- Conservatism and British Foreign Policy, 1820–1920: The Derbys and their World ed. by Geoffrey Hicks, and: On the Fringes of Diplomacy: Influences on British Foreign Policy, 1800–1945 ed. by John Fisher and Antony Best
In the histories of nineteenth-century foreign policy the appeasing policy of George Hamilton-Gordon is often contrasted with the bullish and belligerent policy of Henry John Temple, a Tory. In an age of apparent extremes the subtle foreign policy of the Derbys of Knowsley, Lancashire, has often been ignored by historians, with a resultant misrepresentation of foreign policy. Geoffrey Hicks has rectified this omission by editing an important collection of essays on the Derbys. It has been complemented by another collection of essays, edited by John Fisher and Antony Best, which examines broader influences upon foreign policies by exploring the world of prominent individuals: gentlemen’s clubs, public schools, missionaries, the press, and even the bedchamber. Both are pioneering collections and have broadened our understanding of British foreign policy beyond the cramped and confined world of diplomats and foreign secretaries. However, it is rare for the world of diplomats and foreign secretaries to have been so showcased in such an effective two-volume assault upon the traditional limits of foreign policy which, in my youth, richly deserved the epithet of “one damn treaty after another.”
The Derbys from the fourteenth earl, who was prime minister on three occasions and Conservative leader for twenty years, through to the fifteenth who was foreign secretary, the sixteenth who was a Conservative minister and governor general of Canada, and the seventeenth who was twice in the Cabinet and ambassador in Paris at the time of the Treaty of Versailles, were remarkably consistent in their foreign policy [End Page 141] which was more typically Conservative than that of either Benjamin Disraeli or Winston Churchill. Hicks suggests that, “In one important respect the Derbys’ view of the world beyond British shores was very similar to their view of the nation on their doorstep: what mattered was stability” (15). Indeed, that was the case. This meant that the Derbys were concerned to avoid foreign wars, which they felt would damage Britain’s economic and social position in the world. It also meant accepting the new alignments in Europe, even Otto von Bismarck and W. E. Gladstone’s “concert of Europe,” to ensure and protect Britain’s interests in the world (“Bismarck, Gladstone and the Concept of Europe” in Cambridge Historical Journal 12 ). As John Charmley suggests in his chapter “Traditions of Conservative Foreign Policy,” the Churchillian emphasis upon the gloriousness of two world wars was not a view that endeared itself to the Derbys.
Despite the title, foreign policy in Hicks’s volume is remarkably fleeting. Indeed, much of the discussion is about the context in which the Derbys operated their policy of doing nothing to undermine stability. Charmley offers the clearest, least diffident, and most relevant chapter in the book, placing the Derbys in their political context in relation to Conservative foreign policy. His judgment is harsher, but perhaps more accurate, than most of his fellow contributors who feel the need to justify the role of the Derbys in foreign policy. Instead, he argues that the relative quiescence of the Derbys in shaping Conservative (and Liberal) policy toward avoiding war has meant that the bullish and war-mongering policies of Palmerston have persisted in the historical record, even when the three short-lived governments led by the fourteenth Earl of Derby seemed to have been more concerned with peace and stability.
Edward Smith Stanley, the fourteenth earl, is given most attention; four of the nine main chapters are devoted to him. Angus Hawkins outlines his political background, emphasising the ways in which he drew his foreign policies from Castlereagh. Andrew Lambert stresses...