Inner_cabinet_1878.doc - 1 Whose foreign policy Britain’s ‘inner Cabinet’ and the Eastern Crisis January– March 1878 At the height of the great

Inner_cabinet_1878.doc - 1 Whose foreign policy Britain’s...

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Whose foreign policy? Britain’s ‘inner Cabinet’ and the Eastern Crisis, January– March 1878. At the height of the great Eastern crisis in 1878, so its first chroniclers recorded, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Lord Derby – despite nominally being in office – was effectively replaced by his colleagues in an ‘inner Cabinet’ led by Prime Minister Lord Beaconsfield (better known to posterity as Benjamin Disraeli). According to the story, the Foreign Secretary was left isolated and irrelevant for a two-month period between January 1878 and his final departure from Cabinet in March 1878. This period came at a crucial juncture in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78, a conflict that potentially impinged on vital British interests in the Mediterranean and the Near East. The ‘inner Cabinet’ solidified in the historiography of the crisis and lives on, suitably modified, in recent accounts. Despite its centrality in the British narrative of the Eastern crisis and the startling nature of the claims about a Foreign Secretary being bypassed while in office, no detailed assessment of this alleged development has been published. No historian has considered the full range of evidence relating to the ‘inner Cabinet’ in the foreign policy-making process, including new documents which have emerged from the Derby family archives at Knowsley. Neither has the provenance of the story nor its linkage with domestic electoral politics been thoroughly investigated. This article addresses this gap in our understanding, considering the detailed evidence, locating it in the context of the election campaign of 1879-80 where the story properly belongs, and examining both the Conservative and Liberal utilisation of Derby’s reputation in that campaign. It proposes that there was no ‘inner Cabinet’; it did not exist even in modified form. The story was a by-product of a broader struggle about 1
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party-political identity in foreign affairs, and serves as a useful reminder of the importance of domestic politics in framing the foreign-policy narrative. The fifteenth Earl of Derby was central to the story of British foreign policy in this period. His reputation was an asset at the formation of Beaconsfield’s government in 1874: Derby had served in three previous administrations, including as Foreign Secretary between 1866 and 1868, and his father had been Conservative leader for twenty years. The owner of extensive lands in industrial Lancashire, he brought authority, weight and power to the Cabinet. He was widely expected to succeed as party leader. During the Conservatives’ first years in office, however, tensions emerged between the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. Beaconsfield wanted a more ‘active’ foreign policy of the kind pursued in the 1850s and ’60s by the Liberal Viscount Palmerston. He was unavailing against Derby until, in the wake of Russia’s victory over Turkey in the war of 1877-78, the Cabinet’s pressure to take a belligerent
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