Part of an ongoing scholarly project to rediscover and reintegrate the history of British Empire-building with that of domestic politics, culture, society, and intellectual life, Duncan Bell's The Idea of Greater Britain documents a hitherto submerged strain of Victorian thought advocating a federated world state with Britain at its core. The book is deeply researched in private papers as well as a remarkably broad array of published tracts, letters, speeches, and other writings by Victorian thinkers.
From the 1860s, fear of imperial decline in the face of geopolitical rivals including Germany, Russia, and the United States produced a sense of cultural crisis in Britain. Canada's attainment of responsible government in 1867 made imperial disintegration appear inevitable. Developments at home such as crass, soulless Manchesterism and democratization, raising the socialist bogey, seemed harbingers of degeneration. Seeking a remedy for this multifarious malaise, advocates of Greater Britain wished to allow for the white settler colonies' eventual independence while maintaining some form of political unity. Just as the contemporaneous New Imperialism was embraced as the panacea for a multitude of ills, Greater Britain was expected to solve myriad domestic and geopolitical problems. Most importantly, it would allow the settler colonies to have the self-government they sought and might simply seize eventually without compromising British imperial prestige and power.
Persistently vague about actual plans for fear of scaring off potential support, an array of eminent Victorians from J. A. Hobson and Leonard Hobhouse, who were ambivalent at best, to Charles Dilke, J. A. Froude, and Joseph Chamberlain—the last "vociferous" in his advocacy (56)—promoted their various visions of Greater Britain. The author acknowledges the contradictory and even half-baked character of most thinking and writing on the subject. Champions of Greater Britain did not agree about which territories ought to be included: some favored the whole Empire, others only the settler colonies, while still others included the United States. Some, for example, favored Irish Home Rule as a step toward a global federation, while most racialized Celtic and Catholic identity to exclude the Irish entirely. Greater Britain never came to fruition, mainly because the settler states whose cooperation was vital to the scheme had no interest in it and demanded fuller independence. Fears of disarranging the Constitution and thereby prompting revolution also stayed reformers' hands.
Conversely, the very vagueness and variety of view among its advocates rendered the idea of Greater Britain palatable to an otherwise incompatible array of opinion. Bell compares the views of J. R. Seeley, advocate of Greater Britain, with those of anti-imperialist and opponent Goldwin Smith to show that they actually shared a broad consensus about the world and Britain's place in it. Both partook of racial Anglo-Saxonism, justifying continued British domination of the Empire through an organic unity enforcing "global bonds of tradition and race" (181). Smith remained disdainful of the Irish and Indians, justifying continued British rule.
Although writing during the heyday of New Imperialism, advocates of Greater Britain essentially ignored Africa, while most found various cultural or racial arguments for excluding Ireland and India from their schemes. All relied on racialized and naturalized conceptions of Anglo-Saxonism to justify the domination and even extermination of colonized people, if they were acknowledged at all. Rehabilitating settlers from brutal racist thugs to sturdy yeomen, settler colonialism was re-envisioned as the majestic, natural, "organic" spread of superior people into underutilized territory. Moral laxity would be vanquished in favor of noble and selfless "civic imperialism," while degenerate slum-dwellers would be reinvigorated by shipping them off to the colonies. Overseas territories could serve as laboratories for progressive experiments to be reimported to Britain if successful, appealing to liberals and socialists. Greater Britain would act as guarantor of security and peace.
The Idea of Greater Britain seems to speak directly to current apologists for globalization. Paeans to the steamship and telegraph, ostensibly rendering time and space obsolete as impediments to global domination, included Rudyard Kipling's pronouncement "they have killed their father time" (qtd. in Bell 77). Repudiating the classical empires that formed the model for the Pax Britannica, Greater Britain boosters looked to the United States for models of imperium without end...