Brendan Simms's new book places Britain at the centre of European history in unexpected and stimulating ways
A Dutch king of England: William III, c.1690, by an unknown artist
Brendan Simms has written a remarkable book. It is remarkable for his ability to steer between Brexiteers and Remainers with his own distinctive — though some may think fantastic — view of how Europe should develop and what Britain’s relationship with Europe should be. It is also remarkable because, as in his deeply learned and very detailed book Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, published only three years ago, Simms bases his argument on a very particular approach to the history of Europe. As a professor of the history of international relations, he sees everything through the lenses of foreign policy and relations between states; in his previous book he placed the German lands at the centre of European history since 1453, and in this book he, in a sense, places Britain, or more often England, at the centre of European history in unexpected and stimulating ways. Setting aside his irritating and bizarre use of square brackets in just about every [modified] quotation, even around single letters within words, as in “[T]he vicinage [neighbourhood] of Europe . . .”, he writes with verve and has produced a powerful and provocative book.
I am one of those who insist that the political culture of the United Kingdom has developed in distinctive ways compared to the European continent; we have our common law tradition, our lack of a written constitution, and a history interrupted by few invasions and revolutions. But I would never seek to deny that the relationship with Europe has done much to mould the history of these islands. Indeed, the subtitle of the book, “A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation”, is the positive/negative relationship in a nutshell. Moreover, Simms has no real doubt about the distinctive political identity of the United Kingdom, which, as he says, irritates those in Europe who would rather ignore it and press for ever greater union.
By concentrating on political relationships, Simms does miss the opportunity to emphasise the economic relationships that often underlay the political ones; and this is odd, when one thinks how the Remainers will talk about nothing but the economy, blithely avoiding the issue of sovereignty. Yet the relationship between medieval England and Flanders was founded on the wool trade, no less than on the desire to work alongside the masters of Flanders, the flamboyant dukes of Burgundy, in the mischievous hope of undermining their common rival, the king of France. Simms also has little to say about the internal dynamics of British political life. The Glorious Revolution is seen as the product of Anglo-Dutch wars against France and Spain, but the acceptance of William III as king of England also needs to be seen as a protest within Britain against the sometimes arbitrary rule of the Catholic King James II.
Simms plays along with the idea that the arrival of George I on the British throne meant that Britain was for the next 120-odd years closely involved with German affairs through George’s other territory, the Electorate of Hanover, which was within easy range as it bordered the North Sea. But a footnote at the back of the book admits that the two states were ruled quite separately, and there was no integration of institutions between them. When Pitt the Younger went to war with revolutionary France, Simms points out, the central issue was the French occupation of Flanders, a region that had always been of interest to England, not least in the dark days when (to Queen Elizabeth’s annoyance) it lay under Spanish rule; Hanover was not the casus belli, even though it too was in due course overwhelmed by French armies.
These examples all concern areas of Europe, particularly the Low Countries, that were no great distance from England, so the degree of British commercial and political engagement with them hardly comes as a surprise. But, as in his previous book, Simms needs occasionally to remember that Europe is bigger than the Low Countries, France and Germany. The British presence in the Mediterranean, that brought rule over Gibraltar, Minorca, Malta and for a time Corsica and Sicily, and later on Cyprus — parts of which remain British sovereign territory to this day — is also an important part of the history of British engagement with Europe, from a very different perspective, though frequently with the familiar aim of getting at the French by exposing France’s underbelly. In the late 19th century, being able to go round Europe via Gibraltar and Malta was as important as having access to Europe: witness the Suez Canal route to India, which Disraeli brilliantly realised could not be left solely under French control. By not taking sufficiently into account the simple fact that the European Union now contains nine Mediterranean states (if one generously includes Portugal), Simms ends up offering a lopsided account of Europe and of Britain’s relationship with it. One should remember that of those states only tiny Malta has had a decent record of economic growth in the past few years.
That is the larger Europe with which Britain is now engaged. Simms has no illusions about the economic supremacy of Germany within the eurozone, and his solution is ever greater integration but within the eurozone. He follows the familiar line that the euro could only have succeeded with much deeper political integration, but he does not avoid the issue of democratic accountability within a United States of Europe. He sets out his own plan for Europe, based on the model of the United States of America: there would be a Senate and a “House of Citizens”, as in Congress, and a president elected by direct suffrage. After all, he points out, the Americans states differ in size and resources; if you can combine Texas and Rhode Island, why not Malta and Germany?
At this point Simms’s dependence on an international relations approach becomes a major problem. It is true that the Deep South of the USA has different cultural traditions and even different heroes (at least for white Southerners) to those in the north, but after nearly 250 years the US has become “one nation under God”. One can hardly say that of Europe, where the divergence in language, literary traditions, national histories, political institutions, religious composition and much else is far greater than in the US. Nor, despite the euro, has economic integration advanced nearly as far as it has in the US.
That is just to speak of the eurozone, but it is there — and not, I am glad to say, in the UK — that Professor Simms wishes to create his New Europe, whose close integration would be achieved without Britain actually taking part. Rather, the United Kingdom would act as fairy godmother, waving the wand of democracy and accountability, so that this would be a British Europe, but without Britain being anything more than an associate member, if I have understood correctly. It is some comfort to know that there would be a single language, and — though he dallies with Latin and Hebrew — he decides that English is now the lingua franca of Europe, meaning that the French would have to put up or shut up, all the more so in this very British Europe. There is something here of Churchill’s enthusiasm for Europe, which was combined with a belief that a united Europe was right for people across the Channel, but not for us.
Simms is absolutely right that the rest of the EU could learn much from Great Britain. One might begin with Britain’s excessively honest tradition of meticulously implementing European law even when no one here really wants to do so. Another obvious area of concern in the UK, but not apparently in many other EU states, is the awkward necessity of having one’s accounts audited and approved each year. Simms is absolutely right that Great Britain is still great Britain, with a small “g”: the fifth largest economy in the world; a major military power despite all the cuts; a significant voice in international affairs not just on the UN Security Council or in the Commonwealth, but across the globe.
He has a powerful sense of the need for our own politicians to stop disparaging Britain, to stop insisting that the UK is of middling importance and needs Europe because it will wobble over if asked to stand on its own feet. From this perspective, he likes to think that Britain can shape Europe. But he is also well aware that General de Gaulle knew this might happen if Britain joined the Common Market and had one word for what he saw as a problem, not an advantage: “Non!”
Simms is a very fine historian, and historians have been deployed in the Europe debate on both sides. Whether his book will help people decide how to vote in the referendum is a moot point. It does not really address the issues that have underlain discussion in the group I have been associated with, “Historians for Britain”. Does the United Kingdom possess a distinctive political culture that makes integration into Europe impossible without dismantling the foundations of our legal system and our constitution? Is there really such a thing as a European identity, and if not surely it is very alarming when we are told we must get to work and create one? When it comes to foreign affairs and security issues, anyone reading Simms’s book can only conclude that the EU has been a disaster in this arena, and that we owe our security to Nato, not an EU that did not exist in the early Fifties. The bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia left Europe covered in shame, and it is easy to make the case that the EU drew Putin into Ukraine by making too many overtures to a country that is not, in any case, ready to accede to the EU.
Then there is the question of Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world. Simms is very perceptive about Anglo-American relations. However, it is not really possible to talk about Britain and Europe without saying a fair amount about competition — going right back to the days of King Henry VII — with Spain, Portugal, Holland and France for mastery over colonies scattered across the globe, way beyond those 13 troublesome settlements across the Atlantic. Historians are increasingly insisting that European history is in this sense much more than the history of Europe.
The legacy of these connections can, as Simms admits, be traced in the political systems and legal traditions of countries as remote as New Zealand, which were more than a little disconcerted by Grocer Heath’s insistence that the future of British trade lay with our continental neighbours rather than our Commonwealth partners, even if New Zealand lambs probably heaved a sigh of relief.
One is left with the impression that Europe is still the place over there, and that we are and will always be semi-detached from it. Real Europhilia is surely far rarer in Britain, certainly in England, than it is in Italy or Belgium or Austria. The question on June 23 is not “Are you Eurosceptic or Europhile?” but “How Eurosceptic are you?” Many of those who will vote to leave were looking for a looser association, but nonetheless some association, with the rest of the EU, and felt that the Prime Minister had not returned with Brussels with quite enough, especially since he could have carried on negotiating for another year and a half. I think Simms would like to keep us on the Remain side of the fence, but in the end does more to persuade me that I should stay with the Brexiteers — which means his book is good history, dispassionate even when setting out his case for a “British Europe” without Britain in it.