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"Splendid isolation" was the foreign policy pursued by Great Britain during the late 19th century, especially under the Conservative Party premierships of Benjamin Disraeli and Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury. The term was coined by a Canadian politician, George Eulas Foster (1847-1931), to praise Britain's minimal involvement in European affairs. Historians have debated whether this policy was intentional or forced upon Britain by contemporary events. Some, such as John Charmley, have argued that splendid isolation was a fiction for the period prior to the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894, and that the policy was reluctantly pursued thereafter. Edward Stanley, 15th Earl of Derby enunciated the policy avant la lettre in 1866 when he was foreign minister:
It is the duty of the Government of this country, placed as it is with regard to geographical position, to keep itself upon terms of goodwill with all surrounding nations, but not to entangle itself with any single or monopolising alliance with any one of them; above all to endeavour not to interfere needlessly and vexatiously with the internal affairs of any foreign country.
Origin of the phrase
As descriptive of British foreign policy, the phrase was most famously used by Lord Goschen, First Lord of the Admiralty, during a speech at Lewes, Sussex, on 26 February 1896: "We have stood here alone in what is called isolation – our splendid isolation, as one of our colonial friends was good enough to call it." The phrase had appeared a few weeks earlier in a headline in The Times, on 22 January 1896, paraphrasing a comment by Canadian Finance Minister Foster (1847–1931) to the Parliament of Canada on 16 January 1896: "In these somewhat troublesome days when the great Mother Empire stands splendidly isolated in Europe."
The ultimate origin of the phrase is suggested in Hamilton's Canadian Quotations and Phrases, which places the Foster quotation beneath a passage from the following paragraph in the introduction to Cooney's Compendious History of Northern New Brunswick and Gaspé describing the country's situation in 1809–1810 during the Napoleonic Wars:
In the midst of this terrific commotion, England stood erect: wrapt up in her own impregnability, the storm could not affect her: and therefore, while others trembled in its blast, she smiled at its fury. Never did the 'Empress Island' appear so magnificently grand; – she stood by herself, and there was a peculiar splendour in the loneliness of her glory.
Foster may have read the 1896 reprint of Cooney's history; as a professor at the University of New Brunswick, he would certainly have had access to the original 1832 edition. Thus, Britain's isolation during the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the 19th century appears to have been the inspiration for the naming of its foreign policy at the end of the century.
During the late 19th century, Britain's primary goal in foreign policy was to maintain the balance of power in Europe and to intervene if that balance was upset. Its secondary goal was to protect its overseas interest in the colonies and dominions, as free trade was what kept the Empire alive. The sea routes to the colonies, especially those linking Britain to India (via the Suez Canal), were vital.
The policy of 'splendid isolation' is perceived to have been characterised by a reluctance to enter into permanent European alliances or commitments with the other great powers and by an increase in the importance given to British colonies, protectorates and dependencies overseas in an era of increasing competition in the wider world, a situation that had been relatively unknown since Britain's conflicts with France during the eighteenth century.
After the unification of the German Empire in 1871, Bismarck sought alliances with other European powers to prevent France's revenge. Successful alliances began with the Dreikaiserbund and Dual Alliance, 1879. The Triple Alliance was formed in 1882 with Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy.
The rise of Germany in both industrial and military terms alarmed Britain, but there was an appreciation by British policy makers that under Bismarck the country was largely a status quo power. It was not until Germany's naval aspirations developed under Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz in the years following Bismarck's fall that Whitehall became especially alarmed. After the Triple Intervention in China, leading politicians, such as Joseph Chamberlain, questioned the policy of remaining free of formal alliances. On the other side of the world, the Triple Intervention also deeply humiliated the Empire of Japan, which also realised that a strong ally in Europe was needed for the world to recognise its status as a power.
At the core of Salisbury's policy was a desire to avoid war with another great power or combination of powers and thus ensure that Britain's lines of communications with its empire remained secure. The main threat of war came from Russia, and there was concern that it would seize Constantinople and the Straits (the Dardanelles) between the Turkish Peninsula and Europe, and threaten Britain's communication to India, something which Britain had almost gone to war with Russia to prevent during the Great Eastern Crisis from 1875 to 1878.
Still, the British seizure of Egypt in The Anglo-Egyptian War 1882 changed the situation. Over the next few decades, as attempts to get out of Egypt on favourable terms failed, the focus on the Dardanelles declined. Nevertheless, the maintenance of the status quo in the Mediterranean was hugely desirable for Britain and the result was the First Mediterranean Agreement with Italy and Austria-Hungary, by which they pledged to act in concert with each other in times of crisis. The Second Mediterranean Agreement, concluded on 12 December 1887, was even more specific in its aims, though it still had no binding agreements, which meant that it did not need to be laid before Parliament.
The importance of these agreements was that Salisbury was able to align British policy with that of Germany without having to enter a formal alliance. Through them, he was able to maintain an understanding with the German Chancellor, Bismarck, to solve mutual problems, with Bismarck being a useful counterweight to French meddling in Egypt, and Britain being a useful ally of Austria-Hungary. Thus, Bismarck did not have to choose between his two allies, Russia and Austria-Hungary, when they were at odds in the Balkans. The policy broke down with the fall of Bismarck and the increasing alarm at the unstable behaviour of the new German Kaiser, Wilhelm II. With rising German hostility and naval expansion and the Dual Alliance between France and Russia, the result was that Britain's politicians became increasingly concerned with the international situation.
With Wilhelm intent on ending 'Britain's free ride on the coat-tails of the Triple Alliance' and the coalescence of Europe into two power blocs, Britain faced the stark choice of remaining isolated or joining one of the alliances. Britain had come close to war with European powers at the turn of the 20th century. For instance, the Fashoda Crisis in 1898, while a diplomatic victory for Britain, was a worrying situation as had war broken out, it would have had to fight France alone, and there was always the possibility of Russian intervention on France's side. Its small army meant that it would have had to rely on its navy. There was also always the fear of war with Russia over Russian expansionism in Central Asia during The Great Game and also a lesser fear of war with the United States, which opposed a British quarrel with Venezuela over the latter's border with British Guiana.
Some historians argue that Britain's isolation was formally ended by the 1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance. This is disputed by T.G. Otte, who argues that the Anglo-Japanese Alliance actually reinforced Britain's aloofness from the Continent and the European alliance systems. Britain began to normalise its relations with European countries with which it had disputes; the Entente Cordiale and the Anglo-Russian Entente were signed in 1904 and 1907 respectively. The 1882 Alliance System was finally formed in the same year as the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente and is considered an important factor in the outbreak of World War I.
Salisbury never used the term 'splendid isolation' to describe his approach to foreign policy and even argued against its use. It could be claimed that Britain was not isolated during this period, in light of its informal alignments such as the two Mediterranean Agreements, and given the fact that it still traded with other European powers and remained heavily connected with the British Empire. In addition, Salisbury never thought isolation to be 'splendid', as he considered it dangerous to be completely uninvolved with European affairs. As such, much modern historiography now discounts the 'isolation' as a conscious policy
Return of the phrase in the 21st century
The phrase made a comeback in the British media in 2011, when Prime Minister David Cameron vetoed a deal aimed at rescuing the eurozone and resolving the European debt crisis. The European Fiscal Compact conferred rights upon EU institutions to enforce budgetary policy in countries contravening debt and deficit rules, as well as quasi-automatic penalties for delinquents. The UK could have chosen to opt out, instead of vetoing the plan for others. The veto was welcomed by Eurosceptic Conservative MPs who supported the party's traditional stance of "splendid isolation" in Europe.
The phrase was also used in the lead up to, and following, the United Kingdom's Brexit vote to leave the European Union on June 23, 2016. Prior to the vote, the term was used ironically and critically by those wishing to stay in the Union. For example, former Conservative Prime Minister John Major used the phrase dismissively over several months while campaigning for the 'remain' option.
- Causes of World War I
- Historiography of the British Empire
- International relations of the Great Powers (1814–1919)
- Timeline of British diplomatic history
- United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, 2016
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