Current debates, and pointed silences, about the EU have a long and troubled history, says Brendan Simms. Last month, the commentator Simon Jenkins remarked on the almost complete absence of foreign policy in the speeches of the Prime Minister and the Tory leader, David Cameron, at their respective party conferences. "Foreign policy," he wrote in a Sunday newspaper, "once the stuff of national debate, is consigned to cliche and platitude."
Jenkins would have been more at home in the 18th century, when foreign policy was at the heart of politics. This was because Britain's elites saw themselves not as offshore islanders who could go about their business undisturbed, but as Europeans. They knew that from the Dutch invasion of 1688, through the Wars of Grand Alliance against Louis XIV, the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War, the French and Spanish-backed Jacobite revolts of the 18th century, to the American War, the destiny of England, or Great Britain, as the composite state became known, had been decided by events on the "Continent".
It was European pressures that led to the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707. Between 1689 and 1702, England shared a sovereign, William III, with the Dutch. From 1714, Britain was dynastically and geopolitically linked to the European mainland through the Personal Union with Hanover. The apparatus of the "fiscal-military state" - the Bank of England, the national debt, the stock market, the Royal Navy and the standing army - was designed primarily to sustain Britain's international role in Europe. Much contemporary British political thought centred on Britain's position within the international state system. The discussion of European treaties, subsidies, wars and the balance of power generally also loomed large in the emerging public sphere. Trade with continental Europe far outstripped that with the rest of the world until very late in the century.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the question of Britain's position in Europe structured British politics and public political discourse between 1714 and 1783. Foreign policy, rather than taxation, popular unrest, elections or colonial expansion, was the central political preoccupation in 18th-century Britain. It was by far the largest single subject of debate in Parliament, at least in the first two thirds of the century. Almost all the King's speeches at the opening of the session concerned primarily foreign policy. Foreign policy was central to shifting high-political fortunes, and especially to royal favour. Most ministries rose or fell on the strength of their performance in defence of Britain's European position.
Thus the Tories triumphed in 1710 as the Spanish War stagnated. They were more or less proscribed after 1714 because of the Treaty of Utrecht. Thereafter, the fate of most Whig administrations was decided by foreign policy. If Walpole came to power in 1721 as a safe pair of financial hands to sort out the South Sea mess, he lost it in 1742 primarily because of the imminent disintegration of the Habsburg monarchy. Carteret followed him two years later, again because of difficulties in central Europe. The loss of Minorca did for Newcastle in 1756; Spain for Pitt in 1761; the "German War" for Newcastle in 1762; and the peace for Bute in 1763. In 1782, North was held liable for the loss of America and the underlying disaster of European isolation.
These were not abstract but existential issues. The architect of the Treaty of Utrecht, the Earl of Oxford, was impeached in 1715 on the charge of having betrayed Britain's European allies. He rightly feared for his life. For the first 60 years after 1700, statesmen and generals routinely referred to the threat of execution for failing to defend the national interest or uphold the European balance of power. Luckily for North, misjudging foreign policy was no longer a capital offence by the late 18th century. Charles James Fox and others might mutter about "treacherous" ministers who had lost America, but strategic failure was no longer a criminal act. By 1782, ministers feared to lose their posts but nothing more.
In one respect, pace Jenkins, the past and the present are not so different. Much current British debate on Europe would have struck an informed 18th-century observer as remarkably familiar. Should Britain engage militarily, politically and financially with Europe? Or should she look to her maritime destiny and seek her future with America? Was Britain politically and psychologically part of Europe, or in some way an island apart? These were questions that exercised Britons some 300 years ago as much as they do today.
Brendan Simms is reader in the history of international relations, Cambridge University. His Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire, 1714-1783 is published this month by Penguin, £30.