For various reasons to do with ongoing research I have been reading some of the essays in the volume edited by T. G. Otte, The Makers of British Foreign Policy. The first chapter, an introductory overview of the period "from Malplaquet to Maastricht" (a proper acknowledgement of the importance of both those treaties) and written by Professor Otte has this to say among many other interesting matters (p. 12):
The changing political structure of Britain after the extension of the franchise in 1867, moreover, affected the framing and executing of foreign policy. The rising middle class's stringency began to outweigh the aristocracy's traditional appreciation of Europe's significance for British interests, though between Canning and Grey only three Foreign Secretaries sat in the House of Commons. Victorian finance pursued strictly economic ends. Between the Crimean War and the Boer War, Britain's national debt fell steadily. With the reduction in government expenditure, the size and preparedness of Britain's army declined.This raises several interesting points not least that European entanglement was not new to Britain in the twentieth century but it was something that was seen by a growing section of the extended electorate as not being wholly desirable.
The relative insignificance of Britain's armed forces compared with the mass armies of France and Prussia-Germany, and the inapplicability of naval pressure against the dominant Continental powers further restricted Britain's ability to interfere in Europe. The prevailing economizing consensus, indeed, created a mindset that would ultimately contribute to Neville Chamberlain's problems in the late 1930s. The desire of mid-Victorian public opinion for abstention sapped the ability of governments to lead with confidence.
Disraeli (later Lord Beaconsfield) was prepared to challenge that opinion and, if needs be to manipulate it both in his readiness to threaten Russia with a naval squadron and to run rings round it in diplomacy (and that, despite the fact that the Russian Foreign Ministry managed to intercept and decipher most diplomatic telegrams that came anywhere near them or their agents).
It was Gladstone whose policy was beset by ambiguity that has dogged all liberal interventionists ever since, particularly if they wanted to control expenditure. On the one hand, he saw it as Britain's duty to develop an active European policy, on the other hand he wished to eschew Continental entanglements that were liable to cost the country dear and bring no immediately obvious benefits.
A couple of pages later Professor Otte writes:
The underlying problem for British diplomacy at the close of the nineteenth century was that British governments saw European affairs in light of Britain's imperial interests. Continental governments, by contrast, viewed colonial problems in terms of the general great power constellation in Europe.The Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907 was fraught with even more difficulties and misunderstandings (not to mention bad faith on both sides) and was fraying badly by the summer of 1914.
As a result, British diplomacy tended to regard agreements on issues arising from the geostrategic periphery as a means to reduce European frictions, which, in turn, could impinge on Britain's overseas interests. The European powers judged the value of any agreement with Britain by its utility in forcing Britain in taking part in Continental affairs. Thus, Anglo-German alliance talks in 1898 and 1900 - 01 came to nothing and the Anglo-French entente after 1904 was plagued by different interpretations as to the nature and extend of the understanding.
For many of the same reasons I have also been reading a somewhat less satisfactory book by Marina Soroka, Britain, Russia and the Road to the First World War, which does, however, have an interesting comment about the ideas behind diplomacy in that period.
In the 1900s European governments tried to implement their foreign policies without losing sight of two guiding principles. One stated that the "man in the street never cares two damns about foreign politics until he finds himself landed in the wary". The other cautioned that if a government went against the "national feeling" too often or too openly, it might undermined the popular confidence in its foreign policy. How universal these axioms were is obvious from the fact that the first one was expressed by a Foreign Office bureaucrat in parliamentary Britain and the second by the Russian autocrat Alexander III.The two opinions are related though Marina Soroka does not exactly explain how. In general, her book proposes certain theses and then floods the pages with detailed facts and quotations from official and unofficial correspondence, hoping that the theses will find support somewhere in that flood.
While British governments of the late nineteenth century found it difficult to conduct a foreign policy with the electorate more interested in balanced budgets than doubtful European glory, it it also true that by the time of the early twentieth century many diplomats and officials in various foreign ministries found themselves driven to a more aggressive foreign policy than they would have preferred by popular opinion, expressed by the newspapers all too often and by politicians who felt they had to react to that opinion.