During the mid-Victorian boom, Britain became known as the ‘workshop of the world’, holding an undisputed role as the world’s leading industrial power, culminating in the opening of the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace in 1851. Britain’s sprawling empire also served to establish its position as world power throughout the 19th century. Britain’s industrial and imperial strength was unparalleled for the majority of the 19th century. However, towards the latter end of the 1800s came the emergence of a variety of threats to this position of dominance.

One interpretation cites the rise of Germany as an industrial power was the greatest threat to Britain’s position as a world power. A second interpretation posits instead that other powers, such as the USA and Russia for example, posed greater threats to British global power. A final interpretation suggests that Britain herself, through either political policy or public opinion, brought about its own relative downfall in terms of international superiority.

In truth, all of these factors played a role in British decline, but it was ultimately Britain’s own shortcomings and the simple fact that it could sustain its earlier growth which allowed other nations to catch it up economically and militarily. The interpretation that Germany posed the greatest threat to British superiority appears to have some merit. One factor which must be taken under consideration here is the economic rivalry which developed between the two nations.

Britain was dependent on it export trade to maintain its position of economic supremacy in the world markets, and had enjoyed almost a monopoly of the production and export of coal, iron and steel (which were the key industrial commodities) during its mid-Victorian boom. However, by the time of the Depression, there was rapid German industrialisation, helped in no small part by an abundance of iron ore and coal: indeed, the Ruhr Valley in Westphalia had been known ‘Miniature England’ for some time before Germany’s Industrial Revolution because of its similarities to industrial regions of Britain, and it was instrumental in the Revolution.

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This meant that the monopoly that Britain had once held was broken, and so Britain was not only economically challenged by Germany, but also challenged in a sense that it was no longer the world supplier of raw materials, with both challenges threatening Britain’s position as a world power. However, it must be acknowledged that the USA superseded both Germany and Britain in terms of industrial output by 1900, becoming the world leader in both iron and steel production.

Furthermore, the fact that Germany was developing economically and rivalling Britain’s output does not necessarily mean that Britain’s position as a world economic power was diminished, merely that there were other large economic powers which Britain had to compete with, which may have served to make the British economy stronger in the long run. Aside from industrial development which challenged Britain’s former dominance, Germany also had a population which was not only larger than Britain’s towards the latter end of the 19th century, but was also growing at a faster rate than Britain’s.

This combined with the fact that Germany was only unified fairly recently meant that she had a large population of Germans with a vested interest in building a great nation, united under Bismarck’s leadership; this would lead to unprecedented German productivity which would inevitably threaten British trading strength. However, again, in terms of population, productivity and passion for working hard (if the latter is quantifiable), the USA exceeded the capacity of both Germany and Britain, undermining the argument that Germany served as the greatest threat to British power.

Another way in which Germany served as a threat to British power was by challenging British imperial and trading dominance. Germany did this both in China (by obtaining a lease of the harbour Kiao-Chau, which challenged British interests in China) and in the Transvaal (through the Kruger Telegram and allowing President Kruger to stockpile German armaments). Possibly most threatening was the Navy Bill of 1898, which greatly increased the size of Germany’s navy; this in tandem with the opening of the Kiel Canal in 1895 meant that Germany would pose a kind of immediate threat to Britain’s empire and trade routes which no other country could.

However, the fact that Bismarck had previously approached Salisbury with an offer of a formal alliance in 1889 means that Germany had not always intended to be a belligerent force against Britain. From this, it could be said that any subsequent threats which Germany posed to British power (most notably the Navy Bill) stemmed from Salisbury’s rejection of Bismarck’s diplomatic offer of alliance. So, it appears that Germany did pose a substantial threat to British imperial interests overseas.

Furthermore, Germany may have certainly posed a significant threat to British trade interests and economic strength. However, to say that she posed the greatest threat to Britain in both respects may not be wholly justified; one would need to look at the threats which other countries posed and decide the magnitude of such threats relative to the threats of Germany to Britain’s position as a world power. As alluded to previously, there were other nations which also posed threats to Britain’s position as a world power, threats which were arguably greater than those posed by Germany.

One nation which posed such a threat was the USA. As previously mentioned, the USA outstripped both Germany and Britain in terms of natural resources, industrial output and population. While this means that the USA undoubtedly posed a sizeable threat to British economic might, there is little evidence that the USA posed the same kind of threat to British imperial ambitions that Germany did, in terms of naval threat. So although the USA posed a substantial threat to the strength of British exports, there was little threat to her empire.

Indeed, there is evidence of a growing camaraderie between the USA and Britain; as Ray says: “(Germany’s attempt to raise a united European front against the USA) failed largely because Great Britain refused to take part in any such diplomatic initiative and chose, instead, to give what it could, within the confines of official neutrality, to the Americans. ” This greatly undermines the argument that the USA posed the greatest threat to Britain as there is no evidence of active belligerence on the part of the USA.

Another nation which posed a considerable threat to British power was Russia. As Germany gained lease on the harbour Kiao-Chau, so Russia bullied China into giving them control of nearby Port Arthur with the intention of building an extension of the Trans-Siberian railway there. Russia had been constantly challenging Britain’s trade routes or empire (most prominently threatening India, the ‘crown jewel’ of the British Empire, through Afghanistan), and events in China showed a further attempt to shift the balance of power to Britain’s detriment.

However, Salisbury managed to ease this building tension by making an agreement between Russia, Germany and France to recognise and respect clearly defined spheres of influence in China, suggesting that Russia posed little threat to Britain’s status as a world power, despite movements to disrupt Britain’s trade routes and imperial strength. A third nation which could have been perceived as posing a great threat to Britain’s international clout was France.

France, like Germany and Russia, had interests in China which would invariably affect British interests there. Furthermore, she signed an alliance with Russia in 1894, which was potentially dangerous for Britain and would serve to alter the balance of power. However, as previously mentioned, all problems in China were resolved by Salisbury, and the Franco-Russian alliance was a defensive one, showing that France posed a smaller threat to Britain that Russia.

So, the USA’s lack of belligerence, Russia’s lack of actual impact and the relative insignificance of France’s actions mean that, at this juncture, it still appears that Germany posed the greatest to British status as a world power, combining the economic threat of the USA and the imperial threat of Russia, active in areas like China and Africa as she was; all of this and she was in close proximity to Britain. However, one more nation must be considered: Britain herself.

As much as the German economy was developing with great speed, British sluggishness in responding to this rapid industrialisation is as much to blame for a loss of economic supremacy. By the 1880s, much of Britain’s machinery and production methods were out-dated and there was a reluctance to invest capital in newer and more efficient machinery. Furthermore, the British government, unlike the German government, was reluctant to invest in technical education, contributing to relative British economic decline.

Moreover, Britain’s dogged allegiance to maintaining a free trade policy while other nations imposed protectionist tariffs served to make British exports comparatively less competitive, contributing in no small part to a possible waning in British status as a world power. However, despite the relative lack of British competitiveness due to these tariffs, Britain remained the biggest exporter of industrial products and capital during the 1880s.

Furthermore, in spite of overseas competition in shipbuilding, the British shipping industry was still by far the largest in the world. When the fact that Britain maintained a healthy trade balance throughout this period is also taken into consideration, it appears that Britain retained a strong economic presence in the world, but that any ground which rivals had made up was due in part to structural weaknesses in Britain’s economy.

Rather than Germany’s posing the greatest threat to Britain’s imperial supremacy, it may be the case that it was Britain’s own shortcomings which enabled others to threaten her own position. This can clearly be seen when Salisbury rejected Bismarck’s offer of alliance, leading to German belligerence, most prominently in the Boer War and through the Navy Bill. This is put down to a policy of ‘splendid isolationism’. This meant that Britain’s lack of alliances meant that other nations would inevitably come to act in a manner which would threaten Britain’s imperial supremacy.

However, as Roberts states, it would be unfair to dub Salisbury’s foreign policy as following “crude isolationism”, when in fact he was did not make alliances with other nations in order to “(avoid) joining entangling alliances or European power blocs, which Salisbury considered an inherent threat to peace”. It was, after all, the formation of “European power blocs” which lead to the outbreak of the Great War. It is still the case, though, that Salisbury’s policy of avoiding alliances led directly to German belligerence.

Furthermore, the Boer War was disastrous for British imperialism. A succession of PR calamities (the i?? 200m cost, 20,000 deaths, the Jameson Raid) meant that both public and international opinion turned against Britain’s provocative and invasive imperialist stance, clearly a blow to Britain’s status as a world power. Thus here, as with the economy, it can be seen that Britain’s own weaknesses enabled other nations like Germany to serve as a threat.

It may be most prudent, then, to suggest that while Germany did indeed pose the greatest threat to Britain both militarily and economically, it was Britain’s own actions (or inactions) which allowed them to do so, either in terms of turning Bismarck down or economic complacency. However, while the British economy’s sloth and her poor show in the Transvaal are very much culpable for this threat, to blast Salisbury for inaction with regards to Bismarck may be unfair.

As Charmley states: “The fears about isolation were secondary to the greater fear of the catastrophe, and Salisbury never moved from the position that a Continental commitment would cost Britain more than it would benefit her”. The position he held, then, was justified; however, questions of fairness aside, there can be no doubt that it was Britain’s own shortcomings which enabled threats from foreign rivals, and that she posed the greatest threat to herself.


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