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

Book: The Idea of Greater Britain: Empire and the Future of World Order, 1860-1900
Duncan Bell
Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2007, ISBN: 9780691128658, 332pp, Price: £26.95
Reviewer: Professor Miles Taylor
University of York
Citation: Professor Miles Taylor, review of The Idea of Greater Britain: Empire and the Future of World Order, 1860-1900, (review no. 709)
Date accessed: 14 July 2024
See Author's Response

Duncan Bell’s book comes with an intriguing picture on its front cover: Gustave Doré’s famous 1860 depiction of a New Zealander perched on a broken arch of London Bridge sketching the ruins of St Paul’s and its environs. The image, derived from an essay by Thomas Babington Macaulay, captures much of the Victorian premonition and anxiety about empire. Schooled on the classics and hardened in the tropics, successive generations of colonial statesmen and commentators in the 19th century learned to hope for little and fear much worse from the possession of far-flung dominion and settlement. Their ultimate nightmare was that the fate of Rome would catch up with Britain, that is, unbridled expansion overseas would precipitate the collapse of civilisation at the metropole. So fashionable had this Gibbonseque trope of ‘Macaulay’s New Zealander’ become by the 1860s that, according to David Skilton, the satirical magazine Punch called for a proclamation banning its use, along with other proverbial phrases such as ‘the Thin End of the Wedge’ and ‘the British Lion’. As arresting as Doré’s lithograph is, it does seem a slightly odd choice for Duncan Bell’s study, which is devoted to a series of Victorian writers and thinkers who developed a wholly positive vision of empire, looking forward to global peace and order, rather than back to the gloomy lessons of the past. No such problems are presented by the back cover. Gathered there are a series of top scholarly names from both sides of the Atlantic endorsing the book, which has been eagerly anticipated. Derived from his Cambridge PhD thesis of 2004, and trailed in a series of articles and edited collections, The Idea of Greater Britain is one the first major studies of Victorian intellectual life with the subject of the British empire left in, rather than out. Joint winner of the coveted Royal Historical Society’s Whitfield Prize, singled out for praise by Stephen Howe in the Independent, and already frequently cited in new work in the field, it is not just the cover, but the contents of this book, which demand to be noticed.

The book is both monograph and manifesto. Bell’s main research task is to resuscitate the somewhat neglected arguments of those Victorians who idealised and proselytised a ‘Greater Britain’, that is a closer union of Britain and the settlement colonies. But there is a larger purpose too. Bell calls for historians of political thought in the 19th century to follow their fellow scholars in earlier periods and take empire seriously. He contends that the Victorian canon of thinkers – so skilfully analysed by, among others, John Burrow, Stefan Collini and Peter Clarke – has escaped the sort of closer scrutiny which the imperial turn has inspired in intellectual history especially of the 17th and 18th centuries (for example, in the work of Anthony Pagden and David Armitage). By themselves, these two stated purposes are reasonable enough. Although the ‘Greater Britain’ tendency in the 19th century has not been entirely obscured – as Bell generously notes, Ged Martin, Michael Burgess and John Kendle have all written about it extensively – it has tended to be treated as an annex of imperial and commonwealth history rather than part of the main body of the Victorian vision. Moreover, its proponents – Thomas Carlyle, E. A. Freeman and J. A. Froude to name a few – have been seen at best as armchair statesmen, and at worst, pedlars of Anglo-Saxon racism. There is also a case for seeing them as misguided romantics, about which Jonathan Mendilow, not cited by Bell, has written. It is good to have the revisionist case put so forcefully, as Bell does so well. And the grander project is welcome too. Whilst 19th-century intellectual historians have not shied away from looking at the connections between India and Victorian political thought (e.g. both James and John Stuart Mill, and Henry Maine), the conceptual place of empire has not been considered in the same way as other Victorian concerns and shibboleths such as liberty, democracy, poverty, the state, or the economy. It is as if, to paraphrase Sir John Seeley, one of the heroes of this study, the British empire was acquired in a fit of absence of thought. Both Bell’s case-study of the Greater Britain movement and his wider claims about the limited horizons of Victorian political thought as a discipline are thus worth considering seriously, separately and in more detail. There is much to commend with both, although 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.

Unsurprisingly, given his Cambridge provenance, Bell takes a ‘meaning and context’ approach to the idea of ‘Greater Britain’. Instead of separating out Sir John Seeley and his forebears as belonging to a tradition of imperial and commonwealth historiography in which they pass the baton onto later scholars such as A. B. Keith and W. K. Hancock and eventually to the modern era revolutionised by Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher, Bell places them and their preoccupations back in the mid-19th century. This has certain advantages. It becomes clear, for example, that faith in white empire overseas grew out of concern over the dangers and perils of democracy at home. The aftermath of the 1848 revolutions, Liberal ‘little Englander’ calls for less colonies not more in the 1860s, and an expanded franchise and the advent of socialism in the 1880s all led to an upsurge in support for settlement empire as an antidote. Alongside this, the perception of Britain’s geopolitical vulnerability across a globe increasingly dominated by Russian, French and then American and German expansion – all states with federal or imperial structures – stimulated what Bell calls ‘one of the most audacious political projects of modern times’ (p. 11), that is, a global Anglo-Saxon polity. There is obviously something to this: in the 1880s in particular, as other historians have shown, Liberal Unionism and radical Conservatism in Britain veered off in an imperial direction, specifically over the prospect of Irish home rule, but with many of these wider worries in the background. However, Bell does tend to apply his background strokes with such a broad brush, giving us a sense of the spirit of the times, without offering specific evidence of links between particular texts and the immediate events which surrounded their composition. Sometimes the texts are taken from the beginning of the period under study, sometimes at the end. The effect for this reviewer was to be less convinced by the ‘meaning and context’ approach than is usually the case.

It is helpful too, to see advocates for Greater Britain as engaged in a debate with each other, rather than with posterity – and this is another advantage of the contextual approach adopted by Bell. Between the publication of Goldwin Smith’s ‘Empire’ letters in the Daily News in 1862–3, through Charles Dilke’s Greater Britain in 1868, to Seeley’s Expansion of England of 1883 and JA Froude’s Oceana of 1886, we have a remarkably rich and diverse conversation over two decades on the shape of empire. Into the mix Bell adds the rise and fall of the Imperial Federation League (IFL, est.1884), and a host of minor publicists and enthusiasts, all taking part in an intense moment of heightened interest in white dominion overseas. In a nuanced manner, Bell shows a range of positions adopted. Some were for the racial union of Anglo-Saxon peoples pure and simple, or pur sang certainly, some defined nationhood in terms of culture and religion. Others were ‘scientific utopians’, fuelled by a techno-triumphalist belief that the contraction of ‘time and space’ through the telegraph and the steam-ship was making possible the creation of a union of non-contiguous states. Some, albeit in the minority, went as far as to envisage India included in the vision. For Bell, the impact of this debate is unquestionable. It was a ‘pressing topic’ (p. 18) and a ‘popular rallying cry’ (p. 31). Such claims are difficult to confirm or contest, for we are offered no reliable means of quantifying the impact of the movement, for example, through measuring the incidence of the phrase ‘Greater Britain’ in the newspapers and periodicals of the period, or in Hansard’s parliamentary debates, or at election time. The principal thinkers discussed came straight out of the standard liberal canon of Victorian public moralists, and it is their influence as opinion-makers more generally rather than advocates of empire that is undeniable. At times, Bell himself doesn’t seem totally convinced of their impact. In the introduction we are told that his case-studies were ‘not sophisticated’ thinkers and lacked the ‘philosophical skills’ (p. 21) required to turn people’s minds , that the IFL was not ‘taken seriously’ (p. 15) by politicians (except Lord Rosebery, who although later Prime Minister was not always very serious), and that the movement was not really ‘representative’ of wider attitudes (p. 26).

Perhaps one way out of this gulf between Bell’s expansive claims for his topic, and his more cautious conclusions about the impact of ‘Greater Britain’ would have been to widen his range of reference beyond the Anglo-centric thinkers and activists discussed here. British radicals and later on socialists do not feature very much, although historians have always been (sometimes uncomfortably so) aware of their pro-pax Britannica sentiments. Those caught up in the industry of white settlement: agents, advertisers and speculators – that culture of ‘boosterism’ about which James Belich has written so persuasively – might have been discussed in this book. And the idealists who imagined ‘Greater Britain’ – the red-pen wielding cartographers, statisticians, explorers and geographers – merited mention. Moreover, the neo-British world features very little. It cannot have escaped Bell’s attention that some of the most eloquent and influential advocates of ‘Greater Britain’ were not to be found in the metropole, but in Canada, the Cape, Australasia, and even India. This broader context for analysing the promotion and reception of ideas about imperial union might have helped answer more fully the question of movement’s impact. The book could profitably have been less about the canon, and more about the idea.

If Bell is somewhat contradictory and elusive on context, he proves much more sure-footed on meaning. At the core of the book are three excellent case-studies – of Seeley, Goldwin Smith, and (though at less length) of Froude. Here the description becomes much thicker. On Seeley, Bell follows others in rooting the Regius Professor’s expanded notion of English identity in his liberal Anglicanism. But he also makes clear in ways others have not the Hegelian and anti-Napoleonic idea of a ‘cosmopolitan nationalism’ in Seeley’s work – anti-imperial in intent, imperial in effect. Seeley was ‘Greater Britain’’s great catch – W. T. Stead thought he should be put in charge of a college teaching the value of a global British identity. However, the movement was never faraway from easily misunderstood (especially by posterity) Anglo-Saxon supremacist discourse, with which Goldwin Smith increasingly became associated. Bell shows how Goldwin Smith was critical of schemes for formal constitutional union – and in that sense was a leading radical little Englander and later pro-Boer – insisting that ‘Greater Britain’ be based on ‘blood and sentiment’, and for such reasons could not include India and Ireland, which were fit only for vice-regal institutions. Froude only gets passing coverage, but interestingly allows Bell to develop the point that a work such as Oceana might be seen as a late flowering of the ‘civic humanist’ tradition, with the scheme of imperial federation as a rearticulation of the classical republican community – albeit with a monarch at its head. Here some consideration might have been given to statesmen out in the field such as the 4th Earl of Carnarvon or Sir Henry Bartle Frere who both in India and southern Africa proved strong proponents of systems of federation, including non-European representation. Indeed, Bell does not really tell us enough about what practical form ‘Greater Britain’ might have taken. He notes at length the inability of imperial enthusiasts to adopt a sufficiently persuasive language and recognises how the sovereignty of Westminster might be imperilled by federal government. Nonetheless, schemes for imperial parliaments with colonial representatives (either in the Commons, or more commonly by the end of the century, in the Lords) as well as a more active imperial monarchy, were frequently advanced during the period, and were worth noting more.

Towards the end of this ambitious book, Bell returns to the scenario depicted by Macaulay’s New Zealander, and argues that over the course of the 19th century, advocates of ‘Greater Britain’ became less haunted by the fate of classical empires. Instead, they looked to north America (in Goldwin Smith’s case, he of course ended up there). With its waspish credentials, and never-ending frontier, America offered a fantasy of a future Anglo-Saxon yeomanwealth. Again, there is evidence for and against which be might have been discussed further. Not all of his generation followed James Bryce in seeing America as the new commonwealth. Many liberals opposed American new imperialism in Cuba and the Philippines, were not wholly supportive of westwards expansion, and did not welcome the corporate turn in American capitalism. For all that, however, via the Round Table movement after 1902 and the Cliveden set between the wars this aspiration helped forged the Anglo-American special relationship, and it is fitting that Bell closes his bold but not always convincing account with the goal of global federation passing to the continent where it has remained ever since.

January 2009

Author's response

Duncan Bell
Posted: Thu, 17/12/2009 - 18:20

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)