On the English Foreign Policy

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On the English Foreign Policy  (1858) 
by John Bright
A speech given on the British foreign policy. Given to the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce on 29 October 1858.

The Frequent and far too complimentary manner in which my name has been mentioned to-night, and the most kind way in which you have received me, have placed me in a position somewhat humiliating, and really painful; for to receive laudation which one feels one can not possibly have merited, is much more painful than to be passed by in a distribution of commendation to which possibly one might lay some claim.

If one twentieth part of what has been said is true, if I am entitled to any measure of your approbation, I may begin to think that my public career and my opinions are not so un-English and so antinational as some of those who profess to be the best of our public instructors have sometimes assumed. How, indeed, can I, any more than any of you, be un-English and antinational? Was I not born upon the same soil? Do I not come of the same English stock? Are not my family committed irrevocably to the fortunes of this country? Is not whatever property I may have depending, as much as yours is depending, upon the good government of our common fatherland? Then how shall any man dare to say to any one of his countrymen, because he happens to hold a different opinion on questions of great public policy, that therefore he is un-English, and is to be condemned as antinational? There are those who would assume that between my countrymen and me, and between my constituents and me, there has been, and there is now, a great gulf fixed, and that if I can not pass over to them and to you, they and you can by no possibility pass over to me.

Now, I take the liberty here, in the presence of an audience as intelligent as can be collected within the limits of this island, and of those who have the strongest claims to know what opinions I do entertain relative to certain great questions of public policy, to assert that I hold no views, that I have never promulgated any views, on those controverted questions with respect to which I can not bring as witnesses in my favor, and as fellow believers with myself, some of the best and most revered names in the history of English statesmanship.

We all know and deplore that at the present moment a larger number of the grown men of Europe are employed, and a larger portion of the industry of Europe is absorbed, to provide for, and maintain, the enormous armaments which are now on foot in every considerable continental state. Assuming, then, that Europe is not much better in consequence of the sacrifices we have made, let us inquire what has been the result in England, because, after all, that is the question which it becomes us most to consider. I believe that I understate the sum when I say that, in pursuit of this will-o’-the-wisp (the liberties of Europe and the balance of power), there has been extracted from the industry of the people of this small island no less an amount than £2,000,000,000 sterling. I can not imagine how much £2,000,000,000 is, and therefore I shall not attempt to make you comprehend it.

I presume it is something like those vast and incomprehensible astronomical distances with which we have been lately made familiar; but, however familiar, we feel that we do not know one bit more about them than we did before. When I try to think of that sum of £2,000,000,000 there is a sort of vision passes before my mind’s eye. I see your peasant labourer delve and plow, sow and reap, sweat beneath the summer’s sun, or grow prematurely old before the winter’s blast. I see your noble mechanic with his manly countenance and his matchless skill, toiling at his bench or his forge. I see one of the workers in our factories in the north, a woman—a girl it may be—gentle and good, as many of them are, as your sisters and daughters are—I see her intent upon the spindle, whose revolutions are so rapid, that the eye fails altogether to detect them, or watching the alternating flight of the unresting shuttle. I turn again to another portion of your population, which, “plunged in mines, forgets a sun was made,” and I see the man who brings up from the secret chambers of the earth the elements of the riches and greatness of this country. When I see all this I have before me a mass of produce and of wealth which I am no more able to comprehend than I am that £2,000,000,000 of which I have spoken, but I behold in its full proportions the hideous error of your governments, whose fatal policy consumes in some cases a half, never less than a third, of all the results of that industry which God intended should fertilize and bless every home in England, but the fruits of which are squandered in every part of the surface of the globe, without producing the smallest good to the people of England.

We have, it is true, some visible results that are of a more positive character. We have that which some people call a great advantage—the national debt—a debt which is now so large that the most prudent, the most economical, and the most honest have given up all hope, not of its being paid off, but of its being diminished in amount.

We have, too, taxes which have been during many years so onerous that there have been times when the patient beasts of burden threatened to revolt—so onerous that it has been utterly impossible to levy them with any kind of honest equality, according to the means of the people to pay them. We have that, moreover, which is a standing wonder to all foreigners who consider our condition—an amount of apparently immovable pauperism which to strangers is wholly irreconcilable with the fact that we, as a nation, produce more of what should make us all comfortable than is produced by any other nation of similar numbers on the face of the globe. Let us likewise remember that during the period of those great and so-called glorious contests on the continent of Europe, every description of home reform was not only delayed, but actually crushed out of the minds of the great bulk of the people. There can be no doubt whatever that in 1793 England was about to realize political changes and reforms, such as did not appear again until 1830, and during the period of that war, which now almost all men agree to have been wholly unnecessary, we were passing through a period which may be described as the dark age of English politics; when there was no more freedom to write or speak, or politically to act, than there is now in the most despotic country of Europe.

But, it may be asked, did nobody gain? If Europe is no better, and the people of England have been so much worse, who has benefited by the new system of foreign policy? What has been the fate of those who were enthroned at the Revolution, and whose supremacy has been for so long a period undisputed among us? Mr. Kinglake, the author of an interesting book on Eastern travel, describing the habits of some acquaintances that he made in the Syrian deserts, says that the jackals of the desert follow their prey in families like the place-hunters of Europe. I will reverse, if you like, the comparison, and say that the great territorial families of England, which were enthroned at the Revolution, have followed their prey like the jackals of the desert. Do you not observe at a glance, that, from the time of William III, by reason of the foreign policy which I denounce, wars have been multiplied, taxes increased, loans made, and the sums of money which every year the government has to expend augmented, and that so the patronage at the disposal of ministers must have increased also, and the families who were enthroned and made powerful in the legislation and administration of the country must have had the first pull at, and the largest profit out of, that patronage? There is no actuary in existence who can calculate how much of the wealth, of the strength, of the supremacy of the territorial families of England, has been derived from an unholy participation in the fruits of the industry of the people, which have been wrested from them by every device of taxation, and squandered in every conceivable crime of which a government could possibly be guilty.

The more you examine this matter the more you will come to the conclusion which I have arrived at, that this foreign policy, this regard for the “liberties of Europe,” this care at one time for “the Protestant interests,” this excessive love for “the balance of power,” is neither more nor less than a gigantic system of outdoor relief for the aristocracy of Great Britain. [Great laughter] I observe that you receive that declaration as if it were some new and important discovery. In 1815, when the great war with France was ended, every Liberal in England, whose politics, whose hopes, and whose faith had not been crushed out of him by the tyranny of the time of that war, was fully aware of this, and openly admitted it, and up to 1832, and for some years afterward, it was the fixed and undoubted creed of the great Liberal party. But somehow all is changed. We, who stand upon the old landmarks, who walk in the old paths, who would conserve what is wise and prudent, are hustled and shoved about as if we were come to turn the world upside down. The change which has taken place seems to confirm the opinion of a lamented friend of mine, who, not having succeeded in all his hopes, thought that men made no progress whatever, but went round and round like a squirrel in a cage. The idea is now so general that it is our duty to meddle everywhere, that it really seems as if we had pushed the Tories from the field, expelling them by our competition.

I confess that as a citizen of this country, wishing to live peaceably among my fellow countrymen, and wishing to see my countrymen free, and able to enjoy the fruits of their labor, I protest against a system which binds us in all these networks and complications from which it is impossible that one can gain one single atom of advantage for this country. It is not all glory after all. Glory may be worth something, but it is not always glory. We have had within the last few years despatches from Vienna and from St. Petersburg, which, if we had not deserved them, would have been very offensive and not a little insolent. We have had the ambassador of the Queen expelled summarily from Madrid, and we have had an ambassador driven almost with ignominy from Washington. We have blockaded Athens for a claim which was known to be false. We have quarreled with Naples, for we chose to give advice to Naples, which was not received in the submissive spirit expected from her, and our minister was therefore withdrawn. Not three years ago, too, we seized a considerable kingdom in India, with which our government had but recently entered into the most solemn treaty, which every lawyer in England and in Europe, I believe, would consider binding before God and the world. We deposed its monarch; we committed a great immorality and a great crime, and we have reaped an almost instantaneous retribution in the most gigantic and sanguinary revolt which probably any nation ever made against its conquerors.

Within the last few years we have had two wars with a great empire, which we are told contains at least one-third of the whole human race. The first war was called, and appropriately called, the Opium War. No man, I believe, with a spark of morality in his composition, no man who cares anything for the opinion of his fellow countrymen, has dared to justify that war. The war which has just been concluded, if it has been concluded, had its origin in the first war; for the enormities committed in the first war are the foundation of the implacable hostility which it is said the inhabitants of Canton bear to all persons connected with the English name. Yet, tho we have these troubles in India—a vast country which we do not know how to govern, and a war with China—a country with which, tho everybody else can remain at peace, we can not, such is the inveterate habit of conquest, such is the insatiable lust of territory, such is, in my view, the depraved, unhappy state of opinion of the country on this subject, that there are not a few persons, chambers of commerce, to-wit, in different parts of the kingdom (tho I am glad to say it has not been so with the chamber of commerce at Birmingham), who have been urging our government to take possession of a province of the greatest island in the Eastern seas; a possession which must at once necessitate increased estimates and increased taxation, and which would probably lead us into merciless and disgraceful wars with the half-savage tribes who inhabit that island.

Since the “Glorious Revolution,” since the enthronization of the great Norman territorial families, they have spent in wars, and we have worked for, about £2,000,000,000. The interest on that is £100,000,000 per annum, which alone, to say nothing of the principal sum, is three or four times as much as the whole amount of your annual export trade from that time to this.

Therefore, if war has provided you with a trade, it has been at an enormous cost; but I think it is by no means doubtful that your trade would have been no less in amount and no less profitable, had peace and justice been inscribed on your flag instead of conquest and the love of military renown. But even in this year, 1858—we have got a long way into the century—we find that within the last seven years our public debt has greatly increased. Whatever be the increase of our population, of our machinery, of our industry, of our wealth, still our national debt goes on increasing. Altho we have not a foot more territory to conserve, or an enemy in the world who dreams of attacking us, we find that our annual military expenses during the last twenty years have risen from £12,000,000 to £22,000,000.

Nothing can by any possibility tend more to the corruption of a government than enormous revenues. We have heard lately of instances of certain joint-stock institutions with very great capital collapsing suddenly, bringing disgrace upon their managers and ruin upon hundreds of families. A great deal of that has arisen, not so much from intentional fraud as from the fact that weak and incapable men have found themselves tumbling about in an ocean of bank-notes and gold, and they appear to have lost all sight of where it came from, to whom it belonged, and whether it was possible by any maladministration ever to come to an end of it. That is what is done by governments.

I think the expenditure of these vast sums, and especially of those which we spend for military purposes, leads us to adopt a defiant and insolent tone toward foreign countries. We have the freest press in Europe, and the freest platform in Europe, but every man who writes an article in a newspaper, and every man who stands on a platform, ought to do it under a solemn sense of responsibility. Every word he writes, every word I utter, passes with a rapidity of which our forefathers were utterly ignorant, to the very ends of the earth; the words become things and acts, and they produce on the minds of other nations effects which a man may never have intended.

Take a recent case; take the case of France. I am not expected to defend, and I shall certainly not attack, the present government of France.

The instant that it appeared in its present shape the minister of England conducting your foreign affairs, speaking ostensibly for the cabinet, for his sovereign, and for the English nation, offered his congratulations, and the support of England was at once accorded to the recreated French Empire. Soon after this an intimate alliance was entered into between the queen of England, through her ministers, and the emperor of the French.

I am not about to defend the policy which flowed from that alliance, nor shall I take up your time by making any attack upon it. An alliance was entered into and a war was entered into. English and French soldiers fought on the same field, and they suffered, I fear, from the same neglect. They now lie buried on the bleak heights of the Crimea, and except by their mothers, who do not soon forget their children, I suppose they are mostly forgotten. I have never heard it suggested that the French government did not behave with the most perfect honor to this government and to this country all through these grave transactions; but I have heard it stated by those who must know, that nothing could be more honorable, nothing more just, than the conduct of the French emperor to this government throughout the whole of that struggle. More recently, when the war in China was begun by a government which I have condemned and denounced in the House of Commons, the emperor of the French sent his ships and troops to cooperate with us, but I never heard that anything was done there to create a suspicion of a feeling of hostility on his part toward us. The emperor of the French came to London, and some of those powerful organs of the Press that have since taken the line of which I am complaining, did all but invite the people of London to prostrate themselves under the wheels of the chariot which conveyed along our streets the revived monarchy of France. The queen of England went to Paris, and was she not received there with as much affection and as much respect as her high position and her honorable character entitled her to?

What has occurred since? If there was a momentary unpleasantness, I am quite sure every impartial man will agree that, under the peculiarly irritating circumstances of the time there was at least as much forbearance shown on one side of the Channel as on the other. Then we have had much said lately about a naval fortification recently completed in France, which has been more than one hundred years in progress, and which was not devised by the present emperor of the French.

For one hundred years great sums had been spent on it, and at last, like every other great work, it was brought to an end. The English queen and others were invited over, and many went who were not invited. And yet in all this we are told that there is something to create extreme alarm and suspicion. We, who never fortified any places; we, who have not a greater than Sebastopol at Gibraltar; we who have not an impregnable fortress at Malta, who have not spent the fortune of a nation almost in the Ionian Islands, and who are doing nothing at Alderney—we are to take offense at the fortifications of Cherbourg!

I should like to-night, if I could, to inaugurate one of the best and holiest revolutions that ever took place in this country. We have had a dozen revolutions since some of us were children. We have had one revolution in which you had a great share—a great revolution of opinion on the question of the suffrage. Does it not read like madness that men, thirty years ago, were frantic at the idea of the people of Birmingham having a £10 franchise? Does it not seem something like idiocy to be told that a banker in Leeds, when it was proposed to transfer the seats of one rotten borough to the town of Leeds, should say (and it was repeated in the House of Commons on his authority) that if the people of Leeds had the franchise conferred upon them it would not be possible to keep the bank doors open with safety, and that he should remove his business to some quiet place, out of the danger from the savage race that peopled that town? But now all confess that the people are perfectly competent to have votes, and nobody dreams of arguing that the privilege will make them less orderly.

Take also the question of protection. Not thirty years ago, but twelve years ago, there was a great party in Parliament, led by the duke in one House, and by a son and brother of a duke in the other, which declared that utter ruin must come, not only on the agricultural interest, but upon the manufactures and commerce of England, if we departed from our old theories upon this subject of protection. They told us that the labourer—the unhappy labourer—of whom it may be said in this country:


“Here landless laborers hopeless toil and strive,
But taste no portion of the sweets they hive.”


that the labourer was to be ruined; that is, that the paupers were to be pauperized. These gentlemen were overthrown. The plain, honest, common sense of the country swept away their cobweb theories, and they are gone. What is the result? From 1846 to 1857 we have received into this country of grain of all kinds, including flour, maize, or India corn—all objects heretofore not of absolute prohibition, but which were intended to be prohibited until it was not safe for people to be starved any more—not less than an amount equal in value to £224,000,000 That is equal to £18,700,000 per annum on the average of twelve years. During that period, too, your home growth has been stimulated to an enormous extent. You have imported annually 200,000 tons of guano, and the result has been a proportionate increase in the productions of the soil, for 200,000 tons of guano will grow an equal weight and value of wheat. With all this, agriculture was never more prosperous, while manufactures were never, at the same time, more extensively exported; and with all this, the labourers, for whom the tears of the Protectionist were shed, have, according to the admission of the most violent of the class, never been in a better state since the beginning of the great French war.

It is for you to decide whether our greatness shall be only temporary, or whether it shall be enduring. When I am told that the greatness of our country is shown by the £100,000,000 of revenue produced, may I not also ask how it is that we have 1,100,000 paupers in this kingdom, and why it is that £7,000,000 should be taken from the industry chiefly of the labouring classes to support a small nation, as it were, of paupers? Since your legislation upon the Corn Laws, you have not only had nearly £20,000,000 of food brought into the country annually, but such an extraordinary increase of trade that your exports are about doubled, and yet I understand that in the year 1856, for I have no later return, there were no less than 1,100,000 paupers in the United Kingdom, and the sum raised in poor-rates was not less than £7,200,000 And that cost of pauperism is not the full amount, for there is a vast amount of temporary, casual, and vagrant pauperism that does not come in to swell that sum.

Then do not you well know—I know it, because I live among the population of Lancashire, and I doubt not the same may be said of the population of this city and county—that just above the level of the 1,100,000 there is at least an equal number who are ever oscillating between independence and pauperism; who, with a heroism which is not the less heroic because it is secret and unrecorded, are doing their very utmost to maintain an honorable and independent position before their fellow men?

While Irish labour, notwithstanding the improvement which has taken place in Ireland, is only paid at the rate of about one shilling a day; while in the straths and glens of Scotland there are hundreds of shepherd families whose whole food almost consists of oatmeal porridge from day to day, and from week to week; while these things continue, I say that we have no reason to be self-satisfied and contented with our position; but that we who are in Parliament and are more directly responsible for affairs, and you who are also responsible, tho in a lesser degree, are bound by the sacred duty which we owe our country to examine why it is that with all this trade, all this industry, and all this personal freedom, there is still so much that is unsound at the base of our social fabric?

Let me direct your attention now to another point which I never think of without feelings that words would altogether fail to express. You hear constantly that woman, the helpmate of man, who adorns, dignifies, and blesses our lives, that woman in this country is cheap; that vast numbers whose names ought to be synonyms for purity and virtue, are plunged into profligacy and infamy. But do you not know that you sent 40,000 men to perish on the bleak heights of the Crimea, and that the revolt in India, caused, in part at least, by the grievous iniquity of the seizure of Oude, may tax your country to the extent of 100,000 lives before it is extinguished; and do you not know that for the 140,000 men thus drafted off and consigned to premature graves, nature provided in your country 140,000 women? If you have taken the men who should have been the husbands of these women, and if you have sacrificed £100,000,000, which as capital reserved in the country would have been an ample fund for their employment and for the sustentation of their families, are you not guilty of a great sin in involving yourselves in such a loss of life and of money in war, except on grounds and under circumstances which, according to the opinions of every man in the country, should leave no kind of option whatever for your choice?

I believe there is no permanent greatness to a nation except it be based upon morality. I do not care for military greatness or military renown. I care for the condition of the people among whom I live. There is no man in England who is less likely to speak irreverently of the crown and monarchy of England than I am; but crowns, coronets, miters, military display, the pomp of war, wide colonies, and a huge empire are, in my view, all trifles, light as air, and not worth considering, unless with them you can have a fair share of comfort, contentment, and happiness among the great body of the people. Palaces, baronial castles, great halls, stately mansions, do not make a nation. The nation in every country dwells in the cottage; and unless the light of your constitution can shine there, unless the beauty of your legislation and the excellence of your statesmanship are impressed there on the feelings and condition of the people, rely upon it, you have yet to learn the duties of government.

The most ancient of profane historians has told us that the Scythians of his time were a very warlike people, and that they elevated an old cimeter upon a platform as a symbol of Mars, for to Mars alone, I believe, they built altars and offered sacrifices. To this cimeter they offered sacrifices of horses and cattle, the main wealth of the country, and more costly sacrifices than to all the rest of their gods. I often ask myself whether we are at all advanced in one respect beyond those Scythians. What are our contributions to charity, to education, to morality, to religion, to justice, and to civil government, when compared with the wealth we expend in sacrifices to the old cimeter?

Two nights ago I addressed in this hall a vast assembly composed to a great extent of your countrymen who have no political power, who are at work from the dawn of the day to the evening, and who have therefore limited means of informing themselves on these great subjects. Now I am privileged to speak to a somewhat different audience. You represent those of your great community who have a more complete education, who have on some points greater intelligence, and in whose hands reside the power and influence of the district. I am speaking, too, within the hearing of those whose gentle nature, whose finer instincts, whose purer minds, have not suffered as some of us have suffered in the turmoil and strife of life. You can mold opinion, you can create political power; you can not think a good thought on this subject and communicate it to your neighbors,—you can not make these points topics of discussion in your social circles and more general meetings, without affecting sensibly and speedily the course which the government of your country will pursue.

May I ask you, then, to believe, as I do most devoutly believe, that the moral law was not written for men alone in their individual character, but that it was written as well for nations, and for nations great as this of which we are citizens. If nations reject and deride that moral law, there is a penalty which will inevitably follow. It may not come at once, it may not come in our lifetime; but rely upon it, the great Italian is not a poet only, but a prophet, when he says:

“The sword of heaven is not in haste to smite,
Nor yet doth linger.”

We have experience, we have beacons, we have landmarks enough. We know what the past has cost us; we know how much and how far we have wandered, but we are not left without a guide. It is true we have not, as an ancient people had, Urim and Thummim—those oraculous gems on Aaron’s breast—from which to take counsel, but we have the unchangeable and eternal principles of the moral law to guide us, and only so far as we walk by that guidance can we be permanently a great nation, or our people a happy people.

This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.