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.

In other respects, too, what enabled the ordinary British to take pride in themselves as a nation was understood in terms of how they differed from the French. If some of what was believed about the French – for instance, that they were a mercurial, lazy, trivial people compared with the enterprising, industrious, practical British – is best understood as ideological stereotyping, much of it was believed because it was, by and large, true. However impoverished many Britons might be, they were rightly conscious of enjoying a better standard of living than the poor of France. Except for a brief period in the 1790s, virtually everyone in Britain believed, probably rightly, that the British enjoyed a greater degree of political and personal liberty than the French, however unrepresentative of the majority of the people the British government might be, and however often the courts gave the lie to the boasted equality of Britons before the law.

The unity of the nation was further cemented by an uneasy but, for most of the century, a nevertheless remarkably solid alliance between a predominantly landed ruling class and those engaged, on whatever scale, in trade. Government needed commerce for its contribution to the revenue of the state; traders needed government for various reasons – above all, to provide the internal stability essential to the safety of the complex and extensive credit transactions on which the expansion of British commerce was founded. This demand, Colley suggests, was a crucial factor in the failure of Jacobitism: however much discontent there may have been in Scotland and England with the government in London, and however often it may have found expression in a residual Jacobitism, traders of all conditions and in both countries knew just how bad for business a civil war would be.

The final collapse of the Jacobite alternative accelerated the integration of England and Scotland. After the Seven Years War, when Britain suddenly found itself with an empire larger, almost, than it had dared imagine, the need to administer new possessions, and to keep in subjection the new subjects of the Crown, was in part resolved by the large-scale recruitment of ambitious Scots, on the whole more willing than the English to do the rough and dirty jobs involved in empire-building. The empire became, emphatically, the British Empire. At home, Scots began to work their way into the English professions, and even into the heart of the English establishment – there were Scots MPs sitting for English constituencies, a Scots Lord Chief Justice, a Scots prime minister. The effect of this southward movement was to make the English as well as the Scots more aware of themselves as British.

The first great setback to the march of empire, the loss of the American colonies, was a setback too for the developing unity of Britain and generated a crisis of confidence in the wisdom and morality of government. The war with America was the least popular of the 18th-century imperial wars; it had been a war against fellow Protestants, and the defeat of Britain was widely interpreted, especially by Dissenters, as the judgment of God on the abandonment of its holy, anti-Catholic mission. Government responded to this crisis by becoming markedly more authoritarian, in its imperial policy and, from 1792, in its domestic policy as well. But at the same time, Colley argues, it found ways of legitimising its authority by means of a far more conscious, more official version of patriotism, a construction made more urgent for government, but also easier, by a new war with revolutionary France, now represented as worse than Catholic – as a nation of out-and-out atheists.

This new patriotism was centred on the emergence, and on the deliberate creation, of new perceptions of the ruling class and the monarchy. Increasing intermarriage among the aristocratic families of England, Scotland and Wales, a progressively higher standard of education among them, a greater emphasis on the importance of domestic morality in the highest classes, enabled government to stress as never before ‘the desirability of strong, stable government by a virtuous, able and authentically British élite’. William Pitt was an especially important symbol of this new élite: his well-known private virtue (‘prettygirlibus indifferentissimus’) made him for many the model of what a public servant should be, even if for others he seemed entirely contemptuous of the public virtues of incorruptibility, consistency and candour.

The new patriotism placed equal emphasis on the importance and duty of attachment to the monarchy, which, after the conspicuous un-Britishness of the first two Georges, could more easily be represented as integral to the nation at the accession of George III, who was born and bred in England, and who spoke a curious variety of English, full of gaps and repetitions, but one which was no less native than George Bush’s equally curious version of American. In fact, George III was less than happy with the limited constitutional role of the British monarchy which had come to seem so definitive a part of British freedom; it was said that he could not bear to hear mention of the Glorious Revolution. But whatever ambitions he entertained of increasing royal power were unfulfilled, and largely as a result of circumstances beyond his control, he became a thoroughly popular king: a symbol, promoted in new kinds of official displays and celebrations, of a united Britain’s heroic resistance to the French, and a symbol, too, of a kind of domestic ordinariness and vulnerability which made it possible to believe in him as the father of his people, a figure who could be laughed at, loved and revered, all at the same time.

Widespread loyalty to the King; widespread – though far from general – acceptance of the right of the ruling class to rule; steadily increasing integration of the Scots into English life; a broad alliance between the landed and the commercial interests; an uneasy alliance of Anglicanism and Dissent against a Catholic other – for all the freshness of its perceptions and emphases, the story that Colley has to tell is beginning to look disarmingly like that old image of the 18th century, as an Age of Stability, which so much of the historiography of the last thirty years has been concerned to question. What has happened to that other 18th century, an age of divisive conflicts between Jacobites and Hanoverians, Scots and English, Irish and English, Dissenters and Anglicans, colonial subjects and British imperialists, slaves and masters, women and men, poor and rich, radicals and loyalists? While she acknowledges the importance of all these, Colley makes rather less of them than I would find appropriate: the category ‘ordinary people’, carefully used at some times, becomes at others too conveniently capacious. But to the charge that she has, resourcefully and often brilliantly, reinvented the Age of Stability, she has two answers: one straightforward, one more complex, both persuasive.

The first answer is to remind us that, for all the deep conflicts in 18th and early 19th-century Britain, it was, by all contemporary standards, a much more stable and unified nation than any other major power in Europe; and that a strong sense of national identity was an important cause and effect of its military success, its growing commercial empire, its avoidance of revolution. The second answer I have already hinted at: it involves questioning what she insists is a far too easy equation between the desire for political stability, patriotism and conservatism, which for her are three different things. In two remarkable chapters on popular responses to the invasion scares of 1798 and 1803 and to the later phases of the war with France, she argues that for ordinary women and men participation in patriotic causes provided new opportunities of access to public life, in ways which led to a new extension of what could represent itself as public opinion. As a result, she argues, the foremost political controversies of the 1820s, Catholic emancipation, reform agitation, the anti-slavery campaign, ‘brought together both sexes, every social level and all parts of the nation, not in a consensus to be sure, but in an instructive and revealing debate’, one which directly raised the questions of what it was to be a citizen of Britain, and why most people, still unenfranchised, were not.

In the early phases of the war with revolutionary France, the Government had been reluctant to arm the poorest members of the population, unless they enlisted in the regular army, for fear that they would point their muskets the wrong way. The invasion scares, however, required an effective home guard, and the Government was forced to make the experiment of treating the labourer, the artisan, the unemployed, as patriots, trusted to bear arms in defence of the nation. The opportunities these home defence units provided for the exchange of information, and the increased sense of those who joined up of participating in the public life of the nation, could mean that a heightened sense of active patriotism fostered an increased demand for active citizenship, a demand simultaneously flattered and deceived by the Reform Act of 1832.

The form of access available to women was certainly limited to what was thought to be appropriate to their gender; it was especially important that female patriotism in Britain should also be feminine patriotism, for the French Revolution had been represented as, among many other things, an onslaught on the domestic virtues and on the stability of gender identities. But if the patriotic activities of British women were apparently such as confirmed rather than extended notions of what was suitable work for women – helping with charitable causes, offering a kind of organised domestic support to the troops by knitting socks for them – still, Colley argues, activities like these could involve them in the public life of the community, and provide them with an understanding of how it worked, in ways which suggest to her (and in this she disagrees with a number of feminist historians) that the range of activities available to women outside the home was increased in the decades around 1800.

This was a challenging, fascinating book, enormously well-informed, ambitious in its scope, and so clearly written and thoughtfully organised that at every stage of its very detailed story and complex analysis we know just what is being advanced, what questioned, and why. The argument develops by means of a wonderful narrative invention, which manages to combine the virtues of arrangement by chronological succession and arrangement by topic: a series of layered chapters – on religion, commerce, Anglo-Scottish relations and so on – each introducing a new aspect of the development of Britain as a nation-state, appropriate to the decades successively under examination, yet each gathering up the materials of the previous chapters so that the very different components of Britishness are understood as an increasingly complex and developing configuration.

It is a book, however, which invites disagreement as urgently as it invites assent, and for my part I found myself repeatedly asking for more attention to be paid to the cost of the processes it describes. I am now in even less doubt than I was before that patriotism was, as Colley puts it, ‘as much a rational as it was an irrational response’, and that among ordinary people of Britain, most were not coerced or gulled into patriotism, but were patriots for what seemed to them the best of reasons. Patriotism also thrived, however, by identifying enemies within Britain, as well as without, and not much attention is spared for them. The omission of Ireland from the scope of the book is here particularly unfortunate, but probably essential if the story was to be kept within manageable length. But, for example, the military oppression by which the Highlanders were made British is glanced at in half a sentence; the cultural oppression that went with it is mostly submerged in a remark about the schools established ‘to teach Gaelic-speaking children English’, apparently with one motive only and that the very best. For another example, the problems which, at some times more than others, a culture of patriotism posed to Dissenters gets very little acknowledgment. Many Dissenters interpreted the French Revolution in terms very similar to those which had been used to argue that the national mission of the British was to combat Catholicism: in the hurried flight of the Catholic clergy from France they saw the hand of Providence scattering its enemies, and if the means God used in this phase of his war with the Antichrist were mysterious, they were no more so than he had used on countless other occasions in history. In the need to mobilise popular patriotism in the war with France, however, influential Anglican divines chose sometimes to minimise the doctrinal differences between the Churches of Rome and England, and to represent as an enemy within those Dissenters who believed, rationally enough, that the war with France was a war against the very ministers of God’s vengeance. If an unassertive patriotism still remained a rational choice for many Dissenters at this time, it may have been partly because they found discretion the better part of valour.

I wonder, too, if patriotism and conscious Britishness don’t become too uniform a structure of feeling in Colley’s account. She speaks towards the end of the book of the ‘languages of patriotism’, but I rarely if ever felt there was more than one such language in her account, however highly inflected, however differently accented she shows it to be. Patriotism could emphasise Britain as a nation apart, as it does throughout this book, so that Britons come to see their superiority over other nations in terms of their national distinctiveness. But there was also a less chauvinistic version of patriotism which emphasised a uniformity in human nature, or in European human nature at least – which saw the achievements of all (European) nations as the achievements of humanity, and could wish success to Britain for the sake of the honour involved in a contest for cultural and political progress in which there were no losers. This version of patriotism was an active ingredient in the establishment of institutions such as the Royal Academy, and it helps explain why many Britons could celebrate the defeats of the British in America, and in the early phases of the great war with France, without for a moment accepting that their patriotism was thereby put in question. A version of this kind of patriotism may still have been active in the campaign for the abolition of slavery, as it still arguably is in contemporary debates about the future of Europe.