Joseph Chamberlain, Lord Lansdowne and British Foreign Policy 1901-1903: From Collaboration to Confrontation

By Cohen, Avner | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Joseph Chamberlain, Lord Lansdowne and British Foreign Policy 1901-1903: From Collaboration to Confrontation


Cohen, Avner, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


In the Cabinet reshuffle of November 1900 occasioned by Salisbury's ill health, Henry Charles Keith Petty-Fitzmaurice, the fifth Marquis of Lansdowne, was appointed Foreign Secretary. Five years earlier, Joseph Chamberlain, one of the most remarkable and controversial statesmen of the time, had been confirmed as Secretary of State for the Colonies. Between 1901 and 1903, Chamberlain and Lansdowne appeared to be working together in order to reform British foreign policy and both seemed to play a leading role in attempts to release Britain from its political isolation. Scholars who have focused on their collaboration, however, frequently overlook its subsequent transformation into confrontation.(1)

Lansdowne's appointment as Foreign Secretary marked the end of an era in British foreign policy. The conservatism of Salisbury, which had led to British isolation from the continent gave way to an awareness that Britain's withdrawal from European politics had not only failed to enhance its power, but had even weakened the country to an extent which was barely tolerable. At the turn of the century the Anglo-French struggle for the Nile had reached its climax, Russia appeared to be threatening India, Central Asia and the entire China market, and fears of a French invasion at the height of the Boer War alarmed many Britons. In all parts of the world, the British Empire -- both formal and informal -- appeared to be in danger from foreign encroachments.(2)

For some time Chamberlain had argued in favour of a change in political direction, calling for an end to the "splendid isolation" and reaching an agreement with one of the European blocs as the only means of defending British worldwide interests. Although Chamberlain's view was supported by Arthur J. Balfour, the First Lord of the Treasury, it appeared that any implementation of his suggestions could not be undertaken until Lansdowne assumed the leadership of the Foreign Office. Chamberlain and Lansdowne had collaborated to this end on two occasions. The first instance was their attempt to come to an understanding with Germany in 1901, which failed; the second was their successful effort to reach an agreement with Japan in 1902. Between them Chamberlain and Lansdowne had overseen the negotiations in both instances and neither of these endeavours could have been initiated without their backing.(3) Differences about policy had, however, already emerged before the agreement with Japan was signed on 30 January 1902, and these eventually grew to the point where an open break appeared.

The Chamberlain-Lansdowne controversy first revealed itself as early as March 1901, when French proposals for settlements in Morocco and Newfoundland were unofficially submitted to the British government. While Chamberlain responded enthusiastically to these approaches by France, the proposals were rejected by Lansdowne and produced no results at the time.(4) Disagreements between the two statesmen appeared once more in August 1901 about negotiations with Germany over the Yeoman islands.(5) The conflict between Chamberlain and Lansdowne was renewed in January 1902 as a result of the publication of a British proposal of 1898 for Anglo-German cooperation against American policy in Cuba.(6) In December 1902 Chamberlain and Lansdowne found themselves at odds again following the declaration of a belligerent blockade of Venezuela by Britain and Germany.(7) The controversy between the two men was also evident in the negotiations with France regarding the questions of Siam, Morocco and Egypt (1902-03).(8) Finally, in April 1903, the Chamberlain-Lansdowne conflict reached its height, following the submission of the German proposals for British participation in the Baghdad Railway project.(9)

A short time after he had managed to block Lansdowne's attempts to secure the government's approval for the German proposals, Chamberlain resigned his office in the government in order to launch the Tariff Reform campaign.

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