The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 4

By Judith M. Brown; Wm. Roger Louis et al. | Go to book overview

12

'Deceptive Might': Imperial Defence and Security,
1900-1968

ANTHONY CLAYTON

... the deceptive might of an Empire which continued to expand until 1919 but which cost more to defend than it contributed to national wealth.

(Margaret Thatcher) 1

It is possible to have separate fleets in a United Empire but it is not possible to have separate fleets in a United Empire without having a common foreign policy—the creation of separate fleets has made it essential that the foreign policy of the Empire should be a common policy.

(Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary, 1911) 2

Grey's observation, made to a meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defence at which Dominion delegates to the 1911 Imperial Conference were present, encapsulates the major conflicting themes of Imperial foreign and defence policies up to the end of the Second World War. The conference agreed to give priority to maritime strategy. Even in the early years of the twentieth century, however, tensions were already emerging between Dominion and British policies as well as within the defence establishment itself. Yet in the years prior to 1914, the mismatch between strategy and actual power did not seem to be of fundamental significance. After the First World War the tension became increasingly acute, in part because of shifting Dominion aims.

The menace of Wilhelmine Germany with her High Seas Fleet could clearly be seen as the main danger to the whole Empire. The alliance with Japan in 1902 and the agreements with France in 1904 and Russia in 1907 permitted naval concentration in home waters. The extension of Britain's administration of Egypt into Sinai shielded the Suez Canal. The Agadir crisis of 1911 led to an acceptance of a European continental commitment for the British army. Canada had sounded

____________________
1
Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (London, 1995), p. 5.
2
G. P. Gooch and Harold Temperley, eds., British Documents on the Origins of the War, 1898-1914 (London, 1927-). For a more general examination see D. C. Watt, 'Imperial Defence Policy and Imperial Foreign Policy, 1911-1949: A Neglected Paradox?', Journal of Commonwealth Political Studies, 1 (1963), p. 266.

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