Everybody agrees mat the British, and especially the English, are suffering from an identity crisis. The standard explanation is loss of Empire and failure to find an alternative role. And yet in many ways it was the Empire which sowed the seeds of our present uncertainties.
Until about 1800 the lineaments of national self-identity were fairly clear, but during the 19th century what it was to be British or English became a far more contested question. This was partly because the rise of manufacturing towns mocked the roast beef and Plymouth Hoe images of the ‘olden time’, but more important was an ambiguity inherent in the country’s international and Imperial roles. At its simplest, this could be regarded as a contest between different types of Englishmen and competing political tendencies; between little Englanders (such as Richard Cobden and John Bright) on the one hand and chauvinist imperialists (such as Lord Palmerston and Joseph Chamberlain) on the other; between a maritime and peaceful trading nation and a military-imperial superpower; between a petit-bourgeois electorate, fired by the internationalist moralism of Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign, and a populace moved to ardent xenophobia by the Royal Jubilees. Such divisions did exist and have continued to do so, as is clear from the degree of conscientious objection during two world wars, and from the polarisations evoked by the Suez and Falklands expeditions. The problem of national identity is more complex than this, however, being the result of ambivalence within both traditions rather than of divisions between them.
A defining episode was the second Napoleonic invasion scare of 1803-4. The Addington Government launched an appeal to the nation; ‘John Bull’ was elevated into a symbol of Englishness; thousands of patriotic broadsides and ballads were circulated; the London stage devoted itself to evocations of Agincourt and Blenheim; and volunteering became so popular that, according to J.E. Cookson, more than one in five of the male population of military age went into armed service. Such a sudden burst of martial fervour can only be described as a revanche, equivalent to those in France (1792-93), Prussia (1806-7), and Russia (1812) – a heightened mood combining elements of apocalyptic despair, epiphany, catharsis, but above all of mythmaking, as a result of which a large gap emerged between what this country actually did in the French wars and what it perceived itself to be doing.
The wars of the 1790s were the first to be waged between political ideologies. The British fought on the side of the legitimists against Jacobinism, yet ideologically – for all the philippics of Burke and Windham – they had more in common with the enemy than with their allies, the autocracies of Austria, Prussia and Russia. From 1803-15 the enemy was supposed to be imperial expansion, as practised by the French; yet, as Chris Bayly has written, this period saw ‘the greatest expansion of British imperial dominion since ... the 17th century. Most later extensions of the Empire, whether in Africa in the 1880s and 1890s or in the Middle East after the First World War, were the slowly matured consequences’ of policies laid down during the French wars. The nation which fought so nobly for the autonomy of European ‘nations’ such as Germany, Italy, Sweden, Poland and Spain, happily appropriated Cape Colony, Ceylon, Tobago, St Lucia, Mauritius, Heligoland, Malta and the Ionian Isles, while subduing millions of Indians, sometimes very brutally.
The English genuinely saw themselves as reluctant warriors, fighting only in self-defence. According to a patriotic broadside of 1803, the French
fight for Power, for Plunder, and extended Rule – WE, for our Country, our Altars, and our Homes. – They follow an ADVENTURER, whom they fear – and obey a Power which they hate – WE serve a Monarch whom we love, a GOD whom we adore.
Such sentiments were commonplace. What is significant is that they were written, not by some blimpish country gentleman, but by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, former pacifist, scourge of the Establishment and Irish patriot. Later, as Wellington led the offensive on the Continent and the Navy gobbled up sugar islands, the English continued – quite genuinely and without any sense of contradiction – to see themselves as liberators and deliverers. This was not so much a case of gaining an empire in ‘a fit of absence of mind’ as of gaining an empire while marching to the tunes of liberty and nationalism.
Throughout the century English imperialism continued to dress itself up by asserting its religious mission, the white man’s burden or colonial trusteeship. In the same way, Palmerston’s bosscat and occasionally gunboat diplomacy was larded with sententious appeals to high-sounding principles like nationality and constitutionality. To outsiders it seemed like so much humbug, but it might be more charitable to see it as a case of schizophrenia, matched by a national tendency to pluck ‘finest hours’ from the jaws of defeat, to elevate triumphs of character above hard-headed victories (the ‘General Gordon syndrome’), and to indulge in le vice anglais (pleasure in being beaten at sport). Even Suez seemed awful, not so much because it was a failure of arms, but because Eden’s actions were sensed to be duplicitous and therefore a blot on England’s sea-green incorruptibility.
If militarism and realpolitik have disguised themselves in a blanket of duty, the alternative liberal-pacifist tradition has been equally riddled with ambiguities. In theory, Cobden’s Englishman was economic man, attending solely to his private avocations, a citizen of the world rather than of a nation state. In practice, this velvet economic glove often concealed an iron fist. For example, England’s determination in the first half of the 19th century to rid the world of slave traders and pirates might look like the beginning of a long tradition of ‘ethical foreign policy’, but it was used to justify the Royal Navy’s high-handed ‘Stop! Search! and Confiscate!’ policies on the high seas. Again, the lesson of the Napoleonic wars – as drawn by statesmen such as Liverpool and Canning – was that British power depended, not on standing armies, not even on the playing fields of Eton, but on the Government’s ability to mobilise vast amounts of gold cheaply and at short notice. It followed that many of the economic policy elements later associated with the pax Britannica – the gold standard, retrenchment, tax cuts, debt redemption, freer trade – were designed to put the nation’s finances in such a state that, when war recurred, City financiers would once again be able to perform their vital bankrolling function.
Later, in the middle decades of the century, these same economic policies were defended on the Cobdenite ground that they would bring about peace and goodwill between nations. Yet Britain’s competitive advantage as the ‘workshop of the world’ enabled it to exploit the relatively free trade markets of the third quarter of the century, thereby leading to what Jack Gallagher and Ronald Robinson called informal empire or ‘the imperialism of Free Trade’. Thereafter, Britain’s determination not to copy the other European states and America, by retreating into protective tariffs, is often seen as an enlightened attachment to principle; but it also led to a greater dependence on Asian and African export markets, which in turn encouraged participation in more formal imperialism. Even the repeal of the Corn Laws – the flagship of Free Trade policy – had double-edged consequences. For, by finally signalling the abandonment of self-sufficiency, it emphasised our dependence on food imports, and so made the Navy the main guarantor of food supply, which led in turn to our determination to maintain a two-power naval standard, one of the main sources of Great Power friction that resulted in the First World War.
Two recent books have added to our understanding of the liberal, anti-war, anti-imperialist tradition in English history. Both are highly informative, sophisticated, closely and subtly argued. Martin Ceadel’s begins in 1730 but is really about the first half of the 19th century, while Anthony Howe’s is really about the second half of that century although it continues until 1946. Ceadel’s is largely pioneering in its subject-matter, while Howe picks his way through a dense historiography. Both will become standard works.
‘For the best part of a century,’ Howe writes, ‘Free Trade has outstanding claims to be considered the single most distinctive characteristic of the British state, joining Protestantism and empire as an indispensable hallmark of England’s world “mission”.’ Howe examines the basis on which commercial policy was made and the degree of support it garnered among different economic interest groups. I have a few quibbles. I think, for example, he underestimates the importance of food supply considerations in the decision to repeal the Corn Laws, and as a consequence fails to see how much that decision was a logical development of Huskisson’s earlier policy. But overall his interpretation – while it might be slightly overstated and is bound to be controversial – is both illuminating and compelling.
Most accounts start from the perspective of economic theory by contrasting Free Trade with protection. Howe contrasts Free Trade with particular modifications of protection, such as bilateral commercial diplomacy (reciprocity) and economic imperialism (preference), which leads him directly into considerations of foreign and imperial policy, and so much closer to the realities of political debate than the more familiar theoretical approach would have done. He rightly emphasises the consensual nature of Free Trade ideology at the mid-century, and the vital role played by Russell’s Whig Government in undermining the old colonial protectionist interests, such as sugar and shipping. He also rehabilitates the Anti-Corn Law League as a mighty engine which – by humbling the aristocracy – caught the hearts and minds of millions, not just merchants and manufacturers, but workers, women and even some sections of the rural population. From 1846 until the 1885 election (the ‘high water mark of electoral Cobdenism’), Free Trade – together with its concomitants, the gold standard, retrenchment and a balanced fiscal system – was virtually a ‘secular religion’, accepted at all levels of society and almost without question. This emphasis on Cobden and his ‘cult’ is refreshing since much recent research has denigrated Cobden at the expense of Palmerston (both men died in 1865). Howe’s discussion of the Cobden Club, whose ‘devotional literature’ assiduously propagated the faith after his death, and of Cobdenite mandarins such as Louis Mallet and Thomas Farrer, is a timely reminder of just how powerfully ingrained liberal commercial values became.
Pure Cobdenism was a form of humanitarian cosmopolitanism, based on the international brotherhood of man. Practical Cobdenism, as it evolved in the 1850s and 1860s, was based on attempts at European integration, including arbitration in diplomatic disputes, fiscal and monetary union, and proposals for a Channel tunnel (floreat 1875-86). This vision of a ‘Europe of municipalities’ chimed with the ‘Concert of Europe’ instincts of Gladstone and Russell, but eventually faced a multiplicity of threats: from Bismarckianism and the Continent’s return to protectionism; from the growth of protectionist sentiment in the self-governing colonies; from demands for increased defence spending (the ‘fiscal-military challenge’); from the Great Depression of the 1880s; and above all from Palmerston’s – and later Disraeli’s – ‘swing to the East’ or ‘swing towards Empire’.
It has generally been supposed that these various challenges had the effect of making Cobdenism no longer the universal norm, and that thereafter Free Trade ideology persisted only in a passive and ingrained sort of way, clinging on by its intellectual fingertips against more vigorous constructs such as fair trade, imperial preference and protection. Howe will have none of this. He shows how Free Trade was a living tradition, constantly being revivified intellectually by taking on board new defences and new rationalisations, such as the economic importance of invisible earnings; the need for a knave-proof state; the function of competition in fostering ‘national efficiency’; the mutuality of Free Trade and political democracy. In the course of such reworkings some previously sacrosanct aspects of the Cobden-Gladstonian creed had to be ditched, as Free Trade had to be shown to be compatible with (and even now to require) active state intervention, social reform and higher taxes. Robert Morier even sought to reconcile Free Trade with Empire (an Empire bound together by ties of sentiment and affection rather than by material economic interests). Thus reinvigorated, it had no difficulty in seeing off the fair trade and bimetallist challenges and, after being briefly beleaguered in the 1890s, emerged to give much better than it got in its greatest challenge of all, Chamberlain’s tariff reform campaign of 1903. Indeed, Howe believes that it emerged all the stronger from that fray, supported by the great majority of industrialists. He is dismissive of tariff reform, both intellectually and politically, and sees little sign of an emerging ‘producers alliance’ within the Conservative Party (as postulated by E.H.H. Green). The 1906 election was ‘a stunning victory for Free Trade’, a creed which remained absolutely central to both ‘New Liberalism’ and ‘Edwardian Progressivism’, and was only dethroned during and after the First World War.
Howe’s book is so comprehensive and so acute that it is mean to ask for anything more. Yet, although he writes frequently about the ‘Free Trade Weltanschauung’ he does not really penetrate far into cultural, instinctual or epistemological matters. His negative contribution here is to lob a few grenades at the ‘gentlemanly capitalist’ thesis. The Bank Charter Act and the repeal of the Corn Laws were not the result of City influence, since a majority of its members opposed those policies (though after their passing the City quickly accommodated to Free Trade and the Gold Standard, reconstituting itself away from colonial protectionism and towards international finance). Although ‘the Protectionists hijacked bimetallism rhetorically and ideologically’, on the ground there was no clear connection between the two. City firms were not uniformly opposed to bimetallism, nor were they unfailingly loyal to Free Trade, and while ‘the City’ in the narrower sense of the Bank-Treasury nexus might have been so, it was a less influential force in policymaking than has often been supposed. The unmistakable implication of all this is that in the fifty years of England’s liberal heyday, it was not London but Manchester and Manchesterismus which dominated the value system, so that what Howe calls the ‘Cobdenite moment’ might be better designated the ‘Mancunian moment’. As the author of a distinguished book on The Cotton Masters 1830-60 (1984), Howe might have gone on to explain what A.J.P. Taylor was getting at in 1957 when he wrote in Encounter:
Manchester is as distinctive in its way as Athens or Peking. It is the symbol of a civilisation which was, until recently, an ambition of mankind, though now little more than a historical curiosity. Manchester is the only English city that can look London in the face, not merely as a regional capital, but as a rival version of how men should live in a community ... [Unlike all] other great halls in England, [Manchester’s] Free Trade Hall is dedicated, like the United States of America, to a proposition – one as noble and beneficent as any ever made. Richard Cobden formulated it in the words: ‘As little intercourse as possible between Governments; as much intercourse as possible between the peoples of the world.’
That so little has been written on later 19th-century Manchester, despite Taylor’s invitation, may (for once) be blamed on Asa Briggs, whose excellent Victorian Cities (1963) threw historians off the scent by arguing that Manchester, the ‘shock city’ of the first half of the century, had, by 1877, ‘long outgrown the days when it could be described as “a system of society constructed according to entirely new principles” ’. Briggs believed that Manchester ceded the palm to Birmingham, which might be true in terms of radical (i.e. ‘shock’) politics, but, as Howe reminds us, Birmingham remained at loggerheads with the Weltanschauung throughout the century, a parochial and ‘isolated outpost of imperial preference and commercial retaliation’. We still await a proper political and cultural analysis of Manchester, the city which thought ‘today what the rest of the country will think tomorrow’.
Cobden does not dominate Martin Ceadel’s study of war prevention to quite the same extent, but he has the largest number of index references, followed at a long distance by Joseph Sturge and Henry Richard. This book, too, explores the tensions between London and Manchester, and it ends on a Mancunian moment – the Manchester Peace Conference of 1853. The previous seven years or so (following the repeal of the Corn Laws) had marked the peak of support for peace movements, thanks partly to Cobden’s ‘belated’ decision to take up the cause in 1849 (what for Howe was an earnest and not unfruitful attempt to win Europe to the cause of Free Trade in the wake of Corn Law repeal Ceadel refers to as a ‘long holiday’). As such it marked a victory over realpolitik, but Ceadel’s account is less upbeat than Howe’s, coming as he is from the opposite direction. To him, the Manchester peace movement was, like the philosophy of its leaders Cobden and Bright, a derogation from the purer London faith, more commercially materialistic than moral, more humanitarian than Christian, more internationalist and arbitrationist than unilateralist.
Ceadel’s background is in political science, which may account for his highly schematic and analytical approach (though these are never allowed to blur the messy realities in which any political movement has to engage). Leaving the tiny handful of ideological militarists to one side, Ceadel distinguishes (as in his previous books) between ‘defencists’, ‘pacificists’, and ‘pacifists’. ‘Defencists’ believed that governments could limit warfare by adopting prudential policies, such as rearmament and treaty-making. ‘Pacificists’, believed that permanent peace might eventually be achieved through the mobilisation of opinion and political reform within the different states (a version of Cobden’s call for ‘intercourse’ ... between the peoples of the world’). ‘Pacifists’ were for total non-resistance, opposing participation in wars in all circumstances, whatever the provocation (though Ceadel refines the matter still further by distinguishing between ‘absolute’ and ‘contingent’ pacifism). What really fascinates him are the delicate borderline areas separating his middle group of pacificists from defencists on the one hand and pacifists on the other. The investigation is conducted with neurosurgical precision, and the result is a vastly learned and beautifully controlled survey of the many different peace societies, associations, leagues, congresses and conferences, and of the various newspapers and journals which each of them spawned. By testing each participant against his basic schema, Ceadel is able to distinguish a series of distinctive eras: the ‘First Peace Movement’ (1793-1816), the Jonathan Dymond era (1816-31), the Joseph Sturge era (1832-45), the Elihu Burritt era (1846-8) and finally the Richard Cobden era (1848-51), which he charts as being clearly pacificist rather than pacifist, albeit one in which pacifists still held an ‘honoured place’.
Defencism – the creed of most British foreign secretaries – rested on the need to retain a ‘balance of power’. However, as Ceadel points out, defencists rarely stooped to define any national interest which such a balance was supposed to serve. Instead, the ‘balance of power’ became an end in itself, being in large part ‘an application of the newly discovered laws of mechanics’, a product of Enlightenment thinking and of Newtonian natural philosophy. Against this, the main spring of pacifism was of course religion, and especially Quakerism. In most cases this derived from a fundamental optimism about the beneficence of the Creation, and of an associated belief in particular providence. The latter was important because it encouraged a belief that Britain might turn the other cheek – i.e. disarm – safe in the knowledge that God would prevent it from being overrun by invaders. Ceadel sometimes calls this set of beliefs ‘evangelicalism’, which he sees as a rejection of the Enlightenment rationalism underlying both defencist and pacificist strategies. He thus claims that the retreat from pacifism into pacificism during the mid-century reflected the decline both of evangelicalism and of belief in particular providence, and the corresponding rise of post-millennialism, liberal-progressivism, secularism and belief in general providence.
There are some problems with his use of that notoriously difficult term ‘evangelical’, however. As he himself points out, Anglican evangelicals were mainly defencists, while some were pacificists, but few if any were pacifists. Moreover, while evangelicals assuredly believed in the operations of particular providence, it is misleading to say that they were particular as distinct from general providentialists, since a majority of them also believed that God governed according to general (not particular) laws for most of the time. ‘Particular’ providence, in other words, was ‘special’. In this context, Ceadel notes – but does not sufficiently heed – David Bebbington’s reminder that, for all their emphasis on a religion of the heart, evangelicals worked inside and not outside the Enlightenment rationalist tradition and so appealed to minds as well as hearts. What they shared across the denominations was their sense of Original Sin, which is why most 18th and early 19th-century Quakers, with their belief in an inner light, were not evangelical at all. During the second quarter of the 19th century a specifically ‘evangelical’ movement developed within the broader spectrum of Quakers, and Bebbington says that it had become ‘dominant’ by the third quarter. The leading evangelical Quaker was J.J. Gurney, the friend of Thomas Chalmers and a wealthy banker, whose religious beliefs were typical of the Anglican evangelical world in which he moved – i.e. a deep pessimism about a society which he regarded as sunk in depravity and sin (in contrast to the normal Quaker optimism), and a belief in the ordinary operations of general providence. Unsurprisingly, as Ceadel notes, Gurney (like Chalmers) was a pacificist and not a pacifist.
Why was there such a powerful peace movement in Britain during the first half of the 19th century? Ceadel addresses the geographical aspect of this question by arguing that the Channel made Britain feel relatively invulnerable, and that this discouraged the type of militarism seen in some Continental powers. On the other hand, the Channel was not so wide as to eliminate all sense of vulnerability, so pacifism gained a bigger hold than in the United States, protected as it was by both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But why in the first half of the 19th century? All peace movements, pacifist and pacificist alike, are to some degree utopian, in so far as they come up against realpolitik, but during the first half of the century they faced an even stronger challenge from the very powerful current of Malthusian thought, which argued that wars – like famines and pestilences – were natural (i.e. God-given) means of disposing of surplus population. Wars, in other words, were dispensations of general providence in a sinful world. This assumption lay behind much of the catastrophist science of the first half of the century, and was evident in the religious sensibility of the period, dominated as that was by evangelical notions of a retributive God. Yet if Ceadel is right in thinking that the first half of the century was the heyday of peace movements, one is forced to reflect that pacifism flourished best when the zeitgeist was most obviously stacked against it.
Which no doubt added to the sense foreigners had that Britain was the epicentre of hypocrisy. What is clear from Ceadel’s magnificently thorough account is that the hypocrisy was absolutely genuine, just one element of that great British ambivalence which was the legacy of the 19th century.