From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837
There is an advert on television for Typhoo tea featuring the speech from Shakespeare’s Richard II which describes this ‘sceptred isle’. It comes with the required image of a Britain complete with cricket on the village green, scones and, of course, tea. Yet there is a jarring note at the advert’s end. Shakespeare’s speech is a triumph of praise for ‘this England’. In 1994 the advertisers have scored out the name England and replaced it with Britain.
It is a reminder of just how recent the notion of a British nation is. The mythology woven around the crown and the ‘mother of parliaments’ is that these are institutions rooted in the mists of a common past. The truth is rather different. The idea of Britain as a single nation state is little older than the creation of the United States.
Until the close of the 18th century anyone living in London would have regarded all Scots, whether Gaelic or English speaking, as aliens and would have found it difficult to communicate with the bulk of the population elsewhere in England.
Linda Colley’s book is an excellent examination of how the notion of a British state was born. For her it centres on war, and in particular the long war with France in the 18th century. This war would become the first world war, with European armies fighting in North America and India and their navies engaged in battle off the Australian coast.
The final victory of this long contest at Waterloo in 1815 marked more than military success. Colley reproduces a painting by the Scottish artist David Wilkie depicting news of victory over Napoleon being brought to Chelsea pensioners. This painting was a top draw when it was first exhibited. Within it are various images of Britain – the pubs named after various military grandees, the piper from a Highland regiment, Chelsea pensioners and even a black bandsman who conjures up the idea of empire.
Yet just 50 years earlier the London mob rioted in support of John Wilkes’ claims that George III was promoting Scots to rule the kingdom of England and that by their nature Scots were enemies of liberty.
Linda Colley is strongest at showing the various threads which were sewn together to create the idea of the British nation. Unlike many on the left she is absolutely clear that 18th century Britain was a capitalist economy. The ruling oligarchy may have been aristocrats but they were intimately connected to industry, commerce and the slave trade.
Agriculture was increasingly geared to feeding the growing cities and for export. The ruling class expanded beyond its earlier oligarchical core and threw up cultural and political institutions which extended down into the lower classes.
Unlike France, Britain’s wars did not centre on the geographical expansion of its borders, but rather on the acquisition of ports and colonies for commercial gain.
But the book falls down in trying to carry an argument against E.P. Thompson and other Marxist historians who have demonstrated the class polarisation of Britain in this period, the level of repression and the rich culture of opposition to the ruling class. Colley argues, however, the majority of Britons accepted the new British nationalism and the ruling class which spawned it.
But there is a problem here when one tries to examine what is often termed ‘the silent majority’. These are people who can suddenly find themselves moving sharply in different directions. The same people who might have cheered George III’s jubilee could turn on his rakish successor. Those who sang of British liberty could employ those ideas in an entirely different direction when it came to demanding parliamentary reform. The London mob might riot for king and country but they could also carry through near insurrection – in what the history books call the Gordon Riots – against the symbols of the ruling order.
In her chapter on the abolition of slavery, Colley simply looks at those in the ruling class who came to support abolition. She misses the popular protests which ensured black people were freed if they set foot on British soil and that slavers could not recapture them.
Last updated: 25 February 2017