Monday, 7 May 2018

What were British foreign interests between 1793 and 1841?

In the fifty-four years before 1793, Britain had fought three major wars with France lasting some twenty-three years. Britain could not ignore France and the threat to European security posed by the expansion of the French Revolution. Lord Auckland declared in Parliament in 1799: ‘The security of Europe is essential to the security of the British Empire’.

What strategies underpinned British foreign policies between 1793 and 1841? Contemporaries identified blue-water or maritime and continental policies. Colonial expansion was in Britain’s economic interest and colonial wars were fought largely for wealth, raw materials and markets. Britain lost the American colonies in 1783 but had already gained Canada and Newfoundland with their furs and fisheries. She was dominant in the Caribbean with its sugar and cotton and in India and was opening trade links with China. However, the key to Britain’s security lay in its continental policies.

Since the loss of Calais in 1558, Britain had no realistic territorial ambitions on the continent. However, her security from invasion and her continental markets meant that Britain needed allies in Europe and be prepared to aid them with subsidies and with force. By doing this, she prevented French expansion especially into the Low Countries where Britain had important interests. The Low Countries provided routes and markets for her exports and the harbours of the Scheldt estuary provided an enemy with invasion bases north of the Straits of Dover. For Pitt, continental markets seemed especially threatened and it was to save Holland that the British government entered the war in January 1793. A balance of power in Europe was central to British foreign policy. It was a necessary for expansion overseas and trade in Europe, and for security at home including security from subversive ideas.

There were important respects in which Britain’s history in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries differed from continental experiences. By the 1790s, Britain was already well advanced industrially and commercially. Economic and population growth meant that Britain was increasingly dependent on international trade for both food and industrial raw materials. Britain had no large army but to protect trade routes Britain felt that she must be supreme at sea. What Britain regarded as the pursuit of a vigorous trading position was seen differently by foreigners. To them it was downright aggressive.

Economic change in Britain had resulted in social transformation, in particular the emergence of an articulate middle-class public opinion. Castlereagh recognised as early as 1820 that public opinion could not be ignored. Canning and Palmerston made conscious efforts to woo and direct public opinion by the publication of the documents explaining their policies and by a judicious use of the press. Public opinion was, however, frequently uninformed, prejudiced and xenophobic. It was firmly convinced of the superiority of Britain and its institutions to other countries in the world. This enabled both Canning and Palmerston to appeal to public sympathy when acting in defence of ‘constitutional states’.

Contemporaries liked to see Britain as the greatest power in the world in the first half of the nineteenth century. This is clearly an overestimation. Commercial interests often compelled Britain to assume a role in the world which politicians did not always seek but in terms of the continent she was always only one among five great powers: Britain, France Aus­tria, Prussia and Russia.[1] It was the ‘balance’ between these five powers that dominated much of Britain’s foreign policies. This ‘Concert of Europe’ became an important concept in the course of the nineteenth century. Initially it meant the coalition against Napoleonic France but gradually it came to define the permanent relationship between the great powers.

Its development and acceptance was, however a slow process. It frequently reverted to being a coalition for specific purposes. In the 1820s, when the government of most Euro­pean countries was in the hands of conservatives, the Concert tended to be the means through which the status quo was maintained. This attitude brought it into conflict with the growth of nationalism. Austria, Russia and Prussia certainly had a more interventionist view of the Concert that Britain. They wished to use it as the basis for the defence of the whole existing structure of society and of ‘legitimate’, by which they meant ‘Conservative’ authority. Britain could agree with this position when it came to the containment of France and was quite prepared to support the Bourbon restoration in 1814. However, the principle of legitimacy did not have the same ideological appeal to the British government as it did to the other European powers. In fact, all the great powers were prepared to depart from the principle when it conflicted with other national interests or ambitions. British statesmen believed that the Congress of Vienna had created a desirable territorial ‘balance of power’[2] in Europe and that peace could be preserved as long as no power threatened it. Conse­quently, there were no permanent blocs of power in this period. France sided with the Eastern Powers over Spain in 1822 but with Britain twelve years later. Britain sided with Russia over the Eastern Question in 1840 but with France against Russia in 1854. All British governments found it inconvenient to seek allies. It was more flexible and more valuable to support a ‘balance of power’ policy in Europe and participate only when that balance seemed threatened by an actual or potential aggressor from among the Great Powers. Pragmatism and the specific interests of the great powers rather than adherence to a particular ideology marked foreign relations after Waterloo.

As far as Britain was concerned, the Congress of Vienna defined the limits of her continental ambitions and, while a general peace was maintained, British trade could expand unhindered. Britain was quite prepared to see the Vienna Settlement altered if its basic aims were still fulfilled. In the 1830s, Britain was prepared to see an independent Belgium as long as its neutrality was guaranteed. Palmerston would have liked to see Austrian influence removed from Italy so long as French ambitions did not fill the political vacuum. By 1841, he clearly regarded some parts of the 1814-1815 Settlement as obsolete but he, like his predecessors at the Foreign Office, did not adopt a ‘revisionist’ approach to European affairs.

British foreign policy throughout the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been criticised for being pragmatic, as it was not based on any long-term ideological or systematic considerations. It is, however, possible to identify two gene­ral principles that did underlie the actions of successive Foreign Secretaries: security and trade. These tended to be implicit in policies, underlining and on occasions determining action. Pitt, Castlereagh, Canning and Palmerston all accepted that they had a responsibility for ensuring that British trade could be carried on throughout as much of the world as possible without interference. Free trade was not simply an economic dogma. It was also seen as a means of achieving international peace. Destructive economic competition--a prime cause of war--would be replaced by trade for mutual advantage.

There was an essential continuity between Britain’s foreign policy before and after 1815. The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars did not induce Britain to abandon the balance of power, though it sought to eliminate melding and ineffectiveness. William Pitt provided the foundations for this development in the plans he made for peace, guidelines put into practice by Castlereagh and Canning. Pitt planned for a concert among the Powers to provide a more effective system of European security, with a new distribution of power in order to contain future French aggression and a guarantee between the Powers to maintain it.

[1] The ‘Great Powers’. These were regarded as Britain and France (the ‘Western powers’ with their systems of government based on constitutional monarchies) and Russia, Austria and Prussia (the ‘Eastern powers’ with systems of government based on the absolute power of the ruler).

[2] Balance of power. Contemporaries believed that if the power of the leading states in Europe was ‘balanced’ then expensive and unnecessary wars could be avoided and peace maintained.

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