The dying nations of the world

In 1898, the British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury gave a speech  on foreign relations. The core message seemed simple enough; weak states become weaker whilst strong states become stronger. But, in the dying days of the European peace, it was a remarkably prescient, perhaps even self-fulfilling prophecy.


On 4 May 1898, Lord Salisbury gave a remarkable speech to the Conservative party faithful. The Prime Minister spoke to a packed audience of the Primrose League (a grassroots mass membership group of Conservative Party supporters) at the Royal Albert Hall on the subject of the life and death of countries.

Robert Cecil - 3rd Marquess of Salisbury By London Stereoscopic Company (NYPL) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At the end of a rousing, imperial speech, Salisbury made his prophetic remarks: “All I can indicate is that the process is proceeding, that the weak States are becoming weaker and the strong States are becoming stronger.”

The result of this was clear to the Conservative Prime Minister: “the living nations will gradually encroach on the territory of the dying, and the seeds and causes of conflict amongst civilized nations will speedily appear.”

According to Andrew Roberts writing in History Today, Salisbury had “proposed a neo-Darwinist theory of international relations which, in the words of Chamberlain’s biographer, J.L. Garvin, ‘lacerated the feelings of several nations’”.

Salisbury’s words were a development of some earlier writing, in which he had suggested that the, “The nations of the earth are divided into the sheep and the wolves – the fat and defenceless against the hungry and strong,” In this world view, countries like Italy, Flanders and India were ‘soft’, ‘meek’ and ‘effeminate’, there to be invaded by stronger powers.

Royal Albert Hall _Grand_Opening_by_Queen_Victoria_29_March_1871_The_Graphic - as it would have looked for Salisbury's speech 20 years later

Roberts goes on to note that the speech was taken at the time “to refer to Spain and Portugal, China and Turkey, or possibly even France and Italy.” But Roberts goes on to credit Salisbury with a greater insight, an insight that foresaw the eclipse of Britain herself.

In the speech, Salisbury had noted that “great countries of enormous power, growing in power every year, growing in wealth, growing in dominion, growing in the perfection of their organisation”. Who were these ‘great countries’? Possibly he included Britain and her Empire in this list, but more probably he was referring to Germany and the United States.

What was the solution? For Salisbury, only “international cooperation rather than a network of exclusive alliances would … avert the armed conflict certain to attend the “cutting up” of the weak by the strong”

The Spectator magazine took English newspapers to task for interpreting Salisbury’s speech as presaging an immediate danger. But this was not to diminish the importance of the speech:

“They are abundantly justified, however, in attributing the very highest importance to the speech considered in its general character. Nothing could possibly be more im- pressive or more significant than the warning given by Lord Salisbury. He tells us in so many words that the ship is about to encounter a period of storm, and that the dangers to be encountered must be very considerable.”

To continue the analogy, Britain and the European powers had been sailing on smooth waters for decades. No continent-wide conflict had developed since Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo, still less a world conflict. But those smooth waters were giving way to far more treacherous conditions. As we know, Europe had barely 15 years of peace left before she was inundated by a storm so severe it threatened to capsize the continent.

Sultan Mehmet VI of the Ottoman Empire By Sebah & Joaillier (more information about this photographic studio can be found here) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Salisbury would therefore not have been particularly surprised at the attempted land grabs for territories left behind by the decaying Ottoman Empire by Austria-Hungary and the Russian Empire. He had himself written in 1877 that it would be absurd, “if we go on treating and respecting the Turkish Empire as a living organism, when everybody else was treating it as a carcass”.

He also foresaw the attempted incursion of various powers on the sovereignty of the moribund Qing Empire. And in identifying the multiplication of conflict, he saw the seeds of discord that would soon reap a cataclysmic harvest in the First World War.

But would he have been surprised by the fall of the British Empire? Perhaps the speed of its collapse would have startled him, but not the historical trend that saw other powers rise in her place.