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The Idea of Greater Britain: Empire and the Future of World Order, 1860-1900 (review)

From: Victorian Review
Volume 37, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 201-203 | 10.1353/vcr.2011.0007

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In 1868, Charles Dilke published a travelogue called Greater Britain: A Record of Travel in English-Speaking Countries during 1866 and 1867. In subsequent decades, politicians and philosophers representing a wide spectrum of opinions returned to the phrase "Greater Britain," untethered to Dilke's particular argument. It captured an aspirational quality and seemed to respond to the mood of the times, when Britain's sense of itself as a "great power" was buffeted by the forces of globalization, competition, and democratic reform (Bell 7). Duncan Bell's book traces these politically distinct arguments about the nature and shape of an imagined "Greater Britain." Focusing primarily on "the debate over the potential union of the United Kingdom with its so-called settler colonies" (1), Bell "explores the languages employed in imagining the settler empire as a single transcontinental political community, even ... audaciously ... as a global federal state" (11). Bell argues that "visions of Greater Britain acted as a focal point and site of political contestation for a series of wide-ranging arguments over the nature of the British state and its claims to global leadership" (15). Accordingly, the investment of the phrase "Greater Britain" with political meaning should be seen as a response to the "perceived need to theorize and construct a bulwark against the encroachment of a powerful set of global challengers, most notably Germany, the United States, and Russia" (2). Concomitantly, "the prominence of arguments over Greater Britain can be understood adequately only in the context of apprehension over the shifting bases of British national identity" (33-34). Bell's expressed objective is to "shed light on the ways in which the future world order—the configuration of dynamics of economic and geopolitical power, and the normative architecture justifying the patterning—was perceived in an age of vital importance for the development of politics in the twentieth" and twenty-first centuries (1).

Self-consciously taking up J.G.A. Pocock's challenge to find a "'new subject' of British history" (Bell 24), Bell's method of "hybrid contextualization"—whereby he presents "both detailed portraits of individual thinkers and ... thematic studies of significant shifts in the theoretical perspectives shaping political consciousness" (26)—places him at the interface of political, imperial, and intellectual history, fields that, as Bell recognizes, "rarely engage in sustained and constructive dialogue" (20). At this junction, he discovers "a significant lacuna in our map of Victorian intellectual history" (21) concerning the place of empire in Victorian thought and another "gap in the intellectual history of empire relat[ing] to the evolution of languages of British national consciousness" (23). In ten chapters, Bell produces a remarkably rich, intellectually rigorous, thoroughly researched, subtly argued, copiously footnoted pointillist explication of the evolution of various schema of "Greater Britain."

Chapters 1 and 2 establish the historical, political, and intellectual context of "Greater Britain" as a rallying cry for a host of different groups' visions, from the Imperial Federation League to colonial unionists and antifederalists. Chapter 3 explores the impact of "prosaic industrial technologies" (28) on "the problem of constructing and governing an integrated political system over large distances" (63). This chapter provides a clear example of Bell's method: he analyzes "the assumptions that structured [the enthusiasts'] ideas, the conceptual and rhetorical moves that they made, and the cultural conventions that shaped their thought, and which they in turn sometimes attempted to challenge or remould" (26). For Bell, innovations in technology are relevant to the discussion of Greater Britain only insofar as they affect what "types of argument ... were considered legitimate" (122; original emphasis). In other words, while the "technological shift was a necessary but not sufficient condition for the imagining of a global polity" (65), a global polity was conceived only when an ideology of immutable, inscrutable nature was displaced (as expressed in Burke's 1775 House of Commons speech on the impossibility of overcoming barriers of nature, in which he said, "Opposuit natura—I cannot remove the barriers of the creation" [qtd. in Bell 72], or in J.S. Mill's Considerations of Representative Government [1861], where he argues that "countries separated by half the globe do not present the natural conditions for being under one government" [qtd. in...



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