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Britain Alone Reviews

Britain Alone by Philip Stephens

Britain Alone: The Path from Suez to Brexit

Philip Stephens

2.82 out of 5

6 reviews

Category: History, Non-fiction
Imprint: Faber & Faber
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Publication date: 28 Jan 2021
ISBN: 9780571341771

A magisterial and profoundly perceptive survey of Britain's post-war role on the global stage, from Suez to Brexit. In 1962, the US Secretary of State observed that post-war Britain had 'lost an empire and not yet found a role'.

4 stars out of 5
6 Feb 2021

"A fascinating history of Britain’s postimperial neuralgia"

A voluntary renegotiation, requested by Britain, resulting in a reasonable if unspectacular outcome, was presented as an abject humiliation. How did such a powerful state end up in this state? Long-standing Financial Times writer Philips Stephens’s new book is an account of the uneven and fascinating history of Britain’s postimperial diplomatic neuralgia. The bookends are Suez and Brexit, and this book posits that both are symptoms of the same dilemma. 


4 stars out of 5
5 Feb 2021

"The FT journalist brings much-needed substance to the overly emotional debate over the UK’s global role post-empire"

Britain Alone is no journalist’s memoir that looks to tell the story of the populist passions that underlay Brexit. Stephens draws upon academic historical research and archival records as well as the memoirs and journals of key decision makers and his interviews with them, without putting his personal experiences at the centre of the analysis. The result is a compelling, informative and readable history book.

5 stars out of 5
28 Jan 2021

"rarely has that contempt been expressed with such elegance, such fluency, and such a devastating wealth of supporting detail"

In a sense, Stephens’s thesis is a straightforward one. He begins by quoting Henry Tizard, a scientific advisor to the Attlee government, who argued in 1949 that Britain could still be a great nation, but was no longer a great power. Tizard also warned that if it persisted in trying to be a great power, despite its reduced postwar circumstances, it might also forfeit its reputation as a great nation; and over the next 400 pages, Stephens proceeds to demonstrate – with some repetition, but huge narrative flair – how Tizard’s warning was repeatedly disregarded, as one government after another fell prey to Britain’s post-Second World War myths of enduring national greatness and exceptional virtue.

1 stars out of 5
Simon Heffer
26 Jan 2021

"a chronic whinge and a book such as one gives for Christmas to someone one deeply dislikes"

However, this book, not for want of length, is almost devoid of insight, originality or acuity. It has all been said before, and said better, and much of it was no more true or interesting when said the first time. The claim on the book’s dust wrapper that it is “magisterial and ­profoundly perceptive” invites scrutiny under the Trade Descriptions Act: it is a chronic whinge and a book such as one gives for Christmas to someone one deeply dislikes... Let us hope this is the last whine, the last extensive act of self-flagellation, of the old pro-EU governing elite and their media lackeys, and we can get on with making a future for Britain better than the past that Stephens chronicles. 

2 stars out of 5
Dominic Sandbrook
17 Jan 2021

"It is supposed to be a book about Britain, but Britain is largely absent. "

Whatever you think of Stephens’s argument, his book is a crushing bore. It is supposed to be a book about Britain, but Britain is largely absent. His narrative never goes outside Whitehall, let alone London, and the only characters are a tiny handful of politicians and civil servants. At no point does a single non-political person say, think or do anything. He devotes nine lines to our first European referendum in 1975, yet more than five pages to Tony Blair’s interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. He never looks back at the long centuries of British history, and never shows the slightest curiosity about people who voted Leave. Perhaps most extraordinarily, he says virtually nothing about Europe. It is just there, offstage: homogenous, unchanging, a beacon of high-minded sanctity, a standing rebuke to Britain’s lamentable self-delusion.

3 stars out of 5
8 Jan 2021

"This book is a perfect expression of the illusions and unexamined prejudices of anti-Brexit orthodoxy"

Granted, the book is called Britain Alone, but even so it is astounding to tell the story of the British relationship with Europe without saying anything significant about the latter. Not one book by a European is cited. The reason seems clear. Brexit is assumed to be a purely British pathology, a perverse refusal to enter the Celestial City, so no more needs to be said. This dogma is reiterated throughout, and like all dogma requires no proof. It will comfort the faithful, but I doubt it will make many converts.