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Lord Liverpool, Eurosceptic

The prime minister at the time of Napoleon’s defeat was a keen observer of European politics. His government sought a balance of power on the Continent, but with minimal British engagement.

Robert  Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, portrait by Thomas Lawrence, 1820.Britain’s relationship with Continental Europe has long been politically divisive at home, as the lingering controversy over the 2016 Brexit referendum underlines. An historical view from the late 17th century reveals that close involvement with European affairs brought frustration, disillusion and, ultimately, disengagement. Foreign resentment of ‘Perfidious Albion’ as an unreliable partner liable to place domestic politics before commitments to its allies matched fears in Britain about expending blood and treasure on conflicts in which other powers had much more at stake. Even when the maintenance of a favourable balance of power in Europe became a guiding principle of British foreign policy, the best means of pursuing it remained contentious. Rather than a clear either/or question, involvement with Europe posed the perpetual challenge of deciding how much, under which circumstances and to what ends Britain should act.

Britain’s departure from the Congress System in the 1820s shows the dynamic at work. British statesmen worked with European powers to defeat Napoleon and forged a peace settlement that contained rivalry among the great powers. Yet a relationship that solved wartime problems worked less well in peace. Tensions emerged from 1820 over the question of foreign intervention to suppress uprisings against established regimes in Spain and Naples. With conflict among the major powers unlikely, Britain preferred to distance itself from former allies rather than cooperate in ways that generated controversy at home.

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