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How Britain Has Seen Its Place in the World from 1815 to 1955

For more than two centuries, the UK has had two schools of thought in its foreign policy establishment. One believes in engagement while the other in isolationism. Post-Brexit, the latter seem to be in the ascendant.

London. UK- 10.31.2020: a billboard advertisement by the government informing businesses trading with the EU to act before the end of the Brexit transition period. ©Yau Ming Low /

July 17, 2022 12:51 EDT

I have just greatly enjoyed reading Douglas Hurd’s book, Choose Your Weapons: The British Foreign Secretary – 200 years of Argument, Success and Failures.

Hurd has had a distinguished career, which included not only holding the office of the foreign secretary but also of the secretary of state for Northern Ireland. He is an excellent writer who combines historical analysis with vivid sketches of political personalities.

Published in 2009, this book shows how the life experiences and assumptions of successive foreign secretaries influence the content and outcome of diplomatic policies. There is a tension , throughout this long period, between two views of how Britain should conduct itself in its relations with its European neighbors.

The Two Views of Europe

One view was that the UK should seek to create, and participate in a structure of consultation which would help preserve peace in Europe. The best exponent of this approach was an Irishman, originally a member of parliament in the Irish parliament. In 1800, the Acts of Union united the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland (previously in personal union) to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Lord Castlereagh who had begun his political career in Ireland now moved to London, rose to be foreign secretary and helped to ensure that a defeated France was not humiliated in 1815. Arguably his work in the Congress of Vienna and afterwards helped preserve relative peace in Europe until 1914.

While Castlereagh believed in engagement, Lord Palmerston took the view that the UK should be somewhat more isolationist, intervening only to promote liberal causes while avoiding entanglements in Europe. Castlereagh had his supporters and so did Palmerston and, between the two of them, they set the two poles of British foreign policy when it came to Europe.

Forgotten Figures

Hurd shines the light on some figures that are forgotten today or do not get their deserved attention. He highlights the role of Ernest Bevin in helping found NATO, and thereby committing the US to the defense of Europe. Bevin’s efforts are very relevant to events today, and to maintaining the peace in Europe for the last 70 years.

Another figure who gets deserved recognition in Hurd’s book is Austen Chamberlain, the author of the Locarno Pact which reintegrated Germany into Europe and established good relations with its neighbors. This could have kept peace in Europe but for the economic crash and the rise of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. Unlike his half brother, Neville, Austen warned of the danger of Hitler before any other British leader, including Winston Churchill.

Decline of Empire and Changing Role of Foreign Secretary

The relative economic power of Britain peaked around 1870 after which it began to decline slowly. But the fact that so many parts of the world were still colored pink on the map as part of the British Empire led some statesmen to overestimate British power and the power of the foreign secretary.

In the earlier periods, the foreign secretary was in-charge of foreign policy. The prime minister supervised the foreign secretary mildly. Today, the prime minister plays a much more central role in foreign policy. Still, personalities matter and the best example of this phenomenon is Anthony Eden. Under Churchill, Eden was a good and methodical foreign secretary. He turned out to be a bad prime minister because he had no strong foreign secretary to restrain him over Suez in 1956.

If the UK overreached in 1956, it is in danger of withdrawing into its shell in 2021. The country is isolating itself in a dangerous way. The UK is conversing with itself, rather than conversing with its neighbors. None of the statesmen chronicled in Hurd’s book would have let that happen.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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