- Debating Foreign Policy in Eighteenth-Century Britain
Jeremy Black has been a frequent and interesting participant in debates about British foreign policy over the last thirty years. The present work has several aims: it reflects upon where diplomatic history currently is; it highlights some of the limitations of recent work on British attitudes toward Europe; and it suggests that historians need to be aware of the dangers of synthesizing complex realities into neat patterns. In structural terms, Black begins with some methodological reflections, before outlining in three thematic chapters how debate about foreign policy was conducted. He then offers six chronological chapters and a conclusion considering the state of the study of British foreign policy in light of the recent upsurge of interest in Britain’s European connections and identity.
Black identifies a number of faults with recent literature on British foreign policy. He argues that it has become overly concerned with the public sphere and the search for an elusive zeitgeist; there has been a tendency to marginalize dissenting voices and a failure to acknowledge the multiplicity of views on foreign policy. Even discussions that point to conflicting so-called Whig and Tory perspectives do not go far enough, as parties in the modern sense did not exist and there were considerable tensions within, as well as between, political groups. Black argues that the “Treasury view” or attempts to limit taxpayers’ liabilities has also been unjustly neglected. He wants to recover “the rise of a Whig realism of restraint, one associated with Walpole and Pelham, and looking forward to . . . Grenville, North, and the peacetime Pitt the Younger” (224), in contrast to more idealistic and idealized conceptions of how foreign policy was conducted and discussed. In both the thematic and the chronological chapters, Black consistently seeks to show the wisdom of restraint, as opposed to grand designs, in foreign policy. He wants to indicate the consistency and logic of the position and to refute claims [End Page 321] that British policy, particularly in the second half of the eighteenth century, was overly isolationist.
Part of Black’s strategy for achieving these ends is to argue against privileging the analysis of discourse. The problem, as Black sees it, is the inevitable tendency inherent in such approaches toward creating a perception of coherence and unity which is largely illusory. Instead, the focus should be on the contingent and the specific; whereas at some points the international situation favored one set of alliances, at others an entirely different set of arrangements was appropriate. It is also important to distinguish between the sorts of relationships that were necessary in peace and the more costly entanglements that conflict created. Generally speaking, recent advocates of a discourse approach are criticized for their lack of sensitivity to military and strategic concerns, and an unwillingness to think about particular conjunctures of circumstances and the differing outcomes that this created.
How telling is Black’s criticism? In one sense, it is difficult to determine. Much of what he says in the conclusion is eminently sensible, but it is unclear how far the criticism is directed primarily against scholars who have chosen to emphasize a more Eurocentric focus to eighteenth-century British foreign policy and how far it is a critique of more generally prevalent historical mores. Moreover, the notion that Walpole, Pelham, North, and Pitt have been marginalized in accounts of eighteenth-century politics is a little overdone. One of the motivations behind a number of recent works with a more Eurocentric focus has been to undermine the prevalence of a narrative of eighteenth-century British politics that focused only on the rise of the House of Commons and the British empire—for want of a better phrase, a Whig view of British history. Nevertheless, Black does make a number of useful points. His discussion of the rise and fall of interest in and support for interventionism in Britain makes a good case for seeing the War of the Austrian Succession, and the 1740s more generally, as crucial. He also shows the extent to which British strategic...