John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: Books (Page 2 of 2)


Britians Europe.inddWhy has Britain always had such an ambiguous approach to being involved in the EU?

Why did it refuse to join the Common Market in 1957, only to apply to join in 1961?

Why has it felt the need to opt out of many EU policies, and why is making a  modest contribution to the EU budget so controversial in Britain?

 I have recently read

 “Britain’s Europe,  A thousand years of Conflict and Cooperation” by Brendan Simms, an Irish historian,  who is Professor if the history of International Relations in Cambridge University in the UK.

In this excellent book, he explores the deep historic roots of Britain’s attitudes to the continent of Europe.

His underlying thesis is that England’s abiding concern has been to protect itself from unwanted intrusion by continental European powers.

Even Britain’s imperial expansion into other continents, and its development of the dominant navy in the world, were designed, Simms believes, to bolster its position vis a vis Europe.

England interfered in Ireland and Scotland, and invaded them, to prevent them being used as a base by its continental enemies. These motives, Simms argues, lay behind the Acts of Union of 1707 with Scotland, and  of 1800 with Ireland.

England made alliances with lesser powers on the continent to curb whichever was the continent’s biggest power.

First it did so to curb Spain, later to curb France, and most recently to curb Germany.

Its policy was to create a balance of power on the continent so that no one continental power would be strong enough to threaten Britain.

It always felt vulnerable to invasion from the continent, and indeed it was only thanks to luck, or to unfavourable winds, that many planned invasions did not happen. The last successful invasion was by the Dutch in 1688.

To deter invasion, England always wanted to ensure that the dominant continental power did not control the “Low countries”, now Belgium or Holland. Britain went to war against France in 1792, and against Germany in 1914, to prevent the dominant European power controlling the Low countries.

British statesmen have not been opposed to European unity on principle.

For example, Edmund Burke favoured a “Commonwealth of Europe.”

After the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, Castlereagh favoured regular European Summits.

The problem for England is that a united Europe would make the British policy or backing lesser powers to create a balance of power impossible to operate, unless, of course, Britain could do this from INSIDE a united Europe. But that would trammel its historic freedom of action.

Its continuing inability to decide on which of these contradictory options to pursue explains why “Europe” is such a toxic issue in British politics.

Brendan Simms argues that Britain “cannot be compared” to other European powers because of

  •  its economic strength,
  •  its permanent UNSC seat,
  •  its nuclear deterrent, and
  •  the size of its conventional military.

He believes that the Euro Zone will have to create a fully fledged Federal state to sustain the Euro. He believes the UK would stay out of this.

While I agree with this last point, I find both of his other arguments unconvincing.  Britain is not that different, and the euro can be sustained without a fully fledged Federal state being created. I attempted to show how, in a previous posting on this site.

This is a very timely book and deserves to be read in all European countries, including Ireland.

The balance of power thinking that motivates British policy was relevant when Europe had 25% of the world’s population and 50% of its wealth. It makes much less sense now, when Europeans are only 7% of the world’s population and have a declining share of global wealth.

Nostalgia is nor a sound policy, for Britain or for Europe as a whole. That is why UK voters should remain in the EU.


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I have just finished reading a book that I bought many years ago, “James the Second” by Maurice Ashley (published by JM Dent)

James is remembered in Ireland as the King who supposedly displayed a lack of courage and thereby lost the fateful battle of the Boyne in 1690.

 In England he is seen as the King who had to be overthrown in 1688 to preserve his subjects “religion and liberties”, as the banner of his opponent King William claimed.

Neither view is fair or accurate.

 James became a Catholic as a young man, as did his brother King Charles the Second. But, whereas Charles kept this a secret until he was on his death bed, James was open about it.

 Charles tried half heartedly, and without success, to remove the disabilities suffered in England by Catholics and by Protestants who did not belong to the Church of England. Oliver Plunkett was put to death during the reign of Charles the Second in 1681.

 James, on the other hand sought to make toleration and freedom of religious worship the central goal of his reign when he succeeded Charles in February 1685.

 He  also made it clear that he wanted this to happen while preserving the position, as the State Church, of the Church of England. Ashley, who has studied all the documents, including those from before James became King, is adamant that this was the case. He was for all round religious toleration.

As to his prowess as a soldier, Ashley shows that, in his earlier career, James had been a brave and resourceful military commander

Against advice from his French military advisors to retreat across the Shannon when William arrived with his army in Ireland in 1690, James, although outgunned and outnumbered 3 to 2, decided to make a stand at the Boyne.

 He rightly understood that his volunteer army would melt away if he was not willing to put up a fight.

 James is criticised for leaving his army after the battle and going back to France rather than staying on to fight in Ireland. His departure is partially explained by the fact that he was hoping to get French help for an invasion of England, and by the fact that his enemies controlled the sea lanes and he could not easily be resupplied, if he retreated and reassembled his army west of the Shannon.

This book does not, however, absolve him of criticism.

 He was extremely tactless in his handling of the Church of England Bishops. His attempts to introduce sweeping religious toleration, by use of royal prerogative without parliamentary approval, showed that he had learned nothing from recent history and from the fate of his father, Charles the First.

He was overthrown in 1688 because he was deserted by his closest Lieutenants, and by his two daughters, both of whom were in turn to replace him on the throne. Perhaps the most justifiable criticism of him is that he did stand and fight against William in England in 1688, where he might have been able to rally support in much of middle England against the Dutch invader. Then he might never have had to take a stand at the Boyne.

Although he was a strongly religious man, he was also a serial philandered who had a succession of mistresses.

This book brings to light the flawed humanity of this sincere, but tactless and unlucky, man.


41S4Lg8J1+L._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_I recently read a biography of the former leader of the British Liberal Party, Jeremy Thorpe, written by Michael Bloch and first published in 2014.

Thorpe was an old Etonian and a member of a circle of friends who were used to having enormous influence in the political, legal, and economic destiny of Britain. He was a barrister.

The Thorp family were originally from Wexford, where they had settled as part of the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland.

His great grandfather, William, joined the Dublin Metropolitan Police in 1856, as a constable. He rose through the ranks to become a Superintendant by the time of his retirement in 1890.

He had nineteen children, one of whom, Jeremy’s grandfather, became a clergyman in the Church of Ireland. Later he moved to England where he rose to become an archdeacon in the Church of England .

One of the clergyman’s sons, Jeremy’s father,  John Henry Thorpe, became (briefly) a Tory MP in 1919, before Jeremy was born.

Jeremy’s parents were close friends of the Lloyd George family, and it was through that connection that Jeremy, who always saw himself as a future Prime Minister, gravitated towards the Liberal Party and a political career.

He became involved with the Liberals at a time when the Party was in a very weak condition, where all but one of the seats  were held, only because the Conservatives did not contest the constituency at all, and allowed the Liberal MP a free run against Labour.

Jeremy was a flamboyant campaigner and had a knack for attracting publicity. He employed this to good effect put the Liberal Party back on the political map. He won several by elections.

He came close to power when Edward Heath contemplated coalition with Liberals, led by Thorpe, as a way of staying on a Prime Minister after an Election in which the Conservatives had lost seats.

Thorpe, although a married man, was apparently being blackmailed, through a good part of his political career, by a former homosexual lover. This was at a time when homosexual acts were illegal. He was later accused of conspiring with others to have his blackmailer murdered.

He was acquitted but never recovered politically from this scandal, which provides the most interesting material in this biography of an otherwise shallow and insubstantial political figure.

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