had claimed that its policy was one of "splendid isolation." Viscount Goschen, was the author in 1896 of the phrase ‘splendid isolation’ in relation to England’s international positlon. In Gladstone’s first ministry he was President of the Poor-law Board (1868—71), and subsequentl First Lord of the Admiralty 1871-4). When the Unionist government was formed in June 1895, Mr. Goschen returned to his old place at the Admiralty as First Lord. This office he retained till 1900.

In a speech at Lewes on 26 February 1896, Viscount Goschen said "We are said to be isolated, but I say that which I know when I say that we have but to hold out our hands and our isolation will terminate, and we shall receive welcome into several groups of other Powers. . . . In the modern system of European politics we could at any moment, I believe, make such alliances as we chose. . . . Our isolation is not an isolation of weakness, or of contempt for ourselves: it is deliberately chosen; the freedom to act as we choose in any circumstances that may arise."

As late as 1905 Great Britain stood practically alone in the world. British isolation was rather enforced than voluntary, and as powerful hostile coalitions directed against this country were always possible, and sometimes actually threatening, there was nothing splendid about this isolation, notwithstanding Lord Goschen's celebrated phrase.

Foreign relations were no longer limited to the European continent. After 1885, foreign ministers were interested, not only in questions concerning dynasties and treaties, but in colonial boundaries, spheres of influence, rights of possession, trade routes and markets, tariffs and tariff treaties. In the great majority of cases, negotiation, agreement, arbitration, and compromise were substituted for wars. In many important crises the powers acted together in common accord, in order to promote peace and to avoid war.

Beginning with the Berlin conference of 1885, the European powers were able to complete the partition of Africa in fourteen years, without war. Though some of the powers, notably Great Britain and France, became involved in disputes that seemed to threaten war, such as the Niger difficulty in 1898, and the Fashoda affair in 1896-1898, yet common sense in the end prevailed, and the troubles were settled peacefully. In 1895 a controversy arose between Great Britain and the United States over the question of the boundary between British Guiana and Venezuela. For the moment the matter looked serious; but Lord Salisbury, aware that the territory was not worth fighting for, consented to submit the matter to arbitration. In October, 1899, a decision was rendered by a board sitting at Paris, and Great Britain received nearly all she had claimed.

The security of Great Britain from European attack rested upon the preservation of the balance of power on the Continent. History showed that each nation which became supreme in Europe — Spain under Philip the Second, France under Louis the Fourteenth and Fifteenth and Napoleon the First — came into collision with Britain. The reason for this phenomenon is obvious. A free English nation residing in an island citadel gave the greatest encouragement to revolt to subject nations on the Continent, and was therefore an ever-present danger to rulers such as Philip the Second, Louis the Fourteenth, and Napoleon the First. Great Britain's security was bound up with the maintenance of the balance of power in Europe, and Brtain must defend that balance of power as determinedly as did her greatest rulers and statesmen—Queen Elizabeth, Cromwell, Marlborough, Chatham, Pitt.

The important Powers on the Continent were divided into two groups: the Triple Alliance and the Dual Alliance. Before Russia's defeat in Asia in 1904 both groups were generally thought to be equally strong. The balance of power was so nicely adjusted that the risk of war seemed too great to both combinations. Peace was secure on the Continent as long as the Continent was divided into two armed camps of equal strength, and England had no reason to fear continental aggression as long as the two antagonistic combinations were absorbed in watching one another.

Up to 1901 British relations with the Powers of the Dual Alliance were very unsatisfactory. With France herself and Russia the British relations were difficult. With the first, war was more than once imminent; with the second it actually took place. Both affairs arose out of the "Eastern Question." The course of events had deprived Russia of the sole "Protectorship" of Turkey, and the French policy under Napoleon I was openly directed towards its conquest. "Constantinople must be either French or Cossack," said Napoleon I. But, as a matter of fact, it had fallen to Great Britain to take the place which her commercial and political interests would not allow to be taken by either Russia or France. She had conquered the Mediterranean at the battle of the Nile; and every day made it more apparent to statesmen that India could not be retained if a hostile Power occupied the Levant. Each year also the enormous responsibility which the possession of India involved was brought more and more home to the British nation by dangerous wars and insurrections.

Since the year 1880 Britian had adopted what is styled a Two-Power standard, initially based upon the strength of the French Fleet alone. It became the ideal in this country to lay down two battleships for every one which was commenced in a French shipbuilding yard. Owing to political exigencies, this formula was not observed, and during the late 1880s, though the strength of the Fleet was undoubtedly increased. From 1889 to 1896 Britain had a Two-Power standard of equality with the navies of France and Russia. And from 1897 to 1905 Britain had a Two-Power standard based on the strength of the French and Russian Fleets, with a margin over of 10 percent, to provide for contingencies in view of the growing power of the German Fleet.

Russia, following her traditional policy in Asia, advanced with sap and mine sometimes from the one side, sometimes from the other, upon the British position in India. Great Britain met with more or less disguised Russian opposition, intrigue and hostility in Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan, Thibet, China, in the Yellow Sea and in the Persian Gulf. Every few years a threatened Russian advance upon India threw the City into a panic. Britain was in a latent state of war with Russia.

Russia, reckoning on the continuance of the British policy of non-interference, repudiated the Treaty of Paris by which the Crimean War had been concluded; but her invasion of Turkey in 1877, which ensued upon that repudiation, was rendered harmless, and even beneficial, by the interposition at the critical moment of Lord Beaconsfield, who did not hesitate to summon troops from India to support the fleet which he had sent to the Bosphorus. The Berlin Conference of 1878 — the last great event of the kind — restrained Russia from assuming the "Protectorate" of the enfranchised States of the Ottoman empire; and as Lord Beaconsfield had previously bought up the greater part of the Suez Canal shares, and obtained Cyprus for a British station in the Levant, he left his mark upon the "Eastern Question" as only second to that of Palmerston.

British relations with France were not much better. Largely owing to the skilful policy of Germany, there was constant friction between France and England in Siam, Egypt, West Africa and Newfoundland, and once or twice Britain was on the brink of war with that France. The naval forces of France were concentrated in Toulon and Bizerta, and threatened demonstratively Malta and Britain's route to the East via the Suez Canal. The largest British fleet had to be kept in the Mediterranean in constant readiness for war. Under these circumstances it was only natural that the sympathies of Great Britain went towards the Triple Alliance.

While Great Britain was inclined to support the Triple Alliance against the Dual Alliance, the Powers of the Triple Alliance were not by any means inclined reciprocally to support Great Britain against France and Russia. An Anglo-Russian or an Anglo-French war, which would have weakened the Dual Alliance, was evidently advantageous to the three central-European Powers, especially to the leading one, the more so if it was long drawn out and exhaustive to both combatants. Why, then, should they exert themselves in England's favor? However, not only could Great Britain not rely upon the active support of the Triple Alliance against France and Russia, but she had to reckon with its possible hostility.

Numerous attempts were made by Germany to arrive at a working understanding with France and Russia in extra-European affairs, and to merge the two European alliances into a single one for action over sea. France and Russia were assured that French, German, and Russian interests were identical. French and German ships and Russian and German ships were frequently seen side by side. The German Government was unwise enough to explain in the Reichstag in very plain terms that the famous Kruger telegram had been sent in order to ascertain whether, under the pretext of defending the independence of the Transvaal Republic, an anti-British coalition embracing the Powers of the Dual Alliance and of the Triple Alliance might be formed, and that the attempt had failed because France had placed herself on England's side.

The joint action of the united French, German and Russian fleets against Japan, which deprived Japan of the fruits of her victory over China, was a practical demonstration of the community of interests and of the solidarity of the two groups of Powers in transmaritime affairs and clearly foreshadowed the possibility of similar co-operation against Great Britain. It is said that another attempt to form a pan-European coalition against Great Britain was made at the time of the South African War, and that the attempt failed in consequence of the personal attitude of the Czar. British statesmen had to reckon with the fact that a better pretext for common action, a change of statesmen in France or Russia, or merely greater skill on the part of the most active Continental statesman, might create a pan-European coalition against Great Britain.

The international anti-British press campaign during the South African War had shown that such a coalition would be very popular. Besides, a partition of the British Empire would have been a more tempting enterprise than a partition of Poland. During a number of years Great Britain was constantly threatened with the danger of having to fight in ' splendid isolation ' against the combined naval and military forces of practically all Europe. The British Empire could be attacked in many parts and in unexpected ways. British statesmen had, for instance, to be prepared for an expedition against India in which Russian weight of numbers would be reinforced by German intelligence, thoroughness, and foresight. The position of Great Britain and her Colonies was, owing to our unskilful diplomacy and consequent isolation, one of constant tension and of extreme insecurity. Chance, not the ability of British statesmen, preserved Britain from a war with all Europe.

In January, 1901, alarming reports began to be circulated regarding the health of the queen; and on January 22, she died at the advanced age of eighty-two years. Never had the death of a monarch aroused such sincere and widespread grief. She had reigned nearly sixty-four years, a very long period, during which she had seen greater changes in the conditions of human existence than had any sovereign who had preceded her. Between 1837 and 1901, the material, political, and social life, not only of England, but of Europe as a whole, had undergone a great transformation. During these years, Victoria had won not only the love and devotion of her subjects, the respect and veneration of the outside world for her nobility of life and character, but also the admiration of statesmen for her sanity of judgment and inflexible honorableness of conduct in politics and diplomacy.




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