From Castlereagh to Canning: Continuity and Change in British Foreign Policy: Graham Goodlad Assesses the Conduct of British Foreign Policy in the Era of the Congress System

By Goodlad, Graham | History Review, December 2008 | Go to article overview

From Castlereagh to Canning: Continuity and Change in British Foreign Policy: Graham Goodlad Assesses the Conduct of British Foreign Policy in the Era of the Congress System


Goodlad, Graham, History Review


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British foreign policy during the long premiership of Lord Liver pool (1812-27) was dominated by the need to safeguard national interests in the context of the fragile European stability established at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. For the first decade, the conduct of Britain's diplomacy was primarily the responsibility of Robert, Viscount Castlereagh. After his suicide in August 1822 he was succeeded as Foreign Secretary by George Canning. The latter's career was crowned with his appointment as Prime Minister in April 1827, although he was to die after scarcely four months in office.

Traditionally Castlereagh and Canning were seen as pursuing very different policies. Castlereagh evolved a policy of close co-operation with the other European great powers, based upon sympathy with their leaders' conservative political ideologies. Between 1822 and 1827 Canning deliberately broke with his predecessor's practice of diplomacy, distancing Britain from the 'Congress system' of great power collaboration and displaying sympathy for liberal movements in Portugal, Latin America and elsewhere. More recently, however, historians have emphasised the elements of continuity in the two men's handling of foreign policy. They have argued that differences were more a matter of style and presentation than of substance. This article examines the background and personalities of the two Foreign Secretaries. It then considers the ways in which they approached three key policy issues: the maintenance of great power conferences after 1815; the future of Spain and its former colonies in Latin America; and the challenge posed by the outbreak of the Greek revolt against Turkey.

Chalk and Cheese?

It was not surprising that most contemporary comment focused on differences between Castlereagh and Canning. They were dissimilar characters, whose rivalry dated back to their membership of the Duke of Portland's Cabinet (1807-09) during the Napoleonic Wars. Canning had served as Foreign Secretary and Castlereagh as Secretary for War and the Colonies. Dissatisfied at his colleague's conduct of military operations, Canning had manoeuvred to have him removed from office. The episode culminated in the grim farce of a duel between the two men, in which Canning was slightly wounded, and contributed to the collapse of the ministry. When Lord Liverpool formed his government in 1812, Castlereagh was prepared to surrender the Foreign Office to Canning. The latter's ambition led him to refuse unless it was accompanied by the leadership of the House of Commons. As a result Canning stayed out of office until 1816, when he returned in the less important role of President of the Board of Control, the minister responsible for Britain's Indian Empire.

The public personae of the two men were in marked contrast. Although well respected in high political circles, Castlereagh never enjoyed the regard of the wider public. He did not trouble to communicate his policies to a popular audience and he came across as cold, polished and unemotional. As Leader of the Commons at a time when the government faced a number of challenges to public order, it fell to him to defend repressive measures designed to curb the forces of radical protest. In the Masque of Anarchy, for example, the poet Shelley luridly depicted him as tossing human hearts to accompanying bloodhounds. Even his funeral was attended by a hostile demonstration.

The characteristics that drew down on Castlereagh the condemnation of radical writers also ensured that he was appreciated by members of the British political establishment and by leading conservatives abroad. He built upa network of connections in the foreign ministries of Europe through his highly personal style of diplomacy. By the time of his death he had been working with his continental counterparts for a decade. He had joined with them in securing the downfall of Napoleon and in the work of restoring order and stability after the French Wars.

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