Britishness: In Search of a National Identity 1. Fragile Beginnings

Britishness: In Search of a National Identity 1. Fragile Beginnings


With the question of Scottish independence
very much on the political agenda, the very idea of a unified British state is in question
and with it the notion of shared British identity. But the rise of nationalism is one in a long
line of problems to beset modern Britain. The ongoing issue of industrial and economic
decline has troubled both statesman and political commentators, the winding up its empire so
quickly after the end of the second world war brought an end to Britain’s claim to be
the dominant global power. Many anticipated that Britain would have to take its place
as a part of a Greater Europe, accepting the associated loss of sovereignty as the price
paid for securing the country’s future prosperity. These external questions about Britain’s place
in the wider world have been accompanied by fears about social fragmentation at home.
Post-war immigration, bringing with it a diversity of language, religion and custom, and the
creation of Britain’s multicultural society was accompanied by a rise in political organizations
with a distinctively anti-immigrant agenda. The radicalization of young British Muslims
and the emergence of homegrown terrorism at the turn of the century seemed to critics
to demonstrate the failure of so-called state-sponsored multi-culturalism. This so it was claimed
was a terrible manifestation of a wider failure to integrate immigrants and their descendants
into the British Way of life. Responses to this set of sometimes interlocking problems
have called for the strengthening of a collective sense of national identity. If the British
could only discover or rediscover who they are so the argument goes the new found confidence
and unity that would follow would help them overcome the problems of the present. It has
been a recurring theme for those from both the political left and right to talk about
history teaching, or a particular kind of history teaching, as a vital part of putting
Britain back on the right track. Whether what is sought is a positive articulation of common
values or restoring your pride in one’s country, school history has been seen as the vehicle
for the transmission of a longer British narrative, a continuous evolving and often glorious national
story. But does the study of the British past reveal an easily understood national narrative
one which when grasped would bring the people of this island together? Does history provide
us with answers to the complex problems of British identity in the present? Was there
an early a simpler time when Britons collectively knew who they were what they stood for? This
series of films explores the ways in which the people who have inhabited these islands
have tried to make sense of a British identity and how these national ideas have been shaped
by and adapted to fit a changing world. But it also seeks to address a perhaps more important
question whether the teaching of history in schools can and should be used to instill
in young people a sense of national identity. Historically, the geographical and political
uses of the word Britain have not neatly overlapped. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle,
writing in the 4th century BC, there were two large Britannic islands, Albion and Ierna,
in the ocean at the northwestern edge of Europe’s trade routes. The Romans used the word Britannia
to refer to the part of the larger of the two islands that they ruled as a province
of their wider empire for nearly 400 years. At times Roman Britain included parts of modern
day Scotland up to the Firth, but it never extended over the whole island nor across
the waters to Ireland. With the retreat of Roman power and the subsequent waves of invaders
and migrants that followed, other national identifications came to the fore and were
to play a major role in state formation in the centuries that followed. For the Anglo-Saxon
historian Bede writing in the 8th century, Britannia was purely a geographical term referring
to the island itself. The British were a distinct people with their own language whose ancestors
pre-dated the Roman occupation, but they now inhabited only the west of the island having
been displaced by other groups. Perhaps because of the Roman legacy, perhaps because its boundaries
were so ambiguous, the word Britain seemed to attract imperial ambitions. In Wales annalists
of the tenth and eleventh centuries looking for grandiose titles to give their rulers
spoke of them as head and glory of all the Britons. Anglo-Saxon kings, too, when they
had any political ambition were apt to designate themselves as kings of all the British even
though their writ did not run further than the limits of their own tribal kingdoms. Both
Edward I and later Henry VIII drew on mythic visions of a Britain united under a single
ancient ruler to legitimate their claims to overlordship of the whole island. And it was
under Henry’s rule that Wales was formally brought into England’s administrative orbit.
But ideas of Britain were not simply expressions of an unsatisfied English imperialism. Political
unification could also be championed by those north of the Anglo-Scottish border. Whilst
some Scots in the 16th century saw English invasion as a vehicle for religious Reformation
in Scotland, others, on the defensive against English claims, saw a genuine union of equals
as an alternative to English domination of the whole island. For the 16th century Scottish
historian John Mair a common British interest – the common good of those who inhabited the
island of Great Britain – transcended the particular, conflicting and tragically misunderstood
interests of the separate Scottish and English Kingdoms. The fortuitious Union of Crowns
in 1603, an accident of hereditary succession, seemed to confirm to many that Providence
had pre-ordained the union of the two, by now Protestant, kingdoms. The new monarch,
James the 6th of Scotland and 1st of England, self-consciously styled himself as king of
great britain and the royal and merchant ships were instructed to fly the new British flag.
But James’ vision of a perfect union of laws and belief to accompany the new union of crowns
foundered on the resistance of his English subjects fearful of the king’s real motives.
For a brief period amidst the great and bloody upheavals of the 17th century there was a
single polity in the British Archipelago. England, Scotland and Ireland were ruled via
London as a single Cromwellian Commonwealth, an arrangement that was to end with the Restoration
of the monarch in 1660. And it wasn’t until the beginning of the 18th century that a lasting
political union was to be achieved and with it the creation of a new British state. I
don’t think any historical development or circumstance is inevitable but you can say
that the Treaty of Union of 1707, a lot had anticipated it. So there had been that union
of crowns through the seventeenth century, there’d also been growing connections between
England and Scotland in trade in mobility and in forms of Protestantism. And in fact
many Scots of the political elite had been pressuring for a closer union still in the
late seventeenth century and it had been the Westminster parliament that had been resistant.
But what really makes a treaty of union in 1707 inevitable in the short term is the pressure
of war with France and the problem of the succession, the feeling that unless the whole
island of Great Britain is tied up in one system you may get a Roman Catholic Stuart
trying to come back when childless Queen Anne finally dies. The two kingdoms each had autonomous
successions. The fact that they shared the same monarch was as yet merely dynastic happenstance.
So when the dynasty died out Scotland could technically choose an entirely different dynasty
to succeed Queen Anne and the Protestant line of Stuarts than England. The net result is
that indeed deliberately pass legislation through their parliament saying that unless
they could reach accomodations in their relationship with England, particularly in regard to trade,
then Scotland’s incoming new dynasty after Queen Anne’s death would have to be different
than that taken on in England. What concentrated minds after 1702 was that England and Wales
alongside Scotland were again at war with France. A breakdown in Anglo-Scottish relations,
the possible restoration of a pro-French monarch north of the border, might tip the scales
in France’s favour, they might become, as many contemporaries feared, powerful enough
to dominate the entire European continent. From the English perspective, political union
was seen very much as a way to eliminate the potential threat posed by the action of an
independent Scots parliament, who could if they wished chose to destabilise relations
between the two countries. The achievement of a political union that incorporated Scottish
members within a Westminster parliament headed off this possibility and would preserve English
security. But if this objective was to be achieved it first had to be approved by a
majority in the Scots parliament. English politicians and Scots supporters of the union
hammered away at the threat of a Catholic restoration and the danger it would pose to
Scots Protestantism. The proposed terms of union guaranteed a separate Scottish Church
within the boundaries of the old Scotland, helping to placate much hardline Presbyterian
opinion. But there were also those who hoped that their voting for union would bring material
gain, some for wider patriotic reasons, others for more selfish ones. Scotland was felt by
many to be in a dire economic situation which could only be remedied by free access the
the English empire to which the Scots had no formal right of access, I mean they busily
traded illegally with it with that English Empire but they had no formal legal right
of access. There was this kind of hope that since England had a burgeoning for the time
relatively modern economy that Scotland would be kind of lifted on an English tide economically.
And the final reason it passes is manipulation. The Scots administration with considerable
financial help from England and by dint of some very good political footwork on their
part is able to twist arms, persuade, cajole, charm a lot of Scottish politicians into backing
their project of union. One should never detract from the genuine sincerity of many Scots unionists,
they genuinely believed in what they were doing – others were out for the main chance.
The treaty of union remains profoundly controversial and people tend to stress different aspects
of it according to their nationalist or political perspectives. Its important to remember that
it was controversial at the time and people were divided about it at the time on both
sides of the border. Its controversial in England in part because it is a deal. By the
Treaty of Union the Scots lose their Edinburgh parliament and are given a quota of seats
in the House of Commons and the House of Lords in Westminster but they keep a lot, they keep
their educational system, they keep their ecclesiastical organisation, they keep their
Scots law of course, but they are given access to the commercial goodies. They can trade
much more easily across the border, and they get access to a burgeoning British empire
on much more preferential terms. And some English politicians, and particularly of course
some English merchants, really don’t like this. They feel that the Scots are getting
too much in the deal and England isn’t getting enough. Now of course on the other side of
the border there is controversy too, some Scots don’t like the loss of their ancient
independence, they have – to put it mildly – ambivalent feelings about England in some
cases, and there are elements of bribery involved in 1707, just as theres elements of bribery
going to be involved in the act of union with Ireland in 1800 1801, bribery I should say
was fairly common in eighteenth century politics generally so this is not really that unusual.
The idea of equal partnership within a British union was absolutely essential to the Scottish
perception of what it represented. The arrangement of the new British state was supposedly one
of equality between the two former kingdoms – technically England ceased to exist in 1707
as well. But the reality was an English ascendancy; Scottish representation at Westminster was
less than that of Cornwall. The net result was that when something was seen as a national
issue by English MPs they easily overbore a Scottish opposition. Scots found out the
hard way in the first 10 years after the union, that they were very junior partners and would
get what they hoped for out of the union only when it did not inconvenience English interests.
Historians and political scientists differ in what they think a nation is. Some people
view a sense of nationhood as something organic, something waiting to be discovered, something
very much bound up with ethnic and cultural distinctiveness. Other scholars tend to put
much more emphasis on issues of fabrication, invention, active creation, so it isn’t as
if nations are always there waiting to be discovered. People make political decisions
or come together due to particular pressures and help to forge a nation, and I use forge
all sorts of senses obviously. There were senses of, very strong sense of Scottish identity,
Welsh identity and perhaps most of all, English identity already by 1706 1707, but these sense
of identity were complicated by other forms of loyalty, loyalty to region for example,
there are big divisions between attitudes in the Scottish lowlands and the Scottish
highlands. Cornwall still at the beginning of the eighteenth century has people living
in it who can only speak Cornish. The great bulk of the Welsh people speak only Welsh,
on the other hand, north and south Wales are still very much divided in terms of communications.
So the treaty of union of 1707 creates a unified parliament, it creates in name a unified British
state, but there is a lot of work, a lot of time needed to mesh this into something more
than a political arrangement. In the early years of the eighteenth century
the future of the new British state was far from secure. North of the border the union
remained a live issue. In 1713 a motion for its repeal in the House of Lords failed by
only four votes. In 1714, after the Hanoverian succession had taken place, there were calls
in Scotland for its dissolution now that its principal objective had been achieved. And
the group best placed to capitalise on this discontent were the Jacobites, supporters
of the exiled Stuarts, the dynasty ousted from power in the late seventeenth century.
It had been James Stuart’s desire to promote, however gradually, his own Roman Catholicism
combined with the prospect of a Catholic succession that had raised considerable alarm within
England. An unofficial invitation was extended to William of Orange, the Dutch, and more
importantly Protestant, husband of James’s daughter Mary, to mount an invasion of England.
When James fled London for France in the face of the invading army he was offered the vacant
throne. Although principles of hereditary succession and divine right appeared to have
been sorely compromised the so-called Glorious Revolution was secured within England without
recourse to civil war. In Scotland and Ireland, however, significant forces remained loyal
to James and although William assumed the thrones of both countries the transition was
not nearly so smooth. Jacobite armies were raised and had to be defeated in both kingdoms
and residual support for the Stuart cause persisted through into the eighteenth century.
Whilst they were technically united by their wish to restore the exiled House of Stuart,
the Jacobites were three different movements within the three kingdoms, each of which saw
a Stuart restoration as a stepping stone to the acheivement of larger objectives. In England
and Wales, a small minority of the Anglican clergy had refused to acknowledge the legitimacy
of the incoming monarch in 1688 but their numbers and influence were minimal. More serious
was the potential support of the Tory party whose members intermittently flirted with
Jacobitism. Traditionally Tories had aligned themselves with loyalty to the Church of England
and the monarchy. But in 1715 George I, the new German king, although Protestant was a
Lutheran and thus a dissenter and many feared, rightly or not, that the change of monarch
combined with a Whig political ascendancy would seriously undermine the Church of England.
Many English and Welsh Tories who had not stood in the way of the revolution back in
1688, perhaps surprisingly, came to see the restoration of the Catholic House of Stuart
as a way to perhaps reassert both their own political power and the primacy of the Anglican
Church. Whilst the small Roman Catholic community in England and Wales merely hoped for the
return of a sympathetic monarch to protect them from their over-zealous Protestant neighbours,
Catholic Jacobites in Ireland, however, sought the restoration of the Catholic church, the
return of confiscated land and the breaking of English control over the Irish parliament.
Ireland should, in fact, have been a major source of Stuart strength, yet the defeat
of its Jacobite army at the end of the seventeenth century – and the consequences that followed
from it – were to effectively mark the end rather than the beginning of organised Irish
support. Although primarily Protestant, Scotland was a nation often bitterly divided along
religious lines. The Scottish version of the glorious revolution had seen the re-establishment
of the Presbyterian Church at the expense of the Episcopalian, the reward for its support
of William III. Despite their Protestantism, many Episcopalians remained loyal to the exiled
monarch and were to form the core support for the Stuart cause in Scotland. This seemingly
straightforward sectarian divide was, however, further complicated by the political union
with England. Almost as soon as it was passed the Jacobites promised to repeal the union.
This identification of the Stuarts with the cause of independence won over a minority
of Presbyterians who were more hostile to the union than they were to their Episcopalian
rivals and the Catholicism of the exiled dynasty. But Jacobitism was also able to mobilise wider
discontent with life under the Hanoverians. Those who opposed agricultural enclosoure,
for example, or objected to the new taxes being imposed by the state, looked to the
Stuarts as defenders of customary rights. Forms of criminality, like smuggling, an activity
often associated with Jacobite sympathisers could be justified as an act of resistance
to duties imposed by an illegitimate king. Its important to realise that if you were
unhappy with what Britain was becoming in the eighteenth century – one colleague described
it as a grubby, political machine, but it was a grubby, political machine that was creating,
generating, great mercantile and commercial wealth – and that divided the public, for
lack of a better term, which included quite a large proportion of the population who may
not be the greater percentage of the population, might not have been politically sophisticated
but they were increasingly becoming engaged in this issue of whether the development of
a British economic and political statewas good or bad. There were always those who were
against it and the Jacobite dynasty was the only alternative available to them, that was
the only place to go. The seconday aims of the different factions within the movement
were clearly not compatible. English and Welsh Tories had no desire to relinquish control
over Ireland or Scotland. Neither they nor the Scots wanted to see a Catholic state in
Ireland. In addition, the Tories were contemptuous of the Scots, whom they regarded as importunate
beggars, and the Scottish Jacobites were the heirs to the fine old tradition of anglophobia.
Yet despite these very evident tensions the Jacobite movement was to pose a continuous
threat to the Hanoverian state throughout the first half of the century. Between 1688
and the 1750s the Jacobites were constantly plotting to overthrow the post-revolution
regime. As well as the two civil wars fought in Ireland and Scotland there were at least
two occassions in the 1690s when invasion of England was attempted in alliance with
the French. There was an attempt to invade Scotland in 1708, further rising in 1715 and
1719, and another in 1745. And between these events there was an ongoing drumbeat of conspiracy
and attempted alliance with European Great Powers. The rising of 1745 was the last serious
attempt to return a Stuart monarch to power in the British Isles. Jacobite forces had
seized Edinburgh, and then crossed the border into England, making it as far south as Derby.
However, after the English support promised by Charles Edward had failed to materialise,
his Scottish officers fearing isolation in a hostile country demanded a retreat. The
Jacobite army was finally defeated by government forces at Culloden in 1746. The Jacobites
did take control of a very large area, possibly most of Scotland, for a brief period in the
autumn of 1745. It never even came close, however, to doing so in England. And there
you see the disparity in strength between the proportion of the Scottish population
that were willing to either acquiesce in or support a Jacobite restoration in Scotland
as compared with that proportion that were willing to support a Jacobite restoration
in England. The defeat of the Jacobites in 1746 is often taken to be the point that marks
the effective end of the movement as a serious political alternative. The British government
and its forces took decisive steps to remove the threat once and for all. In the months
that followed the defeat at Culloden, the Scottish Highlands – a stronghold of Stuart
support – were to witness the systematic use of military terror in an attempt to intimidate
and punish the local population. This was followed by a systematic attack on indigeneous
language and culture. Parliament passed the notorious laws banning the wearing of Highland
dress, the use of certain surnames and the playing of the pipes. This was reinforced
by the intensified educational offensive of the Scottish Society for the Propagation of
Christian Knowledge. The aim was to transform the culture of the Highlands, by undermining
the traditional clan structure, by disseminating English language and manners, and by instilling
in the natives the values of industry, morality and the true religion. This transformation
was not to be acheived by force alone. Basic industries like tanning, whaling and paper-making
were subsidised, albeit with money from confiscated Jacobite estates, and schools were set up
to teach the mechanics of linen production. In order to ensure their loyalty, it was believed
that Scottish Highlanders would need to see first hand the benefits and prosperity that
union would bring. I think there is a neglected element that within Scotland Jacobitism is
seen as a broken reed. Scotland suffers the repercussions of failure in 1746. The Jacobite
claimant to the throne is rescued by the French, his leading Scottish adherents, many of them
escaped to France and don’t suffer the repression and the reprisals, the loss of property, the
loss of lives, that became the fate of many of those who had become associated with the
Jacobite rebellion at that time. So although there continue to be Jacobite plots into the
1750s, theres still interest in the Jacobite cause up till at least the 1760s, many families
that had formerly been Jacobite, and sometimes it could be in generational terms, that the
sons, the children of those who had been loyal to the idea of a Jacobite cause having witnessed
the very real cost of that loyalty changed their priorities as their parents became older
and passed away and they took over responsibility for family fortunes. By the end of the Seven
Years War in 1763, even Scotland’s most rebellious elements appeared to have been successfully
integrated into the British state. For the first time ever, the British army had been
able to recruit men on a massive scale from the Scottish Highlands. Those clans that had
taken up arms against the Union in 1715 and 1745 had been wooed to the British cause by
way of favours and promotions for their former cheiftains. For nearly seventy years Jacobitism
had been the mortal enemy of the prevailing political order in the British Isles. Yet
the new British state survived its severest internal threat, and emerged from this period
strengthened and empowered. As much as Jacobitism gave the opponents of the established order
a common cause to rally around, it also gave the supporters of the status quo a defining
Other. The preservation of the Hanoverian state became a genuinely British interest.
English, Scots, Welsh and Irish all fought to defend the established Whig order against
the enemy within. Many came to see the status quo as the only way to preserve their way
of life and their property as well as their religious beliefs. But just as Jacobitism
was a complicated phenomenon with many strands, so too was an emerging British patriotism.
In the early eighteenth century Britishness still had strong Welsh associations. The ancient
Britons were believed to have been completely driven out of England by the Saxons during
the dark ages, and the modern Welsh were viewed as their descendents. Although the Tudors
had appropriated Britishness for the English court as an aspect of their legitimising programme,
the identification no longer persisted. In common parlance the word British was used
in Ireland, especially in the province of Ulster, as a shorthand meaning English and
Scots, but within Britain Welsh distinctiveness was often still expressed in British terms.
The Celtic antiquary Edward Llyud claimed to be not an Englishman, but an old Briton,
and the Society of Ancient Britons was a London Welsh organisation. The union itself that
had brought about the creation of the British state wasn’t the political realisation of
a deeper sense of nationhood that united the peoples of the mainland. How then can we account
for the growing acceptance of a British identity, something that emerges particularly during
the course of the eighteenth century? It has been powerfully argued, and often repeated,
that what was important was not a consensus at home but a strong sense of dissimilarity
from those without that would provide the essential cement in the creation of a lasting
British identity. And it was Britain’s often actively hostile relationship to France that
would bring Britons together and shape how they thought about themselves and their country.
Relations between Britain and France have been far more mixed than is often thought,
but it is the case that between 1689 and the battle of Waterloo in 1815 there was a succession
of wars that got bigger and bigger between Britain and France. Wars over the succession,
wars over trade, increasingly wars over imperial domination and this succession of wars inevitably
embittered, or could embitter, relations on both sides. There was also the religious dynamic.
Although there are many forms of Protestantism in Great Britain, Protestantism is by far
the majority position, whereas by the end of the seventeenth century France has established
itself as the foremost Catholic power. So, for some, this is the essence of the divide,
the fact that France is Catholic, Britain is predominantly a Protestant polity. Theres
also rivalry, rivalry for trade, rivalry for colonies. But theres also collaboration and
a kind of mutual obsession which can turn into admiration. Increasingly as the eighteenth
century progresses and Britain becomes more and more a successful state you get French
intellectuals studying the British constitutional system, in some cases admiring British fashions
in manufacturing, clothes, the freedom of print. Conversely you get on the British side
of course lots of traders have close commercial links with France and know a lot of French
people, a lot of French authored works are translated into English, and among the aristocracy
it is normal to, both male and female elite figures, learn French automatically, its very
unusual if they don’t. So at one and the same time you get real sources of hostility, but
you also get close engagement and a degree of mutual obsession. They’ve got their hooks
into each other so closely its difficult for Britain and France to draw entirely apart.
For much of the century the contrasts drawn by caricaturists in England were between emaciated
French peasants and sturdy English yeoman, between absolutist, Catholic France and tolerant
Protestant England. Although these stereotypes persisted, by the time of the Revolutionary
and Napoleonic Wars it was the contrast between French and British versions of political liberty
that had become the dominant theme. And whilst the wars of the eighteenth century were certainly
important in creating a new matter of Britain, a shared military history with its own pantheon
of heroes, the image of Britons as a peculiarly free people was sustained by more than just
warfare; it drew on a longer tradition of political liberty, but one that was distinctively
English. At the heart of English national consciousness was a pride in the nation’s
ancestors, the Anglo-Saxons, much admired for their libertarian ways. But the story
of English liberty also had to incorporate the original British population plus the more
problemmatic waves of Danes and Normans who followed. Whigs and Tories, royalists and
radicals, could all make use of this English past; with continuity or disruption being
stressed according to political or ideological imperatives. The influential whig interpretation
of English history that emerged in the eighteenth century laid especial stress on the events
of 1688 and the so-called Glorious Revolution as the culmination of a longer process of
modernisation that had led to the civil liberties enjoyed by contemporary Englishmen. Scotland
had its own tradition of libertarian writing that celebrated the preservation of its historic
independence and the dynastic integrity of its monarchy. However, this older history
collapsed under criticism from a new breed of Scottish historian, men like David Hume
and William Robertson, who, as part of a wider European Enlightenment, sought to explain
the emergence of a distinctively modern kind of political liberty. This was not simply
about the preservation of national borders or the keeping in check of tyrannical kings,
but a liberty which allowed all men to enjoy security of property and person under the
rule of law. The new history in Scotland was based on the insight that true liberty was
a by-product of the forces of modernity and that Scottish society had historically been
more backward and benighted than England’s. Not only had Scotland’s union with England
transformed its economic fortunes, Scottish society had been rescued from its feudal past
through incorporation with its more civilised neighbour. This is not to say that the likes
of Hume saw the achievement of liberty within England as the inevitable by-product of progress
or the flowering of some genius inherent in its people. Rather it was the result of complex
causes and fortuitous circumstance. Liberty was a fragile thing, liable to obstruction
or even erosion, and it was the responsibility of enlightened Scots to remind their English
neighbours, so often prone to self-congratulation, of this fact. Despite the intellectual revolutions
of mid-century, some literati continued to believe that Celtic manners or Scoto-Gothic
institutions were parts of a special Scottish contribution to the British whig heritage.
To them, liberty could be traced, albeit in an unrefined form, in Celtic as well as Anglo-Saxon
history. These, however, were lone voices against a wider academic tide, one that was
to have a profound influence on the Scottish political nation. While educated Scots might
retain an emotional bond to the Scottish past, the history to which they had been admitted
was more relevant to an understanding of contemporary institutions, politics and society. Some,
like David Hume, were even seemingly happy to forget their own Scottishness. Hume retitled
his History of Great Britain as a History of England and felt comfortable referring
to himself as an Englishman. The slippage between the use of the terms England and Britain,
so often construed as simple arrogance on the part of the English, reflected a wider
assumption within British political culture about the nature of the new state. The de
facto continuity of the historic English parliament after 1707, albeit with additional Scottish
members, seemed to confirm that Britain’s political heritage resided in the history
of English institutions. This acceptance of an English past to the British present even
provided a convincing platform for Scottish radicals who, during the 1790s, demanded the
restoration of the ancient Saxon consitution of their forefathers suppressed by the Norman
Yoke of 1066. The growing acceptance of the union north of the border, as both beneficial
and transformative for Scotland, was not accompanied by a rethinking of a new and distinctively
British political identity. English politicians were comfortable with the idea of Britain
as little more than a benign extension of England, and this view was not radically challenged
by the new history in Scotland which saw a country, hitherto backward and benighted,
positively transformed by the experience of Anglicisation. For enlightened Scots, the
British liberties in which they now participated rested on a much longer English tradition.
One of the cements in Britishness is a very widespread view that Briton are peculiarly
free that their mixed constitution is the envy of the world, that they have more religious
tolerance, they have a freer Press, they have a more limited monarchy than other European
powers. Now not all of this complacency was entirely unjustified although it was sometimes
excessive, but this cult of superior liberties can be used in two ways. By conservatives
it can be used to legitimize the existing order, but of course radicals can plug into
this to you by saying yes we are free Britons and therefore we must become even more free
and we must protect our freedom, and we can only do this by carrying out further reforms.
And increasingly from the 1750s 1760s you’re getting different strands of radical protest
saying that patriotism really belongs to us in a particular way because we are taking
this icon of British freedom and we are pushing it further. Despite being considered the freest
in the world British society during the 18th century remained divided by a hierarchy of
orders. The ruling aristocratic elite dominated the royal court, the cabinet, both houses
of Parliament and the law courts, and expected the state churches to teach the common people
to obey those in positions of authority. They believed they had a right to govern their
social inferiors and viewed democracy as inherently unstable and destined to degenerate into anarchy.
Although only a propertied minority had an active role in government this didn’t mean
that they believed they could act in a tyrannical or oppressive fashion. They were expected
to maintain public order, to deliver justice, and to uphold the lives liberty and property
of all British subjects. But during the course of the 18th century we can see the emergence
of groups critical of this social arrangement and coming to demand change and political
reform. This development is often associated with that rather vague and amorphous group,
and irritant of the professional historian, the ever-rising middling classes many of whom
increasingly sought a great influence in both local and national politics. All the recent
historiography of the late 17th and early 18th century stresses the extent to which
these sorts of people are already incorporated and active and vocal in politics already.
So whereas an older historiography made it sound as if they were newly emerging and having
their voices heard for the first time I don’t think but can still say that in the light
of recent research. But in the first part of the century they tend to be active and
involved under elite leadership that’s fairly acceptable to them because the kind of issues
which divides people religious issues, issues about which dynasty should be ruling the country
are not issues which divide opinion along straightforwardly social lines. So you get
kind of vertical political groupings within which these middle classes very broadly defined
can play a part, make a contribution. Later in the century partly what’s happening I think
is that a reshuffling in the positions of the political elite is leading quite a lot
of these people who inherit a tradition of political activity to think we just can’t
trust these elite leaders anymore they’re all just out for themselves, none of them
are really going to serve the interests of people like us so we need to find a way of
developing independent voice in politics, so it’s not the voice, it’s the need to have
an independent voice that’s the novelty. Reform ideas however were to come from a wide spectrum.
From within the political class itself their were opposition MP’s who simply wanted to
reform the practices of parliament, and at the other extreme dissenters and natural rights
radicals advocates of universal suffrage who wanted a root and branch reform of the system.
Part of the reason radicalism is becoming more explicit in the second half of the 18th
century is the coming first of the American Revolution and the French Revolution competing
systems of liberation competing sets of political ideals. And as a result you are getting some
dissidents, some radicals, some reformers throughout Great Britain and indeed in Ireland
arguing that well we were the freest people in Europe but perhaps we no longer are and
we must go back and make things even better. You get people who are adopting ideas from
the United States and France as for example the idea of a written constitution. So you
get someone like Tom Paine who spends his life moving between Britain, France and the
United States saying well actually everybody talks about the glories of the British constitution
but you don’t have a constitution because it isn’t written down so we need reform. And
many of the supporters for Paine, these corresponding clubs that really start mushrooming through
Great Britain in the 1790s, call themselves patriotic societies because they want to claim
patriotism for themselves, as people who are struggling to make things better. So there
are people in a kind of Thomas Paine mould who say what we want is a rational system,
the British system is not rational and should be reconstructed from the ground up, so we
can all live better, the 18th century has been a disaster, self-aggrandizing nations
have gone around fighting wars that kill people and waste a lot of money and we need to turn
our back on all that kind of thing and create a new sort of state and society. And then
you get another view which is that the past is not sacrosanct but it’s only safe imprudent
to try to change things gradually and that’s Edmund Burke’s position, so Edmund Burke is
actually very unusual in the 1790s in that although he’s very worried about the French
Revolution he still says reform is a good thing, that’s not a common position to hold.
There’s a third view which I think people sometimes adopt tactically because it sounds
like something you’re much more likely to get away with than the Paineite kind of stuff,
and sometimes adopt because they think it will resonate with more people and maybe in
some ways resonates with them too, and that’s an approach which says let’s not think that
anything we want is abstract let alone foreign we quite understand why it doesn’t appeal
to people to think we can just discard the whole of English history and start doing things
in some new way, but actually in the English past, perhaps in the quite distant English
past, the Anglo-Saxon past we’ve got models of how to do things which are the true Englishness,
its way of presenting the case for radical change that tries to suggest its grounded
in something local and natural to the environment rather than being something philosophers have
dreamt up or some kind of foreign import. The outbreak of evolution in France in 1789
was to be a pivotal moment for the reform movements in Britain many welcomed what was
happening across the channel as France’s own version of the Glorious Revolution and saw
these events as only furthering the cause of reform back home. But as the violence escalated
and war with the new France seemed imminent the very word reform became tainted by its
association with these bloody consequences. Now that’s not to say that what you get is
straightforwardly a conservative reaction because a lot of these people who are worried
about what’s happening in France are people who weren’t previously quite interested in
reforming things in Britain and they haven’t totally abandon that notion they’ve just become
very very cautious about whether this is the right time to be doing it and how one might
go about doing it. Of course the French Revolution taught people that you can change your rulers,
that you can abolish feudalism, you can execute your king, you can do all these things, but
it seemed to many people in Britain that the immediate consequences of these actions anarchy
in France, Civil War, European war were in fact was so disastrous that we certainly musn’t
do them here and so in its early stages, and indeed in its middle stages, the French Revolution
and its consequences frightened British people off. Now having said that of course, the theories
underpinning the French Revolution about the transformation of subjects into citizens the
need for reform, the need for the better treatmentment of the lower orders and so forth, these messages
in spite of what was happening in France, in spite of these unhappy consequences did
inspire intellectuals, reformers and so on, and these were the seeds that were to be harvested
the in the nineteenth century. And in Ireland, at least, they were to lead almost directly
to the revolution, the attempted revolution, of 1798. So we shouldn’t eliminate the possibility
that the French Revolution had really quite significant consequence upon the British state. Including Ireland in any discussion of ideas
of Britishness is deeply contentious the result of the turbulent history of the union in the
19th and 20th centuries. English kings and statesman had for many centuries seen Ireland
as a legitimate sphere of influence as subordinate in fact to the interests of the mainland this
relationship was confirmed in the 16th century when Ireland’s status was changed from a separate
Lordship to a puppet Kingdom a possession of the English crown. But it was the religious
Reformation in England the attempt to export it to Ireland that was to cast a long shadow
over the history both islands. From the mid 16th to the mid 17th centuries successive
English administrations pursued a policy of settlement or plantation. English and Scottish
settlers, through their exemplary model of civility and the true Protestant religion,
would have it was hoped a transformative effect on the barbarous Catholic Irish it was the
strengthening of this religious divide between Catholics on the one hand, a group that included
the so called Old English descendants of an earlier wave of migration, and more recent
Protestant settlers on the other that was to become the key faultline in Irish political
life during the eighteenth century. Ever since the Reformation a struggle for power had been
waged between the Catholic and Protestant elites of Irish society. Following the victory
if we might forces in 1691 the Protestant community determined to crush the Catholic
threat once and for all. Over the next three decades legislation was passed that was designed
to severely curtail the civil and religious rights of Ireland’s Catholic population. Many
people not just Irish people believe that the British government of Ireland in the eighteenth
century was harsh, oppressive, colonial and so forth, and in certain respects it was.
The presence of a British army, of a British settler class reinforced by the penal laws
which in the early eighteenth-century excluded Catholics from power almost entirely, in theory
at least almost outlawed the practice of the Catholic religion. The political relationship
between the two countries was one of subordination. Whilst the Declaratory Act of 1720 effectively
established the right at the Westminster Parliament to legislate directly for Ireland British
politicians also sought to manage Irish affairs through a network of elite patronage. It is
possible of course to condemn the British rule over Ireland in the eighteenth century
which was certainly harsh but two things perhaps need to be said if not entirely to be believed.
One is that in spite of all this ferocious legislation it was pretty patchily enforced
and in effect in the last analysis the practice of the Catholic religion continued. I’m not
sure if nobody was executed for their religion but if so it was a very rare occurrence. The
other thing is this, certainly in the first half of the eighteenth century nothing is
more significant than the relative rural peace of Ireland. Ireland isn’t in flames with risings
and rebellions and so on, Ireland is no different from many European countries in having a reasonably
settled if difficult and in many ways poverty-stricken environment. Now in the second half of the
eighteenth century all this was to change. During the American War of Independence with
Britain overstretched abroad Protestant Patriots were able to negotiate significant concessions
and a greater degree of autonomy for their parliament, but it was to be the French Revolution
that was to catalyse radical opinion and provide the inspiration for the events of 1798. Those
within the Protestant tradition had for a long time seen their Catholic neighbours as
people enslaved by their church, people who couldn’t be treated as common citizens. But
the revolution in France, where the population was overthrowing the shackles of monarchy
and papacy, seemed to a small but significant minority of Protestants to open up the possibility
of the engagement of Catholics as citizens in a secular Irish Republic. Against a background
of a wider European Enlightenment that promoted ideas of religious toleration and with an
eye on Ireland’s large reserve of manpower, potential recruits to the British military
cause, significant concessions had already been granted to Irish Catholics in the 1780s
and nineties. Although still excluded from Parliament and the top civil and military
posts, these relief acts removed restrictions on religious practice, education and economic
activity, and restored to Catholics the right to vote to sit on juries, to practice law
and to hold military commissions and offices under the crown. But by the mid 1790s alarmed
by the strength of the reaction to the concessions already granted the government set out to
reassure Protestant opinion and to damp down Catholic hopes of further gains. All the while
popular disaffection continue to grow. The demographic explosion of the second half of
the century had not been accompanied by either agriculture reform or sufficient levels of
economic growth. Existing tensions within Irish society have been exacerbated and rural
terrorism was on the increase as landlord sought to squeeze profits from their Irish
estates. From the summer of 1795 the Republican United Irishmen, originally a movement for
parliamentary reform, reorganized themselves as a clandestine organization working for
an armed insurrection with the backing of revolutionary France. They also formed an
alliance with Catholic defenders a proletarian body inspired by combination of Catholic sectarianism
and crude but potent aspirations to social and political revolution. As armed raids and
assassinations multiplied the authorities replied with increasingly ruthless repression.
And the sense of imminent crisis also encouraged an ever more open alliance between the forces
of the state and those of militant Protestantism. The rebellion which finally broke out in the
summer of 1798 has been described as probably the most concentrated episode of violence
in Irish history. An estimated 30,000 people died in four separate outbreaks, one of which
was inspired by the belated arrival of a small French force. In the southeast in particular
the insurrection turned into a vicious sectarian war. I think it was clear that existing arrangements
namely the existence of an Irish parliament and a relatively independent Irish political
system in the age of the French Revolution, in the age of Napoleon, wasn’t enough, Ireland
was running out of control. The existing system was no longer working and while it might be
possible after 1798 to quell the rebellion and to reassert English power of course it
could happen again. And therefore what the rebellion 1798 taught British politicians
was that for Ireland to be safe for England and that meant not being used as a launching
pad for a French invasion of England, Ireland could be secured by integration with England,
by Union, and that was the legitimation, the justification for the act of union of 1801.
I think the political union with Ireland in 1801 was carried out at the instigation of
Scots, not all Scots, but Scottish politicians who argued that union had worked for Scotland
and that it would work for Ireland. In retrospect we know that that’s wrong but at the time
there was great confidence, that I think reflects the confidence of the Scottish Enlightenment,
that education, political stability, the rule of law, would mean that any people would be
able to achieve modern economic benefits and cultural progress. And I think I’ve heard
it observed that Enlightenment thinkers, and in Ireland Enlightenment thinkers were confident
that the linguistic and religious divisions that were so deeply entrenched in Irish society
would inevitably pass away as a consequence of Ireland through modernization increasing
its wealth and the level of education of its population. The British Prime Minister William
Pitt had hoped that the creation of the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
would be accompanied by the full emancipation of its Catholic subjects. However George III
having sworn to uphold his coronation oath and the powers and prerogatives in the Anglican
Church refused to sign any such act if it was passed to him. In the face of this threatened
veto Pitt resigned and so was unable to deliver on his promise of emancipation. Even in the
wake at the rebellion the act of union had actually been supported by the great majority
of propertied Catholics who believed that it would be swiftly followed by full admission
to civil liberties. The common assumption is that following the disappointment of 1801
Catholics turned to demand the repeal of the union and for the restoration of parliamentary
independence, leaving Protestants to discover that the Union many of them had initially
opposed was in fact their best defense against an increasingly well-organized and assertive
Catholic majority. There can be no doubt the religion was a major reason for the failure
of the British state to turn political control into political integration but it’s easy with
the perspective of hindsight to conclude that the union was necessarily doomed to failure
from the start. Following the achievement of full Catholic Emancipation in 1829 the
leader of the mass agitation and future republican icon Daniel O’Connell between 1834 and 1840
abandoned his demand for the repeal of the Act of Union in favour of alliance with the
Whig Party, announcing that the people of Ireland were prepared if treated with justice
and equity to become a kind of west Briton. Even at this point allegiances where it seems
still negotiable and in effect Irish-Catholic politics were to balance uncertainly for another
half century between two alternative lines of development, on the one hand the pursuit
of self-determination on the other assimilation, along with Wales, Scotland, English nonconformity,
and a section of the English working class into the anti-establishment coalition that
was British Liberalism. In the late 17th century the Irish, Scottish
and English elites, while no doubt there were contacts between them on the political and
military level, they remained reasonably discreit. One of the great themes of the eighteenth
century is the emergence of a relatively anglicised, British, elite. There was much intermarriage
in the eighteenth century between members of the elite of different countries and certainly
a tendency for English heirs to estates to marry wealthy Scots and Irish heiresses and
daughters and so forth. An increasing tendency for them to receive a common education and
to embark upon common careers especially in the military and so forth. So rather than
having three or four separate elites you can see them coming together to fuse, to become
a much more coherent ruling order. I think theres also a growing sense of national bombast,
national conceit, which is British national bombast, and British national conceit as far
as some people are concerned, and you can see that in shifts in language, shifts in
cartography, shifts in the naming of societies, this emphasis on Britishness. And an early
aspect of that is the creation of the British Museum, and you get a growing number of these
British organisations. I think these politicians are aware of themselves
as running a British empire, maintaining a British army, a British navy, ruling through
a British constitution, I think by the early nineteenth century we have reached that point
where the notion of Britishness has come to serve as a phrase which they use, of which
they’re conscious. Now that doesn’t mean to say that what one may term the sub-national
identities – Wales, Ireland, Scotland, England – have disappeared, far from it, in fact you
can argue quite potently that notions of Scottishness and Irishness strengthen during the eighteenth
century, but that almost all Scots and some members, some of the Irish, come to believe
that it is within a Britannic, a Britannic state, a Britannic universe, that their Scottishness
can be expressed and developed and strengthened, and to some extent that is true of Ireland
as well. Historians always talk about the problems with Ireland, we have to remember
that British government started to rearm the celtic countries in the late eighteenth century,
the British army was full of Irish, in fact many of the people who put down the Irish
rebellion in 1790 were Irish. So Britishness is establishing itself as a viable political
identity and practice, to maintain the British Isles, the British empire, and so forth, at
just the same moment as some of the sub-national identities are strengthening, but coming to
accept their existence within a Britannic framework. There were strong dynamics, particularly
at the patrician level of society, that encouraged integration and fostered a shared sense of
British identity. The monarch, whose figure had been so divisive for much of the 18th
century, had emerged during the Wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France as a unifying
symbol of British loyalty. But Britain remained a complex polity; difference persisted and
continued to matter. At times a loose Protestantism, often pointed to as one of the pillars of
British identity, could act as a force for cohesion, but at other times the divides between
Protestant denominations seemed far worse. The Church most vigorously persecuted in Britain
was not the Catholic but the Episcopalian, Protestant Church in Scotland, effectively
broken by the persecution unleashed against it by the Whig regime in London. Especially
further down the social scale a distinct sense of national difference persisted. Scots were
renowned in London for their tendency to cluster together, to favour each other in business,
essentially to look out for each other, so too the Welsh. And a sense of being surrounded
and to some extent overwhelmed by the English was present in both Scots and Welsh culture.
Well I think this idea of inventing and resisting Britain has been explored by several historians,
that there are those in Scotland – and there are those in Wales – who see British union
as offering a broader arena offering opportunities either to safeguard Protestantism or provide
greater economic opportunities for economic development, those two reasons I think in
particular, but there were always elements in Scotland and I think in Wales as well that
resisted the idea of Britain out of a belief that intrinsically it would involve greater
domination by English interests over what could be seen as peripheral regions within
a British island. I think that again is something that emerges or develops over the course of
the eighteenth century as financial power, political power, social change gathers pace
in the south east of the island of Britain and that accentuates these changes. For a
long time, historians have tended to assume that the lower orders of society, lacking
the sophistication and cosmopolitan inclincations of their superiors, were more responsive to
stereotype and crude prejudice – and easily roused by nationalist tub-thumpers. Recent
research, however, reveals that we should be more wary about making such a generalisation.
Even when their countries were at war English and French fishermen could set aside questions
of nationality in pursuit of a shared interest. Fishing communities in places like Harwich
and Dunkirk negotiated their own peace treaties to protect their boats from warships and privateers
and then lobbied their respective governments for their enactment. Whats perhaps even more
interesting is that whilst a commonality with their fellow fishermen might be stressed when
negotiating these cross-channel treaties, they might also then employ patriotic rhetoric
when dealing with the agents of the state, making much of their contribution to the wider,
public good. Rather than being simply imprisoned by the shackles of national hatred the people
of the eighteenth century, even towards the bottom of the social scale, were able to negotiate
multiple identities in the pursuit of their own interests. They inhabitited a complex
world of belonging in which a national identity was one among many. The metaphor I used when
I wrote Britons, and it was a metaphor that I borrowed from Eric Hobsbawm, and most of
us do in fact although we may not necessarily work it out or put that into words. In some
cases I think a growing sense of Britishness could crowd out other identities or put pressure
on them, but if you look at people’s writings and their behaviour in different contexts
you often find that they’re drawing on different identities at different times. It has been
argued that the main unit of belonging for most people in the eighteenth century, and
in fact well into the nineteenth, was not the nation but the parish. Despite increasing
urbanisation, and developments in communication and mobility, most of the population still
lived – by today’s standards – in relatively isolated rural communities. The word foreigner
itself was most frequently used to describe someone not from another country but from
outside the local area. Far from documenting the steady, growing awareness of a collective
class consciousness, records reveal a resistance to outsiders, the fierce protection of local
rights, and village rivalries at times escalating into open violence. Emerging ideas of Britishness,
and of a wider national identity, would have remained largely irrelevant in the everyday
life of communities divided not by national borders but by village boundaries. Perhaps
during the
nineteenth century Britain’s expanding empire would provide the wider context in which the
British could overcome their own internal differences and embrace an inclusive imperial
identity.

8 thoughts on “Britishness: In Search of a National Identity 1. Fragile Beginnings

  1. 16:31 sounds familiar… like Britain as it was a part of the European Union. Lots of special rights, much more easier trading and so on…
    Why do you voted for the Brexit?

  2. The Narration in this documentary is Spectacular, British/English at it's Best —- Thank You For uploading these series, very informative.

  3. So the annexation by England of Wales, Scotland and lreland was due to the last 3 countries' desire to trade … what a childish lie, LOL !!

  4. Mass immigration has killed the British identity and it will kill the devolved identities as well.

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