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Saturday, August 16, 2014

AN EMPIRE on the EDGE: HOW BRITAIN CAME to FIGHT AMERICA by Nick Bunker



  To be published by Alfred A. Knopf in September of 2014

I have read many histories of the Revolutionary War and most only tell the story of the build-up to the war from the American side and only describe Britain's political scene as it was interpreted by the colonists. To be fair, it was often misinterpreted by the colonists.

But, in reality, there were two sides to this fight and it was not just the colonists that were misinterpreting the political signals of their brethren across the Atlantic. The British government had no idea how far their colonial governments had evolved along democratic lines (compared to a modern democracy they were all quite restrictive but when compared to Britain they were quite open). 


The Boston Tea Party, December 16, 1773. Nick Bunker picks this
moment to be the point of no return between Britain and the colonists.
In fact, it seemed that often Britain was barely aware of the colonies because it had too many other crises to deal with, including a  severe drought, a crisis in India brought on by the East India Company, a disastrous drop in the price of tea and a run on several British banks. On top of all of this, Britain's social order was changing in response to its infant Industrial Revolution.

Each of these was a major crisis that consumed the time of Lord North, the Prime Minister. North and his cabinet careened from one crisis to another and were still able to maintain their majorities and the control of the government - so in that respect they were very successive. But, as author Nick Bunker notes: "As they tried to govern their own complicated country, Lord North and his friends allowed America to slip away." (p. 71)

Bunker's text is well-written and his points are clear and often quite sympathetic to America's pre-war complaints. He clearly demonstrates that Lord North was a masterful politician that failed to deal with Britain's larger, more long-term issues. Clearly, the colonists were not in a mood to compromise, but a bold stroke (such as the briefly considered idea of turning the Continental Congress into a some sort of colonial parliament led by a governor appointed by the British) was never taken.

I was struck by the absolute lack of information Lord North and his cabinet had. The 4-8 week time span that it took to send correspondence across the Atlantic did not help with this failure of proper intelligence,  but even worse were the governors who filed reports that completely misinterpreted the mood of the colonies. Some never filed reports at all. This was no way to run an empire.

Bunker's text inspires the reader to make comparisons with modern politics - the bank failures, the investment bubbles, the foreign policy surprises, the constant political posturing and an embarrassing lack of actual intelligence about the intentions of two potential enemies (the colonies and France) and an unwillingness to look at the big picture until it was too late.

Note: I received a pre-publication galley of this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I rate this book 5 out of 5 stars.
Reviewed on August 16, 2014.

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