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The Idea of Greater Britain

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

Duncan Bell
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 336
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7sz6b
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  • Book Info
    The Idea of Greater Britain
    Book Description:

    During the tumultuous closing decades of the nineteenth century, as the prospect of democracy loomed and as intensified global economic and strategic competition reshaped the political imagination, British thinkers grappled with the question of how best to organize the empire. Many found an answer to the anxieties of the age in the idea of Greater Britain, a union of the United Kingdom and its settler colonies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and southern Africa. InThe Idea of Greater Britain, Duncan Bell analyzes this fertile yet neglected debate, examining how a wide range of thinkers conceived of this vast "Anglo-Saxon" political community. Their proposals ranged from the fantastically ambitious--creating a globe-spanning nation-state--to the practical and mundane--reinforcing existing ties between the colonies and Britain. But all of these ideas were motivated by the disquiet generated by democracy, by challenges to British global supremacy, and by new possibilities for global cooperation and communication that anticipated today's globalization debates. Exploring attitudes toward the state, race, space, nationality, and empire, as well as highlighting the vital theoretical functions played by visions of Greece, Rome, and the United States, Bell illuminates important aspects of late-Victorian political thought and intellectual life.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2797-8
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. 1 Introduction: Building Greater Britain
    (pp. 1-30)

    The history of modern political thought is partly the history of the attempt to confront increasing global interdependence and competition.The Idea of Greater Britainfocuses on an important but neglected aspect of this chronicle: the debate over the potential union of the United Kingdom with its so-called settler colonies—the lands we know now as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, as well as parts of South Africa—during the late Victorian age. Straddling oceans and spanning continents, this polity was to act, so its advocates proclaimed, as a guarantor of British strength and of a just and stable world. I...

  6. 2 Global Competition and Democracy
    (pp. 31-62)

    The value placed on the colonial empire shifted considerably over the course of the nineteenth century. The distant lands frequently seemed an unnecessary drain on resources, offering little in return, and even among those who supported colonization, many doubted whether it would be possible to hold on to the colonies in the long term, even if this was desirable.¹ By the 1860s it was widely assumed that they were heading inexorably toward independence, for good or ill. Within a generation such views were seldom voiced, and both the necessity and the practicability of a strong, integrated, and durable imperial polity...

  7. 3 Time, Space, Empire
    (pp. 63-91)

    This chapter engages one of the most persistent yet overlooked themes in the history of political thought: the problem of constructing and governing an integrated political system over large distances. The obstacles presented by physical space—and in particular by the relative difficulty in traversing or communicating across it—have presented a set of recurring problems for political thinkers. Some revolve around administrative (and coercive) reach. In the days before efficient state agencies existed, for example, it was often extremely difficult for a central government authority to maintain control over the outlying districts of its territory, and the conditions for...

  8. 4 Empire, Nation, State
    (pp. 92-119)

    The debate over Greater Britain encompassed questions about nationality, statehood, federalism, and race, as well as forms of imperial rule. Seeking to consolidate what they saw as the existing strengths of the colonial bond, the unionists simultaneously prosletyzed a vision of moral order in which a superior Anglo-Saxon race offered stability and leadership, benevolently but firmly, to a chaotic world. Proposals ranged from the moderate to the extremely ambitious, from reinforcing the existing ties linking the colonies and the “mother country” to the construction of an integrated global state, a giant polity to dwarf those of the history books. A...

  9. 5 The Politics of the Constitution
    (pp. 120-149)

    Historians of political theory frequently overlook the manner in which arguments are constructed and framed to resonate with particular groups of individuals and the way in which the prejudices and perspectives of those groups are reinforced, flattered, or contested by certain lines of thought. It is not simply the logical consistency or even the “rationality”— however that may be defined—of discrete arguments that counts most in motivating (or in attempting to motivate) political action, but rather their persuasive force when addressed to audiences that are already immersed in their own ideological universes. Political and conceptual transformation is more a...

  10. 6 The Apostle of Unity
    (pp. 150-178)

    John Robert Seeley was not the most prolific advocate of a federal Greater Britain, nor was he the first to preach the creed. But due to his eloquence, perseverance, and intellectual authority—as well as his impeccable timing—he provided a substantial boost to the fortunes and credibility of those demanding a transformation in the relationship between the “mother country” and the colonial empire. Seeley played a notable role in a number of other significant debates in the late Victorian era: he was a notorious figure in the pervasive conflicts over the nature of religious belief, especially through his best-selling...

  11. 7 The Prophet of Righteousness
    (pp. 179-206)

    Goldwin Smith believed that the written word conveyed the power to persuade: “to command beautiful and forcible language,” he declared in his inaugural lecture as Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, “is to have a key, with which no man who is to rule through opinion can dispense, to the heart and mind of man.”¹ Over the course of half a century of provocative writing on the empire he attempted to put this maxim into practice. Smith was considered by his peers to be one of the main adversaries of the empire, a man renowned and reviled in equal...

  12. 8 From Ancient to Modern
    (pp. 207-230)

    This chapter explores some of the ways in which history was drawn upon, and also the ways in which people tried to escape it, in the formulation of imperial political thought during the nineteenth century. In so doing, it seeks to complicate current understandings of both imperial political theory and the character of Victorian historical consciousness. In a political culture obsessed with precedent and the moral value of history and tradition, many of the proponents of Greater Britain disavowed the rich intellectual resources of the ancient world, a world that for centuries had played a regulatory function in the imagining...

  13. 9 Envisioning America
    (pp. 231-259)

    Accounts of divergent historical trajectories, alternative institutional structures, and contending ways of governing society, have provided the fodder for much theoretical reflection on politics, inspiring new ideas and shaping accounts of how best to live. Reaching backward in time and across geographical space, the comparative gaze played a fundamental role in the political theory of empire during the nineteenth century. As I argued in the previous chapter, many Victorians sought insight in studying the long history charting the rise and fall of empires. But they also looked outward at their competitors and potential challengers, searching for successful models of political...

  14. 10 Conclusion: Lineages of Greater Britain
    (pp. 260-272)

    In 1900 the idealist philosopher J. H. Muirhead tried to capture the nature of the imperial age in which he lived. British attitudes toward the empire from the mid-eighteenth to the dawn of the twentieth century had followed, he suggested, a chaotic trajectory: “enthusiasm” prevailed in the turbulent era of George III, “passing into indifference” following the loss of the thirteen colonies, and then subsequently “into hostility . . . to the very idea of Empire” during the early years of Victoria’s long reign. Finally, during the remaining three decades of the century, the empire returned as a “consuming passion”...

  15. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 273-312)
  16. Index
    (pp. 313-321)