Lessons in independence

Nick Cohen enjoys Brendan Simms’ Three Victories and a Defeat, a refreshingly unsentimental study of how Britain cut itself off from the rest of Europe in the 18th century, with disastrous consequences

Sunday November 4, 2007
The Observer

Buy Three Victories and a Defeat at the Guardian bookshop

Three Victories and a Defeat
by Brendan Simms
Allen Lane, £30, pp800
British Eurosceptics live with a paradox as close to tragedy as anything can be in high politics. A determination to disentangle Britain from Europe drives them into public life. To their delight they find the overwhelming majority of public opinion agrees with them. Passion, flair and the best democratic arguments are on the Eurosceptic side. Yet parties that oppose Europe always lose elections. However much they agree with them, voters sense a danger and turn away. Bennite isolationism wrecked Labour in the Eighties. Harder to explain is the failure of the modern Tories. In an age of globalisation, their policy of putting clear blue water between Britain and Europe and looking across the oceans to the trading stations of the old empire sounds practical, but a sympathetic public can never be persuaded to vote in large enough numbers to implement it.

Brendan Simms is too good a historian to exploit the past to score a point about the present. Rather, Three Victories and a Defeat is an argument about the constants of foreign policy; about how in the 18th century the knowledge that Britain wasn’t ‘an island entire of itself’ made it a superpower, and how the American colonies were lost when the British tried to manage on their own.
Like everyone else who tosses the quotation around, I’d assumed John Donne was talking about the human condition not the balance of power. But, as Simms points out on his first page, Donne was writing when James I had outraged respectable opinion by failing to help European Protestants. ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod is washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…’ was written at a time of fear that Catholic Spain would overwhelm the Low Countries and seize the ports it needed for an invasion.

From 1688 through to 1763 statesmen sought to prevent a ‘universal monarchy’, whether Hapsburg or Bourbon, dominating the continent and thus threatening Britain. With great skill and a light touch, Simms tells the complicated story of how a country that under Charles II and James II was little more than a French satellite searched for security by becoming involved in the politics of every country from the Ottoman Empire to Sweden, built alliances, switched sides, paid bribes, sent off armies and developed the navy.

As now, resentment at involvement in Europe was always present. Patriotic and often xenophobic opinion loathed the Whig oligarchs for their willingness to spend blood and treasure on the wars of the Dutch William and German Hanoverians. In 1711, Swift asked in his great polemic, The Conduct of the Allies, why the English should support the cause of the hated Dutch, fight their battles and pick up their bills? Why bother when the only part of England to benefit was the City – ‘that set of people who are called the moneyed men… whose perpetual harvest is war, and whose beneficial way of traffic must very much decline by a peace’?

To my mind Simms doesn’t acknowledge the force of Swift’s questions or the Tory and radical criticisms of the wars and corruption of the Whigs. But then I suppose he feels he doesn’t have to, because after winning the War of the Spanish Succession, the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War, Britain turned her back on Europe as the Tories had always wanted and the result was catastrophe.

Simms, a Peterhouse don, has become the most formidable modern enemy of the Conservative tradition in foreign policy. His last book, Unfinest Hour, so excoriated the Major government’s behaviour during the Bosnian crisis that I know people who have refused to shake the hand of Douglas Hurd or Malcolm Rifkind after reading it. Three Victories and a Defeat does the same to their predecessors. The Tories assumed that Britain could forget about Europe and hide behind the Royal Navy. But because the British stopped diverting France and Spain with alliances in Europe, their enemies could build up their navies and combine to challenge Britain when the American War of Independence began.

Simms is refreshingly unsentimental about the revolution, seeing it, quite rightly, as a clash of imperialisms. Benjamin Franklin and many others had been empire loyalists. When they realised that the Tory policy of avoiding conflict would stop the 13 colonies expanding across the continent, they revolted. Britain was never as alone as it was in the American War of Independence. Even in 1940, Greece was still an ally. In 1776, there was no one. Prescient men of the day realised the scale of the rout. Horace Walpole predicted that one day Europeans would take instructions from Americans, while the American delegation in Paris told the French that a great empire would emerge from the scattered settlements on the Atlantic seaboard, ‘and they will all speak English, every one of ’em’.

This book is a strong riposte to Linda Colley’s argument that the British defined themselves against the European ‘other’. Not so, Simms replies, ‘Britain’s fate’ is decided in Europe ‘always has been and always would be’. History doesn’t repeat itself, but geography doesn’t change. We do not live on ‘an island entire of itself’ but in a European country. Unless Eurosceptics can find continental allies against Brussels, they are as certain to fail as their ancestors.