They called it ‘Splendid Isolation’. Britain’s policy in the latter half of the nineteenth century was to avoid alliances and entanglements with other nations, continental European powers in particular. This coincided with the era of British industrial, economic, financial and military world pre-eminence – the golden era of the British Empire.
I possess a school atlas which dates from shortly before the First World War. Not only does it show the extensive British Empire, it shows a German Empire stretching from East Prussia to Alsace-Lorraine, the Russian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire with Eastern Europe carved-up between them. I have pondered that whoever first bought that atlas probably had no inkling as to the turmoil that would soon throw the continent of Europe, which had been mostly peaceful since the Congress of Vienna, into such turmoil and change.
Of course, Britain always maintained a certain level of involvement in world politics to protect her interests and our dominance couldn’t last. Countries like the US and Germany were catching up economically and Britain saw Germany in particular as a threat. In 1902 we finally conceded that we could not maintain the naval two-power standard and signed a treaty with Japan against Russia in the Far East.
1904 saw the symbolic abandonment of isolationism from continental politics and arguably a disastrous change in British foreign policy direction with the signature of the Entente Cordiale with France – the first act in a century of involvement in continental European politics which dragged Britain from being the greatest power in the world – the land of Magna Carta and the Mother of parliaments, which had forged its own course highly successfully since the Reformation – to a subject territory of an undemocratic bureaucratic centralist European superstate.
When I was studying A-level history, a frequent exam question was “What were the causes of the First World War?” or a variation thereof. One was expected to answer by setting out the various different explanations given by different historians as to what the war was about – incredible that no one seems sure considering the scale of the resulting death and suffering.
There had been several episodes in the tit-for-tat rivalry between France and Germany: Napoleon had invaded and brought down the Holy Roman Empire – the Germans felt humiliated. Bismarck had annexed Alsace-Lorraine in Franco-Prussian War – the French felt humiliated. If there was another skirmish between the two, it really wasn’t Britain’s business and it would probably be over in a few months. Tragically that’s not how history played-out.
The British Foreign Office had this thing about the ‘Balance of Power in Europe’. We wanted to stop Germany from becoming the dominant power in continental Europe. We signed-up to a system of alliances which meant that the assassination of the Austrian crown prince by a Serbian led to all the great powers of Europe stumbling into war like a bunch of dominoes. It led to the deaths of almost a million young British men and those of several million more soldiers of other European nations – a tragedy of incomprehensible scale.
We got our US cousins involved to overcome the trench war stalemate. So began the eclipse of Britain as the world’s greatest power and the emergence of the one which would dominate the world until the present day.
The granting of universal suffrage and the reduction in the gap between rich and poor which followed the war was a good thing, but Britain was noticeably less confident and more modest. Then of course came the Great Depression.
World War Two is almost universally regarded as a justified war to stop the evil of Hitler. It is unlikely however that the fanatical Nazis would ever have come to power in an advanced society like Germany had it not been for the punitive terms imposed by the Allies at Versailles, followed by the impoverishment of middle-class in the hyper-inflation caused by the Weimar governments’ printing of money to pay the extortionate war reparations.
Everyone has seen the harrowing films of the liberation of the concentration camps. However we need to remind ourselves that Britain and France did not declare war on Germany to save the Jews and other minorities. Most people, not unreasonably, did not want another war like the First World War. Chamberlain and the French sold out the Czechs at the Munich conference without even inviting them. (We may have forgotten, but the Czechs haven’t.) It was only when Hitler went back on his word and invaded Poland that Britain declared war. Again, it was about the ‘Balance of Power’.
During England’s darkest hour, Churchill mortgaged our future to the US to persuade them to bail us out. The Americans drove a hard bargain (for more detail I refer you to Robert Stevenson’s excellent article on this site 20th November.) Britain emerged from World War Two nominally having won, but exhausted and diminished – literally reduced to rubble with her people living in austerity and rationing. We were allowed to pretend we were still a great power, with seats on international bodies and the A-bomb, but we were forced to relinquish our empire and the Suez Crisis demonstrated we could not act without America’s say-so.
Even during the consumer and cultural boom of the 1960s, British industry was outdated, propped up by the government and dogged by strikes. Economically we incurred persistent balance of payments deficits and were forced to devalue sterling. By the 1970s, with oil shocks, the 3-day week, leftist radicalism and decadent youth culture, many Brits saw their country going down the pan.
The political establishment was desperate for Britain to join the EU club as a new stage to play on now we had lost the empire. As with NATO, the Americans saw the purpose of the EU as to “keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down” and wanted to see the UK in as a counterbalance. De Gaulle inadvertently did us a favour with his “non” initially, but Heath was determined to sell us out. As part of the backroom deal to join the EU, Britain allowed lucrative business contracts to go to the French. As well as wads of cash, we handed over our fishing waters, we subsidised French farmers through the CAP, funded moving our industries offshore, burdened our businesses with a huge amount of over-regulation and enacted OJEU public procurement directives under which it is illegal to give preference to UK bidders – though strangely only we seem to play by the rules.
Germany is now the dominant power in continental Europe – so over a century of British foreign policy in Europe has failed – and in the process we have diminished ourselves and lost our commanding role in world trade. Still our establishment is determined to keep us in the EU and involved in foreign wars, using phrases like having “a place at top table” or “punching above our weight”.
Now the Brexit vote has happened and the British people have signaled they want a change. The UK is a group of small but industrious islands. There is no reason why we can’t prosper like an economically larger version Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, or even the likes of Singapore – minding our own business, looking after our own people, trading and getting rich.
I now look at that atlas again. Do people now realise the huge changes we are likely to be on the eve of? I know vested interests don’t give up easily though. Let’s hope this doesn’t take another war.