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Splendid isolation

Splendid Isolation is a popular conception of the foreign policy pursued by Britain during the late 19th century, under the Conservative premierships of Benjamin Disraeli and the Marquess of Salisbury. The term was actually coined by a Canadian politician to praise Britain's lack of involvement in European affairs. There has been much debate between historians over whether this policy was intentional or whether Britain was simply forced into the position by contemporary events. Some historians, such as John Charmley, have argued that Splendid Isolation was a fiction for the period prior to the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1892, and only something forced on them against their will following it.[1]


Origin of the phrase

As descriptive of British foreign policy, the phrase was most famously used by Lord Goschen, First Lord of the Admiralty, during a speech at Lewes, Sussex, on February 26, 1896, when he said: "We have stood here alone in what is called isolation -- our splendid isolation, as one of our colonial friends was good enough to call it." The phrase had appeared in a headline in The Times a few weeks earlier, on January 22, 1896, paraphrasing a comment by Canadian Finance Minister George Eulas Foster (1847 1931) to the Parliament of Canada on January 16, 1896: "In these somewhat troublesome days when the great Mother Empire stands splendidly isolated in Europe..."

The ultimate origin of the phrase is suggested in Robert M. Hamilton's Canadian Quotations and Phrases: Literary and Historical (Hull, Que.: McClelland and Stewart, 1952), which places the Foster quotation beneath the following passage from the Introduction to Robert Cooney's Compendious History of New Brunswick, published in 1832: "Never did the 'Empress Island' appear so magnificently grand, -- she stood by herself, and there was a peculiar splendour in the loneliness of her glory." Foster began his career as an educator in New Brunswick,[2] where he would certainly have had access to Cooney's history. Thus, the elements of, and the sentiments underlying, the phrase appear to have originated in colonial New Brunswick during the reign of William IV, approximately 64 years before it became known as a catch-phrase for British foreign policy.


During the late 19th century, Britain's primary goal in foreign policy was to maintain the balance of power in Europe and to intervene should that balance be upset. Its secondary goal was to protect its overseas interest in the colonies and dominions, as free trade was what kept the Empire alive. The sea routes to the colonies, especially those linking Britain to India (via the Suez Canal), were vital.

The policy of 'Splendid Isolation' is perceived to have been characterized by a reluctance to enter into permanent European alliances or commitments with the other Great Powers and by an increase in the importance given to British colonies, protectorates and dependencies overseas in an era of increasing competition in the wider world, a situation relatively unknown since Britain's conflicts with France during the eighteenth century.


After the unification of Germany, Bismarck sought alliances with other European powers to prevent France's revenge. Successful alliances began with the Dreikaiserbund and Dual Alliance, 1879. The Triple Alliance was formed in 1882, the signing countries being Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy.

The rise of Germany in both industrial and military terms alarmed Britain though there was an appreciation by British policy makers that under Bismarck the country was largely a status quo power. It was not until the naval aspirations of Germany under the guidance of the German Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz in the years following Bismarck's fall that Whitehall became especially alarmed. After the Triple Intervention in China, leading politicians, such as Joseph Chamberlain questioned the policy of remaining free of formal alliances. On the other side of the world, the Triple Intervention also deeply humiliated Japan, which also realised that a strong ally in Europe was needed for the world to recognise its status as a power.

At the core of Salisbury's policy was a desire to avoid war with another great power or combination of powers and thus ensure that Britain's lines of communications with its Empire remained secure. The main threat of war came from Russia and there was concern that she would seize the Straits and Constantinople and threaten Britain's communication to India, something Britain had almost gone to war with Russia during the Great Eastern Crisis to prevent. Despite this, this seizure of Egypt in 1882 had changed the situation and over the next few decades, as attempts to get out of Egypt on favourable terms failed, the focus on the Straits declined. Nevertheless, the maintenance of the status quo in the Mediterranean was hugely desirable and the result was First Mediterranean Agreement with Italy and Austria-Hungary by which they pledged to concert with each other in terms of crisis. The Second Mediterranean Agreement, concluded 12 December 1887, was even more specific in its aims, though it still had no binding agreements which meant that it need not be laid before Parliament.[3]

The importance of these agreements was that Salisbury was able to align British policy with that of Germany, without having to enter a formal alliance. Through them he was able to maintain an understanding with the German Chancellor, Bismarck to solve mutual problems, with Bismarck being a useful counterweight to French meddling in Egypt, and Britain being a useful ally of Austria-Hungary, thus meaning Bismarck did not have to choose between his two allies, Russia and Austria-Hungary, when they were at odds in the Balkans. This policy broke down with the fall of Bismarck though and the increasing alarm at the unstable behaviour of the new German emperor, Wilhelm II. With rising German hostility and naval expansion, and the Dual Alliance between France and Russia the result was that Britain's politicians became more concerned with the international situation.

With Kaiser Wilhelm intent on ending 'Britain's free ride on the coat-tails of the Triple Alliance'[4] and the clearer descent into two power blocs Britain faced the stark choice of remaining isolated or acceding to one of these alliances. Britain had come close to war with European powers at the turn of the 20th century. For instance, the Fashoda Crisis in 1898, while a diplomatic victory for Britain, was a worrying situation as had war broken out, she would have had to fight France alone, and there was always the possibility of Russian intervention on France's side. Because of her small army, she would have had to rely on his navy. There was also always the fear of war with Russia over Russian expansionism in Central Asia (see The Great Game and also a lesser fear of war with the United States, who opposed a British quarrel with Venezuela over the mutual border with British Guiana.


Britain's isolation was formally ended by the 1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance. Britain began to normalise its relations with European countries that it had disputes with, and the Entente Cordiale and the Anglo-Russian Entente were signed in 1904 and 1907 respectively. The Alliance System was finally formed in the same year as the Triple Alliance and Triple Entente, and is considered an important factor in the outbreak of World War I.[5]

Salisbury never used the term to describe his approach to foreign policy, and even argued against its use. It could be claimed that Britain was not isolated during this period owing to her informal alignments such as the two Mediterranean Agreements as well as the fact that it still traded with other European powers and remained heavily connected with the Empire. In addition, Salisbury never thought isolation to be "splendid" as he considered it dangerous to be completely uninvolved with European affairs.[6] As such much modern historiography now discounts Splendid Isolation as a conscious policy choice.


  1. Charmley 1999.
  2. Wallace 1933, pp. 17-22.
  3. Charmley 1999, pp. 222-223.
  4. Charmley 1999, p. 228.
  5. Hamilton 2003, pp. 16-17.
  6. Roberts 2001, p. 6.

See also


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