The anatomy of panic: the impact of naval scares and public opinion in late nineteenth-century Britain




O'Shea, Iain

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Popular navalism in nineteenth-century Britain was a natural but not inevitable outcome of the geographical reality of an island nation possessing a large maritime empire. The long-term evolution of democracy and the rapid growth of the mass-circulation press transformed the civil-military relationship in the last decades of the century, leading to a series of naval scares. These were episodes of intense public interest and engagement in naval affairs, manifested through Parliamentary speeches, newspaper and periodical contributions and in private correspondence. Naval historians have emphasized technological and strategic narratives in the modernization of the Royal Navy, and in the process neglected the dramatic political struggles in 1884–94 that provided the vital precondition for naval reform and expansion — money. The relevant question is not whether the naval scares were objectively justified, but how public discourses were employed by individuals and interest groups to transform the naval political economy by creating a ‘blue-water’ strategic common sense that would support the creation of ocean-going battlefleets designed to win and maintain ‘command of the sea.’ A triangular relationship between the Government, the navy and the public, connected largely through the press, rapidly evolved over the course of three naval scares, in 1884, 1888 and 1893. A pro-navy political equilibrium was constructed that raised peacetime naval expenditure to unprecedented heights and laid the foundations for the more widely known reforms of the twentieth-century ‘Fisher Era.’



Royal Navy, New Journalism, navalism, civil-military relations, newspaper press, naval politics