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How Britain Made It

Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837

by Linda Colley
Yale University Press, 429 pp., $35.00

The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century

by Peter Linebaugh
Cambridge University Press, 484 pp., $44.95

The ancient Greeks used to debate whether the polis was natural or artificial. Nowadays, as states fall apart and boundaries are redrawn almost daily, it is not only the devotees of postmodernist jargon who accept that political societies are “invented” or “constructed.” States are not the spontaneous and inevitable product of “natural frontiers,” or “national character,” but emerge from conflict and are maintained by a mixture of physical force and a carefully nurtured myth of national identity. A nation is what Benedict Anderson famously called “an imagined political community.”1 In any such community there will inevitably be some groups who benefit from this arrangement and readily identify themselves with the prevailing myth, just as there will be others who take a subordinate place and feel estranged. The political unions will cohere so long as those in the former category are more powerful than those in the latter.

Eighteenth-century Britain is an example of just such an invented community. The Act of Union of 1707 joined Scotland to England and Wales to form the new United Kingdom of Great Britain. (Wales and England had been united since 1536.) Three countries which had long been divided by history, language, law, and culture were now expected to function as a single unit. They did so with spectacular success. By the end of the eighteenth century Britain was economically the most advanced of all nations. Its military and naval power would prove strong enough to defeat Napoleon and its overseas colonial empire became the largest the world had ever known.

How was it that this heterogeneous amalgam of peoples proved so effective a unity? What held it together as a community in face of so many obvious forces for disintegration? This is the problem that Linda Colley sets out to answer in a dashingly written and firmly unsentimental book, which consolidates her claim to be regarded as one of the leading contemporary interpreters of eighteenth-century Britain and a worthy successor to her former mentor Sir John Plumb.

But what of the underclass of this new nation? How did the proletariat of Hanoverian London fare under a regime which used the gallows as the ultimate sanction for the security of property and the growth of capitalism? Did the superficial unity of British nationhood not conceal a fierce underlying class struggle between haves and have nots? These are the questions posed in Peter Linebaugh’s bitterly sardonic study of the men and women who were hanged at eighteenth-century Tyburn. Based on closer research than Colley’s broad interpretative essay, but careless in detail and much less persuasively argued, it reveals its author as a committed practitioner of old-style Marxist history, following self-consciously in the early steps of E. P. Thompson, who nearly twenty years ago supervised the thesis from which his book has grown, and with whom he collaborated in producing Albion’s Fatal Tree, that eloquent manifesto of criminological history as then conceived by the Warwick Centre for the Study of Social History.2

Linda Colley identifies three decisive factors in the formation of the British nation: Protestantism, war, and the empire. Protestantism had long been used to foster the notion of the English as a chosen people. “God is English,” wrote the Elizabethan bishop John Aylmer in 1558; and the sentiment was widespread during the following century. The successive deliverances from the Spanish Armada and Gunpowder Plot were invoked to demonstrate that England was an elect nation, a people providentially chosen by God to carry out divine purposes. The flight of the Catholic James II and the subsequent formal exclusion of Catholics from the throne consolidated the myth. When the Hanoverian succession was secured against the Jacobite threat to return the Stuarts to power, Protestantism was confirmed as the national ideology.

Colley stresses the central importance of militant Protestantism in eighteenth-century Britain. She notes how Handel regularly inserted into his oratorios comparisons between Old Testament heroes and the Hanoverian triumph; and she reminds us how Hogarth identified Catholicism with poverty and tyranny. She could have quoted the Sussex shopkeeper Thomas Turner, who saw the Seven Years War as a means of resisting French attempts to “deprive us of our holy religion and in its stead institute popery.”3 But not all Britons shared these prejudices. Presbyterian Scots could readily accept a Protestant definition of Britishness, but Catholics, whether Scots or English, did not. Catholics were the object of mob violence in the Gordon Riots of 1780. Their emancipation did not come until 1829 and even then was passionately opposed by much of the population. Colley takes this as proof that Protestantism shaped “the way that ordinary Britons viewed and made sense of the land they lived in.” But it also reminds us that, as a unifying ideology for a nation which included not just native Catholics and Jews but also, by 1831, half a million Irish immigrants, Protestantism was necessarily inadequate.

The real uniting force was foreign war, particularly war against France. It was during the years linking the War of Austrian Succession (1739–1748) to the Seven Years War (1756–1763) that many of the symbols of British cultural identity were instituted: not just Rule Britannia (1740) and God Save the King (1745), but also the British Museum (1753) and the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1768), the latter, significantly, a Scottish enterprise. To these, Linebaugh adds the rules of cricket (1744) and of whist (1745). In the pursuit of foreign war and the ruthless search for colonial markets the landed oligarchy showed itself to be at one with the goals of the trading community. Jacobitism was unacceptable to the populace in 1745 because it would have meant civil war and the disruption of trade. In the fashionable political theory of the day, commerce was believed to induce luxury and sap martial spirit, but, in reality, traders were militantly anti-Jacobite and antiFrench. Stout-hearted commercial activity and patriotism went together.

The British thus defined themselves by opposition to their rivals across the Channel. Parliament, Magna Carta, roast beef, and plum pudding symbolized their freedom and prosperity by contrast with the wooden shoes of the downtrodden, ragout-eating, Catholic French. This antagonism was an old theme, but it gained strength in the eighteenth century as anti-Gallican sentiment was exacerbated by military conflict and commercial and colonial rivalry; and it would long survive. Colley reminds us that as late as 1940 a Methodist grocer in Lincolnshire, Alfred Roberts, gave it as his opinion that the French as a nation were “corrupt from top to bottom.” He was the father of that great anti-European, Margaret Thatcher.

Yet what really consolidated British nationalism was the empire. As early as 1740, the opposition to Robert Walpole’s Whig government had been able to exploit the imperial aspirations of large numbers of people who were not represented in Parliament.4 The elder Pitt exploited the same aspirations to even greater effect with his victories in the Seven Years War. (Two hundred years later in a South Wales grammar school, we were still encouraged to sing Garrick’s chauvinistic ballad of 1759: “Heart of Oak are our ships / Heart of Oak are our men.”) The acquisition of colonial possessions in Canada, India, and the West Indies meant new opportunities for employment overseas. Among those who seized them were the North Britons, who in the later eighteenth century frequently moved south to pursue careers in the law, the army, and the East India Company. Scots, many of them ex-Jacobites, made a disproportionate contribution to the empire, bringing with them, thinks Colley, a new ruthlessness in the administration of subject peoples, unimpeded by English constitutional inhibitions. She cites Ian Fleming’s James Bond, as the fag end of this tradition, but Kipling’s ships’ engineers are perhaps a more representative literary example of the Scottish imperial presence. The name “Great Britain” was slow to catch on as the title of a home country which natives and foreigners alike would persist in calling “England.” In the twentieth century its literature remained “English” literature and its history “English” history. But no one ever referred to the empire as anything other than “British.”

The second half of Britons is devoted to the “officially constructed patriotism” which, in Colley’s view, marked the half century after the traumatic defeat of 1782 and loss of the American colonies. As in the US after Vietnam, loss of face was followed by a move to the right and a determination to shore up the power of the state. The ruling elite expanded to absorb the Scottish aristocracy and, so far as there was one, its Welsh counterpart. It had become unambiguously British and it reformed its patrician style, turning itself into a less frivolous, harder-working, and publicly more responsible class. In the wars against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France the nobility and gentry had a conspicuous part. They benefited from the new cult of military heroism which gave leaders like Nelson and Wellington an unprecedented status as popular stars. In contrast to the supposedly effeminate ways of the French, they developed a tough and “manly” style, fostered by the public schools and universities and by the gentry sports of cricket and fox-hunting.

At the same time, they took a new interest in British art. There was no provision for a national gallery until 1824, for the principle of private ownership was strictly maintained. But some patrician collections were open to the public and the foundation in 1805 of the British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts provided a gallery to which gentlemen could patriotically lend their pictures. Colley comments that it was the British Institution which generated

the quite extraordinary idea that even if an art object comes from abroad, and even if it remains securely in private ownership, as long as it resides in a country house it must somehow belong to the nation and enhance it…. Only in Great Britain did it prove possible to float the idea that aristocratic property was in some magical and strictly intangible way the people’s property also. The fact that hundreds of thousands of men and women today are willing to accept that privately owned country houses and their contents are part of Britain’s national heritage is one more proof of how successfully the British élite reconstructed its cultural image in an age of revolutions.

Along with the aristocracy, the monarchy also improved its image. The early Hanoverians had been markedly lacking in charismatic qualities and George III had got off to a shaky start. But despite his illness and his disreputable sons, the popularity of this rather simple man, who “gloried in the name of Britain,” soared as his reign went on. His very domesticity and ordinariness were used by royal propagandists to establish the still abiding notion that, as Colley puts it, “members of the Royal family were just like everyone else, yet at the same time somehow different.” George’s apotheosis came in 1809 with the nationwide celebration of his Jubilee. The most extraordinary feature of this event was that the idea came not from the government, but from an obscure middle-class widow from the Welsh borders, one Mrs. Biggs. She wrote to the Earl of Dartmouth, suggesting that a festival marking the king’s fiftieth anniversary would be a good way to “excite a spirit of loyal enthusiasm” to counteract the effects of the sexual scandal arising from the public exposure of the affair between George’s second son, the Duke of York, and his mistress, Mrs. Clarke (she had taken bribes from army officers to secure their advancement by the duke, who was commander in chief of the British Army). Since the Prince and Princess of Wales were also living apart, the need to improve the monarchy’s public image was obvious and it was speedily embraced.

  1. 1

    Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised edition (London: Verso, 1991).

  2. 2

    Douglas Hay, Peter Linebaugh, John G. Rule, E. P. Thompson, and Cal Winslow, Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (Pantheon, 1976).

  3. 3

    David Vaisey, editor, The Diary of Thomas Turner (Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 32.

  4. 4

    Kathleen Wilson, “Admiral Vernon and Popular Politics in Mid-Hanoverian Britain,” Past and Present, No. 121 (1988).

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