Foreign Affairs – the management of relationships with other countries – is perhaps the most important function of government. It takes precedence over defence, because it is always better to solve external problems by diplomacy than by force – force should always be a last resort. Despite its importance, the discipline of rational diplomacy has been sadly neglected in Britain for more than a century – and many of our problems stem from this neglect.
In 1815, Britain emerged from the Napoleonic Wars unquestionably the richest and most powerful country in the world. We were at the peak of our national greatness. For the next thirty years, we had three great foreign secretaries – Castlereagh, Canning and Palmerston – who maintained British dominance and the peace of Europe. Since then, the quality of our diplomacy has declined and Britain has gradually lost her influence and prestige, till we reach the catastrophic situation in which we now find ourselves. The decline of of our national greatness can obviously be blamed on many other factors, including economic ones, but much is due to bad management of foreign affairs. We have forgotten rational diplomacy and allowed ourselves be carried away by illusions.
Britain is an island nation; we have no frontiers to defend. But we are an offshore part of Europe. For three centuries, from the accession of Elizabeth to the mid-nineteenth century, our diplomacy and defence were based on two simple principles. We avoided direct involvement in large-scale continental wars, instead employing our diplomacy and economic strength to prevent any one power or group of powers from excessive domination of Europe. And if, in the end we could not avoid war, we relied on sea power to prevent invasion. The system worked; but we have increasingly neglected it.
Two irrational factors – two dreams – led us astray. Both drew our national attention away from the needs of the island on which we still live – and will always live.
The Imperial Dream
The first factor was an imperial dream. In 1815, Britain had a number of useful overseas possessions, but they were not greatly valued and there was no desire to add to them. We had lost most of our American colonies, but in the process we had got rid of a great deal of trouble and we continued to trade with the United States. The American possessions which we retained – in the West Indies and Canada – we did not much value. The West Indies had brought us great wealth in the eighteenth century, but at the cost of condoning slavery. We were resolved to condone it no longer and we had already prohibited the slave trade. When soon after, we prohibited slavery itself in our colonies, we ruined the economies of those West Indian islands, because they could no longer compete with the sugar producers of the French and Spanish West Indies, who still had slaves. That was a loss we were prepared to bear for the sake of a principle; we paid large sums in compensation to the slave owners.
Did we value our possessions in India? The East India Company had not itself proved very profitable. Many individual employees had made fortunes, but British public opinion had become increasingly aware, since the impeachment of Warren Hastings, that this wealth had not been acquired honestly. Men who came back from India with fortunes were not popular.
There were no other important British overseas possessions in 1815. Yet the Empire which we had then and which we then valued so little, had grown by the end of the century into an Empire in which the sun never set. The colonies of settlement – Canada, Australia and New Zealand – were supremely worthwhile ventures. They were given self-government and forgotten about – until we needed their help in war. But the Empire which we thoughtlessly created in India and later in Africa absorbed our national energy and attention but probably did us more harm than good. In diplomatic terms, it changed the whole centre of gravity of our foreign policy. We forgot about the defence of our island, which was relatively straightforward, but worried continually about India and of the route to India, which were much more difficult to protect. Our obsession with India turned Russia, our natural ally in European terms, our ally against Napoleon, into an enemy, against whom we fought the Crimean War.
Believing in the American Myth
The British Empire has gone. But we have not returned to a rational foreign policy. We have forgotten where we live and fallen in love with a country on the other side of the Atlantic. All countries have national myths and these myths can affect how other countries perceive them and how they perceive other countries. The American myth tells us all that the USA is the Land of Liberty and was founded on a just rebellion against tyrannical British rule. America is cast as the hero, Britain as the villain. Reality was quite different. American liberty derived from British freedom, but had lost touch with its very foundation – equality before the law. The familiar words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” should be remembered, not as an inspiration to lovers of liberty, but as the supreme example of brazen political hypocrisy.
Much of the prosperity of the American colonies, which enabled them to stand on their own feet only 150 years after first colonisation, was based on slave plantations in the South and the slave trade in the ships of the North. One of the principal reasons why the colonies revolted when they did was that there was increasing apprehension among leading Americans that public opinion in Britain was moving against our previous absent-minded toleration of colonial slavery. If Americans had not rebelled in 1776, they would certainly have rebelled when we prohibited colonial slavery sixty years later. Dr Johnson’s comment, well known but not as well-known as it should be, says it all:
“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”
The American Myth was and still is a myth. A myth in which British rule is tyranny and rebellion against British rule is praiseworthy. We in Britain have come to believe in the myth and ignore the reality of American hypocrisy. We have come to believe that what is good for America is good for Britain. Our one-sided love affair with America has led us to forget our little island and our national interest – so that now it scarcely seems possible to talk about a British foreign policy at all.
The world has changed greatly since 1815. But once we have regained our national independence, there is much we can learn from the successes and mistakes of the past.