Books interview: Beatrice Heuser

The author of Brexit in History: Sovereignty or a European Union? on extroversion and introversion, political decision making and Bohemian fairy tales

May 16, 2019

What sort of books inspired you as a child?

My absolute favourite, with which my mother taught me to read, was the Bohemian author Otfried Preussler’s The Little Witch (available in English!). It is written in the Prague tradition of legends, fairy tales and fantasies, like the Golem or Kafka’s works, but with a happy ending, and for children. Later came Fritz Steuben’s multi-volume novel about the Native American chief Tecumseh and his generalship in organising resistance against the European invaders. I learned more from it about the politics of alliance-building than from any other book I have read in my life.

Your new book explores debates about ‘federalism’ and sovereignty in Europe. Which books provide good overviews of the background?

My favourite, and outstanding, work here is Andreas Osiander’s States System of Europe, 1640-1990: Peacemaking and the Conditions of International Stability. It should be on every reading list for international relations. The post-war period is well documented in The Origins and Development of European Integration, a collection of primary sources edited by Peter R.M. Stirk and David Weigall.

What book would you recommend to illuminate British notions of sovereignty that helped inspire the vote to Leave?

A good starting point would be Edmund S. Morgan’s Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America. But it is worth pointing out that much that is often portrayed as unique to England/Britain is in fact shared, at least by the French, who invented “sovereignty”, as the very word suggests; by Americans, who defined their own sovereignty against English(!) oppression; and by Britain’s other former colonies.

What would you recommend as a good analysis of the divisions in British attitudes we are witnessing around Brexit?

Even in 1963, the British political commentator John Mander wrote a wonderfully observant little book published as a paperback and still available second-hand, called Great Britain or Little England? It aptly sketches two contrasting strands of British mentality, the extrovert and the introvert, those open to the world and those wanting to cut England loose from all entangling alliances…The Brexiters want to turn their backs on Europe, dreaming of a resurrected British Empire, while the Remainers see the British primarily, albeit by no means only, as Europeans and international players.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?

During a career that took me to Nato, to work in a military institution and to consultancy work for governments and international organisations, I have become convinced that bureaucratic politics (the rivalry between politicians, different parts of the government and the military services, but also between states’ representatives within international organisations) contains keys to the understanding of decisions made in politics. The best book on the subject is C. Northcote Parkinson’s classic, also from 1963, Parkinson’s Law. I gave it to a Danish friend who has discovered many of Parkinson’s laws for himself in observing defence decision making.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?

Jörn Leonhard’s Pandora’s Box: A History of the First World War, which has just come out with Harvard University Press, is a brilliant history of what people thought about the First World War – before, during and after. I am cheating slightly here as I have already read big chunks of it.

Beatrice Heuser holds the chair in international relations at the University of Glasgow. Her latest book is Brexit in History: Sovereignty or a European Union? (Hurst).

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