Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, II: After Waterloo

The sovereigntist mythology of British history is in any case caught in a rather awkward place in claiming both a unique British role in resisting pan-European tyranny and a separation between Britain and mainland Europe. It is hard to see how both claims  can be completely true. The sovereigntist attempt to finesse this awkwardness is partly to claim that Britain played this unique role against Napoleon (well maybe Russia, Prussia, Austria and Spanish insurgents helped a little) is that Britain was in Europe to do the job and was then out again until destiny called on us to be in Europe again to beat back the Kaiser in 1914.

There is rather a lot wrong with this picture. As mentioned above, Britain shared royal dynasty with the German state of Hanover at the time of Waterloo. It had done so since 1714, when it acquired as king a Hanoverian prince who spoke almost no English. The Hanoverians continued to reign in Britain until 1837, when Princess Victoria was able to become British Queen but was not able to inherit in Hanover due to the exclusion of women from the succession. Anyway, she kept up the German link by marrying Albert of Saxe-Coburg with whom she spoke German at home. William II, the German Kaiser who was the national enemy/European hegemon of 1914, was one of her grandchildren and was apparently very attached to her.

Of course by this time, the royal family reigned in Britain rather than ruling, though Albert was rather keen on the ruling and things could have become very interesting on this issue if he had not died rather young. Anyway, even excluding the royal family, Britain was very involved with the rest of Europe after 1815. This involvement included:

  • possession of Gibraltar on the southern tip of Spain, going back to 1713, and still a British territory;
  • the island of Malta became British during the Napoleonic Wars and continued to be so until the 1960s;
  • the Ionian Islands were transferred to Britain from Napoleonic France, which had recently acquired them as part of a takeover of the Republic of Venice, and the islands remained British until transfer to Greece in the 1860s;
  • Cyprus became de facto British in 1878 with continuing de jure but not very meaningful Ottoman sovereignty until 1914 when the island was annexed, becoming independent in 1960, but even so containing two small parts of Britain in the form of two sovereign military bases.

So Gibraltar and two bases on Cyprus were still British, along with the nineteenth century presence in all of Malta and part of what is now Greece. This is surely rather a lot of European involvement for a country that supposedly experienced a radical separation from Europe after winning the Battle of Waterloo, according to the sovereigntist Eurosceptic narrative.

But that’s not all for nineteenth century British involvement in the rest of Europe. Combined British and French pressure on the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (i.e southern Italy and Sicily) played a large role in weakening and isolating the state, so that it accepted absorption into the new state of Italy during the Risorgimento. The Crimean War took a British army via Ottoman Varna (now in Bulgaria) to fight against Russia, in alliance with the Ottoman Empire, France, and Piedmont-Sardinia from 1853 to 1856. Of course Britain was sometimes at war with the Ottoman Empire, so that in 1829 the British, French, and Russian navies defeated an Ottoman fleet at Navarino, a major event in Greek Independence. A remarkably brutal Independence War had been going on since 1821, and the Battle of Navarino marks the decision of the Great Powers, including Britain, to arrange a settlement according to their wishes and convenience, with a German king imposed on the new Greek state (which was initially a republic). Presumably the British government believed that if they had a German monarchy so should everyone else. Britain of course continued to be involved in the lengthy process in which the Ottoman state was bit by bit separated from its European possessions, though often tilting towards the Ottomans to pin back the Russians, as in the Crimean War. Anyway, this all amounts to a very busy time in Europe for a country that had supposedly separated itself from Europe, and I’ve only covered the highlights.

The other side of the sovereigntist-Eurosceptic narrative of Britain after Waterloo is that Britain somehow stood alone as a country of liberty, progress towards democracy, law, prosperity and the like, showing the backward Europeans the way. There is some truth in this, on the whole Britain was ahead, but there are so many qualifications to be made that this can only be treated as like being slightly ahead rather than putting Britain in a class of its own, but more on that in the next post.

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6 thoughts on “Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, II: After Waterloo

  1. A fascinating read, mostly new to me. I look forward to the next installment.

    I wonder whether today’s Greeks are resurrecting the story of the imposition of a German king.

    • These posts are so good. They are rich and fulfilling and I wish they would never stop!

      Dr Gibson: my intuition is to say ‘no’. The opposition to debt repayment and government cuts is coming mostly from the Greek Left, which means that any use of history will be superficial at best, and factually dishonest too. I know, for example, that comparisons between Angela Merkel and Adolf Hitler are routinely made in the Greek press and on the Greek streets.

      To be fair, honest attempts at understanding history are rarely made by any prominent faction when their access to public funds are at stake.

      The deeper point you are making – about sovereignty and Great Power politics – is duly noted. I’ll have to think it through more carefully.

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