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Is the U.K. Turning Realist on Foreign Policy?

State of the Union: A new poll highlights the disconnect when it comes to foreign policy.
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Credit: Elizabeth Southerden Thompson Butler

The British debate about an intervention in the American Civil War is fascinating because it skewers every political theory one might be attached to. Consider, for example, that the hero of liberalism, William Gladstone, was interested in supporting the Confederacy and thought southern independence was a foregone conclusion. Charles Dickens, seeing the Lancashire Cotton Famine, was convinced that the war was primarily due to Northern protectionism, a sentiment also somewhat shared by the Economist, which argued (bizarrely, one might add) that the Union victory would continue the institution of slavery, something most British citizens opposed. Incidentally, the people who shared both kinship and class with the landed gentry of the South were the British aristocracy and Tory landowners back in England; most of them had sympathies for their cousins. Robert E. Lee was considered the last true Englishman in America. 

But they were also opposed to any foreign wars and intervention. The New York Times, explaining Lord Palmerston’s neutrality, wrote, “England having no control over the domestic politics of other nations can acknowledge whatever form of Government they please to set up. To refuse to do so, would involve her in endless wars, and ruinous commercial embarrassments.”


Ultimately, with the start of the war, Great Britain did what classical Tory realpolitik dictated: a “declaration of neutrality” in the American Civil War, which immediately bestowed the status of equal belligerents between the Union and the Confederacy while withholding recognized nationhood on the south. This allowed individual Englishmen to take sides in a private capacity with whichever cause they favored, including those who refused to serve Confederates for their association to slavery, and those who ran blockades smuggling goods in and out of the Southern ports blockaded by Union troops. It was a policy which disappointed both sides in the civil war. It was also a perfect strategy. 

Palmerston, the man who vigorously defended British rule in India and sea trade after the Mutiny of 1857, while refusing to intervene both in Schleswig-Holstein and the American Civil War, would have perhaps smiled looking at the recent Unherd poll on British attitudes to foreign policy, and would be mortified at the current British foreign policy elites and their position in Ukraine in particular and the world in general. 

“Eighty years on from D-Day, our headline finding is a clear scepticism towards foreign adventures and an unambiguous focus on British national interest, a view which markedly differs from the prevailing liberal interventionism of past decades”, Freddie Sayers wrote. “This more ‘realist’ option is preferred by overwhelming majorities of Reform and Conservative voters, but is also the preference of people planning to vote Labour, at 45% to 36%. Only Liberal Democrat and Green voters tend the other way, preferring a more idealist foreign policy.” 

The poll is fascinating, to say the least: “Only 15% would consent to their children taking up arms to defend Poland from a Russian invasion, 14% to defend France from invasion, 9% to defend Ukraine from further Russian attacks, and 7% to defend either Taiwan or Israel.”

One can read and interpret the poll in any way they desire. It depicts British foreign policy elites, besotted with the idea of foreign interventions and human rights, totally detached from their taxpayers. It highlights the lack of coherent national identity, which is only formed when a land is under direct foreign attack. It depicts that the average British citizen has no one to voice their opinions in the Parliament. It shows that the majority of average Anglos of all color and creed, just like the majority of Americans, still don’t like foreign intervention unless directly threatened, and are realist by disposition. The old Bilbo Baggins instinct survives within and the post-90s “human rights” edifice is a superstructure that needs to be overthrown. 

It also shows that public opinion is basically impotent, in a system where the liberal elite has informational hegemony and controls the means of propaganda. It demonstrates that the British public understands deep down that going insolvent trying to prop up an unnatural order all across the world is neither prudential or sustainable or realist. It shows that liberalism is increasingly a perpetual proto-Trotskyist war across the globe to maintain something unnatural, and the majority would rather be a reactionary realist. It also shows that maybe there’s hope after all. Tory realism lives in the land that gave the world “splendid isolation” and “divide and rule.” 

Lord Derby, explaining Lord Canning’s foreign policy, wrote that “it is the duty of the Government of this country, placed as it is with regard to geographical position, to keep itself upon terms of goodwill with all surrounding nations, but not to entangle itself with any single or monopolizing alliance with any one of them; above all to endeavor not to interfere needlessly and vexatiously with the internal affairs of any foreign country.” 

There’s no need to reinvent the wheels in order to formulate a new grand strategy, one only needs to look back to history. Maybe it is time to bring back the very prudent strategy of “declarations of neutrality” in ethno-conflicts that in no way directly affect England or America geographically or strategically—and crackdown on those foreign interests seek to drag us to war, whether in far corners of Europe or the sand pits of the Middle East.