‘splendid isolation’

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‘splendid isolation’. For most of the 19th cent. Britain was diplomatically isolated, in the sense of having what Palmerston called ‘no eternal allies’ to whom she owed favours, except in circumstances where her own interests were affected. The obverse of this, of course, was that no other country owed favours to her. That served tolerably well while she and her European neighbours followed different paths in the world; but growing colonial rivalry between them at the end of the century changed all that. This was the context of Canadian premier Sir Wilfrid Laurier's description of Britain's situation in February 1896 as one of ‘splendid’ isolation, arising, he claimed, ‘from her superiority’. Others at that time were beginning to doubt this. Joseph Chamberlain in particular feared for the future of the British empire if it could not find an ally in Europe, and negotiated with Germany behind his prime minister's back. That came to nothing; but early in the new century Britain did abandon isolation, at least partially, through a treaty with Japan (1902), ‘ententes’ with France (1904) and Russia (1907), and then, of course, involvement in the First World War.

Bernard Porter