Why Bew why now?
John Bew’s biography of Robert Stewart (generally known as Viscount Castlereagh, the courtesy title he held most of his adult life) was published ten years ago, which raises the very reasonable question of why it is being reviewed on a website whose mission statement is to review recently published history books. I don’t have a particularly good excuse for that, except that it has been sitting on my book shelf for almost as long and needed reading. In my defence I would note that the author (Professor in History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London) recently joined the Number 10 Policy Unit as Boris Johnson’s foreign policy advisor and was involved in drafting the British government’s ‘Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’, published earlier this year. So I thought now would be a good opportunity to review his ‘magisterial’ (in other words, very long) biography of one of Britain’s most famous and influential Foreign Secretaries and, perhaps, get an insight into the thinking of someone at the heart of formulating Britain’s post Brexit foreign policy strategy.
Most of Castlereagh’s adult life was spent at the forefront of Irish and the British politics. Entering the Irish House of Commons at the age of 21 in 1790 he was, with some brief interludes, intensively engaged in politics until his death in 1822 at the age of 53. As Chief Secretary for Ireland between 1798 and 1801, he was instrumental in the suppression of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the Act of Union in 1800. As Secretary of State for War and the Colonies between 1807 and 1809, he expanded and modernised the British Army, promoted the career of Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) and provided crucial political backing for Britain’s vigorous engagement in the Peninsula War. As Foreign Secretary and leader of the House of Commons (with the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, sitting in the House of Lords) between 1812 and 1822 he was at the forefront of British politics and was the face of the British government in the Commons and, in many respects, to the wider public. In that period, he was frequently mooted as Liverpool’s natural successor on the numerous occasions when Liverpool considered, and then decided against, stepping down. It was in the role as Foreign Secretary that he did most to cement his lasting reputation, with the author stating that:
‘with the exception of Palmerstone, it is hard to think of a Foreign Secretary in British History who has exercised more influence on the international stage‘.
Castlereagh assembled international coalitions to defeat Napoleon, twice, in 1814 and then again in 1815 and helped to put in place the so-called ‘Concert of Europe’ that endured until 1914. Academics debate about whether the international system he helped forge was durable or brittle, but in his defence it should be noted that Europe avoided any war on the scale of the Napoleonic Wars until World War One.
John Bew’s book gives significant attention to the earlier stages of Castlereagh’s life and career in Ireland and how these contributed to the development of his political outlook. I suspect this is where his scholarship builds and expands on previous histories of Castlereagh, with the typical focus being on his last ten years as Foreign Secretary (although the latter is also comprehensively covered in this book). John Bew (who is himself of Northern Irish background) concedes that Castlereagh will never be forgiven by the Irish for his role in the suppression of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the Act of Union in 1800, but does a lot to explain the complexities and nuances of these events and Castlereagh’s role in them.
Castlereagh was Irish, born in Dublin to an Irish Presbyterian family and raised surrounded by Enlightenment ideas and values. His own family was associated with the Whigs and those pushing for reform of the British controlled Irish government. Castlereagh started his career in a similar fashion and was naturally associated with the reforming faction within the Irish House of Commons. However, the French Revolution was a turning point in his political mindset, as with many others. Many Irishmen were drawn to its revolutionary ideals. Castlereagh travelled to the continent on multiple occasions in the 1790s to research what was going on for himself, and what he saw and heard made him increasingly concerned by France’s descent into violence and tyranny. As with other Whigs, most famously Edmund Burke, Castlereagh became convinced that Britain should not pursue a similar path. It was fear of revolutionary France using Ireland as a platform for an invasion of England that coloured British policy to Ireland in the 1790s, and Castlereagh helped the Pitt government put down the Irish rebellion in 1798 and to achieve union in 1800. For these acts Castlereagh was never forgiven, tarnished as a turncoat and a murderer of those rebels hanged in 1798 (although, in fact, Castlereagh pushed for clemency for some of them).
One of the things I had not fully appreciated before reading this book was the extent to which much of the framework in which we are accustomed to view modern Irish political struggles is misleading in the Ireland of the late eighteenth century. At that time, political debates were fought principally between different groups of Protestant aristocrats. The Irish Catholic majority were, in comparison, politically peripheral. John Bew makes a convincing case that the Irish Catholic hierarchy may have been tentatively open to the idea of union with Britain, on the basis that it would be accompanied by state support for the Catholic Church in Ireland and Catholic emancipation. The latter was inconceivable at the time for the separate Irish parliament (where Catholics would have formed a majority) but might be envisaged in the larger British parliament. Lord Castlereagh was unable to formally link union and emancipation because of the opposition of Protestant political elites in the Irish House of Commons and, once Union was achieved, George III was instrumental in blocking Catholic emancipation. Castlereagh remained a supporter of expanding voting rights to Catholics throughout his life, but was unable to push it through in his lifetime. This lead to the charge that his support was disingenuous (with a similar argument made about his support for abolition of the slave trade), but John Bew links his approach (to both emancipation and the slave trade) to his broader political style, which was collegiate, pragmatic and cautious; a style of politics well suited to diplomacy but perhaps less so to pushing through contentious measures of this sort. Catholic emancipation was finally achieved in 1829, seven years after Castlereagh’s death.
The case for the defence
A running theme of the book is an analysis of the way that Castlereagh was perceived, both by contemporaries and by subsequent observers. It is clear that Castlereagh was, and to an extent remains, a contentious figure. We have already touched above on the way he is remembered for events in Ireland in the earlier part of this career. But Castlereagh was also the target for virulent political abuse after his career moved to London, from both radicals and the Whig establishment. Whigs saw Castlereagh as an unprincipled defector from his earlier political home, with his subsequent association with Pittite Tories. There is also a sense that Castlereagh’s approach to politics and international affairs, based above all on realism and pragmatism, run counter to the Romantic spirit of the day, and it is notable that two of his fiercest critics were Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. Even in his own political home, his style of politics never sat easily with the High Tory Anglicanism of poets such as Coleridge and Southey.
John Bew assesses the particular criticisms levelled at Castlereagh on a case by case basis and gives them a fair hearing. Overall, John Bew comes across as an admirer of Castlereagh and his contribution to British politics, but his approach seemed to me relatively even-handed, and on numerous occasions he concedes where he thinks criticism of Castlereagh was legitimate.
An intellectual lightweight?
One respect in which John Bew does a lot to defend Castlereagh is against the charge that he lacked intellectual depth. Castlereagh was mocked mercilessly by contemporaries for his periodic verbal slips and mixed metaphors in the House of Commons. The impression John Bew gives of the political culture of Georgian England is not particularly flattering; he paints a vivid portrait of Whig grandees tittering to themselves on the opposition benches, passing around slips of paper with Castlereagh’s latest confused metaphor, as Castlereagh stoically waded through hours of intense debate in the Commons. This contributed to the impression that Castlereagh was an intellectual lightweight, but he was probably just not a very good public speaker. In the earlier parts of the book, John Bew shows how Castlereagh’s background immersed him in the Enlightenment thinkers of his day and shows how he engaged with many of those ideas and then applied them to his own political philosophy. However, Castlereagh was not given to intellectual ostentation, and tended to couch arguments in pragmatic rather than theoretical terms, a style of argumentation that was, as with so much about Castlereagh, out of sync with the spirit of his day. A later admirer, Lord Salisbury, agreed, believing that his legacy was stunted by his failure to coin phrases and create his own lexicon of political discourse.
Political violence in Georgian England
One of the strengths of the book is that it paints a convincing picture of the political scene in early nineteenth century Britain and Europe. I was struck by just how combustible British politics was at that time. We tend to think of politics now as polarised, with arguments about Brexit, the co-called culture wars, and over-zealous students throwing statues into rivers. But it all starts to seem a bit tame once you read what was going on in Regency London. Castlereagh and Canning fought a duel to settle their differences; London mobs were frequently whipped up into bouts of politicised frenzy by rabble rousing radicals and Lord Castlereagh was often physically threatened, at one point abandoning his London home to sleep in his office because of the threat from fans of Queen Caroline (who the King was trying to divorce, with Castlereagh’s help). In 1820 there was a plot by radicals to assassinate the entire cabinet whilst they had dinner together, the intention being to display their decapitated heads on Westminster Bridge as a signal for national uprising. On finding out about the plot in advance, Castlereagh’s preference was for the cabinet to ambush the assailants themselves and fight it out, but sadly for history the police intervened. Castlereagh himself was the target of vitriolic verbal abuse his entire political life and afterwards, with Lord Byron’s reaction to Castlereagh’s suicide being to recommend pissing on his grave.
Castlereagh as diplomat
Lord Castlereagh is probably most well-known today for his post-Napoleonic foreign policy, particularly at the Congress of Vienna and the re-establishment of the Bourbon monarchy in France within its pre-revolutionary boundaries. In the short term Castlereagh successfully navigated the tensions among Britain’s coalition partners, all of whom were seeking territorial gains or to expand their sphere of influence following the aftermath of the war (with the exception being Britain, which actually gave up colonies taken from France during the war). The resulting ‘Concert of Europe’ had critics at the time and subsequently, with some seeing it as a cynical reestablishment of reactionary regimes at the expense of the liberalising and democratising spirit of the time, but John Bew explains the constraints Castlereagh was operating with. The other ‘Great Powers’ (Austria, Prussia and Russia) were much more reactionary in their inclinations than Britain. For Britain, the war and her post war priorities were principally about the balance of power and maintaining peace, and she was relatively agnostic about the internal political structures which prevailed in the countries she dealt with (provided they did not threaten neighbours). For the other powers, above all Russia, the war was much more about restraining the forces of liberalism and secularism which were unleashed by the French Revolution, which formed the basis of the Holy Alliance (which Britain refused to join). Castlereagh was criticised for his relative reluctance to condemn the priorities of the Holy Alliance in the House of Commons, but John Bew shows that Castlereagh was trying to preserve relations with the other powers of Europe by steering clear of public criticism, and his opposition in behind the scenes diplomacy was much more vigorous in restraining the reactionary instincts of his continental counterparts. One of Castlereagh’s most significant contributions to the post war settlement was to restrain the wishes of the other powers to treat France punitively; a similar approach may well have been useful in 1918.
In this book, John Bew sticks to a factual recounting of Castlereagh’s life and policies and avoids wider digressions into foreign policy theory, although the latter is clearly an interest of his and he has written separately on this topic (Realpolitik: A History). There is no doubt that Castlereagh has become emblematic of a certain type of hard headed international politics, with this aspect of his career being the focus of most previous historians and commentators. Henry Kissinger wrote his PhD thesis on Castlereagh and Metternich (Castlereagh’s Austrian counterpart). This type of pragmatic ‘Great Power’ bargaining (relatively unburdened by ethical considerations and tending to steer clear of ‘humanitarian’ interventionism) gets a bad press. But this book made me realise that in the hands of Castlereagh it was, first and foremost, a peace policy: a practical strategy for managing the conflicting interests of nation states without resorting to armed conflict. In our own world of renewed superpower rivalry, it raises interesting questions about what foreign policy strategies might best serve the cause of peace in the twenty first century.
Given Castlereagh’s close involvement with many of the most momentous events of his day, this biography provides a fascinating insight into late Georgian British politics and European diplomacy during and after the Napoleonic Wars. John Bew comes across not only as a talented history writer, but as a natural biographer1 with an ability to create an affinity with his subject matter whilst remaining objective about their strengths and weaknesses.
…and having read this book on Castlereagh, I am now looking forward to reading his well received biography of Clement Atlee. ↩︎
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Castlereagh : From Enlightenment to Tyranny
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