In 1758 an anonymous British pamphleteer lamented the "misguided and erroneous I notion I which has crept into the minds of our people I that Britain can, with safety to herself, be wrapped up in her own natural and internal strength, however great, or be detached from every other part of the world; and particularly that she can, without hazard, lose or renounce all connections with the continent". Yet as Jeremy Black shows in his thought-provoking new book, Britain was by then already on the verge of turning her back on Europe and focusing most of her energies overseas.
America or Europe? is a fitting successor to Black's earlier volume on British foreign policy under Walpole. His account of the years 1739-1763 is well grounded in manuscript sources and fully integrates the extensive secondary literature. The result is a subtle and complex approach which gives full due to chance factors and short-term considerations without losing sight of the broader issues.
Before the 1750s, and certainly before 1740, Black argues, British foreign policy was firmly directed towards the prevention of French hegemony in Europe. At the same time, the succession of the Hanoverian elector as king of England in 1714 involved Britain in the defence of his German patrimony. This, as Black points out, "essentially created a new state", which - following the lead of Raghnild Hatton - he christens "Britain-Hanover". Both interventionism in general, and the Hanoverian focus in particular, involved large commitments of ground forces, costly subsidies to foreign powers, and appeared to be at the expense of maritime and colonial expansion. It was thus furiously contested both inside and outside of parliament by Tories, urban radicals and the Whig opposition.
Black himself argues that traditional "Whig" interventionism had "failed" by mid-century. He criticises Carteret for, among other things, neglecting the domestic context to foreign policy, underestimating the Jacobite threat and provoking the French into invading Flanders. Newcastle is rebuked for his "mechanistic, systemic approach" which failed either to keep the peace in Europe or to deter the French overseas through a forward policy on the continent. Pitt, on the other hand, emerges as the "strategist of empire" who - among many others - masterminded the "reconceptualisation of Britain" as an imperial and colonial power. Whereas British involvement in the war of the Austrian succession had opened with the dispatch of troops to the continent, the Seven Years' war began with the dispatch of naval reinforcements to the American theatre.
It is certainly true that a significant turn away from Europe did take place after 1760. For more than 20 years Britain was without a great-power ally and either ignored, or was excluded from, the major diplomatic developments; this state of affairs would have been anathema to an earlier generation of interventionists. Whether this shift actually benefited the national interest is less clear, however. Indeed, it is possible to argue that the continental commitment, far from being an albatross, actually facilitated British overseas expansion and contributed to the security of the realm. In 1742-48 and again in 1756-60, British (-Hanoverian) and British-funded forces tied down much larger numbers of French troops in central Europe and allowed the Royal Navy to concentrate on the war overseas. Already in 1748, Newcastle had feared that a purely naval and isolationist policy would leave the French free to build up their own fleet and settle accounts in the colonies. The new French foreign minister, Vergennes, thought so too and went on to orchestrate the humiliating British defeat in the American war, 1776-83. This was the first major conflict of the century in which Britain found herself unencumbered with any European alliances or the defence of Hanover, and it did her no good at all.
Surely the best proof of the value of the European commitment lies in the conversion of Pitt the Elder, who began his career as a coruscating critic of ministerial interventionism, but who finished by defending continental subsidies against the isolationism of the new George III, who gloried only in the name of "Briton". The man who famously boasted of being unable to find Hanover on the map at the beginning of the Seven Years' war, equally famously stated at its close that "America had been won in Germany". As Richard Pares pointed out some time ago, Pitt's greatness lay in learning the lesson, not in having nothing to learn. This is something his successors - many of whom still believe that Britain can "without hazard lose or renounce all connections with the continent" - would do well to consider.
Brendan Simms is director of studies in history, Peterhouse, Cambridge.
America or Europe?: British Foreign Policy, 1739-63
Author - Jeremy Black
ISBN - 1 85728 185 3
Publisher - UCL Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 220