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Title: British 'liberal internationalism' in retreat : the Channel Tunnel controversy and the Naval Defence Act, 1880-1894
Author: Keeling, Peter Michael
ISNI:       0000 0004 7659 7421
Awarding Body: University of Kent
Current Institution: University of Kent
Date of Award: 2018
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This thesis considers the decline of idealistic 'liberal internationalism' within British politics between the Liberal election victory of 1880 and the final resignation of William Gladstone as Prime Minister in 1894. It argues that by this latter date British political attitudes towards international relations had dramatically changed. Where once policymaking was directed with reference to British power and the progress of peace, by the 1890s government decisions were driven by an assumption of British weakness and foreign strength, with sudden, unprovoked and unforeseen war a constant concern. In its conclusion, the thesis explains how this changed environment eventually forced the unrepentant optimist Gladstone out of office by his refusal to endorse Britain's continuing involvement in the European arms race. In charting these developments the thesis identifies a trinity of themes which brought about the liberal internationalist collapse. These were (1) the anxieties about British vulnerability here termed 'defence pessimism'; (2) the politicisation of the armed forces' officer corps; (3) the manipulation of 'public opinion'. Building on the work of military, naval, social and intellectual historians, the thesis deconstructs many of the foundations upon which the narrative of British defence and foreign policy during this period has been built. British vulnerability is shown to have been largely a myth, generated by 'alarmists' within the British armed forces themselves, in their quest for a larger defence budget; meanwhile assumptions about popular support for the 'anti-internationalist' policy shift of the 1890s are challenged with an analysis which argues that public opinion was misrepresented or ignored in favour of the alarmists. Throughout, these three themes are contrasted with the inability of the liberal internationalists to respond to the anti-internationalist attacks, with the conclusion that the defeat of the former ideology was reflective of a wider malaise within contemporary liberal thought and organisation. These themes are examined in detail in the two case studies which make up the bulk of the thesis. The first is a study of the 1882 Channel Tunnel attempt, which was cancelled after the War Office whipped up a media 'scare' over fears of French invasion. Unlike previous histories of the nineteenth-century Tunnel this study provides a balanced account of the pro-Tunnel case, framing its defeat not simply as a victory for Francophobic defence pessimism but also as a decisive defeat for liberal internationalism. In the first in-depth look at the state of 'public opinion', the study, challenges the established narrative of overwhelming and popular opposition to the Tunnel borne of British 'insularity', revealing substantial support especially among working class organisations. The second study looks at the genesis and passage of the 1889 Naval Defence Act, which formally established the Royal Navy's 'two-power standard'. It is commonly believed that the Act was the result of a popular 'navalist' campaign for naval increases and that it enjoyed widespread support both in and out of Parliament. This study completely rejects that assessment, and instead shows how the navalists' success relied not on public support, but on pessimistic hyperbole, a misrepresentation of the strength of the Navy and a lacklustre political response. In a long analysis of the Bill's parliamentary passage the thesis dramatically reverses our understanding of the Liberal Party's attitude to the Act, revealing that, although disorganised, the Party voted repeatedly against the programme, which was framed by the Conservative government as an explicitly 'anti-internationalist' policy. This new understanding is then applied to Gladstone's 1894 resignation, showing how he became a victim of the 'transformed' politics of national defence.
Supervisor: Connelly, Mark Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral