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Response to Review no. 198

I would like to thank Dr. Otte for a very thoughtful and intelligent appraisal of my book. I am glad that he found it enjoyable, because it was quite as difficult to write as it must have been to review. What he gently referred to as my controversial views on Chamberlain, Churchill and British foreign policy in the 1930s and 1940s were not, as most of the horde of reviewers at the time seem to have assumed, the product of a desire to court controversy, but rather (unfashionable as it may be to admit to this in RAE year) the product of a long while teaching classes on British and International diplomacy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and an even longer period poking around in archives. The problem with this process is that it is apt to lead to the posing of awkward questions and the production of answers which fail to fit the received version. This, I used to think, was called writing history, but I have since gathered that it is actually called revisionism. The positions taken up by Churchill and Chamberlain in the 1930s were the product of history and of their reading of that history, and having written extensively on their actions, it seemed only reasonable to explore the roots from which their attitudes sprang. This was where the book acquired the tripartite structure which gave Dr. Otte food for thought.

That it is the victors who write history is a truism. This was true, in spectacular fashion, of Churchill and the 1930s and 1940s, and I have tried to say something more about this theme in a forthcoming edition of the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society. It was, however, equally true of the mod and late nineteenth century for the topic of ‘Splendid Isolation?’ Although the House of Stanley played the leading role in Conservative politics for more than twenty years and a prominent one for more than thirty, the story we have is one dominated by a Disraeli-Cecil axis. This derives partly from the episode which dominates part one of the book, and I am glad that Dr. Otte finds the rehabilitation of the fifteenth earl of Derby convincing. But it also derives from a series of historical accidents. Disraeli benefited from one of the finest official biographies of the early twentieth century. Moneypenny and Buckles six volumes remain a ‘quarry and a classic’; that he should also have been the subject of possibly the finest modern political biography, Robert Blake’s ‘Disraeli’, shows that the old boy’s luck has been as phenomenal posthumously as it was in his life time. Much the same thing can be said of Salisbury. His daughter’s four volumes, alas unfinished, remain essential reading (as Andrew Roberts has recently reminded us); now Andrew Roberts has provided a compelling modern portrait. As for the Derbys, next to nothing. The relationship between the fourteenth earl and his heir meant there was no proper Victorian life and times. The fifteenth earl fared even less well. He left no children and his relationship with his brother and his family, to whom the title passed, meant there would be no biography, not even a pot-boiler. In the absence of any voice from Lancashire, the Disraeli-Cecil version passed, and still passes, for history rather than as the case for the prosecution. Modern scholarship has, until late, failed to provide a more balanced picture. Robert Blake was, alas, prevented by other duties from writing a biography of the fourteenth earl, and although Angus Hawkins has produced articles and a book offering mouth-watering insights into the thought and activities of the fourteenth earl, we still await the biography that will restore some sense of perspective on his place in history. The fifteenth earl too has begun to stir. The chance discovery in 1974 of his diaries for the period after 1858 provided Professor John Vincent with the opportunity to begin setting that part of the historical record straight. My work would have been impossible without his brilliant edition of the diaries, and I owe much to his kindness in answering my questions about Derby. But even here, the course of true scholarship has hardly run smoothly, and there is something badly wrong with a profession where the ephemeral can find vast funding for cyberspace and an edition of such important diaries cannot find a publishing house to back it. I have never quite known what OUP and CUP think their relation to scholarship in the modern world is, an opinion which, to judge from their publishing policies over recent years, they share. It is to be hoped that even at this late hour some publisher will undertake an edition of the final section of the diaries in a form which will not excise much that will interest scholars.

But, as Dr. Otte spots, in rescuing Derby from what (had the phrase not already been used by a master) might be called the massive condescension of posterity, I stumbled on what may or may not be a mare’s nest. The notion that Derby represents an ‘authentic’ Conservative tradition, that of the ‘Country Party’ is, as Dr. Otte correctly notes, not fully worked out. He hints, in a kindly way, at one reason – pressure of space. Even controversial historians published by general publishers have to keep to some sort of word limit, and having tested to the limit my publisher’s patience by producing a book very different to the one he had thought he was going to be producing, prudence suggested reining myself in. Here, as elsewhere, the merits of prudence as a guide are debatable. I suspect Dr. Otte is right to think that it owes much to Aberdeen, but also, despite his reputation, to Castlereagh. There is much to explore here and it is keeping me and the odd research student or two gainfully employed. Professor Michael Bentley has entered a note of caution here, reminding me that Derby’s attitude may have derived from his family’s Whig background, but on investigation this appears even less likely than my working hypothesis; we shall see.

Given Dr. Otte’s own work on Salisbury I was pleased to escape relatively unscathed on that subject, and delighted that he found the portrait a realistic and persuasive one. I take his point about not construing Salisbury’s success as a sign of the strength of his position, and I tried not to do so. Salisbury presented problems with which the book could only deal in passing. The portrait that emerged from the events of the late 1870s showed a ruthless political operator who was prepared to switch positions when it suited his purpose; a pragmatist who thought that any policy, even the wrong one, was preferable to none at all; and a practitioner of the black political arts whose skill commanded respect – and some fear. But in office he was often guilty of the very sin for which he had chided Disraeli in 1880, that of myopia and failing to provide his Cabinets with a lead. The reasons for this are not the obvious ones – they seldom are with Salisbury. The myopia was not, one suspects, his own. Harold Macmillan once described the fruits of office as those of the Dead Sea, echoing Salisbury’s own remark about power having passed from the aristocracy to an uncertain destination. One of the things the Great Eastern Crisis had shown him was the debauched nature of the popular taste when it came to foreign affairs. I should have liked Dr. Otte’s opinion on this part of the book, but it will hardly do to complain that a long review is not even longer.

Put briefly the argument is that there is a reverse side of the coin to Dick Shannon’s description of the public mood of the 1876 showing the high-water mark of Victorian sensibility. The Jingoism of 1877-78 which did for Derby showed what the careers of Palmerston and Canning had already foreshadowed, which is that it was not only in Continental Europe that nationalism could take a virulent turn. To Derby’s evident surprise Disraeli’s reckless dismissal of the Berlin Memorandum in 1875 received acclaim from the Press and public opinion. Every xenophobic move made by the Prime Minister brought him greater support from opinion outdoors, which had its effect on opinion indoors. Salisbury benefited from this in 1878; it hamstrung him for the rest of his career. Once the public had tasted the ‘fleshpots’ they would not give them up. What we could do with is more work on Salisbury and public opinion. Indeed more work on Salisbury’s diplomacy in the 1880s would, as Dr, Otte has shown, throw up interesting interpretations of what might be called a revisionist nature.

I suspect that copping a ‘guilty as charge’ plea to the allegation about treating ‘international problems as some sort of unwelcome intrusion’ in the orderly course of British politics might be a prudent move, were it not for the fact that at one level that is exactly how most British politicians regarded them; in that sense the book tries to reflect a contemporary sensitivity. But it won’t quite wash, not least because if it stopped there it would probably mean a guilty plea to more serious charges such as underestimating the threat Germany posed to Britain in the early twentieth century. Just how much of a threat was Germany and when did she become one?

When Dr, Otte questions whether Grey was truer to the spirit of the Entente than Lansdowne he treads on thin ice. To assume that the spirit was what it became under Grey is to fall for the myth, propagated first by Grey, that 1904 marked a caesura in British foreign policy. That came in 1905 with the advent of Grey himself. To Dr. Otte’s statement that the events in the Far East in 1905 changed the balance of power in Germany’s favour one can only riposte that that was not how Bulow appears to have seen things. Lansdowne’s flexible and intelligent diplomacy had settled the problems with France caused by Gladstone’s actions in Egypt. Of course he had been greatly aided by France’s fear of Germany and of the consequences of a Russo-Japanese war, but all diplomats need luck; the mark of a good one is how he uses it, and Lansdowne passes with flying colours. (If such metaphors are still to be allowed). But Lansdowne, like Salisbury and Balfour, was, whilst well aware of the unpredictability of Germany’s leadership, not prepared to abandon her as a possible diplomatic partner; Grey, for all his rhetoric to the contrary was.

Niall Ferguson’s reminder of how vulnerable the German ruling elite felt by 1912 chimes with my own interpretation of German policy. By 1909 Bulow’s World Policy had brought Germany no rewards and much distrust. Of course German policy was aggressive, but that aggression was not aimed solely, or even (after 1912) mainly at Britain. One reaction to German policy was to behave as Salisbury had in the 1890s and as Lansdowne did before 1905, to live with it, prepares Britain’s own defences, and to negotiate a way through diplomatic difficulties; another was to align with France and Russia and, by implication, take German hostility as a permanent given. There was, at this level, a connection between the inept military leadership of the Great War (which revisionists now tell us may not have been that inept) and the inept diplomacy of the pre-war period.

As to contemporary issues, the book concludes in a way that hardly matches my own political proclivities. It suggests that if Europe mattered enough to Britain to sacrifice the position built up over three centuries, it is rather late in the day to be Eurosceptic. It might also have been remarked that the EU may yet, though the democratic deficit we are supposed to deplore, provide a way of short-circuiting the connection between the jingoism of public opinion and jerking knees of democratically accountable politicians. That, however, would be top stray further into the knock-about stuff.

By focussing on what I hope are the serious contributions the book tries to make to diplomatic history, Dr. Otte himself helps contribute to a revival of interest in nineteenth century diplomatic history. That the last major studies of the diplomacy of Castlereagh and Canning date from the early twentieth century, that we lack studies of the diplomacy of much of the 1850s and of the 1880s (at least as far as Salisbury is concerned), and that there is no serious study of Lansdowne’s diplomacy, are all marks of the impact historical fad and fashion. In my own teaching I find no want of interest from students in British diplomacy or in international history. The writings of Dr. Otte, like those of David Brown at Southampton, shows that there is life yet in the old dog, and that Muriel Chamberlain, John Grenville and Frank Bridges have worthy heirs – and provides company for myself and the brilliant but undersung Keith Wilson. Diplomatic history is, contrary to the received wisdom, very much alive.