John Bew on Castlereagh

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Viscount Castlereagh, arguably one of the most important Foreign Secretaries in British history and a key architect of the Congress of Vienna, nevertheless came out of the nineteenth-century with a poor reputation. John Bew's biography, Castlereagh: Enlightenment, War, and Tyranny, re-evaluates the man whose political career took in the 1798 Irish rebellion, the Walcheren debacle, and a European-wide coalition that led to Napoleon's defeat, but ended in great mental strain and suicide. In this short interview, the author discusses the fascinating character of Castlereagh, the changes in his political philosophy, and the thorny issue of identity. (March 2012)
John Bew on Castlereagh

The words "enlightenment", "war", and "tyranny" in your subtitle stand out. How do these words play out in your book?

John Bew: The three words capture the span of Castlereagh's career and also the contradictions within it. Castlereagh is often painted as a reactionary or counter-revolutionary figure by his enemies and one of my central aims was to show that this was an unfair caricature. Rather than being anti-Enlightenment or tyrannical, his career reflected the complexities of the European Enlightenment. He grew up in an area of Ireland where there was a strong tradition of Enlightenment thinking and his family was closely connected to the philosopher Francis Hutcheson. He read much of the same literature as the French Revolutionaries (such as Rousseau) and began his life as a self-confessed 'man of the people'.

After 1790, however, Castlereagh grew more sceptical and conservative. Initially, he was receptive to the ideas of the French Revolution but, following two visits to Paris – in 1790 and 1791 – he was alarmed by the effects of the revolution. What he saw across France confirmed to him that older identities (national, religious, ethnic) were stronger than some of the most enthusiastic revolutionaries recognised. He feared that the anarchy of revolution was likely to unleash rather less enlightened forces such as sectarianism. This is the chief lesson he took back to Ireland and led to his opposition to the radical republican movement and the rebellion of 1798, which he was involved in putting down.

So the book begins with the phase of 'enlightenment', the moves into the phase in which he was a minister in the government in London responsible for the conduct of the war. Of all the ministers who served in this period, no other was so centrally involved in the war effort from start to finish. Castlereagh was William Pitt's protégé but Pitt died in January 1806. Most important of all, Castlereagh was Wellington's chief sponsor. In fact, it's fair to say that without Castlereagh, you never would have had the Duke of Wellington and the whole course of European history may have looked different.

The final section deals with the post-war period, when Castlereagh's opposition to parliamentary reform cemented his reputation as a tyrant. By this stage, he was exhausted and over-worked and his responses to economic difficulty and political unrest was increasingly unimaginative. It was the pressure from this phase of his life which led to his suicide.

You seem to have a particular interest in British history and the issue of identity (a hot topic in the UK at the moment). As an Irish peer serving in the London parliament, "a serviceable slave to [his] country" (as one reviewer described his approach), does Castlereagh stand out as a particular case in point for the issues surrounding what it means to be British, to feel a sense of British identity?

<i>© Quercus</i>” /><STRONG>JB</STRONG>: Absolutely. Castlereagh captures some of the strengths and weaknesses of what we might call the British national identity. On the one hand, here was an Irishmen who had been brought up in the Presbyterian Church – which was still discriminated against at this time – who turned out to be one of the greatest Foreign Secretaries Britain has ever had. In some senses, the 1801 Act of Union set the trend for many Irishmen to play a leading part in Britain's rise to global prominence in the nineteenth century – by the end of the century, one-third of the British army was Irish Catholic. Castlereagh saw no contradiction between an Irish patriot and British patriot at the same time. And he believed that there could be a shared identity and citizenship which was not based on race or religion; the best means of dealing with sectarian divisions, he believed, was through a liberal approach to the question of religion.<!-- /paragraph3 --></p>
<p><!-- paragraph4 --><!-- paragraphimage4 -->On the other hand, the realities of Castlereagh's career demonstrated that it was not so easy to achieve this shared civic identity. Thus, he failed to pass Catholic emancipation in 1801, because of the opposition of the King, and he underestimated the power of nationalism. There is even evidence that, despite all his service to his country, he was blocked from becoming Prime Minister by the Church of England who saw him as too Presbyterian, and too friendly to the Catholic minority.<!-- /paragraph4 --></p>
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<h2>Criticised for his preference for realpolitik at the time, do you think his realism is what makes him ripe for re-evaluation, indeed rehabilitation, today? To what extent could we say that Castlereagh was a modern politician?</h2>
<p><!-- paragraphimage5 --><STRONG>JB</STRONG>: I think Castlereagh's preference of realpolitik explains why he is back in <EM>fashion</EM>. However, I'm not always convinced about the way he has been rehabilitated. His diplomacy has recently been celebrated by a wide range of people including Lord Hurd, the former British Foreign Secretary, and Sir Christopher Meyer, Britain's former ambassador to the United States. Because of his humility and caution, I suspect he is sometimes seen as an antidote to the Blairite period of British foreign policy (Blair was sometimes compared to Castlereagh's rival, Canning, instead). There is something in this but I think the analogy can be pushed too far. <BR><BR>It's tempting but ultimately misleading to paint Castlereagh as the careful multi-lateralist to Canning the 'shoot-from-the-hip' unilateralist. In fact, they had similar views on most of the foreign policy issues and some of these were regarded as very dangerous and wild by some contemporaries. Both Castlereagh and Canning were prepared to take daring, unilateral and pre-emptive action, without the sanction of other allies — the bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807 being the most infamous example. This was not out of a preference for fighting over negotiation per se but in the belief that decisive military action sometimes put negotiations on a better footing. Moreover, for Castlereagh, negotiation was never confused with appeasement and there was a time when the talking had to stop. To the horror of his cabinet colleagues, he almost committed Britain to another war at the end of 1814, so determined was he to frustrate the Tsar's ambitions for territorial expansion in Poland.<BR><BR>Can Castlereagh be seen as a modern politician? In some strange respects, yes. For example, he recognised that, for a nation to be truly secure, its citizens had to feel attached to the state; government should avoid unnecessarily alienating or aggravating any minority group and toleration was the best formula for religious affairs. He also helped build the European-wide coalition which led to the eventual defeat of Napoleon with his subtle and gentle brand of diplomacy, after many before him had failed. Yet, in other respects, Castlereagh was behind the times he lived in and failed to anticipate the direction in which British politics was moving. He was deeply uncomfortable with the growing power of the press and feared the reform of the electoral system which was to transform the country in the nineteenth century. The book begins by outlining the complexity and breadth of Castlereagh's mind. Yet, it ends by suggesting that the pressures of political life took their toll and his intellect and imagination contracted a little towards the end of his life.<!-- /paragraph5 --></p>
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