British Foreign Policy, 1874-1914: The Role of India

By Sneh Mahajan | Go to book overview

3

In the garb of moral imperatives, 1880-5

In April 1880, the Liberals came to power with an overwhelming majority after a prolonged moralistic and demagogic electoral campaign spearheaded by Gladstone. This success was seen not just as an electoral triumph of Gladstone, but as an electoral triumph of Gladstonian liberalism based on the economics of free trade, politics of liberalism and morality of Christian virtues. Generations of British historians have accepted that Gladstone sought to apply the standards of morality, which would be normal in private life, to international affairs and that this hampered the pursuit of national interests. 1 In Midlothian in 1879, Gladstone had specified his version of the 'right principles of foreign policy'. He defined these as (1) good government at home, (2) cultivating the Concert of Europe, (3) avoidance of entangling engagements, (4) the preservation to the nations of the world the blessings of peace, (5) acknowledging equal rights for all nations, and (6) promoting the love of fredom. 2 An analysis of British foreign policy during his tenure as prime minister, however, shows that these principles were observed more in their breach and that there was a very wide gap between the idealism of Gladstone's words and the realism of his actions.

Under the very first principle, Gladstone made a commitment to devote himself to internal matters. He had criticised the excesses of Tory jingoism and had accused the party of unwarranted emphasis on external policies and neglect of domestic concerns. He was known for his interest in financial and legislative matters. Further, his second tenure in office was bedevilled by domestic struggle over the Irish question. Yet, Gladstone's second ministry remained barren of any achievement in the domestic sphere. The next two principles mainly concerned Britain's relations with European states. His efforts to cultivate the Concert of Europe were not likely to produce positive results when Germany and France were suspicious, Russia uncertain, and Austria and Turkey hostile. Though desirous of avoiding entangling engagements, Gladstone was no apostle of non-intervention. 'He used military and naval force coolly and without embarrassment', comments H.C.G. Matthew, who studied Gladstone's diaries very closely. 3 Every Cabinet that he had sat in since 1843 had despatched a military expedition. 4 The other three principles seemed to be of universal application. But, in reality, 'the blessings of peace', 'rights of all nations' and 'the

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