Conservatism and British Foreign Policy, 1820-1920: The Derbys and Their World

By Arnstein, Walter L. | The Historian, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Conservatism and British Foreign Policy, 1820-1920: The Derbys and Their World


Arnstein, Walter L., The Historian


Conservatism and British Foreign Policy, 1820-1920: The Derbys and their World. Edited by Geoffrey Hicks. (Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2011. Pp. xii, 234. $124.95.)

This compilation of essays was inspired by Angus Hawkins and Geoffrey Hicks. In the course of the twentieth century, every nineteenth-century British prime minister received at least one modern, fully documented biography except for Lord Derby. Only in 2007 and 2008 did the Oxford University Press at last produce Hawkins's comprehensive two-volume biography of the Fourteenth Earl of Derby (Britain's prime minister in 1852, 1858-1859, and 1866-1868). By then Hicks himself had completed a closely related work, Peace, War, and Party Politics: The Conservatives and Europe, 1846-1859 [20071.

The introduction and the nine essays that accompany this work are also fully documented, but whereas half deal with narrowly specialized topics, others distill broad overviews, such as John Charmley's "Traditions of Conservative Foreign Policy," and they largely leave out the British Empire. All Victorian prime ministers and foreign secretaries may have seen themselves as promoting the interests of their country, but Lord Palmerston in the 1830s and 1840s was willing to court public opinion actively as he encouraged liberal constitutionalism in autocratic lands such as Russia and Austria as well as the Iberian kingdoms. Analogously, during the 1870s Benjamin Disraeli as prime minister openly sought to enhance Britain's prestige when the Congress of Berlin resolved the Russo-Turkish War. During those same years, his rival, William Ewart Gladstone, appealed to British public opinion to condemn the "Bulgarian Massacres" in the Ottoman Empire and later to denounce a Disraelian policy that focused on British military intervention, which Gladstone described as immoral.

As the leader of the Conservative Party from 1846 to 1868 and intermittently as prime minister, the fourteenth Earl of Derby repeatedly expressed the desire to steer his kingdom out of the vexatious disputes of the continental powers. With a small regular army, Britain had cause to support "a calm, temperate, deliberate, and conciliatory course of conduct" among its European neighbors and to shun a Palmerstonian mood of "meddle and muddle" (27). According to Hicks, during the 1850s Derby sought (at times vainly) to restore concord to the post-1815 Big Five powers by a diplomacy that "was neither showy nor dramatic" (97). If the fifteenth Earl of Derby had proved more ambitious, he would have succeeded his father as prime minister in 1868 rather than as did Benjamin Disraeli. The fifteenth Earl proved, indeed, even less interventionist in approach to foreign policy than did his father, but in the course of his career he did serve in Conservative governments as colonial secretary, Indian secretary, and foreign secretary. Entangled in the Russo-Turkish War negotiations during Disraeli's prime ministry, he resigned in 1878. He left with a battered reputation and remembered as an ineffectual diplomat and his wife, Lady Derby, as a betrayer of cabinet secrets to the Russian ambassador to London.

The two relevant essays differ on the fifteenth Earl's qualifications as foreign secretary: Bendor Grosvenor insists that he merits a more positive reappraisal, but in T. …

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