End of splendid isolation

John Bull map from 1900
John Bull map from 1900

by Dr Jack Binns

A cartoon map of John Bull published in 1900 succinctly summarised the British dilemma of that time. Though their global empire was regarded as the major source of great economic and military power, it also exposed the two little islands to outside international competition and hostile nationalism within. The British Empire had the support of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the Indian sub-continent, but now the Boers were biting Tommy’s khaki puttees and Irish Home Rulers remained a troublesome threat. Great Britain was strategically overstretched: the world-wide predominance enjoyed since Trafalgar and Waterloo was no longer sustainable.

The doyens of British diplomacy, Lord Palmerston followed by Lord Salisbury, assumed that they had no need of allies: only British interests were paramount and permanent. After France’s humbling defeat by the Prussians in 1871, it seemed that Britain’s old continental enemy no longer presented a challenge to the European balance of power; but the French now looked for gains in Africa and south-east Asia to compensate for the loss of Alsace-Lorraine.

Anglo-Russian relations were always tense and sometimes perilous. Even after their defeat in the Crimean war (1853-6), the Russians continued to menace the Turkish “sick man of Europe”. The decaying Ottoman empire blocked Russia’s access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf and it was Britain’s policy to maintain it indefinitely, however obnoxious the regime in Constantinople. In 1878, Turkish Cyprus was acquired as a forward British position in defence of Turkey and soon afterwards the most vital link in the empire, the Suez Canal, was secured by a military occupation of Egypt.

Given these points of friction which brought Britain to the edge of war with both Russia and France in the 1870s and 1880s, the signature of a Franco-Russian military alliance in 1893 was greeted in London with the greatest alarm. Though their pact was a defensive response to the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, it was far from welcome in London. British isolation was now fully exposed.

British departure from their “splendid isolation” was driven, not by the hostile international reaction to the Boer war (1899-1902), but by Russia’s threat to the vast Chinese market. Once millions of Chinese addicts enriched the opium trade out of British Bengal; now the Chinese were Lancashire cotton’s biggest customers.

In 1893 the Trans-Siberian railway, at least single track, had been finished all the way to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast and five years later the Russians seized Port Arthur on the Manchurian shore-line. When the Boxer rising (1898-1901) seemed to presage the complete disintegration of the decrepit Chinese empire, Lord Salisbury agreed to a military alliance with Japan. If either was at war with one power the other would be neutral, but if either had to fight two the other would join in. Both Japan and Britain were now guaranteed against having to face alone the fleets of both Russia and France.

Two years later the Japanese struck suddenly at Port Arthur and then destroyed a Russian fleet sent round the world to relieve it. The Russian colossus had feet of clay: it no longer endangered British interests in the Middle East, the north-west frontier of India or in China. The British had won a decisive war they had not even fought. Renewed in 1905 and 1911, the Japanese alliance became a corner-stone of British defence policy.

As for the USA, Britain now gave way on every dispute that had divided them since the Civil War over Venezuela, Alaska, the Panama canal and finally the Caribbean. American dominance throughout the American continent was conceded. Another possible enemy was wooed into friendship.

During the 1890s attempts had been made by Joseph Chamberlain to forge an alliance with Germany, but no agreement could be reached. Instead, the government turned to the old adversary, France, now weakened by Russia’s setback.

The Anglo-French entente cordiale (friendly understanding) of 1904 fell far short of a military alliance, but it was a settlement of all their outstanding differences throughout the world, in Morocco, Egypt, Madagascar and even over fishing rights off Newfoundland. During the next decade, clumsy moves made by Germany to test and tear apart their entente brought the two closer together.

Finally, the Liberal Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, concluded a similar entente with the Russians in 1907. The two ended long-standing issues that had soured relations. From now on Afghanistan should be under British influence; Persia (Iran) was shared between them; and Tibet was to be left to China. Though the agreement with autocratic tsardom found no favour with the Liberals, the Admiralty was holding secret talks with the Russian navy by the summer of 1914.

In contrast, relations with Germany gradually deteriorated. Now the principal impasse that eventually proved irreconcilable, was neither military, colonial nor commercial: it was naval.

War with the USA, with France or even with Russia was now unthinkable and a war with the German empire was far from inevitable. No one yet could foresee the impending calamity of a general war that would engulf most of Europe and spread across the whole world. In fact, in the summer of 1914 the most likely threat to peace for the British came from Ireland. Here the Ulster Protestants were preparing armed resistance to Irish Home Rule. “Home Rule Means Rome Rule” and “Ulster Will Fight” were their defiant slogans. In 1914 no one was singing “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary.”