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Linda Colley `Britons: Forging the nation 1707-1837

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                                                                     Linda Colley `Britons: Forging the nation 1707-1837`


    “It is better to have the world united than the world divided; but it is better to have the world divided than the world destroyed,” said Mr. Winston Churchill, at the time of the Second World War. Though Mr. Churchill came to this conclusion taking in to account   the prevailing post- World War II conditions, this thought formation in his mind must have originated from the historical processes that Great Britain went through during the previous three centuries. Britain builds to break and breaks to build and finally takes shape as a democratic country providing at the same time due conventional and legal safe-guards to the monarchical traditions. This is the unique blending, rarely adopted in any other country in the world today. Perhaps no British Citizen remains without being impacted about the pangs of division and unification that the country had to go through. He/she have experienced what it means when historians mention unity in diversity, while writing about geo-political conditions of a country.

    How difficult must have been the process of evolution of the national identity that it took about 120 years for Briton to achieve the cherished goal, after bitter struggles, conflicts, and how ultimately many forces united to secure this identity.  The ‘nationalities’ involved in this arduous ask were Scots, Welsh, English and Irish. Their common enemy was France with whom they constantly waged the warfare mainly for commercial interests. Fear of invasion kindled the sense of patriotism amongst them. Colley doesn’t identify suddenness about the unification process. The earlier progression of the events hastened the welding process of the broken parts. Everyone craved for   the unification process for their own compelling reasons. Colley lays great emphasis on Protestantism as the cementing force that contributed to the evolving of the British identity. The Act of Union between England and Wales and Scotland in 1707, was the legal aspect. Such unity was not possible without the union of the minds and that simple requirement was forthcoming in ample measures through the hearts of artists and writers, politicians and military and all those segments that contribute to the making of a Nation.

    Identify the main threads of Colley’s argument:

         To adopt and accept a new identity means to give up certain aspects of one’s past identity and mould into the present one. According to Colley the same thing happened from 1707-1837.The common loss of the English, Scottish and Welsh individually was their common gain as “Britons.” The developments during the period were the most critical part of the evolution of the new identity. 130 years of history (that is the period covered in the book) can not be condensed into a small capsule.  The British culture and social structure went through the biggest churning processes, being influenced by many factors like industrial revolution, rapid increase in population, health awareness and decline of diseases, secular amenities like roads, postal facility and canals for water supply and irrigation.

    Colley has other issues to which she gives priority in her book. Broadly speaking, they are Protestants, Profits, Peripheries, Dominance, Majesty, Womanpower, Manpower and Victories. “A British identity was available to a wide variety of marginalized or insecure groups who proved their patriotism–and found empowerment–through their contributions to the nation’s war effort… In recent years, a number of historians and literary critics have followed Colley’s lead; the conventional wisdom today seems to be that British ness was about behavior, not birthplace or bloodline.” (Colley, 1994, 132)

         The unkindest of the cut that Colley finds in that era is with regard to “Womanpower.” She is vocal on this issue and condemns the exclusion of women from participation in the affairs of the society and the efforts of the male-dominance in society to restrict her to the four walls of the house. She resents this, and she aligns with Joan W. Scott’s Gender and the Politics of History. The culture as it is prevailing at any time has immediate relevance to gender identities and roles.

    Her thesis at several points’ contests previously held historical opinion:

         Initially one could not identify the regions or the people belonging to England, Scotland or Wales. Nothing tangible could be seen to resemble the   national consciousness. Colley sees the merit in Protestantism that acted as the adhesive for the union achieved in 1707 to remain together.  It awakened a new consciousness of reformation and its influence swept through Britain and laid the foundation for the common culture. Davidson contests the Colley thesis that gives full credit to Protestantism as the foundation for the British national identity. The reasons are altogether different according to Neil Davidson. The perspective of the Revolutionary France was entirely different; it ceased to patronage catholic reaction. Its main concern was freedom and political progress. Radicals in both England and Scotland turned followers of French pattern. Davidson argues how Protestantism in England and Scotland, instead of applying the healing balm, were the hotbeds of tension. They were the divisive forces of Anglo-Scottish relations. As for Scots, Davidson proves how anti–Catholicism was a divisive issue rather than it promoted unity. The upper class wished for friendly relations with Catholics, mainly due to economic factors.

         What happens when the class conflicts and religious conflicts mix together? A strange situation like the Gordon riots in London over the 1788 legislation happens. This is the most prolonged riot in British history. Besides poor Catholics, the rioters targeted the rich and the powerful. Colley reasons out that this is due to the influx of lowest paid Irish labor in big cities like Glasgow, Dundee etc. British labor market was severely affected. However, Colley and Davidson both have not considered anti-Catholicism as a permanent feature. The issue gradually began to dampen, and the tensions related to it began to dilute.

    Though you may find her analysis generally persuasive, where might the picture she constructs be vulnerable to contest and debate?

         The loss of American colonies, according to Colley, resulted in an indirect gain. To recoup the loss, the aristocracy found other areas to express itself, like parliamentary and imperial reform, religious liberalization and hastened the process of unity. The British identity grew in several other directions like the octopus. Some issues have not been given the prominence they deserve. The issues related to the Militia have been dealt with casually. In the absence of the police force, it was Militia that looked after the internal security aspects. During the period to which the book is related, the British were mostly engaged in war with France and viewed from this angle, the role or militia was noteworthy and the same has been ignored by Colley. Her treatment of the issues of the people of the ‘Celtic fringe’ is not convincing. A deliberate effort is being made to label them as British. They joined the process of empire-building for altogether different reasons. Escaping poverty of Ireland or Scotland was their main concern and patriotic fervor was absent among them. “The sense of a common identity here did not come into being, then, because of an integration and homogenization of disparate cultures. Instead, British ness was superimposed over an array of internal differences in response to contact with the Other, and above all in response to conflict with the Other.”(p , 6)

    Consider the evidence she uses (or does not use).

         The book has eighty-two black and white pictures and they add authenticity to the textual contents. The foot note below the picture describes the facts related to the events. The pictures tender the unassailable evidence. They say, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” In any country poor people are the majority (voters), but the affairs of the Nation are governed by the aristocracy. You can observe that the search for unity was necessitated on account self-interest, overriding all other considerations. Same was the case with the aristocratic section of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The loss of American War had telling effect on the economy of all these countries. The virtues of unity began to reflect in the minds of those to whom economic interests mattered. The mercantile class realized which side of the bread was buttered in the changed circumstances. They visualized certain hard truths consequent to the American War, and initiated legal steps to abolish slavery, elections were held on democratic lines and they sought unity with the Catholics by recognizing them as part of the political class. The Christian religion dominated by the Protestants was a parallel political force and deeply influenced the people. In its place the Hanoverian dynasty took over. Steps to secure equal rights to women were initiated. She describes in great detail about Protestantism and the growth of trade, that goes to become the hallmark of the British imperialism, and the growth of their Empire in many parts of the world.

    How might some historians legitimately look at the same period and focus on divisiveness and conflict?

         The book has some lacuna as for its dealing with the post 1800 period. The reign of George IV and William are not dealt with in detail, and this cursory glance approach is also full of contradictions. The Regency period is dubbed when morality was at low ebb and was a matter of serious social concern. Take the disposition and behavior of George IV—her arguments will not stand the test of scrutiny.


         You find the skilful weaving of the many developments that ultimately welded the identity styled “Britons” and it is an excellently created web, with currents and crosscurrents, and they flow through with a great sense of homogeneity. The reading does not create irritation or confusion and one has to nod with approval for the arguments tendered by her. The book is thought-provoking.  She is fully in control of the issues that she has handled, and provides authentic information as for political movements that are the mainstay of the book, and the issues that influence the lives of the common man like ballad, art and satire. Her conclusions are well-founded and thought-provoking. She ably crafts the driving forces of unity that gave shape to the “British” nationality.



    Colley, Linda: Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837

    Paperback: 440 pages

    Publisher: Yale University Press (September 10, 1994)

    Language: English

    ISBN-10: 0300059256

    ISBN-13: 978-0300059250


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