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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.

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