Willy, Willy….

One of his five great ideas of the year:

Cambridge University\’s Brendan Simms is an extraordinary historian and his reinterpretation of British history in the 18th century is one of those sleeper ideas that, along with others, is gradually challenging know-nothing Euroscepticism. His argument in the engrossing Three Victories and a Defeat is that Britain won the military space to build an empire and industrial hegemony through consistent and deep involvement in European politics, ensuring that no one European power could ever challenge us.

It was when we followed the Eurosceptic injunction to forget Europe that we suffered ignominy and disaster, losing the war in America as united Europeans undermined our war effort and then watched Napoleon dominate Europe.

We never were, and never will be, capable of prospering without engaging in Europe. It may be wishful thinking on my part, but visceral Euroscepticism increasingly seems batty – and the planks with which it is built rotting.

He seems not to notice that this is, in fact, the Eurosceptic case: that we indeed don\’t want one dominant European power which constrains us. In the way in which the assembled European powers now make 80% of our laws, just as an example. The historic engagement with Europe was in fact to make damn certain that such a situation never arose.

5 thoughts on “Willy, Willy….”

  1. He is also projecting modern political labels onto a completely unrelated political discussion. I really don’t think that the modern term ‘Eurosceptic’ has any relevance in the context he is applying it to.

    This is deliberate misrepresentation.

  2. “French assistance to the colonial rebels from 1776 to 1783”: perhaps a stronger word than “assistance” is required, given that it was the Frogs wot wunnit.

  3. Tim,

    As an 18th Century history buff, of far lesser learning that Mr. Simms, could I just make the following points-

    More often than not Britain got involved in European wars because of balance of power issues. For example, at the start of the century, Louis XIV was recognised as a nutter who would have invaded anywhere and anyone for ‘la gloire’.

    In the middle of the century, the Seven Years War started as a turf fight over the right to colonise the Ohio Valley. Although it had European theatres in both Germany and the Mediterranean, it was not, per se, a European war in the way The Great War or WWII were.

    More often than not, Britain’s involvement in European wars was fuelled by the fact that our monarchs were, er, Europeans. The cold-shouldering that the Duke of Cumberland received from George II was on account of him having signed The Convention of Kloster-Zeven, making him the Hanoverian who lost Hanover.

    As far as the end of the century goes, it is disingenuous, to say the least, to jump from mentioning French assistance to the colonial rebels from 1776 to 1783 to Napoleon’s coup in 1799. Quite a lot happened in between; some of it even in France.

  4. Churchill to Parliament 1936:

    “For four hundred years the foreign policy of England has been to oppose the strongest, most aggressive, most dominating Power on the Continent […]. Faced by Philip II of Spain, against Louis XIV under William III and Marlborough, against Napoleon, against William II of Germany, it would have been easy and must have been very tempting to join with the stronger and share the fruits of his conquest. However, we always took the harder course, joined with the less strong Powers, made a combination among them, and thus defeated and frustrated the Continental military tyrant whoever he was, whatever nation he led. Thus we preserved the liberties of Europe […].

    Observe that the policy of England takes no account of which nation it is that seeks the overlordship of Europe. The question is not whether it is Spain, or the French Monarchy, or the French Empire, or the German Empire, or the Hitler régime. It has nothing to do with rulers or nations; it is concerned solely with whoever is the strongest or the potentially dominating tyrant. Therefore, we should not be afraid of being accused of being pro-French or anti-German. If the circumstances were reversed, we could equally be pro-German and anti-French. It is a law of public policy which we are following, and not a mere expedient dictated by accidental circumstances, or likes and dislikes, or any other sentiment.

  5. IIRC, Sir Humphrey Appleby put it as follows:

    Minister, the whole aim of British foreign policy has been to create a disunited Europe. To that end, we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, against the Dutch and with the Dutch against the French. We have fought with the Austrians against the French and Germans, with the Germans against the French and Austrians and with the French against the Germans and Austrians.

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