Book review: Britain’s Europe - A Thousands Years of Conflict and Co-operation
Brendan Simms' thought-provoking book challenges the version of British history advocated by the likes of Michael Gove.
As we approach, literally the day of reckoning, when the country will vote on whether to remain or leave the EU, each side in this crucial debate have assembled rival groups of experts, including historians. Brendan Simms has entered this debate with Britain’s Europe, which superficially appears an historical manifesto for remain, but whose conclusions offer, dare we say, a third way.
Simms is a Cambridge historian whose books include Three Victories and a Defeat, Europe : The Struggle for Supremacy and a short masterpiece, The Longest Afternoon which describes the role of Wellington’s non-Prussian German soldiers at Waterloo.
Britain’s Europe is a thought-provoking polemic which challenges what can loosely be described as “our Island Story” version of British history advocated, amongst others by Michael Gove. Simms offers an alternative narrative, that the history of England, and later of Britain, is primarily a continental story, and that our destiny was mainly determined by relations with the rest of Europe rather than with the wider world. This is not a comprehensive account but concentrates on foreign policy and constitutional design, with little attention paid if at all to political thought, economics, migration, culture, race and “national character”. This makes it an incomplete or lop-sided account.
In Simms’ introduction he says that his approach throughout will be “relentlessly and unapologetically “whiggish”, both in the insistence on the centrality of Europe and in the identification of a clear line leading from the past to the present, though not necessarily – into the future. But this is the problem with the Whig interpretation of history – a seemless series of self-given events which fit a particular interpretation of the present.
In nine short chapters Simms chronologically takes the reader from the Anglo-Saxon period to the post-Cold War World. The common thread through a thousand years of history is that Britain’s role has always been to prevent the domination of the continent by a single power. The centre of gravity has been the Low Countries where Britain has intervened militarily and which was always the regain from which powerful European powers could launch an invasion.
Much of this reflects the reality of power politics and is an interpretation advanced by many historians. But Simms takes the argument of the centrality of the importance of Europe to Britain further. Domestic reform has been driven by the need to compete in Europe, and even the establishment of the Welfare State was designed to secure social cohesion and demographic strength to support Britain’s position as a Great Power. A view that many historians would challenge as being either simplistic or failing to take into account domestic political and economic factors.
As for what became of the British Empire, Simms argues that its original primary function was to enhance British power in Europe. Post-war colonial independence was designed to rebalance military power.
Even the slow march towards a United Kingdom is explained by the need to make England stronger in a European context. This explains amongst other things, the 1707 Act of Union. By the same logic the Blairite government’s devolution measures were designed to maintain the strength of a looser United Kingdom. All these arguments have elements of logic and merit, but once again fail to take into account forces beyond the European context.
These eight chapters lead inexorably to the final two, the first of which is entitled “Britain : The Last Great European Power”. Here Simms forcefully argues against those who see Britain’s inevitable decline as a great political and military power. He recounts a proactive foreign policy based on membership of the UN Security Council, possession of a nuclear deterrent and a willingness to deploy military force globally – part of a continuity in our national history. Suez and Iraq may be inconvenient glitches.
But it is his final chapter which challenges orthodox remain and leave interpretations of our history. In “The United Kingdom and Continental Union” Simms dismisses the EU as a doomed institution and in its place should be established a genuine United States of Europe, a federal system built on the British model of liberal, parliamentary governance. Here the author indulges in what your reviewer thinks is a flight of fancy. This United States of Europe would have a single army, presumably modelled on the British Army, and a single language of governance, naturally English. One suspects that the French, just to pick one nation at random, might have robust views about this.
Britain’s Europe is a stimulating read, combining history with being a polemic. Perhaps, after the result of the referendum, politicians may turn to it for solace or stimulation.
Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland.
“Whenever you tell a story, you tell a lie.” That’s a great line from the play, and it feels very now.