Splendid isolation is a period in British diplomacy between 1885-1902 when the government adopted a policy of isolation rather than forming alliances or close diplomatic ties with other powers. This notion has been associated with Salisbury’s rule as he dominated British Foreign policy for nearly twenty years. However, the extent to which this was a policy rather than a fact has been questioned by historians. It could be seen as a continuation of British policy since 1815 which was dominated by a desire to remain detached from alliances with the major continental powers. Therefore it is questionable why this period deserves special recognition.
Furthermore, it can be seen from Salisbury’s actions and opinions that he favoured alliances, but did not want to conflict with the nationalism so prevalent in British society. Therefore, whether Britain’s diplomatic policies were isolationist or indeed splendid, needs to be addressed. By 1895, Europe was dominated by two major alliance systems. One of these was the Dual Alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary which came about in 1879.
This later became the Triple Alliance with the inclusion of Italy in 1882. The main aim of the Triple Alliance was to isolate France, since Bismarck saw France as Germany’s biggest rival. Bismarck even managed to secure relations with Russia with the Reinsurance treaty of 1887. However, Bismarck’s successors, although continuing the Triple Alliance, let relations with Russia slip. As a result of this, Russia formed a new alliance with France: the Franco-Russian Alliance. The main aim of this alliance was that both countries would protect each other in the event of a German attack. The Franco-Russian Alliance thus created two rival groups of powers on the continent of Europe.
With Europe’s main powers all involved in alliances, Britain seemed somewhat isolated. Although Britain did have some links with Europe, like the Mediterranean agreement, drawn up with Italy in 1887, by the time of Salisbury’s third ministry (1895-1902) many had not been acted upon and were lost. Thus Britain can be said to be isolated due to the fact that she remained out of the major political alliances her European neighbours were so keen on.
Historians have contrasting views on whether staying out of the two alliance systems actually made Britain totally isolated. Some historians like Andrew Roberts, refers to Goschen’s speech at Lewes February 26th 1896 (for the full quote see appendix), in which Goschen defends Britain’s foreign policy. Andrew Roberts view is that Britain “Stood to gain little”1 from entering the alliances and although remained out of them formally, was not totally without support from European powers. In contrast, other historians like Richard Shannon, hold the view that; Britain’s isolation was “sealed” when she chose not to participate in the alliance system, claiming “Britain’s position of isolation”2 was apparent due to the major European powers attitude towards her.
In his speech at Lewes on 26th February 1896, Goschen, First Lord of the Admiralty, commented about Britain’s state of isolation, declaring that when Britain was in trouble, “I do not believe we should find ourselves without allies”3. However, that same year, he made another speech stating, “Our isolation is not an isolation of weakness; it is deliberately chosen”4 (For the full quote by Goschen see appendix).
Goschen’s speeches can be considered as reliable as they are primary sources that reflect opinion at the time. However, the content of his speeches may have been sensationalised because the audience at the time is likely to have been quite nationalistic as it was a period of growing international rivalry. The two speeches seem to contradict each other on the subject of isolation, and therefore taken together, both provide arguments for and against Britain being isolated in the period 1885-1902.
The attitude of many politicians at the time, 1885-1902, was that Britain’s freedom should be maintained and that she was strong enough to stand alone. Campbell-Bannermann emphasised the importance of maintaining Britain’s “Freedom of individual action”5. Many thought that equilibrium had been reached in Europe and that British interference would be dangerous. In any case, the need for any involvement on Britain’s part was regarded as unnecessary because the European alliance system was mainly defensive. Salisbury himself thought that it made more sense for Britain to involve herself in the European alliance system when imperial and maritime interests could gain from it. From this it can be concluded that Britain’s isolation was far from complete, since she chose not to enter into the alliances herself. Salisbury’s view that an alliance would be sought when British interests needed one shows that Britain’s outlook to the future was not one of total isolation.
In March, 1898, Joseph Chamberlain remarked “Isolation or at least non entanglement in alliances”6 had been British policy for years. If isolation is defined as “Non entanglement in alliances”, then it can be said Britain was indeed truly isolated. Since the congress of Vienna, Britain has followed a policy of detachment form the continent, and with few exceptions, has made alliances only in wartime.
In 1898, however, Britain could be considered in a state of isolation extending far beyond non entanglement in alliances. This is shown by the attitudes of many European powers towards Britain. On 29th December, 1895, Jameson launched his renowned raid on the Transvaal. By the 2nd January, the raiders were caught in a trap and were forced to surrender. After their capture, the Kaiser of Germany telegraphed his congratulations to President Kruger for preserving the independence of the Transvaal and for capturing the raiders.
The Kruger telegram came as a big insult to Britain and acted as a symbol of defiance towards her, which showed exactly how she was regarded by the European powers. This contemporary attitude of the continental powers towards Britain provides a strong argument for her being isolated. In addition this was followed subsequently by events in the Far East and Sudan in 1898 which further proved Britain’s isolation.
Lord Salisbury remained the dominant influence in British foreign policy for nearly twenty years. As Prime Minister and head of the Foreign office, then obviously foreign affairs were central in his rule. With his cynicism about democracy, he preferred an area of political activity that was normally rather separate from the public gaze, but at the same time, he was fearful that the impact of emotional public opinion would make the conduct of rational diplomacy virtually impossible. Salisbury was often criticised by the Radical and little England wing of the Liberal Party for his fondness of secret diplomacy. Although this secret diplomacy could explain why Britain entered no highly publicised alliances, it does not prove that Britain was Isolated.