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Response to Review no. 709

I would like to thank Professor Taylor for his thoughtful review of The Idea of Greater Britain. I am glad to hear that enjoyed various aspects of the book, and while I disagree with a number of the criticisms that he presents, it is an honour to have such an incisive historian take the time and effort to respond to my work.

I would like to comment briefly on four of Professor Taylor’s points in order to clarify the arguments found in the book, and my intentions in writing it.

First, Professor Taylor complains that I pay insufficient attention to (a) socialist and radical writers, and (b) debate in the colonies (as opposed to the metropole). He also complains that at times I paint too broadly, failing to provide sufficient context for various utterances that I employ in my argument. I concede point (a): if I was starting the project afresh, I would dedicate more space to the analysis of radicals and socialists. While I do discuss J. A. Hobson and L. T. Hobhouse, two of the leading radical commentators at the turn of the century, as well as citing statements from assorted other radicals, there is much more that could be said on the topic.(1) However, I believe that such an analysis would confirm the main lines of argument that I develop in the book. Forthcoming work by Professor Gregory Claeys, for example, identifies considerable interest among radicals and socialists in the future role of the settler colonies, including some significant support for imperial federation/Greater Britain.(2) On (b): The Idea of Greater Britain makes no claims to exhaustiveness. There are many interesting topics that the book does not cover, and some that it does address are touched on only in brief. As I note in the introduction, I do not offer a chronological history of the imperial federation movement, nor do I examine parliamentary debates or provide detailed outlines of the numerous federal schemes circulating at the time. Nor do I attempt to gauge the general popularity of plans for Greater Britain, either in Britain or the colonies. Some of these topics have been ably covered by other historians, while others – notably the reception of these debates in the colonies – await their historian.(3) Important and interesting as they are, however, they fall outside the scope of this book and my purposes in writing it. I do not believe that the general argument(s) I offer would have been altered by analysing the colonial debates, since the book makes few claims about the intellectual life of the colonies. I aim instead to provide an analytical account of various aspects of late 19th-century metropolitan political thought, assessing in particular how conceptions of world and colonial order were imagined and debated. In this sense, my ambitions are quite limited.

Professor Taylor is correct to note that I often employ broad strokes – many of the chapters are more impressionist painting than detailed miniature. This is a deliberate strategy, and a methodologically consistent and defensible one. It reflects the type of argument I make and the materials available. One of my aims in writing The Idea of Greater Britain was to identify and analyse some of the general themes that helped to constitute a wide-ranging, fluid, and often confused discourse that lasted several decades. As I note, the ‘advocates of Greater Britain spanned all of the major political camps, making it one of the broadest and most diffuse of Victorian ideological projects’ (p. 17). I explore shifting accounts of time and space, diverse conceptions of emigration, democracy, nationality and the state, the uses of ancient models of empire, and the role played by the United States in imperial political thought. At times I range back into the late 18th century, constructing genealogies of particular ideas, while I also occasionally move forward into the 20th century. My intention is to pick out significant discursive patterns. Contrary to Professor Taylor’s view, this is entirely consonant with a linguistic-contextualist methodology. (It is a mistake to regard contextualism as limited to the thick description of particular utterances). My aim was to identify some of the main linguistic conventions that gave shape to the debates I analyse, while elucidating (a range of) the various meanings employed in the course of political argument. For example, in chapter 3, ‘Time, Space, Empire’, I demonstrate how conventions about the immutability (and political consequences of) physical distance underwent a very significant shift in the 1860s and 1870s, facilitating the emergence of arguments about the feasibility of globe-spanning political communities.(4) Such accounts obviously require selectiveness, the identification of salient examples to illustrate the general line of argument. However, I try to counterbalance the analysis of these overarching themes with detailed interpretations of the political ideas of some of the pivotal individuals involved in the debates, notably Seeley (no hero of mine), Goldwin Smith, and Froude. I am heartened to hear that Professor Taylor appreciated these portraits.(5)

Second, a related point concerns my claims about the ‘influence’ or ‘impact’ of the people under discussion. This is of course a tricky issue to handle in any kind of historical analysis. Professor Taylor suggests that ‘At times, Bell himself doesn’t seem totally convinced of their impact,’ and complains that I don’t provide quantifiable measures to assess it. On the latter, I plead guilty. But this does not seem a very damning point given the claims I seek to establish. I make two different though compatible types of argument about influence. I remain convinced by both of them. I argue, first, that interest in Greater Britain (whether or not the specific term was employed) was a significant feature of elite metropolitan political discourse during the last three decades of the Victorian age. This neither implies that it was important to everyone or that all who did think it important placed it at the top of their list of priorities, only that numerous individuals holding high-status positions in British society regarded it as worthy of serious attention. For some it was an obsession. In order to make this case, I show that various prominent people (politicians, writers, journalists, and so forth), as well as a host of more minor figures, returned repeatedly to the topic, utilising some of the most high-profile outlets in British print culture to make their case. The debates also spawned at least three best-selling books (The Expansion of England, Oceana, and Greater Britain). This is what I meant by suggesting that Greater Britain was seen as a ‘pressing topic’ and a ‘popular rallying cry’. Influence, in this sense, refers to the shaping and content of public debates. My second argument is that despite this level of (elite) interest, the arguments advocating imperial federation did not have much direct influence on the formation of public policy. In the book I provide a few tentative reasons for this disjunction, but I will leave it up to readers to assess their viability.

Third, Professor Taylor writes that ‘there are legitimate concerns about how far the case-study of Greater Britain can really be used to open up new vistas in the intellectual history of the Victorian era’. Much depends, of course, on what those new vistas are supposed to be. I do not think – and I do not suggest in the book – that studying the debates around Greater Britain provides the key to unlocking the secrets of Victorian political thought, but I do argue that the debates are interesting in their own right, that they need to be reinterpreted, and that an analysis of the debates can serve as a case study to illustrate a more general claim about the importance of empire. To put it another way, I make a two-stage argument. First, I contend, in general terms, that work on Victorian political thought and intellectual life should be approached, as Professor Taylor aptly summarizes it, ‘with the subject of the British empire left in, rather than out’. Second, in order to show the benefits of doing so, as well as to offer a new interpretation of the topic, I analyse the debates around Greater Britain. The two stages are analytically separable: the case study itself is only one of many that I could have been picked to illustrate the general point. Numerous other topics in Victorian political thought and intellectual life, including ideas about inequality, gender, race, democracy, citizenship, and so forth, are viewed most productively by taking into account their imperial dimensions. Studying the debates around Greater Britain also helps to identify gaps and blind-spots in a number of different historiographies. For the sake of simplicity, I will identify three different target groups. First, the ‘new’ imperial history has, I argue, tended to underplay the role of the settler colonies in the Victorian imperial imagination. Second, historians of political thought, who have recently become very interested in tracing the history of ideas about empire, have also tended to underpay the role of the colonies (they focus above all on Mill’s views on India). In both cases, we might say that there has been a tendency to conflate empire with India, thus missing the diverse forms of, and justifications for, imperial rule. A case study of Greater Britain helps to rectify this. Finally, historians of Victorian political culture and intellectual life have tended, until recently, to largely bypass imperial questions, focusing instead on ‘domestic’ matters, such as democracy, Home Rule, the rise of socialism, or the new liberalism. A case study of Greater Britain highlights how the lines demarcating the ‘domestic’, the ‘international’, and the ‘imperial’, are often misleading, and how ideas about the colonies were often integrally related – in ways not adequately recognised by previous scholars of the debates over Greater Britain – to questions about democracy, socialism, and so forth.

Fourth, I end where Professor Taylor began: the selection of the cover image. Professor Taylor finds it a ‘slightly odd choice’, suggesting that the pessimism conveyed by Dore’s 1872 image of the New Zealander fits awkwardly with what he takes to be the ‘wholly positive’ view of the empire endorsed by the authors I discuss. My own view is that the image is entirely fitting. I employ it chiefly as a metaphorical expression of the fears and fascinations, the hopes and ambitions, that permeated late Victorian imperial discourse, and that were articulated in the debates around Greater Britain. The image is ambiguous and open to multiple readings. Two contrasting interpretations were offered by Joseph Chamberlain and J. A. Froude, two key figures in the book. After spending time in New Zealand, and in particular after examining the sanitation facilities on offer, Froude stated that: ‘…it will be here that in some sanatarian salon Macaulay’s New Zealander, returning from his travels, will exhibit his sketch of the ruins of St. Paul’s to a group of admiring young ladies. I have come to believe in that New Zealander since I have seen the country.’ He thus read it as an affirmation of the rapid development of the colonies, which he contrasted with the degeneration of Britain. Chamberlain, one of the least pessimistic members of my cast, offered a different reading, proclaiming that ‘I do not ask you to anticipate with Lord Macaulay the time when the New Zealander will come here to gaze upon the ruins of a great dead city. There are in our present condition no visible signs of decrepitude and decay.’(6) He was unusual is viewing the present in such a sanguine manner. Contrary to Professor Taylor’s claim – and to Chamberlain’s stance – most of the protagonists I analyse were deeply anxious (even fearful) about the future, some to the point of paranoia. They worried that the British empire, and with it British power and prestige, was under imminent threat from a toxic (and mutually reinforcing) combination of domestic torpor and international competition. Something had to be done to halt the drift. They saw the creation of a globe-spanning Greater Britain, in whatever form, as a means of escaping or deferring imperial decline and fall. Many of them were haunted by the fate of Rome, yet they did not usually regard this fate as inevitable; it could be avoided, they argued, if only the right political decisions were made. They were both pessimistic (about the present) and optimistic (about one possible future). It is this Janus-faced attitude that I try to capture in the book.


  1. I provide a more detailed analysis of Hobson and Hobhouse in Bell, ‘Democracy and empire: Hobson, Hobhouse, and the crisis of liberalism’ in British International Thought from Hobbes to Namier, ed. Ian Hall and Lisa Hill (Basingstoke, forthcoming 2009).Back to (1)
  2. Gregory Claeys, Imperial Agnostics: British Critics of Empire, 1850–1920 (Cambridge, forthcoming). Among those who professed support for imperial federation were H. M. Hyndman and Keir Hardie. Back to (2)
  3. Professor Taylor complains that I don’t provide many details of the plans sketched by the imperial federalists. This is true. However, first, as I note in the book (p. 14, n. 36), these plans are already reproduced in a detailed work of secondary analysis (Seymour Cheng, Schemes for the Federation of the British Empire (New York, 1931)). And second, to my mind the details of the plans are not especially interesting, chiefly because, when a writer did bother to outline a plan, it was usually crude and repetitive. More interesting is the argument, common at the time, that it was best to refrain from offering constitutional details because the important point was to establish the virtue of the idea. (See here my discussion of ‘the virtues of vagueness’, pp. 122–8). Notably, many of the more interesting thinkers pushing for a united Greater Britain – including Seeley and Froude – never bothered to offer any details.Back to (3)
  4. See also Bell, ‘Dissolving distance: empire, space, and technology in British political thought, c.1770–1900,’ Journal of Modern History, 77, 3 (2005), 523-63.Back to (4)
  5. Although in the book I pay less attention to Froude, I offer a more detailed reading in Bell, ‘Republican imperialism: J. A. Froude and the virtue of empire’, History of Political Thought (2009, forthcoming).Back to (5)
  6. Froude, Oceana, or England and Her Colonies (London, 1888 [1886]), pp. 236-7; Chamberlain, ‘The true conception of empire’ (March 1897) in Mr Chamberlain’s Speeches, ed. C. Boyd (London, 1914), II, p. 5.Back to (6)