Britain’s parliamentary system



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Indeed one of Salisbury’s main concerns was to bring Britain out of the isolation into which Gladstone and his colleagues had led her, despite their theoretical devolution to the concert of Europe. Salisbury’s main fear at the time was that a major war would break out in Europe, in which Britain’s imperial possessions would become the spoils of war. Salisbury did not want a full continental alliance to protect against this, and he often used Britain’s parliamentary system as an excuse for avoiding any commitments, claiming that Britain was less free to involve herself in the difficulty of European democracy because any decisions had to be ratified by parliament. “In a country like ours, no absolutely valid engagement could be entered into as to the course to be adopted at a future period . . .

Questions of war or peace must be decided by the parliament of the day”7. Salisbury did not, therefore, enter the alliance system, but kept Britain on the fringes of the Triple Alliance and at moments, especially in 1889, a formal joining seemed possible. Salisbury was reluctant to give Bismarck a “Free hand against France”8 however, and thus never joined. This can be interpreted in two ways: on the one hand, it shows that although Britain had no formal alliances, she was not without support, as she was constantly on the verge of joining the Triple Alliance. On the other hand, the fact that Britain did not join when she had the opportunity just increased her isolation and pushed her even further away from Europe.

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Despite never joining the alliance, Britain still had a need for its protection. French naval power and her continuing rivalry over Egypt threatened British interests in the Mediterranean. Due to this danger, Britain (under Salisbury’s guidance) entered a secret Mediterranean agreement with Italy and Austria. Salisbury even hoped that at some stage British troops could be withdrawn from Egypt altogether, but negotiations for this failed and a continued British presence became unavoidable. In spite of all the difficulties encountered with France, Salisbury still wanted to “Keep friends with France as far as we can do it without paying too dear for it”9.

Salisbury also negotiated the Naval Defence act of 1889 in the Mediterranean, but the adoption of the ‘Two Power Standard’, designed to show off British strength, was a step back from any improvement in relations made with the continent. The Two Power Standard was fundamentally a policy which stated that the Royal Navy was to be kept to a standard of strength equivalent to that of the combined forces of the next two biggest navies in the world.

Historians have used the Two Power Standard to back up their opinion that Britain was isolated. Richard Shannon claims that with the new act, British arrogance that she can ‘Go it alone’ shows her own view that she stands alone away from the alliance systems. However, the historian Andrew Roberts takes a different view. He suggests that with other countries “increasing their naval prowess”10, the Two Power Standard was merely a defensive action. Whichever view is taken, the Two Power Standard is a clear sign of Britain’s isolation as it shows the government was willing to pass legislation that could be conceived as anti Europe.

Since Salisbury had taken over and become the dominant influence in British foreign policy, there was a marked improvement in relations with Russia. The rivalry in central Asia, which led even Gladstone to the brink of war in the Pendjeh incident, was eased by boundary agreements in Afghanistan, though it continued at a less intense level all the way from Persia to China throughout the 1890’s. Turkey, the traditional predicament for Britain and Russia, was decreasing in importance in British eyes, as Egypt was seen as far more important. Salisbury also declared that by 1892, it would be almost impossible to protect Constantinople and British influence in the Ottoman Empire was diminishing. This was all good news for Russia, and relations between the two countries looked promising, until the signing by Russia of the Franco-Russian rapprochement in 1890, which caused relations to deteriorate.

Russia’s new alliance with France gave Salisbury great cause for concern, because due to continuing friction with France in Africa, and Russia’s presence on the Indian Frontiers, the general perception was that Britain would be pushed into the Triple Alliance. However, this was not the case as, in spite of Salisbury’s efforts to remove problems by exchanging territory in East Africa for Heligoland, many tensions still remained with Germany.

These tensions were mainly centred on Africa and the Pacific. The Franco-Russian Alliance created a situation in which the Triple alliance needed Britain more than Britain needed them. However Bismarck’s successors in Berlin acted as if Britain was not needed and she remained isolated. The fact that Britain was needed and would have been accepted into an alliance shows that she was not as isolated as many people think. In contrast, it could be said that the fact that Britain did not enter into alliances when given the opportunity, ensured her isolation. Even though Britain did not join the Triple Alliance she tried to ensure good relations with its members, but because of her vast imperial assets, this was often difficult.

As far as avoiding contact with other nations went, Salisbury could certainly not be considered an isolationist. This can clearly be seen by agreements such as the Mediterranean Agreement signed in 1887. The first Mediterranean agreement was based on Italy’s desire to have Britain as an ally and not an enemy. The French were the main reason for the signing of the Mediterranean agreement, as both Italy and Britain had increasingly poorer relations with her. The British were worried about the increasing rivalry with the French fleet in the Mediterranean and the Italians had problems with France after she invaded Tunis in 1881. An alliance between Britain and Italy seemed, therefore, very probable.

On 1st February, 1887, Count Francesco Corti (Italian Ambassador to London) approached Salisbury with an offer of an alliance against France, which would have benefited both countries. Salisbury declined on the grounds that Britain never promised material assistance when the causes of the possible war were unknown. Instead, a defence act was signed, in which Britain, Austria-Hungary and Italy promised to uphold the status quo in the Mediterranean, Adriatic and Black sea.

The fact that Britain again rejected the offer of another alliance, this time with Italy, shows that Britain under Salisbury could be considered in splendid isolation, if isolation is defined as having no formal alliances. On the other hand, although no formal alliance was signed with Italy, Britain still had Italy’s support through a defence act. This proves that she did not stand completely alone. On 12th December, 1887, a second Mediterranean agreement had been reached, which upheld many of the conditions of the first, but in which new concessions were made about maintaining the peace in the Balkans and respecting Turkish Independence. This again showed that, although somewhat away from the public gaze, Britain had informal allies and was not isolated. However, neither Gladstone nor Rosebery acted in accordance with the agreements, and Salisbury chose not to revive them during his third ministry, 1895-1902. It can be concluded from this that towards the end of the 19th century, Britain’s isolation had increased.

There are many examples which show that Salisbury did not consider himself to be carrying out a policy of isolation: Britain was directly involved in the Bulgarian crisis of 1885; colonial agreements with Germany and Portugal during the 1890’s, and Salisbury also gained better relations with America over the Venezuela dispute. From all this activity, it is clear that Salisbury was not carrying out a policy of detachment from the continent. Also a speech in the annual register for 1878 by Salisbury shows that one of his main concerns was that Britain should not “Confine herself solely to her own insular forces” (for full quote see appendix).

The historian Andrew Roberts certainly does not consider Salisbury as an isolationist. His view is that, “Part of the reason Salisbury was wrongly believed to have pursued ‘splendid isolation’ is because few people knew about the many secret treaties he concluded”11. A good example of this secret diplomacy is Salisbury’s signing of a secret treaty with Spain on 16th March, 1899, in which Britain would declare war on any country that attacked Algeriras. Salisbury new, however, that any attack on Alger�iras would probably put Gibraltar in danger, and thus lead to British action anyway. Even so, Andrew Roberts states that the treaty was, “Hardly the response of a dogmatic isolationist”12. This treaty again shows Britain was not totally without allies.

In any case, between the years of 1885-1902, it can be argued, Britain’s supposed isolation was the result of actual events, not deliberately isolationist foreign policy. During the 1890’s, Britain was involved in a series of incidents with nearly every major power. This showed Britain’s unpopularity and made alliances hard. For example, there was a crisis with Turkey over Armenia in 1896; there were continuing threats of Russian expansion in Afghanistan and Tibet, and the Venezuela dispute with America between 1895 and 1896 ensured poor relations with the U.S. Relations between Britain and Germany deteriorated over the Kruger Telegram and the Fashoda incident in the Sudan brought Britain almost to the brink of war with France. Finally, in 1899, during the Boer war, almost all of Europe’s support lay behind the Boers, who were struggling against the forces of the British Empire. This again did nothing to improve relations with the continent.

From this it can be argued that Britain’s isolation was not through choice. Virtually the only exception for this was Britain’s decision not to enter a formal alliance with Italy in the Mediterranean. Between the periods 1885-1902, Britain, due to its vast imperial assets, was under pressure due to the activity of major European powers overseas and the constraints of the alliance systems in Europe itself. Thus isolation can be perceived as being a symptom of this pressure on Britain, rather than a deliberate set of aggressive foreign policies aimed at maintaining isolation. From this it can be concluded that, be it a symptom or a deliberate action, Britain was indeed isolated between 1885-1902.

If isolation is defined as non entanglement in the major European alliances of the time, then it could be said that under Lord Salisbury from 1885-1902, Britain was indeed in isolation. To an extent Britain’s isolation could be seen as ‘splendid’ as Lord Salisbury successfully navigated between all the players on the national stage, without committing to one or the other. If there was a necessity to form an alliance with others, this was done to maintain Britain’s interests.

Conversely, if there was a need not to become embroiled with alliances, it was also done to maintain Britain’s interests. Consequently, Britain was in ‘isolation’ as it pursued its interest in Europe and its empire. Furthermore, isolation can be seen as a mechanism for pursuing British policy. Britain’s maintenance of the ‘Two Power Standard’ is a prime example of her true intentions in feeling she could still ‘go it alone’. It is, therefore, true to say that Britain was isolated under Salisbury, even though Salisbury considered himself not to be carrying out isolationist policies. The label ‘splendid’ was adopted by politicians of the time to preserve the idea that Britain was in control of a fast deteriorating situation.

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