~ Misc Quotes
~ Simon Schama - A History of Britain
~ Linda Colley - Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837
~ David Cannadine - In Churchill's Shadow
~ David Cannadine - History in our Times
~ Empire


The great theme of modern British history is the fate of freedom. The 18th century inherits, after the Civil War, this very peculiar political animal. It’s not a democracy, but it’s not a tyranny. It’s not like the rest of the world, the rest of Europe. There is a parliament, laws have to be made, elections are made.
        - Simon Schama

To collude in the minimisation of British history on the grounds of its imagined irrelevance to our rebranded national future, or from a suspicion that it does no more than recycle patriotic pieties unsuited to a global marketplace, would be an act of appallingly self-inflicted collective memory loss.
        - Simon Schama

Much of the world today, including the United States, is still living in the social, cultural, and political aftermath of Britain’s cultural achievements, its industrial revolution, its government of checks and balances, and its conquests around the world.
        - Thomas Sowell, "Conquests and Cultures"

"There is no other Parliament like the English. For the ordinary man, elected to any senate, from Perisa to Peru, they may be a certain satisfaction in being elected... but the man who steps into the English Parliament takes his place in a pageant that has ever been filing by since the birth of English history... York or Lancaster, Protestant or Catholic, Court or Country, Roundhead or Cavalier, Whig or Tory, Liberal or Conservative, Labour or Unionist, they all fit into that long pageant that no other country in the world can show."
        - Josiah Wedgwood, Liberal MP, in his "Staffordshire Parliamentary History 1213-1603"

In the English tradition, power rises from below. The principle is enshrined in Magna Carta, which is our written constitution in spite of the belief that we don’t have one. It’s simply so old we have forgotten it. This agreement of 1215 was the chief defence against unjust and arbitrary rule in England. It established for the first time that the power of the monarch could be limited by a written compact. There is no such mainstream tradition of negotiated and limited power in Europe. In my view the English Channel is much wider than the Atlantic. And the affinities between England and America are compelling. In fact, America preserves much more than we do of the lineaments of the Anglo-Saxon state.
        - David Starkey, writing in "The Times"

"Out of the chaos of post-Roman Dark Age Britain, the English had created the world's first nation-state: One king, one country, one church, one currency, one language and a single unified representative national administration. Never again in England would sovereignty descend to the merely regional level. Never again would the idea of England and the unity of England ever be challenged."
        - David Starkey, "Monarchy"

"His helmet encircled with a golden crown, Richard III, King of England, prepared himself for ordeal by battle. He rode out against the man who had vowed to wrest the crown from his head, and sought to kill him in hand-to-hand combat. That spectacular flourish took place here, on the 22nd of August, 1485. These fields, near the little town of Market Bosworth, saw the last battle of the Wars Of The Roses, that bloody clash between the Houses of York and Lancaster."
        - Richard Holmes, presenting "War Walks: Bosworth"

First among the new worlds with which this book is concerned are the English Renaissance and Reformation. For England, the lost worlds were those of past certainties, of traditional religion, of a world of shared belief and of all that was destroyed in the name of faith. As Henry Tudor came to the throne, the islands of Britain and Ireland were isolated, on the edge of Europe, and little regarded by their greater neighbours... so they were still as his grand-daughter Elizabeth died. Yet by 1589 England was powerful enough to send an Armada against Spain as vast as that which Spain had sent against her in 1588. Elizabethans aspired to travel, to discover, and to colonize in the New World, and they began to build an empire of their own.
        - Susan Brigden, "New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors"

For William Cecil and others in Elizabeth's Council, whose sense of Catholic conspiracy and threat governed their political thinking, England's security lay in the creation of a united and Protestant British Isles, which could stand alone, ready to resist invaders. Divine providence had set the islands apart from the rest of the world by encircling seas, 'a little world by itself'.
        - Susan Brigden, "New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors"

Just recently my colleague Charles Moore carried out a swift, ad-hoc audit of some of those things which might disappear were we to decide that Christianity had outlived its usefulness in Britain; looking around him in the central lobby at the House of Commons, he counted 17 direct references to Christ ‘in as many seconds’; to expunge Christianity from British life, he continued, one would also have to rename most of our capital’s railway stations, tear down our national flag (and the Royal Standard) and melt down our coinage, rename our Oxbridge colleges, change our public holidays. And of course, he is right. But luckily, the defenestration of a Christian God simply cannot happen, because far more important than the flags and the coins of the realm and what have you, Protestant Christianity is the very essence of what it is to be British: it gave us our language, our national identity and, with both of these things, a template for how we think and reason. You cannot easily uproot all that. The influence of Protestant Christianity upon our language and thus literature is impossible to overstate. When the Gloucestershire scholar William Tyndale went up to Magdalen Hall, Oxford, in 1510 the English language — in so far as one could ascribe to it a homogenous existence — was held in such contempt that it was banned from the college altogether, excepting feast days. As a result of Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament in 1534, it became a national language, complete and concise, with a sense of cadence and rhythm, of direct purpose, which has endured to this day.
        - Rod Liddle, "The Spectator"

Elizabeth turned down her sister's widower, Philip II of Spain, in 1559. Pope Paul IV anyway forbade the marriage: Elizabeth was illegitimate, and the crown was his to bestow, England being but a fief of the Holy See. Protestantism was henceforth in England synonymous with patriotism.
        - Richard Gordon

"Let valour end my life!"
        - Walter Raleigh's motto

"The wisest fool in Christendom."
        - Spanish Ambassadors's description of King James I

We are living long in a little time.
        - Sir Alexander Haselrig, writing during the aftermath of the English Civil War

The period between the 1630s and the 1660s was among the most extraordinary in our history. It was rich with new ideas as well as novel conflict. The English Commonwealth in the 1650s was, viewed from abroad, as radical an experiment as that presented by Soviet Russia in the 1920s. It is only by standing back and thinking about matters in this light that its significance can be measured. It may have failed but had an influence, for example on the founding fathers of the United States, that should not be underestimated.
        - The London Times

If there is a single trait in our character that has historically set us apart from other nations, it is our determination to limit the authority of those who rule over us.
        - Billy Bragg, "The Progressive Patriot"

The mistake we often make about history is believing that life was very different in those days: in fact, the people of the 1640s were very like us. They ate, they drank, they worried about their children, they had the neighbours round, they moaned about their health. "Blood on Our Hands" managed to give a sense of this, which only exaggerated the horror. And what was the war like for ordinary people? More ghastly than you can imagine. This 130-minute taste of civil war was punctuated by the cries of children and the screams of women having their throats slit. It was like watching the Bosnian conflict in fancy dress.
        - AA Gill, reviewing "Blood on Our Hands: The English Civil War" for "The Times"

Every age refights the Civil War in its own way and ours is no exception. Roundhead and Cavalier, Whig and Tory, Gladstone and Disraeli, Labour and Conservative, each conflict is an echo of the original.
Every age has its own Cromwell, the man repainted, regilded, forged, twisted to suit some current purpose. The historian Isaac Foot, father of Michael, said that he judged a man by one thing, 'On which side would he have fought at Marston Moor', the King’s or Parliament’s. The pendulum of politics long ago stopped swinging from Left to Right, now being stuck on Right. But it always swings from Roundhead to Cavalier.
        - Simon Jenkins, "The Times"

What got into them? For two decades in the middle of the 17th century, English- men transformed their world, overthrowing and eventually executing their king, abolishing bishops and the House of Lords, and incidentally slaughtering each other — and from time to time their Scottish and Irish neighbours — on a scale that approached the carnage of the first world war. Explaining these ‘English civil wars’ — the term Blair Worden gives to the sequence of conflicts that afflicted the country between 1640 and the Restoration in 1660 — has always been tricky. How does one make sense of the multifarious possible causes, or the bewildering, Russian-novel-like profusion of characters; or do justice to the conflict’s great moments of drama (the show trials in Westminster Hall, the battlefield confrontations, the public execution of King Charles I, the offer of the crown to Oliver Cromwell)? How, too, to account for the civil wars’ anticlimactic end: after all the blood and idealism spent in the quest to create a godly ‘New Jerusalem’ in England, the return of the Stuart monarchy and the libidinous and cynical Charles II?
        - John Adamson, "The Spectator"

"You have sat too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!"
        - Oliver Cromwell, disbanding England's 'Long Parliament" in 1653

Armed Soldier, terrible as Death, relentless as Doom; doing God's judgement on the Enemies of God. It is a phenomenon not of joyful nature; no, but of awful, to be looked at with pious terror and awe.
        - Thomas Carlyle, describing Oliver Cromwell

There was no more dangerous a time in a nation’s life than the passing of a ruler when the succession was in doubt.
        - Leanda de Lisle, reviewing Fitzroy's "The Restoration of Charles II", "Spectator"

"I never could believe that Providence had sent a few men into the world, ready booted and spurred to ride, and millions ready saddled and bridled to be ridden."
        - Richard Rumbold, speech from scaffold, before execution for treason against the king (1685)

"When kings the sword of justice first lay down, they are no kings though they possess the crown. Titles are shadows, crowns are empty things. The good of subjects is the end of kings."
        - Daniel Defoe

He had done that which could never be forgiven; he was in the grasp of one who never forgave.
        - Thomas Macauley, "The Monmouth Rebellion" in his "History of England"

The Puritan hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.
        - Thomas Macauley, "History of England"

"I am above the law."
"Your Majesty is so, but I am not."
        - The Duke of Somerset, refusing an order from James II to perform an illegal ceremony (1686)

The highest eulogy which can be pronounced on the Revolution of 1688 is this that this was our last Revolution.
        - Thomas Macauley, "History of England"

William III's success in 1688 changed the course of British and European history. Above all, it propelled Britain into a major role on the continent almost continuously until 1763; a role that allowed it to acquire, in various treaties with other European powers, a global empire inconceivable before the  Revolution. The new regime (and its successors) in London also permitted the development of a remarkable system of representative democracy and encouraged intellectual innovation: cultural hegemony in Europe gradually shifted from the Netherlands to Europe.
        - Geoffrey Parker, the 'Glorious Revolution', "Empire, War and Faith in Early Modern Europe"

In the 17th century, France, the most populous nation in Europe, newly united under the most arrogant exponent of the Divine Right of Kings, had set its sights on territorial expansion, if not continental hegemony. It had the strongest army, led by a galaxy of military talent and, until the Glorious Revolution various members of the English government were in Louis’s pay. Only William of Orange stood out against him and when he became our William III, the Island (as Winston Churchill emotionally termed it) lent him its naval and economic power.
        - John Crossland reviewing "Blenheim: Battle for Europe" by Charles Spencer, "The Times"

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 meant different things to different people. To Tories and Anglicans the supplanting of James II (English but Catholic) by William III (Dutch but Protestant) was a bid to preserve the Church of England. Whigs, by contrast, were aiming to limit royal power; while what William himself wanted was to stop England supporting his French enemy, Louis XIV. Whig historians would remember 1688 as the defeat of absolutism, while Tory counterparts smiled upon it as a restoration.
        - Malcolm Gaskill, reviewing "The Last Revolution", "The Telegraph"

In 1688 England contracted to the Netherlands the highest debt that one nation can owe to another. Herself not knowing how to recover her liberties, they were restored by men of the United Provinces.
        - George Bancroft

"A bottomless pit of violence, a Tower of Babel where all are speakers and no hearers."
       - Alexander Smith describes London's Newgate prison (1719)

"When a Man is tried of London, he is tired of life."
        - Samuel Johnson

Compare the scale and magnifcence of Versailles with St James’s - the brick-built hovel in which the 18th-century kings of England lived. What was then the most powerful monarchy in the world housed its sovereigns in a converted leper hospital, yet, at the same time, parliament provided the magnificent palaces of Chelsea and Greenwich as hospitals for retired soldiers and sailors.
        - David Starkey, writing in "The Times"

"The good people of England will not much care whether America is lost or not till they feel the efforts in their purses or in their bellies."
        - The Duke of Richmond

"Europe is not to be saved by any single man. England has saved herself by her exertions, and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example."
        - William Pitt the younger, 1805, on being lauded as Europe's saviour for checking Napoleon

"The scum of the earth... but what fine soldiers we have made them."
        - Duke of Wellington's opinion of the ordinary British soldier

"I called the New World into existence to redress the balance of the old."
        - George Canning, British Foreign Secretary, 1826

"The unweary, unostentatious, and inglorious crusade of England against slavery may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of nations."
        - W.E.H. Lecky, reflecting on the abolition of slavery

We, while noting many things amiss about Victorian society, more often sense them judging us.
        - AN Wilson, "The Victorians"

Those Victorians: endlessly fascinating, broad in their learning, heroic in their achievements, in parts completely mad.
        - Simon Heffer, reviewing "John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand", "The Telegraph"

The Victorians pioneered numbers of commercial rackets about which their descendants complain (the manufacturers of Bovril, it appears, were virtually official sponsors of the Boer War).
        - DJ Taylor, reviews Matthew Sweet's "Inventing The Victorians" for The Times

On the Origin of Species remains a stunning intellectual achievement. It widened the boundaries of knowledge and changed society and the world. Yet there are also less obvious, but perhaps more instinctive, reasons for remembering Darwin. We still live in a society that was in large part made by the Victorians. We may affect to despise them, ridicule them, even condemn them. We certainly misunderstand them. Part of this misunderstanding is that we mistake their confidence for arrogance; for we misunderstand the paradoxical nature of that confidence. It was built in nearly equal measure on an unshakeable belief in God and on a growing awareness (and this is the debt perhaps most owed to Darwin) that God might not be the explanation, and new or alternative ones had to be found.
We imagine the Victorians as stuffy and orthodox; yet they were the most questioning, most radical and most open-minded generation in our history. Perhaps it is our own arrogance, rooted in a belief that we invented modernity, that prevents our seeing this... No wonder we cannot understand these people, with their heroic endeavour based on learning and scholarship. Neither heroism nor learning is valued in our society. Why else are those who would spend 17 years writing a book (like Darwin) seen as merely eccentric? Why are our great universities starved of money, and the standard qualifications of our school system diluted almost to worthlessness? Can we imagine a great and properly informed debate on questions such as faith, democracy or the individual today? If we cannot, it is because while the Victorians might have shaped how our world looks and the bases of the way in which we now think, we continue to squander our pervasive inheritance from them because of our refusal to rise to their awesome standards.
        - Simon Heffer, "The Great Legacy of the Victorians", "The Telegraph"

Of the 664 men who rode into the Valley of Death about 540 eventually got out of it again. By far the highest casualty rate was among the horses. Compared with the Somme or an evening in the Blitz, the Valley of Death was a piece of cake.
        - Simon Heffer reviewing "The Crimean War" by Ian Fletcher in "The Spectator"

The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction.
        - George Orwell

Nine English traditions out of ten date from the latter half of the 19th century.
        - CP Snow, "The Masters"

We don't want to fight, but, by jingo if we do,
We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too.
We've fought the Bear before, and while Britons shall be true,
The Russians shall not have Constantinople.
        - English music hall song dating from the Turkey crisis of 1878, "The Great Macdermott's song"

Disraeli was now at the height of his fame and popularity. He still had his enemies...  But the people as a whole now admired and respected him deeply... His unscrupulous past and cynical opportunism were being largely forgotten or forgiven. He was gradually becoming recognized not only as the prophet of a new Conservatism, at once compassionate at home and positive abroad, but as a great statesmen whom the Queen did well to honour. Power had brought responsibility. By 1878 the transformation in public attitudes towards Disraeli was complete.
        - Christopher Hibbert, on the aftermath of the Congress of Berlin, "Disraeli and His World"

"That’s no use. Anyone can support me when I am right. What I need are people who will support me when I am wrong."
        - Benjamin Disraeli, after Bulwer Lytton offers to support his ministry when he 'was right'

There is little doubt that, until 1846 when he helped to engineer the resignation of Robert Peel, Disraeli was driven by an ambition to make his mark rather than by any consistent political purpose, and that his attacks on Peel would have not have been so mounted had he been given in 1841 the office for which he had asked.
        - Christopher Hibbert, "Disraeli and His World"

"Jews show so near an affinity to you... Where is your Christianity if you do not believe in their Judaism?"
        - Benjamin Disraeli, urging Christian MPs to allow practicising Jews to sit in Parliament

"Zeal for the greatness of England was the passion of his life."
        - Lord Salisbury, paying tribute to Benjamin Disraeli

His party came to trust him, to idolize, and even to love, but they never understood him. And he, with his passion for England, remained deeply un-English. Idealist and cynic, prophet and tactician, genius and charlatan in one, men took him for a flaunting melodramatist until they experienced him as a deadly fighter. A radical by origin and instinct, he remade the Conservative party; but though he ruled its counsels so long, it was only warily and within limits that he ever shaped them to his ideals. Disputes over his career have turned less on facts than on moral values. More than half a century after his death there is still argument about them.
       - Robert Ensor, on Disraeli's legacy, "England 1870-1914"

The Germans could not get over the perfidy of it. It was unbelievable that the English, having degenerated to the stage where suffragettes heckled the Prime Minister and defied the police, were going to fight.
        - Barbara Tuchman, "The Guns of August".

Yes, making mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep...
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of his country," when the guns begins to shoot!
        - Rudyard Kipling, "Tommy"

Britain, the first industrial nation, had offered the world a remarkable public experiment in liberal, capitalist democracy whose success was premised upon free trade and world peace. Tuesday, 4 August 1914 brought that experiment to an abrupt halt.
        - Kenneth O'Morgan, "The Oxford History of Britain"

Here dead we lie
Because we did not choose
To live and shame the land
From which we sprung.
Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.
        - AE Housman's eulogy for the dead of WW1

In the first world war the British Empire lost a million dead, 700,000 from these islands. At the
conflict’s end the nation mourned a lost generation. But when the tradition of wearing poppies began in 1921, the grief for Britain’s fallen youth was still tempered by a sense of righteous victory. War memorials bore images of St Michael triumphing over the devil, and in the early years they were often adorned also with field guns captured from the enemy. Britain had gone to war alarmed by Prussian militarism. Germany confirmed its aggressive intentions by invading Belgium. Fearing invasion, Britain fought to defend itself and to defeat the tyrant.
The British hoped that a better world would emerge that would prove that it had all been worthwhile. John Maynard Keynes’s baleful view of the economic consequences of the Versailles peace treaty sounded the first questioning note in 1920. Within about a decade Europe was plunged into economic recession. That helped to change the way that the war was remembered. In 1929 Erich Maria Remarque published All Quiet on the Western Front. The same year Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That appeared. Their tone was far from triumphant. A decade after the war’s end, war poets who wrote enthusiastically about their cause lost popularity to those like Wilfred Owen who had depicted its worst horrors.
When the second world war broke out even veterans who had steadfastly believed that the sacrifice
of 1914-18 had been worthwhile began to question it. They had not, after all, fought “the war to
end all wars”. After the second war the “memory” of the first world war changed further. The musical Oh! What a Lovely War and television’s Blackadder Goes Forth reinforced the impression that the war had been pointless and incompetently fought. In fact the first world war ended with a series of British victories on a scale not matched before or since. They ought to be remembered alongside Waterloo and El Alamein, but few of us could name them. Since the 1960s young people have encountered the first world war through Owen. His magnificent verses should not have taken the place of historical study.
Our misconceptions of the first world war have contributed to a view about war in general. It is
widely believed that war is often fought, even by democracies, for the self-serving reasons of politicians or generals. The ordinary soldier is seen merely as a victim. In fact, many Tommies believed strongly in what they were doing. Their high morale and initiative contributed greatly to winning in the final months. It was those who had fought in the first world war — Churchill, Macmillan and Eden — who faced up staunchly to the prospect of another conflict, in contrast to Chamberlain who had not borne arms against the Kaiser.
The poppy commemorates both the valour of the dead and the nobility of their cause. It is red precisely because it required blood to win those wars. A commitment to peace, symbolised by a white poppy, was not enough to check German ambitions in either world war. Have some of our wars been more just than others? Perhaps, but our perception of whether a war was just or not can be coloured by how successful it was.
        - Michael Portillo, on the symbolism of the poppy, "The Times"

The Great War cracked open the 20th century. Women drove army lorries, signalled for the Navy, nursed the wounded, made shells and aeroplanes, conducted trains and buses, had a quarter million tilling the soil, another quarter million becoming Civil Servants, and another filling the jobs of enlisted office workers. In January 1918, Lloyd George's Government gave women over thirty the vote without a second thought. What a difference a war makes.
        - Richard Gordon

The male clerk with his quill pen and copper-plate handwriting had gone for good. The female short-hand typist took his place. It was a decisive moment in women's emancipation.
        - AJP Taylor commenting on 1918

"I am a man of peace. I am longing and working and praying for peace, but I will not surrender the safety and security of the British constitution. You placed me in power eighteen months ago by the largest majority accorded to any party for many, many years. Have I done anything to forfeit that confidence? Cannot you trust me to ensure a square deal to secure even justice between man and man?"
        - Stanley Baldwin, speech during 1926 General Strike

England totally disarmed and an easy prey to hostile forces! Can you think of anything more likely to excite cupidity and hostile intention? We should sink to the level of a fifth rate Power, our Colonies would be stripped from us, our commerce would decline, famine and unemployment would stalk the land... I have yet to learn that the cause of peace can be served by rendering our country impotent.
        - Stanley Baldwin, writing in 1927

"The greatest crime to our own people is to be afraid to tell the truth... the old frontiers are gone. When you think of the defence of England you no longer think of the chalk cliffs of Dover; you think of the Rhine. That is where it lies."
        - Stanley Baldwin, speech to the Commons (1934)

"Thirty resolute men in your House of Commons could save the world."
        - Felix Frankfurter, to an anti-Chamberlain Tory rebel in 1939

These thoughts are partly prompted by my being about to publish a book called "After the Victorians". When I had finished writing its predecessor, "The Victorians", I began to research the next 50 years of our history, and realised that there was no obvious term to describe the era. "Edwardians and Georgians" does not cover it. The words "Decline and Fall" come to mind but they are not completely right, not least because the period, 1901 to 1953, covers the years when, arguably, Britain achieved her greatest political feat in historical terms: namely, she stood out against the Nazi dictatorship over Europe, and by an act of supreme defiance, inspired but not solely orchestrated by Churchill, she won. But it is a story of decline in the sense that by undertaking that struggle — alone during the crucial months of the summer of 1940 — Britain also signed her own death warrant.
        - AN Wilson, in "The Times"

As a reliable supplier of troops and resources, the Empire was of incalculable assistance to Britain’s war effort. However, as Ashley Jackson points out, the Empire was both Britain’s strength and its liability. ‘It was only because of Empire that Britain fought Italy and Japan at all,’ he maintains. This imperial overstretch took its toll when after 1941 Britain, unlike its enemies, found itself fighting in the European and Asian theatres of war simultaneously. This was more than she could reasonably handle. The cost- cutting diplomacy of the inter-war years meant that there never was the possibility of the Royal Navy enjoying simultaneous superiority in the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean against the combined ambitions of the Japanese, Germans and Italians. Fortifying the Singapore base proved insufficient and it was hardly surprising that nervous Australians would echo the pre-war apprehension of their Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, that "what Great Britain calls the Far East is to us the near north".
        - Graham Stewart, reviewing "The British Empire and the Second World War", "The Spectator"

Egyptologists, skilled in piecing together the papyri of lost civilisations, suddenly discovered that the same talent could be applied to working out the pattern of German radio traffic.
        - Robert Harris, author of "Enigma", on British codebreakers in WW2

"I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government an official note stating that unless we heard from them by eleven o'clock, that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and consequently this county is at war with Germany."
        - Neville Chamberlian, declaring war as Prime Minister (September 1939)

"We fight to exist. Personally, I am not ashamed of fighting to exist. We are doing no very extraordinary thing to fight simply because we do not wish to be enslaved or exterminated."
       - DW Winnicoot, writing in Britain in 1940

As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.
        - George Orwell, "England Your England" (1941)

"No people in the world other than the English would have had the courage, in the midst of war, to tell the people such unvarnished truth."
        - Anton Walbrook, defending his role in the film "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" (1942)

"The symbol of the free world, bruised and battered, but unbeaten and as bloody-minded as ever."
        - Gavin Mortimer, "The Longest Night: Voices from the London Blitz"

It is good for the spirits, in these mundane days, to recall stirring deeds and stirring times, when we had more pressing matters on our minds than rising levels of obesity or the condition of dental care. It was 1 August 1940. In the Hague, Reichsmarschall Göring gave the Luftwaffe its orders: smash the RAF, achieve air dominance within a fortnight. Across the Channel waited a shy, aloof man known universally as Stuffy, wondering if the defence system he had created would hold; an assorted band of pilots gathered from the corners of the free world; and a plane with thin, elliptical wings and a deathless name.
The story of the Spitfire is embedded deep in the national consciousness... The Spitfire's unique dual role was as weapon of war and symbol of national defiance
        - Tom Fort, reviewing Leo McKinistry's "Spitfire", "The Telegraph"

"Those days were not lost on me because even at twenty years of age, I knew I was seeing and being a part of something that was never to be again. Wartime London was its own world. Walk down any of its streets and every uniform of the Free World was to be seen. Their youth and vigor vibrated in every park and pub. To Piccadilly, Hyde Park, Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square, Victoria they came. The uniform of the Canadians, South Africans, Australians, New Zealanders, the Free French, Polish, Belgian, Dutch, and of the course the English and Americans were everywhere."
        - Pvt. Gordon Carson, US 101st Airbone quoted in "The Victors" by Stephen Ambrose

I was a flagrant unabashed sentimentalist. I did love England and all it stood for. I loved its follies and apathies and curious streak of genius; I loved standing to attention for 'God Save the King'; I loved British courage, British humour and British understatement; I loved the justice, efficiency and even the dullness of British colonial administration. I loved the people — the old, the extraordinary, the bad, the indifferent, and what is more, I belonged to that exasperating, weather-sodden little island, with its uninspired cooking, its muddled thinking, and its unregenerate pride, and it belonged to me, whether I liked it or not.
        - Noel Coward, writing during the Second World War [1]

"I suppose this is the greatest day in our history."
        - Englishman Noel Coward, describing VE Day [1]

Labour leaders lead us all, though we know they bleed us all.
Cheer our new Decline and Fall, Gibbon might have dreamed it all.
        - Noel Coward, on post-Churchill Britain [1]

The very spirit of the nation had changed. No one in 1945 wanted to go back to 1939. The majority were determined to go forward and were confident that they could do so. In the second world war the British people came of age. This was a people's war... Future historians may see the war as a last struggle for the European balance of power or for the maintenance of the Empire. This was not how it appeared to those who lived through it. The British people had set out to destroy Hitler and National Socialism — "Victory at all costs." They succeeded. No English soldier who rode with the tanks into liberated Belgium or saw the German murder camps at Dachau or Buchenwald could doubt that the war had been a noble crusade. The British were the only people who went through the war from beginning to end. Yet they remained a peaceful and civilized people, tolerant, patient, and generous. Traditional values lost much of their force. Other values took their place. Imperial greatness was on the way out; the welfare state was on the way in. The British empire declined; the condition of the people improved. Few now sang 'Land of Hope and Glory'. Few even sang 'England Arise'. England had risen all the same.
        - AJP Taylor, "English History 1914-1945"

This book has been a catalogue of mistakes by politicians, moral and practical disasters which led to wars, enslavement and wretchedness on a scale which no previous age could have dreaded or dreamed of.
        - AN Wilson, "After the Victorians"

Between 1689 and 1815, in the face of formidable rivals and despite the loss of America, England grew from a second-rank nation on the periphery of the Continent into a great power whose wealth, stability and liberty were the envy of Europe... When however Wellington waved on his red-coats after the routed French at Waterloo on 18 June 1815, it marked for the English the apparent end of centuries of struggle with European great powers. The British Empire was at least supreme and safe. And during the next thirty years of tranquil security from external menace and of bounding industrial development, the British outlook on international relations and on England's role in the world underwent profound changes. The traditional strategic view became more and more discredited on two grounds: in the first place because the currently unchallenged British world supremacy in commerce and manafactures rendered protected and exclusive imperial markets and sources of raw material unnecessary or even cramping; and secondly because it became more and more generally felt by public opinion that moral principle and moral purpose rather than strategy or mere interest alone should be the inspiration of English policy. For in the course of the first half of the nineteenth century a moral revolution was completed in England; a revolution which was in the long term to exercise decisive influence on the shaping and conduct of English foreign policy. It is indeed in the transformation of the British character and outlook by this moral revolution that lies the first cause, from which all else was to spring, of the British plight in 1940... In the summer of 1940, therefore, Churchill and his government quite deliberately, if in their view inevitably, chose to sacrifice England's existence as an independent power, a power living and waging war on her resources, for the sake of 'victory'. It was the most romantically noble gesture of them all; the climax of British altruism in foreign policy...
The British and imperial armies which marched and conquered in the latter half of the war, in North Africa, in Italy, in Burma, in Normandy and north-west Europe; the great bomber forces which smashed and burnt German cities; the navy which defeated the U-boat; these were not manifestations of British imperial power at a new zenith, as the British believed at the time and long afterwards, but only the illusion of it. They were instead manifestations of American power — and of the decline of England into a warrior satellite of the United States. Thus the 'victory' of 1945 itself was, so far as the British were concerned, partly illusion too; for although Germany had been defeated, England was not, of her own right and resources, a victor. She emerged into the post-war era with the foundations of her former independent national power as completely destroyed as those of France or Germany, but with the extra, and calamitous drawback, that, as a 'victor', she failed to realise it. For, unlike the collapse of French power in 1940 and German power in 1945, the collapse of British power had not been made evident by defeat in the field; its historical movment was not fixed by the entry of conquering troops into the capital, or by well-filmed and photographed ceremonies of surrender. Instead, British power had quietly vanished amid the stupendous events of the Second World War, like a ship-of-the-line going down unperceived in the smoke and confusion of battle.
        - Correlli Barnett, "The Collapse of British Power"

England will still be England, an everlasting animal, stretching into the future and the past and like all living things having the power to change out of all recognition and yet remain the same.
        - George Orwell, "The Lion and the Unicorn"

A country scratching a lazy irritation at sagging doorjambs and late trains, whose greatest attribute is a collective, smelly tolerance, where a chap will put up with almost everything, which means he won't care about anything enough to get out of a chair.A country of public insouciance and private, grubby guilt, where you can believe anything as long as you don't believe it too fervently. A country where the highest aspiration is for a quiet life.
        - AA Gill, "The Times", remembering 1950s England

"Most of our people have never had it so good."
        - Harold MacMillan, Conservative Prime Minister (1957)

"Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role."
        - US Secretary Of State Dean Acheson (1962)

"There has been a British humiliation. I ought to take responsibility for it. I was wrong in the assessment of what they were doing."
       - Lord Carrington, resigning as Foreign Secretary after Argentine invasion of Falklands (1982)

"I counted them all out and I counted them all back".
        - Brian Hanrahan, of the BBC, watching the first Harrier attack of the Falklands War

"If the Argentines had fused just seven more of their bombs correctly, we would have lost."
        - Air Marshal David Craig, British Defence Chief during The Falklands War

"We had to do what we had to do — Britain is great again."
        - Margaret Thatcher

The Falklands victory came at a time when the Soviet Union was trying to work out whether the West had the will to resist. Although the battle in the South Atlantic had nothing to do with the Cold War, that question was now conclusively answered. By the end of the decade, it was the Russian will that had collapsed... And so it came about that a fight for 1,800 people 8,000 miles away over territory that did not matter in itself made a difference to everything... Even at the time, the Falklands crisis seemed unbelievable, and it came almost without warning. Its importance is that it provided Britain with an astonishing test, which we passed.
        - Charles Moore, "The Spectator"

"Your loss we count as our loss. Your struggle we take as our struggle."
        - Tony Blair, speech after September 11 attacks on America (2001)

Since World War II the United Kingdom has ceased to be a great military power, not only from inevitable decline but because the British, like other Europeans if not quite so much, chose butter against guns. To simplify the statistics, in the decade after 1945 British military spending dwarfed welfare spending; now it's the other way around. There are today fewer armed men under the crown than there were in the 1770s when we were fighting the rebellious Americans. Or look at another telling comparison: In the campaign in northwestern Europe of 1944-45 the ratio of American to British dead was around 5-to-2, in Iraq in 2003-06 it has been 22-to-1.
        - Geoffrey Wheatcroft, "Slate Magazine"

Behind the "values" of a country lies its history. This is affected and dramatised by individuals, which is why it is good, 200 years on from Trafalgar, to be learning about Nelson once more. But even more important than single men and women are institutions. The history of the interaction of people and institutions tells us what Britishness has been, and therefore the basis for what it can become. That history is no longer taught or celebrated. Strange that a government that is always talking about the need for "a narrative" to explain its own policies fights shy of the narrative of the nation it governs. It is time to look at the history again. Take sport. Isn't it rather interesting and important that most of the greatest sports in the world — soccer, rugby, golf, cricket, tennis, racing - began, or first took organised shape, in this country? This wasn't because the British were mysteriously physically better at playing games than other people. It was because their culture combined the freedom to play what you wanted with the civic sense that you would do this best if you agreed your rules and enforced them through your own clubs, rather than through state control.
        - Charles Moore, "The Telegraph" (2005)


"History ought never to be confused with nostalgia. It's written not to revere the dead, but to inspire the living. It is part of our cultural bloodstream, the secret of who we are. And it tells us to let go of the past, even as we honour it; to lament what ought to be lamented; and to celebrate what should be celebrated."
        - Simon Schama, "A History of Britain"

"In the end, history, especially British history with its succession of thrilling illuminations, should be, as all her most accomplished narrators have promised, not just instruction but pleasure."
        - Simon Schama, " History of Britain"

"These men were very much in the minority, but of course, being the 'Elect', they expected to be in a minority - the party of redemption. In fact they glorified in the slightness of their numbers, the self-purifying troop of Gideon's army... stormtroopers in the front line of the Reformation."
        - Simon Schama, on the Puritans, "A History of Britain"

"Charles was constitutionally incapable of being a constitutional monarch."
        - Simon Schama, on King Charles I, "A History of Britain"

"Oliver Cromwell could never shake off his sense of unworthiness — it was what saved him and Britain from a true dictatorship... he believed he worked for God, real dictators think they are God. To prolong the Protectorate, Cromwell actually needed to be more of a Leviathan than he could ever stomach, and that is both his exoneration and his failure. It's one of the most extraordinary ironies of British history that Cromwell's Protectorate, demonised by both Royalists and Republicans alike, ultimately formed the blueprint for our constitutional monarchy... a chief executive who chose his government but who were both answerable to a regularly elected Parliament."
        - Simon Schama, assessing Oliver Cromwell, "A History of Britain"

"The irony about Charles II is not that he came to the throne because England needed a successor to Charles I, but because England needed a successor to Oliver Cromwell."
        - Simon Schama, on the restoration of King Charles II, "A History of Britain"

"Almost everywhere else in Europe, the more military the state, the stronger the king — except in Britain. Here it was parliament, not the monarchy, who signed the cheques. The longer the war went on, the stronger parliament became, as the purse on which it sat grew bigger and bigger."
        - Simon Schama, on early 18th century Britain, "A History of Britain"

"The British basked in liberty; it was their reward, they told themselves, for nearly a century of civil wars that had helped make Britain the freest country in the world. safe from Catholic tyranny, absolute monarchs and standing armies. Liberty was their religion, they built temples to it — they even wrote it a hymn: 'Rule Britannia'.
But the real payoff of liberty had been riches and power from around the globe. With liberty had come trade, and trade had wrought perhaps the most staggering transformation of national power in all British history. From being a tiny outcrop of insignificant islands off the north-west coast of Europe, Britain had expanded into a global power. The shadow of Britannia now fell across America, the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent. It had taken barely a century, and unlike the Roman Empire they so admired, they dreamt of a British Empire that would endure — one based on trade, not conquest. It would be an empire of liberty they thought, Britain writ large, sharing its bounty with the world.
So how was it that in little over a century the people that thought of themselves as the freest on earth ended up subjugating much of the world's population? ...How was it that we ended up with the wrong empire?"
        - Simon Schama, "A History of Britain", after British victory in the Seven Years War

"Taxation, the very thing that had triggered the British civil wars, would do so again, this time in America. The taxes may have been different, but the result would once again be disaster. What happened in America was really round two of those wars - the civil war of the British Empire, with the Hanoverians playing the part of the Stuarts, and the Americans the heirs of the revolutionaries, of Cromwell and of William III, the inheritors of a true British liberty, that had somehow got lost in its own motherland."
        - Simon Schama, on the war of American Independence, "A History of Britain"


When I finished writing 'Britons' in 1991, I concluded by suggesting that part of the reason why a break-up of Britain has been so widely canvassed in recent recades was that some of the incitements to Britishness that operates powerfully in the past - Protestantism, empire, recurrent, successful wars, and a complacent sense of superior constitutional freedoms - have faded. I see no reason to modify this view now. But just as historians today have come to realise that they should not take the invention of Great Britain for granted, so future historians may well need to be wary of writing the story of these islands, and of the countries they contain, as though a break-up of the British union was always over the centuries a foregone conclusion.

If we accept that, historically speaking, most nations have always been culturally and ethnically diverse, problematic, protean and artificial constructs that may take shape very quickly and come apart just as fast, then we can plausibly regard Great Britain as an invented nation superimposed only for a while, onto much older alignments and loyalties. It was an invention forged above all by war. Time and time again, war with France brough Britons, whether they hailed from Wales or Scotland or England, into confrontation with an obviously hostile Other and encouraged them to define themselves collectively against it. They defined themselves as Protestants struggling for survival against the world's foremost Catholic power. They defined themselves against the French as they imagined them to be, superstitious, militarist, decadent and unfree. And, increasingly as the wars went on, they defined themselves in contrast to the colonial peoples they conquered, peoples who were manifestly alien in terms of culture, religion and colour. Men and women decide who they are by reference to who and what they are not. This was how it was with the British after 1707.

Although I occasionally refer to those Irishmen and women who lived on the British mainland, I have deliberately not written about Ireland itself. The invention of Britishness was so closely bound up with Protestantism, with war with France and with the acquisition of empire, that Ireland was rarely able or willing to play a satisfactory part in it... and although Irishmen were (and still are) an important component of Britain's armed forces, and individual Irishmen played leading imperial roles as generals, diplomatists and pro-consuls, Ireland's relationship with the empire was a deeply ambiguous one.

Contrary to received wisdom, the British are not an insular people in the conventional sense - far from it. For most of their early modern and modern history, they have had more contact with more parts of the world than almost any other nation - it is just that this contact has regularly taken the form of aggressive military and commercial enterprise.

[Ch.1 Protestants: A Less Than United Kingdom]
"When Britain first at heaven's command,
Arose from the azure main,
This was the charter of the land.
And guardian angels sung this strain:
'Rule Britannia, rule the waves, Britons never will be slaves'."
        - James Thompson (1740)

At one level Great Britain at the beginning of the 18th century was like the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, both three and one, and altogether something of a mystery.

In the end, nothing succeeds like success. And success, above all success in war, was what the men who governed Great Britian were able to hold out as a legitimisation of their rule to the millions below them. The Nine Years War with France, the War of Spanish Succession, the wars of Jenkin's Ear and the Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War and the wars against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, all brough enough naval and military victories in their train to flatter British pride, and in most of these conflicts the victories were not only massive but durable in terms of empire won and trade routes gained. Only the War of American Independence was emphatically a defeat, and in the minds of contemporaries it was scarcely a coincidence that this was also the only major war of the period in which the initial enemy confronting the British was Protestant rather than Catholic.

From the 15th century to 1688, England and Wales, like Scotland, had been  peripheral kingdoms in the European power game, more often at war with each other that with Continental powers, and — except under Oliver Cromwell — scarcely very successful on those occasions when they did engage the Dutch, or the French, or the  Spanish.

A fundamental reason why Britain was not torn apart by civil war after 1688 was that its inhabitants' aggression was channelled so regularly and so remorsely into war and imperial expansion abroad.

But Protestantism meant more in this society than just bombast, intolerance and chauvinism. It gave the majority of men and women a sense of their place in history,  and a sense of worth. It allowed them to feel pride in such advantages as they genuinely did enjoy, and helped them endure when hardship and danger threatened. It gave them identity and enabled them to make sense of the present... who were the British, and did they even exist? Protestantism could supply a potent and effective answer, perhaps the only satisfactory answer possible. Great Britain might be made up of three separate nations, but under God it could also be one, united nation. Protestantism was the foundation that made the invention of Great Britain possible.

[Ch.2 Profits: The Economics of Loyalty]
"Those who look closely at the 18th century poor cannot but be struck by their aggressive independence and their desire to be left alone to live out their lives without intrusion."
        - Olwen Hutton, "The Poor of 18th Century France"

"As well as might we say that a ship is built, loaded and manned for the sake of any particular pilot, instead of acknowledging that the pilot is made for the sake of the ship, her lading, and her crew, who are always the owners in the political vessel; as to say that kingdoms were instituted for kings, not kings for kingdoms."
       - Lord Bolingbroke (1738)

Jacobitism involved much more than a debate about the merits of a particular dynasty. Men and women were well aware that its success was almost certain to involved them in civil war. And the more politically educated knew that the Stuart Pretender was a pawn in a worldwide struggle for commercial and imperial primacy between Britain and France.

"The kingdom was formed to stand forth alone, and be distinguished from other nations."
        - John Butley, 18th century British clergyman

[Ch.3 Peripheries: A Scottish Empire?]
The Seven Years War was the most dramatically successful war the British ever fought. They conquered Canada. They drove the French out of most of their Indian, West African and West Indian possessions. They tore Manila and Havana from the Spanish. Their navy devastated its European rivals. And they assumed for themselves the reputation of being the most aggressive, the most affluent and the most swiftly expanding pwer in the world... yet the euphoria soon soured. The root cause of post-war uncertainty and division was... the quality and extent of the victory itself that subsequently inflamed the peace. The success had been too great, the territory won at once too vast and alien.
The pre-war empire had been predominantly Protestant and Anglophone, hingeing on the thirteen American colonies. But the post-war empire included Quebec with its 70,000 French Catholic inhabitants, as well as large stretches of Asia which were manifestly neither Christian nor white. The military component of the pre-war empire had been considerable, but it had nonetheless been popularly perceived as a trading empire, as the beneficient creation of a liberty-loving and commercial people, and thus quite different from the Roman and Spanish empires, bloodily and insecurely raised on conquest. The spoils of the Seven Years War made it far more difficult to sustain this flattering contrast.

The pre-war empire had been sufficiently informal and sufficiently cheap for Parliament to claim authority over it without having to concern itself too much about what this authority entailed. The post-war empire necessitated a much greater investment in administrative machinery and military force. This build-up of control had to be paid for, either by British taxpayers or by their colonists.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, Britons have been understandably obsessed with the problem of having too little power in the world. In the third quarter of the 18th century, by contrast, their forebears were perplexed by the problem of having acquired too much power too quickly over too many people.

"I was born a Scotsman and a bare one. Therefore I was born to fight my way in the world."
        - Sir Walter Scott

What, if anything, was distinctive about the Scots' contribution to the British empire? And why did they invest in it in such large numbers and so enthusiastically? One reason for their prominence may have been that the quality and quantity of Scottish talent available in the colonies, like the quality and quantity of Irish talent, were more abundant than that of the English variety. Well-born and/or well-educated Englishmen usually had the pick of jobs back home... even the rawest frontiers of the empire attracted men of first-rate ability from the Celtic fringe because they were usually poorer than their English counterparts with fewer prospects on the British mainland. Having more to win and less to lose, Celtic adventurers were more willing to venture themselves in primitive conditions. As would be true until the 20th century, Britain's empire, especially its Indian empire, gave the talented, the lucky and the high-ranking a chance to experience luxury as well as squalor, and the opportunity to buold up a substansial personal fortune.

A British imperium enabled Scots to feel themselves peers of the Ebglish in a way still denied them in an island kingdom. The language bears that out very clearly. The English and the foreign are still all too inclined to refer to the island of Great Britain as 'England'. But at no time have they ever customarily referred to an English empire.

Can it be entirely accidental that the most famous fictional spy of them all, James Bond, Number 007, deadly marksman, intriguer, the ultimate man behind the curtain, sexual athlete and ruthless patriot, is also a Scot, as was the author, whose wish-fulfilment he was?

There have been many different explanation volunteered as to why the American Revolution broke out when it did and in the way it did. But if one were rash enough to plump for only one underlying cause, it would have to be London's failure to establish the kind of strong institutions of imperial control in North America that the Spanish had been able to construct in their Latin American colonies. This failure was due to domestic circumstances, more than to any lack of interest or lack of will. From the first substansial migrations of East Anglian puritains in Massachusetts in the 1630s, Englishmen had settled in the America by order of the king alone. None of the colonies founded after this were authorised by an Act of Parliament, and none of them sent representatives to the House of Commons. Consequently, it was to successive English monarchs, not to the Legislature, that the colonists looked as the source of ultimate authority. But for much of the 17th century, the Stuart kings faced too many troubles at home to devote concentrated attention to their settlements overseas.

In the past, the British had signally failed to build an effective structure of royal authority and administration in their American colonies. As a result, no possibility existed of soothing and winning over influential and talented Americans, in the way that influential and talented Scotsmen were increasingly being won over, by giving them increased access to state employment.

"I am sorry that 800 valiant English and Germans were killed in a bad cause, in fighting against the best constitution on earth."
        - John Wilkes, speech to British House of Commons after Battle of Saratoga

In the half-century after the American war, there would emerge in Great Britain a far more consciously and officially constructed patriotism which stressed attachment to the monarchy, the importance of empire, the value of military and naval achievement, and the desirabiluty of a strong, stable government by a virtuous, able and authentically British elite. Everyone knoes that the War of American Independence created a new nation in the United States of America and undermined an old nation, ancien regime France. But it did even more than this. It helped to forge a very different Great Britain in which both men and women would have to work out their ideas of patriotism as never before.

[Ch.4 Dominance: Heroes of Their Own Epic]
Chilvalry's essential function, Maurice Keen has written, is always to hold up an idealised image of armed conflict in defiance of the harsh realities of actual warfare. By definition, chivalry also reaffirms the paramount importance of custom, hierarchy and inherited rank.

Virtually every war fought since the Act of Union had gone badly at some stage, but before 1783 none had ended in defeat. Nor would any major war in which Britain was involved after this date end in defeat. Those who are curious about this country's peculiar social and political stability probably need look no further than this for essential cause.

"The strength and vitality of an empire is frequently due to the new aristocracy from the periphery."
        - Ronald Syme, "Colonial Elites: Rome, Spain and the Americas"

These developments - a massive transfer of land by way of inheritance and purchase, an unprecedented rise in the profitability of land and increasing intermarriage between Celtic and English dynasties - helped to consolidate a new unitary ruling class in place of the more separate and specific landed establishments that had characterised England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland in the Tudor and Stuart eras.

Human beings are many-layered creatures, and do not succumb to the hegemony of others as easily as historians and politicians sometimes imply. Those Welsh, Scottish and Anglo-Irish individuals who became part of the British Establishment in this period did not in the main sell out in the sense of becoming Anglicised look-alikes. Instead, they became British in a new and intensely profitable fashion, while remaining in their own minds and behavior Welsh, or Scottish, or Irish aswell.

"Today a Scot is leading a British army in France [Field Marshall Douglas Haig], another is commanding the British Grand Fleet at sea [Admiral David Beatty], while a third directs the Imperial General Staff at home [Sir William Roberton]. The Lord Chancellor is a Scot [Viscount Finlay]; so are the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Foreign Secretary [Bonar Law and Arthur Balfour]. The Prime Minister is a Welshman [David Lloyd George], and the First Lord of the Admiralty is an Irishman [Lord Carson]. Yet no one has ever brought in a bill to give home rule to England!"
        - John Hay Beith, in a satircal essay "The Oppressed English" (1917)

The free movement of men and manufactures between Great Britain and the Continent was disrupted by the Franco-American agreement in 1778 and was suspended for more than two decades by the wars of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. By the time of Waterloo, a generation of patrician Britons had grown up for whom Continental Europe was more a cockpit for battle, and a landscape of revolutionary subversion, than a fashionable playground and a cultural shrine. Out of necessity, therefore, as well as for reasons of prudence and patriotic choice, members of the ruling order were encouraged to seek out new forms of cultural expression that were unquestionaly British. They remained as concerned as ever to stress what distinguished them from their lesser countrymen, but in ways now that were indigenous to themselves, not borrowed from abroad.

In virtually every Continental state at this time, aristocracies had to live with the risk that their property might be pillaged or confiscated. Only in Great Britain did it prove possible to float the idea that aristocratic property was in some magical and strictly intangible way the people's property also. The fact that hundreds of thousands of men and women today are willing to accept that privately owned country houses and their contents are part of Britain's national heritage is one more proof of how successfully the British elite reconstructed its cultural image in an age of revolution.

Recognising that an ostentatious cult of heroism and state service served an important propaganda function for the British elite does not mean, of course, that we should dismiss it as artificial or insincere. All aristocracies have a strong military tradition, and for many British patricians the protracted warfare of the period was a godsend. It gave them a job, and, more important, a purpose, an opportunity to carry out what they had been trained to do since childhood: ride horses, fire guns, exercise their undoubted physical courage and tell other people what to do.

Never before the Napoleonic era or since have British military uniforms been so impractically gorgeous, so brilliant in colour, so richly ornamented or so closely and cunningly tailored... worn on private as well as public occasions, in the street or in the ballroom quite as much as on the parade ground or field of battle, these elaborate and extremely expensive uniforms did far more than cater to an individual's vanity or charisma, however. They served to distinguish members of the British elite from the rest of the population, while at the same time underlining their wearers' patriotic function. Uniforms were the embodiment of authority, but they also denoted service to the nation.

Every European elite had taken note of the sartorial and political disaster represented by the first procession of the Estates General in Paris in 1789, the prelude to the French Revolution. On that occasion, the representatives of the Third Estate, dressed in sombre black, had been cheered, but the traditionally lavish costumes of the nobility and clergy had met with jeers or silent disgust. 'The magic of ostentation', as Jean Starobinski puts it, had 'stopped having an effect on spectators who had learned to add up the cost'. From now on, the habit a la francaise, the wigs, powdered hair, brocades, silks, lace and parrot colours, which had been fashionable from Boston to Berlin, from Moscow to Manchester, were increasingly abandoned in favour of far more  subdued and functional male dress. The significant point, however, is that Great Britain seems to have been one of the first European nations in which this shift in style from peacock male to sombre man of action became apparent.

[Ch.6 Womanpower: A Woman's Place is in the Nation]
"The sons of reason should converse only with the daughters of virtue."
        - James Fordyce (1776)

"Girls must be thwarted early in life."
        - Jean Jacques Rousseau

Massively and grusesomely publicised in British conservative propaganda, the fate of Marie-Antoinette and her family seems genuinely to have appaled many women, encouraging them to see this war with France as a cause in which their own welfare and status were peculiarly involved. Their responses might have been more mixed if Republican France had extended to its female population the kind of civil and educational advances advocated by radicals like Condorcet... confronted with this state of affairs, more well-informed female Britons may well have decided that supporting the war against France was not just prudent but essential to their safety.

"The whole world might be at war and yet not rumour of it reached the ears of an Englishwoman — empires might be lost, and states overthrown, and still she might pursue the peaceful occupations of her home."
        - Laetitia Hawkins (1793)

In Great Britain, woman was subordinate and confined. But at least she was also safe.

An unprecedented number of uniformed males, marching, parading and engaging in mock battles in every region of Great Britain brought a pleasant frisson of excitement into many normally quiet and deeply repetitive female lives.

For women to be supplying the soldiery with banners, flannel shirts and other material comforts was, superficially, all of a piece with their ministrations to their menfolk at home. Such contributions to the war effort were socially acceptable because they could be seen as an extension into the military sphere of the traditional female virtues of charity, nurture and needlework. Yet in reality what the women were doing represented the thin end of a far more radical wedge. Consciously or not, these female patriots were staking out a civic role for themselves. And many of them relished it.

In the wars against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, as in so many later conflicts, British women seem to have been no more markedly pacifist than men. Instead, and exactly like so many of their male countrymen, some women found ways of combining support for the national interest with a measure of self-promotion. By assisting the war effort, women demonstrated that their concerns were by no means confined to the domestic sphere. Under cover of a patriotism that was often genuine and profound, they carved out for themselves a real if precarious place in the public sphere.

[Ch.8 Victories?]
In 1807 Parliament had banned British involvement in the slave trade. But Britain's sugar colonies in the West Indies still remained dependent on slave labour. The nationwide campaign to persuade Parliament to free these slaves, a campaign that culminated in the Emancipation Act of 1833 — just one year after the first Reform Act remodelled the electoral system, and four years after the achievement of Catholic emancipation in 1829 — is often passed over in silence or treated as an exotic diversion by historians of this period. Yet, as its timing suggests, the anti-slavery movement was closely lined with these other agitations over citizenship and the meanings of Britishness. At peace, with little left to fear from without, and lacking now such an obviously hostile Other across the Channel against which to define themselves, it was scarcely surprising that different groups of Britons should have looked for new of establishing who they were and what, if anything, made them special and bound them together.

Ever since the Reformation, the case of legislation confining Catholics had been constructed primarily to protect a nervously Protestant against what was assumed to be a fifth column in its midst... Ministers believedm with some justice, that Catholics retained an attachment to their exiled co-religionists, the princes of the House of Stuart. After the Battle of Culloden had confirmed Jacobitism's insignificance, however, government attitudes towards Catholicism began perceptibly and logically to relax.

Loyal and substansial Catholic service on the battlefield undermined one of the most longstanding objections to emancipation: namely, that since Catholics owed religious allegiance to a foreign authority in the person of the Pope, their political and patriotic allegiance must necessarily be suspect.

The Reform Act created a radically different electoral landscape. Not only did the number of voters increase, but with the weakening of patron control, the number of elections that went to a poll also rose sharply... up to a point then, a represetative systemn which had been weighted in favour of England, in favour of the south, and in favour of the centrifugal forces of local interests and individual electoral patrons had been replaced by one more uniformly British, more closely supervised by the state, and considerably more democratic. A much bigger proportion of man could now vote in Britain than in France, Spain, Belgium or the Netherlands.

There was a self-referential reason why the British embraced anti-slavery so vigourously from thr 1780s onwards. Doing so was a way of reaffirming their unique commitment to liberty at a time when war with America, and unsuccessful war at that, had called it widely into question. Anti-slavery became an emblem of national virtue, a means by which the British could impress foreigners (especially Americans) with their innate love of liberty and reassure themselves whenever their own faith was in danger of flagging. Some Britons, at least, must have seen in the anti-slavery campaign a welcome opportunity to reaffirm their libertarian heritage. Before the loss of the American colonies opposition to the slave trade had seemed to many Britons incompatible with the national interest, however admirable it might be in moral terms. After the American war anti-slavery was increasingly seized on as a means to redeem the nation, as a patriotic act. It had other roots of course. Humanitarianism, religion, hatred of oppression, a belief in the international brotherhood of men were also important; and for some, far more important. But these more disinterested motives do not on their own explain the chronology of the anti-slavery movement in Britain, why it became so prominent in the 1780s and not before.

Most Britons still lived and died without encountering anyone whose skin colour was different from their own. Slaves, in short, did not threaten, at least as far as the British at home were concerned. Bestowing freedom upon them seemed therefore purely an act of humanity and will, an achievement that would be to Great Britain's economic detriment, perhaps, but would have few other domestic consequences.

It was not the case that the British pulled out of the slave trade in 1807 because it was ceasing to be profitable. Seymour Drescher is almost certainly right to argue that 'In terms of capital value and of overseas trade, the slave system was expanding, not declining, at the turn of the 19th century'. Nor did the British dismantle slavery in their West Indian colonies after 1833 because it had become uneconomic, or out of nervousness because the incidence of slave rebellions was increasing. As they showed in so many other parts of the world, the British were perfectly willing to maintain their economic and territorial interests by way of military force when necessary... Britain's rulers ended the slave trade and freed the West Indian slaves primarily because they wanted to.

Anti-slavery supplied the British with an epic stafe upon which they could strut in an overwhelmingly attractive guise. Acknowledging that this was do does not detract from what was achieved. Not all great powers are as anxious to redeem past oppressions, or so eager for the world's good opinion... at exactly the same time as Great Britain established itself as unquestionably the foremost European and imperial power, it had acquired, through its anti-slavery campaigns, a reputation for moral integrity that even the most cynical foreign observer was likely to pay some tribute to.  Successful abolitionism became one of the vital underpinnings of British supremacy in the Victorian age, offering — as it seemed to do — irrefutable proof that British power was founded on religion, on freedom and on moral calibre, not just on a superior stock of armaments and capital.

[Ch.9 Conclusions]
It would be wrong to interpret the growth of British national consciousness in this period in terms of a new cultural and political uniformity being resolutely imposed on the peripheries of the island by its centre. For many poorer and less literate Britons, Scotland, Wales and England remained more potent rallying calls than Great Britain, except in times of danger from abroad. And even among the politically educated, it was common to think in terms of dual nationalities, not a single national identity.

National uncertainity is most evident, perhaps, in the apprehension with which so many Britons regard increasing assimilation into a united Europe. Whereas the Germans and the French, who are more confident about their unique identity, see a Europe without frontiers in terms of opportunity, the British are far more inclined to view it in terms of threat. This is partly because they have so often fought against Continental European states in the past; but their apparent insularity is to be explained also by their growing doubts about who they are in the present. Consciously or unconsciously, they fear assuming a new identity in case it obliterates entirely the already insecure identity they currently possess.


There can be no doubt that since the last quarter of the 19th century, Britain has in many ways been a nation 'in decline'. The Empire on which the sun never set has become one with Nineveh and Tyre. The waves which Britannia once ruled so mightily have long since been subdued and sailed by other navies. The first industrial nation, the veritable workshop of the world, is seen by some as little more than a de-industrialized theme park. Not surprisingly, God is no longer and Englishman but a multicultural deity of indeterminate gender. Rule Britannia may have gone, but Cool Britannia is no substitute... of course, this is only part of the story. Today, for most people, life in Britain is more rich, prosperous, varied, abundant and secure than it was for their late-Victorian forebears over a hundred years ago.

Sir John Seeley's "The Expansion of England" argued that the great empires of the past had been sea-borne: the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch and the French. But they had all declined and, thanks to the steam engine an electricity, the great empires of the future were much more likely to be land based: in particular, the Russian and the American, with their huge populations and resources. As a result, Britain would soon be faced with an unprecedentedly severe challenge. Its greatness depended on the successful maintenance of the last surviving sea-borne empire. Without it, Seeley conceded, Britain would decline into the ranks of a second-rate power, or worse.

Ian Fleming's attitude towards Britain's domestic decline was genuinely equivocal. At one level, his books did urge a return to the stern Victorian values of his youth, which were increasingly becoming unfashionable in the 'softer' world in which he wrote and Bond worked. But they also approved and celebrated the more relaxed sexual ethos of a postwar generation in revolt against conventional Victorian morality, as he himself had always been. So it was scarcely surprising that the books were praised by some for being 'entirely wholesome', and condemned by others for being 'morally repugnant', with equal conviction and plausibility. Fleming was a genuinely complex character, which meant that he was both and admirer of the Victorians and an enemy of the Victorians, a conservative in politics and a liberal in morality. And so he wanted, simultaneously and contradictorily, to be more permissive and more puritanical, more self-indulgent and more self-denying. Had he been prime minister, he would have encouraged more sexual freedom, made gambling easier, dismantled the Welfare State, and he would, above all, have reasserted Britain's place in the world.
        - from chapter "Ian Fleming and the Realities of Escapism"

"You have not only lost lost an empire, you have seemed almost anxious to throw it away with both hands... Your governments have shown themselves successively incapable of ruling, and have handed effective control of the country to the trade unions, who appear to be dedicated to the principle of doing less and less work for more money. This feather-bedding, this shirking of an honest day's work, is sapping at ever-increasing speed the moral fibre of the British, a quality the world once so admired. In its place, we now see a vacuous, aimless horde of seekers after pleasure."
        - Tiger Tanaka, taunting James Bond in novel of "You Only Live Twice"

By the last quarter of the 20th century, the great power certainties and heroic simplicities that had (albeit increasingly impluasibly) underlain Fleming's books had vanished, and were no longer sustainable, even in the fantasy of fiction.
If James Bond has been a real-life, flesh-and-blood being, he would lone since have despaired of his native land, and given it up as a lost cause, no longer worth living, for, fighting for, killing for or dying for. Angry and embittered at Britain's continued and seemingly irreversible decline, and bewildered and dismayed by women's liberation and the revolution in gender relations, the ageing Bond would eventually have settled into a retirement home at Royale-les-Eaux.
In the early 21st century, it is easy to condemn the Bond books for being racist and imperialist, sexist and misogynist, elitist and sadistic. But this is merely another way of saying that we cannot understand the Bond books without reference to the personality, the outlook and the 'Tory imagination' of the man who wrote them, and to the time in which he wrote them; and that we cannot understand the 1950s and 1960s without some reference to them, and to him.


[Part One - Royals in Toils: Monarchs and Monarchy]
Royal relationships across the generations have often been strained and distant, rather than close and affectionate. Most eldest sons, interminably waiting to become king, have not been on the best of terms with the sovereign to whose death they look forward with a debilitating combination of guilt-ridden anxiety and eager anticipation. And younger sons (and daughters, too) have often found their lives empty of purpose: cut off by their royal statius, but unable to find anything rewarding with which to fill the time.

There are important arguments to be made about the relative merits of an hereditary or an elected head of state: but not at the level of the human frailties of particular monarchs or presidents. No one seriously contends that the American presidency should be abolished because Bill Clinton is a self-confessed adulterer. So why should the abolition of the British monarchy be contemplated because the same is true of Prince Charles?

Scandal, it bears repeating, undermines monarchies, but rarely ends them. It may be true that, according to a recent editorial in the "New York Times", the British monarchy now exists primarily 'for our amusement'. But as long as people find it amusing, and want to be amused by it, they will be happy to see it undermined but uneager to kill it off.

Of all the memorable phrases that have been minted and mobilised to describe modern British royalty, 'constitutional monarchy' is virtually the only one which seemes to have neither been anticipated nor invented by Walter Bagehot. It was he who insisted that 'a princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and as such it rivets mankind'; and he who warned that the monarchy's 'mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic'.

The monarch's latent powers still fo far beyond warning, encouraging and being consulted and may yet include the right to dismiss a prime minister, the right to withhold or compel a dissolution, and even, in a dire national emergency, the right to veto legislation. None of this seems in the realm of practical politics. But if proportional representation is adopted in this country, the sovereign will have more to do, not less. As contintental experience shows, one party is unlikely to have an overall parliamentary majority under PR, the choice of prime minister and the formation of a government will be much more difficult and contentious matters than they have been for most of this century, and this means that the monarch will inevitably be drawn into the horse-trading of coalition-making.

Vernon Bogdanor's account "The Monarchy and the Constitution" is written as much in the shadow of Edmund Burke as it is of Walter Bagehot. He stresses the organic development of the British constitution, prefers evolution to revolution, and thinks stability is better than strife.

Charitable endeavour exalts the prestige and the status of the giver. This may sound unduly cynical but as with all philantrophic activity, it is not easy to unravel the mutually reinforcing motives of selflessness and self-interest. All that can safely be said is that most members of the royal family have difficulty distinguishing between concern about society, concern about the social order and concern about what best to do so they can remain at the top of it.

Prince Charles's concern for the underprivileged and disadvantaged has not exactly endeared him to the Conservative Central Office. As Norman Tebbit replied, it is not surprising that the Prince is so sympathetic towards the unemployed: he is by way of being one of them himself.

More attention should have been given to the fundamental transformation which took place during Queen Victoria's reign, from ruling sovereign to constitutional monarch. Again, gender mattered. If Albert had lived, it seems clear that he would have resisted that development much more tenaciously, which the gradual emasculation (and feminization) of monarchy was probably more easily accomplished when a woman was on the throne.

"We have lost a great bloke."
        - Unnamed Australian MP after death of King George VI (1952)

Cruel and paradoxical though it undoubtedly is, the record shows that yje most succesful 20th century monarchs have been those who were not actually born to succeed. King George VI was 41 when the abdication of Edward VIII propelled him suddenly and unexpectedly to take up the crown; and Queen Elizabeth II spent her first decade with no inkling thay she herself might one day have to reign. Taken together, these examples suggest that the best preparation for the job of sovereign is not to be prepared for it at all, ir not to be too well prepared for it, or for too long.

[Part Two - Hindsight's Insights]
No Prime Minister this century, not even Lloyd George or Winston Churchil, has played what is termed the patriotic card with such sustained and self-conscious success as Mrs Thatcher. For ten triumphant years, she has been waving the flag, blowing the bugle, sending the gunboats, rallying the troops, leading the charge. Abroad, she has trounved the Argentinians, restored the special relationship with the United States, reasserted Britain's voice in the Commonwealth, and disregarded the continental jabberings of the all-too-Common Marketeers. At home, she has vanquished the trade unions, beaten inflation, rolled back the welfare state, and set the people free. Like George III, she gloried in the name of Briton and, like Queen Victoria, she is not interested in the possibilities of defeat, because they simply do not exist. To her admirers she has become the very embodiment of national identity, national regeneration and national purpose. Not since Palmerston's day has a British premier been so pugnaciously populist or so publicly patriotic. Inevitably the losers in this poker game of tub-tumping — and there are many — view Mrs Thatcher's remarkable blend of matriarchal machismo and female chauvinism in rather a different light. She may be the Prime Minister of the Home Counties, but among the Welsh and the Scots, the poor and the sick, the unemployed and the immigrant communities, her writ hardly runs.

Like sex, poverty and power, suicide may always be with us. But like them again, the actual form is takes is essentially time-specific and culture-bound, not only in the past but in the present too. The people who took their lives, the paths which led them to that end, and the experience of dying in this way were deeply influenced by specific historical circumstances. Only by making a greater effort at historical understanding can this most secret house of death be made to yield up more of its confidences.

To an altogether exceptional degree, Britain's 20th-century history is still haunted by its 19th-century past. The physical products of the Victorian world are everywhere in evidence, not just as cosy period pieces but as an integral and functioning part of our contemporary civilization. Take away such buildings as St Pancras Station, Leeds Town Hall, the Victoria and Albert museum, the Clifton suspension bridge, and the Houses of Parliament, and the texture and tone of British life would be significantly altered. In the same way, many apparently venerable English traditions, which now seem as timeless and immutable as the Tower of London itself, only date back in their present guise to the late 19th century: royal pageantry, the old school tie, cricket and tennis, Gilbert and Sullivan, Marks and Spencer, bacon and eggs, fish and chips.

For those who reject it, the Victorian experience is something to feel embarrassed about, to apologise for, to escape from, and never to repeat. But to those who remain enthralled, it is a fabulous story of oustanding success and splendid achievement, by comparison with which Britain's 20th century records seems at best unimpressive, and often distinctly lacklustre.

Throughout its history, the British Empire was an astonishingly diverse dominion, 'a rag-bag of territorial bits and pieces', created and governed in a correspondingly disorganised and unsystematic way. There were the surviving colonies from the pre-1776 empire, in Canada and the West Indies. There were the 'empty' lands of settlement, in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. There was the Raj in India, a unique amalgam of direct and indirect rule. There was a string of naval bases, which encircled the world: Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus, Aden, Singapore and Hong Kong. There was the African empire running from Cairo to the Cape with offshoots to the wst, which was mostly acquired in the 1880s and 1890s. There were area that were never officially annexed, but which were under varying degrees of 'informal' British influence, especially in South America. And there were the League of Nations Mandates, not only in the Middle East, but also the former German colonies in east and south-west Africa. To suppose that an empire so vast and so varied could have come into being for one single or simple reason is clearly absurd.

For Henry James, class was 'the essentially hierarchial plan of English society' which was 'the great and ever-present fact to the mind of a stranger; there is hardly a detail of life that does not in some degree betray it'.

If class can no longer be convincingly universalised as the major explanatory force of historical change in the modern world, where does this leave the social history of the 19th century? One answer is to stress the associational variety of people's lives — as men or women, husbands or wives, parents or children; as members of trade unions or churches or football teams or political parties; as individuals with loyalties to their firm, their city, their county, their region or their nation — which in turn gave rise to many fluctuating and sometimes contradictory senses of identity and patterns of behaviour. Viewed from this perspective, 19th-century social history should be primarily concerned with the recovery of the nuances and subtleties and ambiguities of this associational life — and associational life much more rich and varied than that which took place in the very different societies whcih Britain was in the 18th and 20th centuries.

[Part Three - Persons and Personalities]
For all her active goodness, Florence Nightingale herself was far from being the angelic figure of popular adulation: according to Lytton Strachey's "Eminent Victorians" she was a self-righteous, domineering amazon, who was ruthless in her compassion, merciless in her philantropy, destructive in friendships, obsessional in her list for power, and demonic in her saintliness.

The essential difficulty in understanding Nightingale may thus be succintly stated: she was (and is) too bossy, too interfering, too governessy for many men; and she was (and is) too uninterested in women's issues and women's rights to be embraced as a feminist role model. But to define the problem is also to suggest a solution. Thus described, she may most helpfully and appropriately be seen as the precursor and soul mate of another very extraordinary British woman: Margaret Thatcher herself. Long before Thatcher, Nightingale  both denied and exploited her feminity to gain power in a man's world. Long before Thatcher, Nightingale was possessed of superabundant energy, and was in a righteous rage to get things done. Like Thatcher, Nightingale  hated red tape, loathed bureaucrats and was determined to sweep away incompetence and inefficiency wherever she found it. ...In the age of the Iron Lady, Nightingale seems a much more credible female figure than she has been at any time since her death. In a very real sense, Mrs Thatcher's success is Florence's final vindication. And verification, too.

David Irving has consistenly applied an evidential double standard, demanding absolute documentary proof to convict the Germans (as when he sought to show that Hitler was not responsible for the Holocaust), while relying on circumstantial evidence to condemn the British (as in his account of the Allied bombing of Dresden).

In describing the controversial decision to fight on in 1940, Irving seems quite unable to grasp the essential point that Hitler had never kept his word before, and that there was no reason to think he would have done so in this case. Churchill did not send the bombers to Berlin to provoke an attack on London, but to show the world (and especially America) that Britain's will to fight was undiminished. Irving's argument that Churchill was the villain who destroyed the British Empire is historically quite naive. Hitler or no Hitler, Churchill or no Churchill, the British Empire was going to be one of the casualties of the 20th century. The Second World War may have accelerated its demise by perhaps five years, but to most people (although not, it seems, to Irving) that was surely a price worth paying for the destruction of Hitler.

Irving has looked at the archives of Churchill's defeatist and disappointed critics. Seen through the eyes of Joseph Kennedy, Sir John Reith or Lord Halifax, the great man's encounter with destiny takes on a very different appearance from that to which we are accustomed. For it is clear that he was operating from a very weak base of political support in 1940. In the Commons, it was Chamberlain not Churchill who received most of the cheers. In the Cabinet, the appeasers were still a formidable force. At this time, Churchill was fighting at home as much as he was fighting abroad, and it was only, as Irving himself grudgingly admits, because of his courage, energy, stamina, resolution and determination that he was able to accomplish what he did. Ironically, but appropriately, Churchill emerges from these laboured and hostile pages as an even greater man than before.

It is impossible not to be moved by the verve, courage and elan with Churchill attacked his last and ultimately invincible enemy, old age and infirmity. As in all his campaigns, he assailed his adversary with endless high spirits, expert advice, ample helpings of brandy and champagne, and the loving and long-suffering support of his wife.

Lord Beaverbrook was fundamentally a lonely man, with a low sense of his own self-worth, who was incapable of forming a stable, loving relationship with anyone. He could charm or he could bully; he could give or he could take; he was glad to see his guests arrive and pleased to see them go. Although many people genuinely loved him, he was incapable of believing that this was either possible or true. No wonder he was so restless, so impatient, so vindictive, so quick to lose his temper, so eager to stir things up.

[1] Quoted in "In Churchill's Shadow" by David Cannadine

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