How Old Is Britishness? by David White

****((This article first appeared in Retrospect, the University of Edinburgh’s History Society journal in February 2015)


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British Empire Flags

With the recent Scottish referendum on independence demonstrating substantial numbers of Scots in favour of ceasing to be part of the United Kingdom, and the 2011 Census and subsequent research indicating that more than 60% of people north of the border describe themselves as Scottish rather than British, it seems appropriate to look at how old the perception of Britishness actually is.

This study focuses on the period between the start of the French Revolution and the enthronement of Queen Victoria. Although British national identity might be said to begin with the union of the crowns in 1603, this was essentially a dynastic, personal union which meant little for the population at large in terms of how they defined themselves. It could more plausibly be located in 1707 and the Act of Union. However, the first eight decades of the United Kingdom of England and Scotland were marked by no great rush to adopt this new identity. Two failed uprisings in 1715 and 1745, while not at as nationally polarised between Scotland and England as they might at first seem, demonstrated that national unity, an essential component of national identity, was not yet guaranteed. Far more formative was an existential threat to the fragile entity that was Great Britain – two decades of war against the French.

What actually is national identity? This is a huge question among historians, but in order to keep it manageable, a mere single paragraph will have to suffice to lay out the criteria underlying this article. Nations and national identity cannot be defined by objective or measurable criteria such as language, race or cultural uniformity. Nations are not eternal, nor have they all emerged by the same process. Some have been the result of conquest, others by settlement, and yet others by dynastic accretion. The latter was the experience of Great Britain, a process completed in 1801 with the second Act of Union. National identities are socially constructed and part of a continuous process based on subjective experience. They are contingent and relational, defined by territorial or social boundaries laid down to distinguish the collective self and its implicit negation, the other. The concept of ‘otherness’ by which identity is shaped through contrast is an important issue and constitutes one of the principal analytical issues in this discussion of British self-definition.

The period under examination begins shortly after the loss of the American colonies, sometimes referred to as Britain’s first empire. It is tempting to see the creation of a revised image of ‘Britishness’ stemming from a desire or need to deal with a consequent perceived or feared erosion of national prestige. Developing a stronger sense of Britishness would also serve as an integrative function in what was essentially a young quasi-federalist state. However, the means at hand for active agency in such a process were very limited compared to the tools of persuasion, propaganda and cultural manipulation which became increasingly available to governments and elites from the mid-19th century onwards. Nevertheless, the subsequent laying of the foundations of a second empire in the era being studied was undoubtedly a British (as opposed to English) undertaking with disproportionate numbers of Scots active in colonial administration, trade and the military.

Concepts of Britishness were already tied to war and empire before this era. In 1727 James Thomson had written a paean to British imperial and naval might in Britannia, a somewhat bombastic and jingoistic poem which was the forerunner of Rule Britannia, co-written with David Mallett, a fellow Scot, in 1740. Several factors are relevant in considering these poems, the latter of which became an iconic declaration of British pride and self-portrayal.

Rule Britannia

Just two decades before Britannia was written, it was almost inconceivable that a Scot would write such a work, while the very name Great Britain did not come into usage until the 1707 Act of Union. The poems provide evidence that a new form of self-identity was emerging with the creation of a supra-national nation and was being propounded in Thomson’s works. Nowhere in either poem was mention made of the dynasty ruling this new nation, an important distinction from previous expressions of nationwide loyalties. In 1714, the royal family changed from Stuart to Hanover, and when Victoria married, it altered again to Saxe-Coburg. The 1745 Jacobite rebellion may be seen as a last-gasp attempt to revive dynastic loyalty which failed and left the field open to new focuses of loyalty and identity in which the monarchy was more symbolic than central. Significantly too, the Jacobites were attempting to put a Catholic on the throne. Thus, although royal dynasty still mattered, it mattered principally inasmuch as the dynasty had to be Protestant, a factor which allowed England, Wales and Scotland to become united in the first place.

It is true that a sense of Britishness predated the 19th-century concept of nationalism, an ideological construct claiming shared race and language as the foundations of genuine national identity. People knew that they were French or British long before the idea of ethnicity as the definer of nations became widespread in the mid-19th century. In some ways being an island nation made the concept of Britishness less problematic than it might have been. But it is not a sufficient explanation. There are other islands which harbour two national polities, including present-day Papua New Guinea/Indonesia, Haiti/Dominican Republic, Cyprus and, most significantly, Ireland. Explanations for the relative harmony of the component parts of the United Kingdom need to define those elements which bound them together, whether shared cultural factors or shared opposition to an external threat.

Functionalist theories expounded in the 1980s and 1990s argued that national identity was the product of a strong state and an efficient fiscal bureaucracy. It is true that the purposes to which tax-gathering was put – war – was instrumental in creating a popular sense of common purpose. However, just as persuasive is the intentionalist interpretation that, in battling hostile external forces who threatened their lives and their way of life, Britons effectively defined themselves against the ‘other’. Nevertheless, British identity did not destroy older loyalties: Britishness was a layer which co-existed with Scottishness, Welshness and Englishness, while localism, such as a sense of being Lancastrian, remained a powerful one.

Other historians emphasise the defence of Protestantism as serving the purpose of creating a notion of Britishness, but this is not wholly convincing. Britain often allied with other Catholic states in her wars against France, notably Portugal, Austria and eventually Spain during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. Anti-Catholicism was more marked in the peripheries, particularly Scotland with its more strict Presbyterianism. The mass migration of Ulster Catholics to the west of Scotland coincided with social problems created by the inception of industrialisation, and many native-born Scots accused them of stealing their jobs. The undoubted enmity against Catholicism bolstered a hostility born out of economic factors. While unpleasant anti-Catholic prejudice was widespread in Britain and was indeed used to reinforce hostility towards France when she was the enemy, there were also moves in Parliament to remove legal barriers to Catholic involvement in civic society, beginning in the last quarter of the 18th century and culminating in the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829.

War against France may have encouraged the idea of Protestantism as a British characteristic standing in opposition to French Catholic menace, but even here there was inconsistency. The French revolutionary regimes were equally castigated for being atheistic Jacobins, while Napoleon was scarcely the most devout of men, nor was he portrayed so by his enemies in Britain. Finally, the decision to incorporate Ireland, an overwhelmingly Catholic land, into the nation state of Great Britain rather than treat it as a colony flies in the face of a perceived fundamentalist anti-Catholic Britishness. Protestantism was not a central pillar of British national identity, but at most a flying buttress.

The question of war as a centrally integrative factor strengthening British national identity is more persuasive. Between 1800 and 1812 one in every six adult males was engaged in some form of military service. This heightened a sense of national identity, seen in the lower orders  among the regional militias. However too often for the liking of the ruling elites, this manifested as a form of aspirant democratic nationalism that was too radical and too ahead of its time for the establishment to encourage or tolerate. Consequently, once the danger of invasion had passed, the militias were swiftly disbanded.

British Patriotism - Napoleonic Era 2

Invasion fears were common during the Napoleonic era, and they were just as potent as their recurrence in the late 19th and early 20th century, and in the summer of 1940. The appeal to resist an enemy portrayed as brutal, absolutist, bent on destroying the British way of life, and eager to loot, rape and kill, undoubtedly brought people together to defend their homes and their lives. Thus a negatively integrative function of otherness was significant, but to see oneself as different from the other must surely require a concept of what one is as well as what one is not. It would be ridiculous to suggest that British identity was a mere antithetical reaction to a threat and an image of an evil foe. To do so would be to see Britishness as non-existent prior to that, a national identity which was a blank canvas up to that point. There must have been positive integrative factors as well as negative ones.

One such positive integrative factor was the second empire. A certain awareness of, and identification with, that empire had spread more deeply into British society than just among the ruling elites before 1789. As well as binding classes, the empire also bound regions, in particular the Scots and Anglo-Irish who played a disproportionate role in the founding, protection and administration of that empire. Yet even here the process was in large measure identification-building based upon contrast with the other. In this case the other was viewed as racially and culturally inferior. Importantly too it must be acknowledged that even by1837 the extent of the second empire was relatively small. In India less than a third of the land was under British dominion, and almost all of that was controlled by the privately-run East India Company. The truly nationwide popularity of empire, of red on the map, and of the conceit of the ‘white man’s burden’ were phenomena of the later Victorian age.

Some historians have seen a positive integrative factor in movements embracing nature and the landscape arising among the middle classes and gentry, accompanied by a spiritual upsurge. Characterising the latter were the creation of philanthropic societies and the anti-slavery campaigns, organisations which sought to unite more than just their middle-class proponents. Furthermore a co-opting of the past, of the histories of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom (although not Ireland), helped foster a sense of Britishness across all classes.

The emergence of philanthropic societies, and the achievements of the anti-slavery movement were factors which affected principally the middle classes. However, since the middle classes were the most dynamic sector of an industrialising Britain and were increasingly becoming opinion formers, their role is very important. The growth of the political philosophy of liberalism within this class is particularly significant in creating an ideological and practical framework for the consolidation and strengthening of a sense of Britishness. Liberalism of this era (especially the last decade)  is closely associated with the rise of nationalism – not the chauvinist nationalism of the second half of the 19th century, but a more inclusive, even if paternal and elitist, philosophy. Liberal nationalism viewed the creation of the citizen as an ideal and a necessity for prosperity and security, while the citizen was predicated on the idea of the nation and national identity as a widespread reality. One can see the link between liberalism and nation-forming in the unification of Italy and Germany, and though it seems less obvious in the case of Britain, it was just as powerful. The major difference was that national unification preceded rather than followed the rise of liberalism.

War and a consequent physical threat to the entire population was undoubtedly a unifier and a major contributor to the sense of British national identity which was still in the process of establishment just a century after the 1707 Act of Union. This was a decidedly negative integrator, but a very effective one. However, negative factors provide only a partial explanation of the process. Positive factors need to be included or else the creation of British identity appears as an overly passive phenomenon, a reactive rather than proactive process. Empire, the growth of middle class opinion-formers, liberalism and the start of a period of increasing prosperity helped establish a sense of Britishness among the most wealthy and influential sectors of the country. It would be several decades before the same degree of national identity had equally firm roots in the lower classes, but even here the foundations had been well laid in the half-century up to Victoria’s accession to the throne.

Most people, including students of history, think of Britain as one of the older, long-established nations. It is certainly older than Italy and Germany, but we actually live in a relatively new nation state, much younger than, say, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Switzerland, Japan and China. Even though the United Kingdom formally came into existence in 1707, identification with the concept of Britishness is roughly contemporaneous with American self-identity. To see Great Britain’s heritage dating back through the Glorious Revolution, the Cromwellian republic and Magna Carta is problematic, because it is tantamount to viewing Britain as England writ large, not the wisest assertion to make in a Scottish context.