The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 3

By William Roger Louis; Andrew Porter et al. | Go to book overview

15
Defence and Imperial Disunity

PETER BURROUGHS

Safeguarding a global Empire posed British governments with intractable problems and agonizing choices throughout the nineteenth century. In addition to balancing the often-conflicting demands of home defence, protection of scattered colonies against external aggression and internal lawlessness, and security of the interconnecting routes and communications, policy-makers had to decide whether these imperatives should be treated separately or knitted together in a seamless strategy of 'Imperial defence'. Whatever the preferred approach, they had to determine the respective roles of army and navy amidst much inter-service rivalry. Finance was also central, and frequently decisive: the adjustment of unavoidable commitments and acceptable funding, the distribution of costs between British and colonial taxpayers, the desire of politicians and public for defence on the cheap. Seeking to juggle these various elements, British governments successively pursued three different 'strategies'. In the years after 1815 military garrisons overseas commanded priority (Map 15.1), with home defence and the Royal Navy taken for granted. From the late 1840s the perceived threat of a French invasion kindled doubts about the navy's ability to guarantee insular security and encouraged concentration on 'fortress' Britain, secured by fortifications and troops brought home from colonies of settlement, now vested with self- government and self-reliance. By the late 1870s another pattern began to emerge, one which sought to integrate Britain and colonies into an overall strategy of Imperial defence, although the navalist bias towards sea power and centralization operated against such a design.

This diversity of response reflected in large measure the variable climate of international relations and changing contemporary assessments of the dangers threatening Britain and its world-wide interests. Until the 1870s British industrial and naval supremacy was enhanced effortlessly by the absence of serious challenge from other nations. During this 'peculiar interlude', retrenchment and disengagement could be pursued without jeopardizing security. Thereafter, the rise of industrializing foreign competitors with colonial ambitions altered the international context. British ministers and their professional advisers responded

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