Three Victories and a Defeat, by Brendan Simms

The Empire strikes back
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In 1714, a minor German ruler, who spoke almost no English, was drafted onto the throne of a United Kingdom whose inhabitants still disputed whether to think of themselves as British. In the ensuing decades, under his and his son's rule, that initially unsteady state fought off internal threats, mainly from Scotland, waged and (mostly) won three big global wars and numerous small ones, and acquired vast expanses of territory in the Americas and Asia: the "first British Empire".

70 years later, though, his great-grandson (with greater linguistic accomplishments but erratic mental balance) presided helplessly over the loss of a major part of that empire. Worse, Britain had seemingly managed to unite every major European power against her, faced renewed internal instability and Irish discontent, and no longer ruled the waves. She lay in grave danger of invasion and conquest from France: a threat to her survival, so Brendan Simms suggests, probably greater than those that Napoleon, or even Hitler, later posed.

Recovery – both domestic and imperial – was remarkably quick. Much of the "first Empire" was never lost: in India it kept growing, and soon new colonies were won, laying the basis for the even greater "second Empire". Naval and commercial supremacy were restored, and industrial dominance added. Official and public memory soon almost erased that 1780s moment of near-disaster, jumping straight from the triumphs of Clive and Wolfe to those of Nelson and Wellington. Moreover, the system of European alliances on which earlier success rested, but which had temporarily been thrown away, was rapidly rebuilt.

Three great images (or, as the jargon has it, "metanarratives") of 18th-century Britain contend among its historians: the island story, the Empire tale and the European. The first has long been in retreat. Rejection of a purely insular British (which usually meant mostly English) history is now the norm – which isn't to say that such histories aren't still written and read, let alone that the underlying habits of mind have vanished. The Empire story holds the current high ground. The great wave of historical reinterpretation has been to echo and revive JR Seeley's 1880s claim that: "The history of England was not in England, but in America and Asia."

But Simms immediately contradicts Seeley and his followers: the history of 18th-century Britain was not in the overseas Empire, nor even mainly within Britain, but in Europe. The heart of Britain's concerns was on the Continent, above all in Flanders and Germany. The source of global success or failure, and the fulcrum of most domestic politics, lay there and in the elaborate, shifting alliances that British governments constructed across Europe. Having German rulers after 1714 only reinforced that time-worn truth. The 1780s nadir of Britain's fortunes came when that focus was briefly abandoned: America was lost not at Yorktown, but on the Rhine.

The Empire-centred story against which Simms kicks is often felt to carry a strong present-day message. Emphasis on how much the 18th-century creation of Britishness and British power owed to imperialism and associated ideas about race and nation is thought to tell us all some salutary things about national identity, race relations and global responsibilities today. There is even – illogically, but powerfully – suspicion in certain quarters that downplaying this, and emphasising how fully the Britain of 300 years ago was a European power, involves a myopia or reactionary stance on modern "racial" issues. On the other side, insofar as Simms's argument is directed against a sort of retrospective Euroscepticism, it has a quite different potential message.

Simms is far from deaf to these implications. Alongside his 18th-century historical studies, he has written a fine, intensely engaged book on the Bosnian crisis in the Nineties, Unfinest Hour. But his allusions to them here are brief, albeit pointed. His focus is on telling the 18th-century story in detail, in its own right and on its own terms, rather than ostentatiously drawing latterday lessons. He does so quite brilliantly: this is a superbly crafted historical narrative, as well as a powerful reinterpretation.

Perhaps it's a bit over-insistent on its central message. By the time Simms has urged for the nth time that it was continental Europe, not the Americas, the Caribbean or India, that was truly central to British strategies and fortunes, one feels inclined to say, "OK I think we got the point." It's even possible to suspect a touch of special pleading: 18th-century Germany is, with Britain and Ireland, Simms's main academic interest, so he might be a little over-inclined to see everyone else echoing his fascination. Even if this were so, such marginal suspicions do little to dent the scholarly armour of one of the finest works of history, in any field, published this year.

Allen Lane £30 (831pp) £27(free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Stephen Howe is professor of colonial history at Bristol University