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March 17, 2011

The Primacy of Foreign Policy in British History, 1660-2000: How Strategic Concerns Shaped Modern Britain - (ed.) William Mulligan and Brendan Simms

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Primacy of Foreign Policy in British History, 1660-2000: How Strategic Concerns Shaped Modern Britain
edited by William Mulligan and Brendan Simms
Pp. xiv + 345. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010
Hardback, £65

The quality of the work presented by the twenty-two contributors to this volume is itself enough to command attention, but more significant is the intellectual coherence provided by the editors. Mulligan and Simms ably and judiciously outline their theme of the need to focus on the primacy of foreign policy in British history and then shape their contributors' work in order to offer an alternative narrative of national history, one organised in terms of the degree to which there was indeed a primacy.

Before considering several of the individual chapters, for space, alas, does not permit an analysis of all of these fine and interesting pieces, it is making three general points, one mildly critical and the other two strongly supportive. As far as the first is concerned, I feel that the editors and the contributor of the first substantial chapter, Gabriel Glickman, who valuably considers foreign affairs in domestic debate from 1660 to 1689, do not adequately explain why 1660 should be the starting point. All chronological divisions, of course, face problems, but there is much to be gained from comparing the situation in the 1620s, when foreign policy was highly contentious and caused acute political problems, with that in the 1660s and early 1670s when the same was true. Issues of parliamentary and press management can be seen in both cases. And so also with the 1650s, not least due to the problems, particularly of expenditure, that overcame Cromwellian foreign policy. To argue that 1660 makes a clear divide is highly problematic.

More positively, this volume is highly significant not only for its valuable contents but also for what it represents. In arguing the case for foreign policy, the contributors and, even more, editors, are challenging the standard emphasis on domestic factors, and, in doing so, they are implicitly arguing that the standard balance in historiography with the heavy bias toward social history is seriously mistaken. I agree completely, and feel that this work by Mulligan and Simms can (and should) be joined by linked studies on high political, military and constitutional history. Indeed, these themes occur in many of the individual chapters.

Moreover, as the editors point out, the volume has great relevance today. They focus on the "Global War on Terror", although the challenge posed by the European Union has a more profound consequence for domestic developments, not least by seeking to redefine domestic and foreign.

Of the individual chapters, Glickman and David Onnekink provide fine introductions to the late-seventeenth century, while Andrew Thompson is very interesting on the development of the executive and foreign policy from 1714 to 1760. Doohwan Ahn and Simms offer a very instructive analysis of chronological developments of foreign affairs in British public discourse, putting the emphasis on Europe and not the outside world. The nineteenth century is profitaby examined by a number of contributors, notably Adrian Brettle, Anthony Howe, Duncan Bell, Thomas Otte and Mulligan. In combination, these pieces are of great significance for our understanding of the period. The pieces on the twentieth century are more disparate, but again important, not least David Edgerton’s challenge to the welfare state approach to the Second World War.

Mulligan and Simms are to be congratulated on an excellent and important volume, and it is to be hoped that it influences more general approaches.

Jeremy Black's recent works include Debating Foreign Policy in Eighteenth-Century Britain, The Great War and the Making of the Modern World, and The Cold War.

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