Manchester’s Moment

Boyd Hilton

  • Free Trade and Liberal England, 1846-1946 by Anthony Howe
    Oxford, 336 pp, £45.00, December 1997, ISBN 0 01 982014 3
  • The Origins of War Prevention: The British Peace Movement and International Relations, 1730-1854 by Martin Ceadel
    Oxford, 587 pp, £55.00, December 1996, ISBN 0 19 822674 8

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.

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