Hywel Williams, Senior Adviser at the Legatum Institute,started the discussion in the year 999 AD, when there was also a sense of imminent doom. Christianity was the dominant framework for understanding the world, and those faced with the prospect of the first millennium, imagined the apocalypse.   

Simon Mayall, Senior Advisor, Greenhill & Co and Legatum Fellow, put the spotlight on 1174, when Henry II crawled in penance to the shrine of Thomas Beckett in Canterbury. This, he argued, demonstrated Henry’s recognition that being part of Europe and of the idea of Christendom was more important than asserting his considerable power as king of England. The great ‘crusading moment’ embodied the subordination of the temporal power to the papacy, while excommunication was a powerful political tool. However, England’s connection to Christendom remained a relatively cerebral thing for most people. Latin and French were the languages of the elite, but Britain’s Anglo-Saxon identity was at least as important as its European one. Crucially for Mayall, England’s identity was distinct, defined against Wales, Cornwall and Scotland, and influenced to a great extent by Scandinavia.

Brendan Simms, Professor of the History of International Relations, University of Cambridge, continued the chronological sweep, and focused in on 1714, when Britain’s turned to Europe to find a Protestant monarch, resulting in the accession of the first Hanoverian king.  This signaled the moment when Britain became a European power on the geopolitical stage. William of Orange’s intervention was driven by the European, and particularly Dutch, perception that Britain had failed to get to grips with Louis XIV. His accession was to put Britain back in the frame and restore the European balance of power. Simms spoke the way that internal party politics affected foreign policy.  He described a mini debate on Europe in Britain at the time, split along Tory – Whig party lines. Tories were against commitment to continental Europe, while Whigs saw the defense of the realm as dependent on the European balance of power, and consequently involvement in Europe as a necessary part of defense of the front line.

Paul Stock, Associate Professor of Early Modern International History, London School of Economics, picked up the story in 1790. He emphasized the existence of cultural exchange. British and European cultures were deeply implicated with one another.  People looked overseas for inspiration in literature, dress, music, and art.  He chose the moment that hovered between two conflicts, following the Seven Year’s War and before the Revolutionary Wars. The mood of the time was characterized by mutual trust tempered by a latent potential for conflict; for Stock ‘to miss out one is to do a disservice to the other’. However, opinion-formers would have looked across the channel and seen another European country, one that participated very much in the culture and government of Europe.

Patricia Clavin, Professor of International History, University of Oxford, hopped forward to 1933 and the World Economic Conference. There is a tendency, having been through the Cold War, to say that America should have held the reins during the interwar period but, Clavin argued, it was Britain that the Europeans in fact looked to for leadership. The nations of Europe turned to Britain to provide policies to bring them out of the Great Depression. She spoke of fissures that began to appear within British political parties and of the difficult relationships, between Britain, France and America. The League of Nations, nevertheless, created structures that would last beyond itself: economic, financial, transport and airspace, indeed all the things that make the modern world explicitly modern. And in engaging with these areas, Britain at the time was always perceived as being in the European category.

Video Interviews


  • Britain and Europe: A Long History of Conflict and Cooperation, by Brendan Simms, The Conversation, 21 June 2016 [View]

About the Speakers

Patricia Clavin is Professor of International History at the University of Oxford, where she has taught since 2003. Her research focuses on the history of international and transnational relations in the Twentieth Century, particularly the relationship between international security and economic stability. She was editor of Contemporary European History from 2000 to 2007, has been a member of the AHRC Peer Review College since 2013, and is an editor of the Oxford History Monographs series. She is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a Foreign Member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. In 2015, Patricia was awarded the British Academic Medal, which recognises a ‘landmark achievement that has transformed understanding’ for her book Securing the World Economy: The Reinvention of the League of Nations. Her new research project, supported by Tim Sanderson and the Calleva Foundation, uses the history of international and regional organisations to explore changing conceptions of security in the Twentieth Century.

Sir Simon Mayall has been a senior adviser for Greenhill & Co, the investment bank, since 2015. Previously, he had a long career in the British Army, serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo among other places. In the army, Mayall held the rank of Lieutenant General and between 2011 and 2014 was also Middle East Senior Adviser at the UK Ministry of Defence. While in the army he completed a Defence Fellowship at the University of Oxford, studying Turkish security policy, and held the offices of Deputy Commanding General in the Multi-National Corps (Iraq), Assistant Chief of the General Staff, and Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff. In 2010, Mayall was appointed Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) and then, in 2014, a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Simon is a Legatum Fellow and previously spoke at the Legatum Institute on ‘The Art of Peace and War’ as part of The Culture of Prosperity programme.

Brendan Simms Professor in Professor of the History of International Relations at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on the history of European foreign policy. He has written a variety of books and articles on this subject, including Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia (shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize), Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire, 1714-1783 and Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present. He is the president of The Henry Jackson Society, and Chairman of the Project for Democratic Union, a Munich-based student-organised think tank, which he founded in early 2013 following his work on European integration and democratisation. His most recent book, Britain's Europe, A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation will be published in May.

Paul Stock is Associate Professor of Early Modern International History at the LSE.  He specialises in eighteenth and nineteenth century intellectual and cultural history. His current research focuses on the history of the idea of Europe, and on the history of spatial thought, particularly in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Britain. Prior to joining the LSE, he was Lecturer in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Culture and Literature at Birkbeck, and Teaching Fellow in European Studies at UCL. He is the author of The Shelley-Byron Circle and the Idea of Europe and editor of The Uses of Space in Early Modern History.

About the Roads to Freedom Series

As part of The Culture of Prosperity programme, this series offers a progress report on the idea of freedom. The history of the developed west has been shaped by the increased degree of freedom exercised by individuals who have been able to escape the constraints that prevailed in the past. Contributors to this series will be drawing conclusions from the study of the past while also seeking to find ways of removing the obstacles to freedom’s progress.' The relationship between rights and duties, freedoms and responsibilities, provides Roads to Freedom with its central theme in 2016. More information is available here.