Sign up for Our Newsletter

February 2012: Brendan Simms’ “Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire”

Reviewed by:  Jeremy Black, University of Exeter

Brendan Simms. London: Penguin, 2007. xxix+802 pp.  £30.00 hardback.

The follies of others sometimes provide welcome opportunities. Having edited a journal (Archives) for many years, I know the frustration caused to editors by reviewers who will not deliver copy, return the book or answer correspondence. When the patience of The British Scholar Society, with a major American academic in the field, finally ran out and they asked me if I would write a review, I was delighted to respond positively as it provided an opportunity to re-read a major work, to assess it anew, and to consider how far both the work and the assessment appeared different in light of developments in the literature and, indeed, changes in the present context.

The most lively, as well as very scholarly, Brendan Simms, now I am glad to say a professor, suggests in this book that he is a ‘Whig’ to my ‘Tory’ and, although that account underplays the repeated contrasts between government and opposition Whigs, Simms captures in his scholarship and journalism the interplay between past and present. I think he would not mind my saying that his book is very much an account of policy and strategy from an interventionist perspective, with this interventionism presented as resting on a conviction that Britain was inherently European and a key part of the European system. This approach, which also reflects Simms’ views on the future of Britain and Europe, has recently been but further strengthened by a more structural account, Stephen Conway’s Britain, Ireland, and Continental Europe in the Eighteenth Century. Similarities, Connections, Identities (Oxford University Press, 2011), an impressive work that includes a chapter on the Continental (ie European) connection in British foreign policy.

Simms offers an analytical narrative that complements this view, and, in doing so, also provides a defence of the Hanoverian connection. The account of foreign policy under George I and George II is both impressive and interesting. Policy is a key thesis as well as theme: British actions are seen as arising not in response to other powers nor as disparate, but as reflecting an ability to draw together commitments in different fields. Thus, Pitt the Elder’s argument about conquering America (ie Canada) in Germany is vindicated. I would be more inclined to emphasise the risks and problems of this policy, and the lack of a clear correspondence between rhetoric and reality.

Simms makes his views of Britain’s needs, interests and achievements clear. He concludes that ‘by mid-century, a coherent British strategic culture had emerged. It was firmly Eurocentric: it gave absolute priority to preventing the growth of a hegemon on the Continent…. The colonial and naval spheres were subordinated to the Continental theatre’. (p. 673)  Simms argues that a failure to maintain Continental alliances helped lead to failure in America, and that this result led to the restoration of the primacy of European politics in Britain.

I would suggest a different approach for a number of reasons, notably because I am more dubious about these alliances, a point developed in my Debating Foreign Policy in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Ashgate, 2011); but I am more concerned on a re-reading with the historiographical location of Simms’ important book. As he makes clear, from the Introduction on, his work is a critique of Atlanticist readings, in that he sees them as subordinate to European concerns. This issue remains significant and it can hardly be suggested that the Atlanticists have risen to the level of Simms’ analysis of foreign policy, as opposed to their more usual attention to political culture and commercial networks. This is not an issue restricted to the eighteenth century but can also be seen for the nineteenth. For example, British and French policy toward the New World in the 1850s and 1860s has to be understood in the context of other international commitments (see J. Black, Fighting for America. The Struggle for Mastery in North America, 1519-1871, University of Indiana Press, 2011).

Thus, re-reading Simms is to be reminded not only of his intellectual boldness and scholarly range, but also of the historiographical and conceptual significance of his work. The challenge now is to engage not only with the complexities and inconsistencies of Whig thought, but also to provide an account of policy that awards due weight both to the actions of ministers and diplomats, and to the independent views and, indeed, agency of others, both in Britain and North America.

This entry was posted in Book of the Month, News. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.