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

By Sneh Mahajan | Go to book overview
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In this age of empire, Britain did not perceive any threat to its own security or integrity from any country. There were only a few fleeting and groundless invasion scares from France. Russia was certainly perceived as a rival throughout, but it lacked a strong navy and was therefore not in a position to pose any threat to Britain. Germany's decision to build a navy did create apprehensions centring on the security of the British Isles. But the British government and people showed determination to maintain their superior position and were able to do so.

At the beginning of the period covered in this work Britain possessed territories and interests in every part of the globe. In Britain's empire, the Indian Empire was unique due to its vast scale and human and material resources. Ever since parts of India passed under the British during the second half of the eighteenth century, the issue of control over the empire in India was regarded as non-negotiable. The British people at all levels looked upon the possession of India as a very important constituent of the identity of their nation as a great power. Policy makers remained conscious that India was not just a piece, or even the king or queen, on the diplomatic chessboard and that, whatever the costs and risks, the Raj had to be maintained. During 'the age of high imperialism', in which the dominant perception was that empire was desirable, that it conferred great benefits, in fact greatness itself, on a nation, it was taken for granted in Britain as well as in all European countries, that loss of India would be a great blow to Britain. On this issue, the empirical evidence is compelling. In fact, when centrality of the Indian factor in determining Britain's diplomatic and strategic priorities is taken note of, it becomes easier not only to place Britain's relations with other European states in their proper perspective but also to understand how Britain's imperial designs came to be tacked on to the Near East, the Middle East, Africa and South-East Asia.

The continuance, on the continent, of peace, status quo and balance of power served Britain's interests perfectly. Such a situation provided not only security to Britain but also ensured that the British were left in unmolested enjoyment of their vast and splendid possessions. They did not gain anything by being quarrelsome. Salisbury's oft-quoted comment, 'whatever happens will be for the worse and therefore it is in our interests that as little should happen as possible' expressed this basic truism. 1 But, in this respect, two points have to be borne in


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