Little Englander Histories

Linda Colley

  • A Mad, Bad & Dangerous People? England 1783-1846 by Boyd Hilton
    Oxford, 757 pp, £21.00, June 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 921891 2
  • Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Angloworld, 1780-1939 by James Belich
    Oxford, 573 pp, £25.00, June 2009, ISBN 978 0 19 929727 6

What is ‘national history’, and what is it for? Who and what should be included in it? And where does it take place? For all that it may appear to offer a uniquely intelligible account of a clearly demarcated political and geographical space, national history is intrinsically problematic. Territorial and maritime boundaries are usually porous. The frontiers of virtually all self-proclaimed nations have fluctuated considerably over the centuries, while claims to a single, all- embracing nationhood are often contested from within, and/or sporadically overwhelmed or denied from without. In some countries, at some point, politicians and state intellectuals may succeed in propagating a unitary version of national history that wins widespread domestic acceptance. But such linear and unalloyed master narratives rarely withstand detached scrutiny, and professional historians have increasingly come to regard them with impatience and suspicion.

In the British case, there are particular reasons why national history has proved challenging, progressively so over the centuries. As its shifting nomenclature proclaims, this is a composite polity. The Treaty of Union of 1707 amalgamated England and Wales, on the one hand, and Scotland, on the other, into a single parliamentary kingdom of ‘Great Britain’, while leaving most of their respective local government, educational and religious organisation intact. In 1800, Westminster diktat converted the name and composition of this unit into the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’, which was reduced by the Irish Revolution of 1916-22 into the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’, a designation which has never commanded unanimous support or easy comprehension. National history was also muddied by British dynastic politics. Only in 1800 was a longstanding claim to the French crown formally abandoned; while from 1714 to 1837 successive British monarchs also ruled the German electorate of Hanover, a Continental connection that had minimal effect on mass perceptions and identities in these islands, but which sometimes exerted an influence on British diplomacy and high culture. Far more complicating – because it went on for much longer and all social levels were ultimately involved – was the impact of runaway formal and informal empire. By the 1820s, a fifth or more of the world’s population, in Asia, Australasia, Africa, mainland North America, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean world, were in a position to describe themselves as ‘British subjects’, along with the miscellaneous inhabitants of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and myriad small islands off their coasts.

The late John Roberts, himself a pioneering exponent of world history, acknowledged some of these complexities in his editorial preface to the New Oxford History of England, the even more multi-volume successor, still in progress, to the original and influential multi-volume Oxford History of England (1934-65). The aim of the new series, Roberts declared, was to ‘give an account of the development of our country in time’ (my italics). It was ‘hard’, he admitted, to ‘treat that development … within the precise boundaries of England’. But there was, he insisted, an ‘institutional core’ to the story: ‘the English monarchy and its effective successor, the Crown in Parliament’, which provided ‘the only continuous articulation of the history of the peoples we today call British’. The defensive note, and the slippage between ‘precise’ and ‘peoples’, and between ‘English’ and ‘British’ remain suggestive.

In part because of the chronology he was allotted, these ambiguities become particularly pronounced in Boyd Hilton’s contribution to the series, A Mad, Bad & Dangerous People? England 1783-1846. Trenchant, vivid, massively researched and very well written, it begins in the year that saw both the formal end of what was erroneously called the ‘First British Empire’, and the fall of the Fox-North coalition over the regulation of the East India Company. It goes on to span an era in which, in Hilton’s words, ‘Britain’s military and diplomatic prestige touched a pitch it has never reached before or since,’ and in which its commercial, cultural, financial, warlike and imperial incursions into other territories were relentless and more often than not successful. So how, given these busy entanglements in momentous transnational and transcontinental happenings, as well as all the domestic complexities, is a history specifically of ‘England’ in this period to be isolated and reconstructed? And what is it for?

Hilton’s strategy is to focus intensely and at length on particular subjects and locations, and on particular, usually privileged groups and individuals, while ruthlessly excluding and marginalising others. Of his eight thematic chapters, four are given over to high political narrative, an organisational device that knits this huge book together and gives it momentum. A further chapter addresses ‘the social and psychological foundations’ of ‘Pittism’ and the plutocracy; while two more chapters are devoted to political, religious, economic and scientific thought among the upper and middle classes and the clerisy. Only in the penultimate chapter do the overwhelming majority of men and women, those whom E.P. Thompson chose to style for this era the ‘English working class’, receive concentrated attention.

This format allows Hilton to focus mainly on London and the Home Counties. It also shapes his prime overall argument. Despite the economic, social, demographic, technological, intellectual, political, warlike and imperial changes that are conventionally and rightly associated with this period, and for all that some scholars have claimed for it an international Age of Revolution, and even a ‘global crisis’, Hilton contends that in England the disruptions involved in multiple changes lessened and/or were effectually contained after the 1780s and 1790s. ‘It is probably not the case,’ he suggests, ‘that someone who went to sleep in 1783 and woke up in 1846 would have felt significantly out of place.’

Well, it would rather have depended on who you were, and on where exactly you woke up. Hilton is certainly correct in insisting both on significant continuities, and on large dashes of creativity as far as the high political classes were concerned. By 1846, fire had destroyed most of the old Houses of Parliament; Westminster had absorbed the Dublin Parliament; the Reform Acts of 1832 had effected the first extensive alteration in the representative system since the mid 17th century; and, as Hilton concedes, MPs and the peerage formed a more integrated UK-wide category, with more Scotsmen and Irishmen representing English constituencies than before 1783. Nonetheless, much had endured. The landed and non-landed propertied classes joined forces and ideologies, and cleaned up their act, so as to keep down and keep out that ‘phantasmagoria of a mad, bad and dangerous people’ summoned up by the American and French Revolutions. So successful was this propertied revanche, Hilton suggests, echoing F.M.L. Thompson, that by ‘about 1850’, the onetime ‘mad, bad and dangerous people’ had themselves come increasingly to embrace ‘an ethos of self-improvement and respectability’.

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