It is possible to identify a number of consistent aims and objectives in British Foreign Policy in the period between the end of the French Wars and the death of Lord Palmerston: 1815 to 1865. These principles are as follows:

Maintenance of the peace in Europe

This was not altruism on the part of Britain but the result of important considerations. There was a great 'war-weariness' throughout Britain and also in Europe. The French Wars had lasted for twenty-two years and throughout that time, only Britain consistently opposed the French. Other European nations had been defeated by the French armies and/or had signed peace treaties with them. The people of Britain remembered the effort that had been made by the country during the French Wars; also the wars had cost Britain £600 million. Other — and perhaps more important --considerations related to Britain's economic situation. Britain depended on trade for survival. Her colonies provided raw materials and a ready market for Britain's manufactures, invisible earnings — banking and insurance — provided vast amounts of incoming cash. These things invariably suffered in wartime so Britain wanted to see that diplomacy was the first weapon used. After 1830 Britain was the 'Workshop of the World', needing raw materials to maintain her growing industries and markets for the finished goods. She also needed safe shipping routes. Palmerston said he wanted peace and prestige; he used 'gun-boat diplomacy' as a last resort to clarify Britain's position and to avert a more serious situation.


In 1815, Britain was seen in Europe as the principle agent in defeating France in three ways:

Britain was anxious to enhance her European status after Waterloo: she saw herself as a major force and wanted to 'count for something' on the international scene. Of all the European nations, Britain's political system was the only one that had remained intact throughout the French Wars. Other crowned heads had been removed from their thrones; countries had had their systems of government overturned and replaced, sometimes several times in the period. In Britain, it was felt that only Britain was stable enough to pull Europe together again. Also, Britain had no ambitions in Europe so could act as the 'honest broker'. At the same time, Britain could not afford to distance herself from Europe because of the proximity of potentially huge markets and the fact that continental instability invariably impacted on domestic affairs.

Maintenance of the balance of power in Europe

Britain adopted this principle in an attempt to prevent the domination of Europe by any one Power. In the past and at various times different nations had dominated Europe: Spain, France, and Austria-Hungary in particular. The Treaty of Paris in 1815 and the settlement agreed at the Congress of Vienna ensured that there were no obvious winners or losers from the French Wars. Britain wanted to maintain the status quo of 1815. Britain also wanted to balance constitutional regimes against autocracies. In 1815 more territory in Europe was controlled by autocratic rulers than by constitutionalists, therefore wherever possible, Britain encouraged the spread of constitutionalism, especially in littoral countries: Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece. [A 'littoral' country is one that has a coastline]

Cautious containment of France

Britain wanted to contain France through co-operation with the other Powers. This was a priority in 1815 and was a policy that was shared by all other European nations. Later it became a British prejudice under Palmerston, who failed to see the rise of Prussia. Britain was almost paranoid about possible French expansionism, whether it was diplomatic, territorial or through influence. Britain tried to keep France pinned down within her borders because France was seen as the most dangerous nation in Europe. This policy towards France was rather limited and was maintained for far too long: by about 1850 the Foreign Office was virtually blind to the rise of Prussia, which was a greater threat to the peace and stability of Europe than France. Bismarck and Prussia were able diplomatically to hoodwink Britain

A policy of cautious colonial expansion

This was an example of the Foreign Office being 'in tune' with the Department of Trade. There was no suggestion of 'British imperialism' as yet — imperialism has strong overtones of ideology and politics as motives for the acquisition of territory, such as the 'Scramble for Africa'. The early Nineteenth Century saw the growth of British overseas possessions for bases and markets, or as an extension of influence, for example in South Africa or the Far East, through the extension of trade. Britain needed to expand the markets for British goods and also to develop more sources of raw materials.

This was carried out by the

A market-conscious foreign policy developed as the Industrial Revolution speeded up because of the increased need for cheap raw materials and overseas markets, but not as imperialism, because imperialism costs money and therefore becomes a liability.

A consciously naval policy

The navy was Britain's trump card, and foreign policy was dominated by the Royal Navy. British power and prestige was strongest in areas that the navy could reach. Often, British success in diplomacy can be gauged by the use of the navy. Sea power was very important and the Royal Navy was the right hand of the Foreign Office, although secondary to diplomacy: the use of the navy was not necessarily aggressive.

A conscious promotion of constitutional states in Europe

Britain wanted to help other nations to have constitutions similar to that of Britain, but wanted it especially in the littoral states such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece. Britain helped with advice and even militarily on occasion. Britain's aim in doing this was to help to develop her own trade. It was thought that constitutional governments would have similar outlooks and ideas, and would be easier with which to negotiate. Britain also

By 1865 Britain had played a major part in setting up constitutional monarchies in almost every European littoral state from Belgium to Greece. These countries provided a barrier to central and eastern European autocracies. Also, the Foreign Office considered trade and income for Britain by using the physical support and presence of the fleet and army or by utilising her diplomatic influence to encourage constitutional governments. Britain, as the most democratic state in Europe, was generally tolerant towards Liberal Nationalism and had sympathy for the aims of the Liberal Nationalists. After 1832, Britain was even more democratic, following the passing of the Reform Act; by the 1850s, as the idea of a second Reform Act began to develop, Britain had even more empathy towards Liberal Nationalism.

Britain had an increasing sensitivity towards Russia and the 'Eastern Question'

Turkey — the 'sick man of Europe' — got weaker and the 'Russian bear' became more of a threat in the Straits and the Mediterranean. British sensitivity was enhanced because of economic reasons: trade in the Mediterranean and the overland route to India was threatened by Russia's interest in Turkey. This eventually led to the Crimean War.

Maintaining the integrity of the Turkish Empire

This was 'part and parcel' of Britain's increasing sensitivity towards Russia and often involved restraining Russian attempts at expansion into the Ottoman Empire. However, supporting the Sultan did run the risk of producing a weak, reliant Turkey. Britain's sensitivity over the Eastern Question increased in the Nineteenth Century because India became more important, especially for cotton goods. Britain's trade routes had to be protected: the Suez Canal was not opened until 1869. As conflicting aims between Britain and Russia grew, so did the likelihood of hostility. The alliance of 1815 degenerated into the enmity of 1853.

Britain's most important aims in foreign policy were

  1. a determination to keep the peace in Europe
  2. to pursue policies helping trade

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Last modified 30 April 2002