Blame it on the French

John Barrell

  • Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 by Linda Colley
    Yale, 429 pp, £19.95, September 1992, ISBN 0 300 05737 7

Linda Colley’s new book is an attempt to discover and analyse the ingredients of British national identity as it was forged in the 18th century – ‘forged’ in the double sense of made up (for communities are imagined and imaginary things) and fashioned in the fire of battle. It is also an attempt to recover and understand the patriotism of ‘ordinary British people’, a patriotism she refuses to regard simply in terms of ideology, or as the result, for many, of variously mediated and unmediated forms of coercion, or as a primarily irrational response by the British to the experience of finding themselves members of the new nation created by the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. For Colley, such accounts of popular patriotism are the products of a massive retrospective condescension; they also fail to recognise that patriotism could be as much a force for political change as for conservatism.

This is a very fine book and one of the best things about it is the use it makes of the past to interrogate the present. The national identity of the British, it points out, was first defined in terms of a set of characteristics and achievements which have largely ceased to count: ‘God is no longer British, and Providence no longer smiles.’ Britain is no longer a distinctively Protestant, even a distinctively Christian nation. There is no great likelihood of war with a European nation, no obvious enemy without; no empire; no commercial supremacy; no obvious new ground on which to rebuild the national identity of Britain. Whether the Union can survive without a clearer sense of what it is there for; whether Britain will be able to construct a new and self-gratifying identity either inside or outside a united Europe; whether if it can do so it will be at the cost of identifying a new enemy within, and whether or not that process is already well advanced – these are among the questions the book raises or prompts in its final chapter. ‘What seems indisputable is that a substantial rethinking of what it means to be British can no longer be evaded,’ Colley concludes, a remark which raises another set of questions: that perhaps we already have a new national identity, but find it too unflattering to acknowledge; that if we don’t have one, we must therefore need one, that if we need one, it can be arrived at by ‘rethinking’ what it should be like.

Britons is a timely book, more so now it has been published than a year or so ago when it must have been finished. The general loss of confidence in the symbols, icons and future of Britishness has slipped still further down the hill in the intervening months. Increasing disbelief that the British economy can pull itself out of a recession which is all its own as well as everyone else’s; an increasingly general awareness of how little of British economic policy is made in Britain; the widening split in both major parties about the kind of future Britain should seek in Europe; a gathering doubt about the point of sustaining an imperial-style monarchy, coupled with what may be the final collapse of the royal family as an even faintly plausible symbol of what is best in national life – Linda Colley’s book is an essential prehistory of this whole (though not wholly melancholy) catalogue of anxieties.

The British, Colley argues, defined themselves as a nation against the other of the French, with whom they were repeatedly at war throughout the 11 decades between the Act of Union and the Battle of Waterloo. The expulsion of the Stuarts, and the establishment of a Protestant succession by Act of Parliament, ensured that these wars, whatever else they were about, could be thought of as wars of Protestantism against Roman Catholicism; and repeated military success made it easy for the British to believe they were a nation apart, a chosen people, and that the same Providence which, in 1688, had delivered them from Popery at home had also entrusted them with a religious mission to fight their ‘natural enemies’, the agents of the Bishop of Rome across the Channel. This was a mission as attractive and as flattering to Dissenters as it was to Anglicans; and though it did not do away with the hostility of the Church of England towards the various Dissenting communities, or (until 1828) with the legislation that denied full citizenship to Dissenters, it did emphasise what both groups believed in common, and represented that community of belief as inseparable from the community of the nation.

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