BOOK REVIEW / A hand up for the nation: 'Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837' - Linda Colley: Yale, 19.95 pounds

David Papineau
Saturday 26 September 1992 23:02

WHEN the widely disliked Prince of Wales finally succeeded to the throne in 1820, his long-estranged wife, Caroline, sought to reclaim her position as Queen. The new King would not be reconciled, and insisted that Caroline be tried for adultery in the House of Lords. But the great British public, and particularly the womenfolk, stood behind the Oueen. As a contemporary ballad urged: 'Ye British wives / Support your injured Queen / Assert her rights; they are your own, / As plainly may be seen.'

This is just one of many contemporary resonances in Linda Colley's Britons. Colley is not so much interested in possible lessons for our present Royals, however, as in the way this story manifests the emergence of a distinctively British public, a public who were aware of themselves as a singular and superior nation. Colley's thesis is that this sense of Britishness was forged by war and religion during the 18th century, and consolidated in the years following Waterloo.

This is an excellent subject, and Colley's book does it full justice. As she observes, historians have made much of the dissident minorities of the period, the radicals and the pacifists, the Jacobites and the Jacobins. But in doing so they have tended to ignore the attitudes of the majority, and in particular the way the different regions of Britain transcended their linguistic and cultural differences to form a united conception of themselves as guardians of the British Empire.

Colley sticks to Britain, but her topic has general significance. Nations are fragile things, and in a modern context national boundaries remain stable only when the people inside think of themselves as one nation. This circular definition works well enough as long as the people involved do not question it too closely. In much of Europe and Central Asia we are currently witnessing what happens when they do.

The chief reason we Britons have come to think of ourselves as one nation, according to Colley, is that between 1689 and 1815 we were at war with Catholic France on nine separate occasions, totalling 57 years. To the English, Scots and Welsh, the foe across the Channel signified superstition, poverty, and unfreedom (Ireland, reasonably enough, is omitted by Colley as a special case) and Protestant Britons found themselves welded together by their common concern to repel the threat of Catholic domination.

This emergence of a nation had repercussions throughout the class structure. In order to preserve its authority, the ruling elite needed to make itself British too. This was the period that saw the rise of the public schools, of fox-hunting, and of the Great British Worthy - of Wolfe, Wellington, and, above all, Nelson. At the same time the enjoyment of privilege gave way to the ideal of public service, the wigs and brocades of the habit a la francaise to the sober greys and blues of the modern town suit.

Another facet of the new unity was the increasing number of Scots and Welsh who reached positions of power. This generated a certain amount of English insecurity, not infrequently about Celtic sexual potency. According to rumour, Lord Bute, who was both Prime Minister and a Scot, was bedding George III's mother, the Princess Dowager. One 'splendidly filthy cartoon', as Colley describes it, perfectly encapsulates the English anxiety about Scottish penetration: the princess, with her hand up Bute's kilt, explains that 'A man of great parts is sure greatly to rise'.

Colley has taken on a large subject, and it is possible to disagree with some of her emphases. But in general her arguments are convincing. Much of their weight derives from her appeal to visual evidence. Though she disappointingly denies her readers the cartoon of Bute and the Princess Dowager, she includes many other contemporary paintings, engravings, and caricatures, showing how details from this material can give us a direct insight into the 18th-century mind.

At the end of the book Colley asks whether the nation forged three centuries ago still has a future. She points out that most of the concerns that drew us together have now disappeared. Religion remains important only to a minority, there is no empire left to guard, and we can no longer look down on Catholic Europe as poor and ignorant. Colley conjectures that the British identity may soon merge into that of a federal Europe. Recent events make this seem unlikely. Perhaps close questions about Britishness can be postponed for a few years yet.

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