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In Defence of History Reclaimed

history reclaimed
Doug Stokes
Written by Doug Stokes

A critique of History Reclaimed published in the Pimlico Journal has argued that our focus on the liberal and modernizing benefits of empire neglects consideration of British national interests and identity. Here, Professor Doug Stokes answers that claim and enumerates the national interests that matter.

Pimlico Journal article: https://pimlicojournal.substack.com/p/history-reclaimed

In the Pimlico Journal, an anonymous author has written an interesting critique of the work of those associated with History Reclaimed (HR).

The article argues that HR’s project, while aiming to counter distortions of history, needs a clearer alternative vision of how British people should view their imperial legacy. It argues that members, including Nigel Biggar, Gwyn Prins, Robert Tombs, and me, seem to focus on how British influence was key to spreading liberalism, democracy, and human rights. However, this approach is critiqued for failing to adequately address the core interests and identity of the British people.

The author suggests that a more nationalist perspective is needed, one that views the Empire through the lens of British national interest rather than global liberalism or moralism. This perspective would prioritize the benefits and interests of the British nation and people rather than focusing primarily on the impact of British actions on colonized peoples or global structures. The piece argues that the “work of the History Reclaimed set is yet another instance of a group of supposedly right-wing warriors determined to cement and promote a globalist ideological framework among our ruling class in service of a set of values that have, by the estimations of many, worked against the material interests of the native British population.” The piece goes on to note that a new “counter-narrative is needed for the contemporary British right.”

In short, it wants a more nationalistic ‘little Englander’ conception of the British national interest, driven by cold, hard calculations rather than one emanating from  ‘woke’ adjacent liberal ideas based on uplifting the world or defending a liberal world order, for these very ideas may have undermined British national interests. It’s an interesting and well-written piece, but some things are wrong and worth engaging.

First, and more practically, HR has had to fight a rearguard action against a dominant view of British history that paints it in malign and negative terms. This view sees British history as one of racism, endless oppression and extraterritorial acquisition. This narrative is ubiquitous across our schools, media and universities. I would argue that politics is as much about moral energy and directionality as it is about the cold calculation of one’s interests. Indeed, a nation’s sense of itself is rooted in identity, and national interests emerge from this deeper cultural story. How can you know what you want before you know who or what you are?

HR’s broader goal, then, has been to restore balance in the portrayal of British history. To ignore the liberalizing effects of British influence as outlined by HR authors, and its uplift for vast swathes of humanity, would therefore be politically and strategically inept. I don’t doubt that emphasizing the cold, hard calculation of British national interest would suit the edgier sites of ‘based’ social media. But it would not assist HR in its aim of changing the imperial narrative taught in schools, and in rebalancing British institutional life in general.

Second, there’s also a slippage between what we know as the ‘liberal international order’ and liberalism itself. It is an easy mistake to make and one very common.

How can we define British national interest today?  I would argue that the cold, hard reality of national interest remains: the pacification of any peer competitor that might emerge in European geopolitics; the containment of interstate threats to the liberal economic order (for that underpins British prosperity); the desirability to continue to enjoy the public and club goods still generated by America’s strategic superintendence in NATO; and doing what is necessary to maintain British leverage within these forms of world order, alliance structures and defence and security co-operations. Absent the Americans, we’d see much stronger territorial imperialism on the part of Russia (likely moving to the Baltics next) and the rapid militarization of Europe, forcing European states to make tough choices between defence and welfare.

In short, absent the Americans and their continued underwriting of the liberal international order, the post-war interstate peace that the major European powers have enjoyed, and the global economic conditions that have sustained their economies, would be challenged and undermined in a far less benign world.

So, whilst the normative liberal inflexion of the liberal international order bends and changes over time (after the Cold War, it emphasized democracy and globalization, whereas today under Biden, more LGBTQ and other ‘woke’ norms), underpinning this soft power normative frippery are the very hard-edged national interest calculations of all of the major European powers as well as the US.

To get a sense of this, witness the significant slowdown in global trade caused by pinprick Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping in recent weeks, and the US’s rapid assembly of a multinational naval coalition to help safeguard commercial traffic, “Operation Prosperity Guardian”. Take the US out of the alliance, and who or what would replace it? What kind of world order would the European powers want, and are the opportunity costs of generating that order worth the repudiation of a system that already works relatively well?

The liberal international order refers to sets of alliances and interstate arrangements. Hastings Lionel Ismay, diplomat and general in the British Indian Army, was the first Secretary General of NATO. He famously quipped that the purpose of NATO was to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” This still captures a great deal about Britain’s national interests today: to contain the threat of Russian territorial expansionism, keep American strategic preponderance in Europe, and to continue to underwrite the institutional conditions necessary to constitutionalize Germany’s natural European hegemony within a pan-European (EU/NATO) framework. In short, to keep Russia contained and the Germans constitutionalized by keeping America’s security blanket across Europe.

Is there a better strategy, and if so, what is it? What are the counterfactuals, opportunity costs and sacrifices necessary to institute an alternative set of British national interests? In short, do not mistake the soft power and entirely contingent ‘woke’ liberal tree for the hard power geopolitical calculations of the liberal international order “forest” that, arguably, remains commensurate with the British national interest in many different ways.

Trump may win in 2024, and if so, he will likely seek to upend aspects of the liberal international order, quite possibly in a short time frame. The UK should prepare for this eventuality and seek to become primus inter pares in European geopolitics, the better to achieve both its fundamental security interests on the continent and post-Brexit leverage. It needs to spend more on defence and sort out procurement (ideally by buying and technology-transferring from the Americans, whose kit is tried, tested and ready). It should also reform what remains a sub-optimal Ministry of Defence, beset by the bureaucratic inertia inherent in the UK’s public sector in general. The clock is ticking.

About the author

Doug Stokes

Doug Stokes

Doug Stokes is a Senior Advisor at the Legatum Institute, Professor & Head of Research and Development, Strategy and Security Institute (SSI), University of Exeter; The Thomas Telford Associate Fellow at the Council on Geo-Strategy; and an advisory council member of the Free Speech Union.