Preserving Italy: The Conservatives and the Fragility of Italian Unity, 1866–68
By the time the Austro-Prussian War reached its conclusion in July 1866, Lord John Russell’s Liberal government had fallen in Britain and been replaced by a minority Conservative administration under the Earl of Derby. Russell’s ministry had collapsed upon the defeat of its Reform Bill, and the long-serving foreign secretary and prime minister who, alongside Palmerston and Gladstone, had so keenly lent British support to the Italian national cause since 1859 departed the scene. Derby invited the highly respected and experienced Lord Clarendon to remain as foreign secretary, but when he declined, the new prime minister’s son Lord Stanley accepted the seals of the Foreign Office. Stanley, who went on to serve for two years under his father, and then briefly under Benjamin Disraeli in 1868, has been described by A. J. P. Taylor as ‘the most isolationist foreign secretary’ in British history. The comment was made regarding his second term as foreign secretary during the 1870s, but he scarcely was any more inclined towards interventionism between 1866 and 1868. Indeed Emanuele d’Azeglio, the Italian envoy to London, described him as ‘a beginner in diplomacy’, a view shared by Odo Russell, the British minister to the Papal State. It would be fair to say that Stanley was a cautious man, neither a brash opportunist like Palmerston nor an idealistic meddler like Russell. He recognised that the days in which Great Britain might assert its influence through bluff and bluster overseas were past, and that his priority as foreign secretary should be to preserve rather than risk British prestige. In 1868, the former foreign secretary Lord Clarendon criticised Stanley’s elevation of the principle of non-interventionism to the point of ideology on the grounds that ‘Europe now cares no more about England than she does about Holland’. Disraeli, by then prime minister, rose to Stanley’s defence, arguing that:While accepting the truth that the growth of empire was compensation for Britain’s decline as an international force in Europe, Disraeli’s statement contained a certain implication that his country could still choose to interfere should it be minded to do so. Under the Derby government of 1866–68, and the brief Disraeli administration which succeeded it, the policy of non-intervention was held to be not symbolic of the decline of British power but in fact the consequence of Britain’s increased imperial strength. These changed priorities, and the more realistic position adopted by Britain’s leaders, did not preclude the British from continuing to take an interest in the new Italy. Neither did the fact that the Conservatives had shown nothing like the same enthusiasm for Italian unification as the Liberals had done.