The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Sunday, 16 March 2008

9. A transcendent boon

Lord Goldsmith has sustained much mockery in the past week for his mealy-mouthed proposals to reinvigorate our glorious nation's disaffected youth with a sense of national pride, by means of an oath of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen, or not the Queen if that would be contentious, but, er, something else. Of course, Lord G is only working on the theme announced by Mr Brown, promising "British jobs for British people", or was it "Britishness, Britishness, Britishness", "Peace, Land and Britishness" or "British jam tomorrow"? I forget.

Amongst the red, white and blue ideas being run up the flagpole to see whether anyone pledges allegiance to them, is the proposal for a national British Holiday. As it is vital for this date not to cause offence to anyone, the obvious choice to celebrate the various Acts of Union are happily ruled out by falling on already existing holidays, and thus avoiding the abiding resentment and rancour which the commemoration of these events would inevitably arouse. In seeking a date which would not displease the Scots, Irish and Welsh, a further consideration has been extended to our continental neighbours the French: Trafalgar Day, 21st October, has already been ruled out, which I suppose discounts my own personal preference for 25th October, ie the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt and also my birthday, immortalised by the Bard in Henry V with the following lines

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhood cheap whiles any speaks
That celebrated national identity in a positive and inclusive manner on this Saint Crispin's Day

In fact, I can reveal from confidential sources in Downing Street that the cabinet have already agreed that on April 1st 2008 the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland will proudly be celebrating Positive Social Cohesion Day.

What has been causing Mr Brown and his chums to pace up and down wearing thin the carpet of the Cabinet Room, is the worrying apparent lack of a sense of national identity, a sense of confusion over what exactly the 'shared values' that are often bandied about really are, about what being British means. I have no doubt that if they were referred to the Ninth Edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica they would protest that they wish to define Britishness for the 21st century, not in the days of Empire, but I would contend that there is a great deal in the Ninth's dusty pages which may be found surprisingly enlightening. Of course I would say that, wouldn't I? but bear with me if you have the patience.

The first point of call for us should naturally be the Index, and here indeed we find the first clue, because as to subjects containing the word 'British', there is very little to be found (other than the geographical entries for British Columbia, British Guyana, etc). Ancient Britain has it's historical entries, for Caesar's invasion of, coins of and Celtic dialects of. The British Almanac, the British Museum, the British Army and the British and Foreign Bible Society are all here. Finally, and more promisingly, we have British Subjects, their privileges - which directs us to volume 1 and the entry ALIEN.

The introduction of this short and uncredited essay offers a few thoughts on a matter which I believe has a degree of relevance today.

The jealousy which has generally existed against communicating the privileges of citizenship to foreigners has its foundations in mistaken views of political economy. It arose from the impression that the produce of the energy and enterprise of any community is a limited quality, of which each man's share will be the less the more competitors there are ; superseding the just view that the wealth of the state depends on the number and energy of the producers. Thus the skilled workmen who would increase its riches have often been jealously kept out of a country.

[...] Britain has occasionally received industrious and valuable citizens, driven forth by the folly or tyranny of other powers, as in the memorable instance of the revocation of the edict of Nantes, which sent the Spitalfields colony and many other Frenchmen to this country. Looking on the full benefit of British citizenship as a transcendent boon, the principle of our older legislation on the subject has been to allow friendly aliens to possess at least a portion of it.

To refer back to the Index, we note in passing that there is no entry for British Empire, so we must look instead to GREAT BRITAIN AND IRELAND, United Kingdom of, in volume 11. The entry runs to less than 500 words, and is basically an account of the formal adoption of the title on Jan 1 1801 and its origin in a proclamation of James I in 1604. For the entry GREBE we are treated to just over 1000 words, and even an illustration of the Great Crested variety.

So Great Britain is treated by Britannia in its constituent parts, with separate entries for ENGLAND, SCOTLAND and IRELAND. As is reflected by the composition of the Union Flag, there is no separate entry for Wales, which is treated along with England. Somewhere in one of his essays (which I do not have to hand) George Orwell made the argument that it is perfectly correct to use England in place of Britain, to refer to the whole of these islands. I also recall that the index of one of the volumes of his collected works contains the entry "Scotsman, how to annoy a" (refer to him as scotch rather than scots is the suggestion). All of this may highlight a fundamental and rather obvious issue, that the notion of Britishness is inherently English, that by and large it is an Englishman rather than a Scot or Welshman who is going to call himself British, so good luck to you Mr Brown if you would have it any other way.

The ENGLAND essay, authored by Frederick Martin (Geography and Statistics), and Professors E. A. Freeman D.C.L. and S. Rawson Gardiner, M.A., runs to an impressive 144 pages. Combined with the essays on the Church of England (Rev. Canon Perry), the English Bible (Rev J. H. Blunt, D.D.), English Language (James A. H. Murray, LL.D.) and English literature (Thomas Arnold, M.A.), we have 220 pages: probably over 250,000 words, which would make a substantial book in themselves. The combined subjects for SCOTLAND are found in a single entry at 70 pages, and IRELAND receives 58.

Mr Martin provides a wealth of data on England in 1879, from population estimates, growth rates, births and deaths, illegitamcy (greatest increase in Essex, Hertfordshire and Rutlandshire) and emigration, through number of land owners (just under 1 million, about 5% of the population - in Ireland 1 in 79 of the population owned land), livestock, mineral resources of various kinds, to cotton manufacture, wool, worsted and silk, hemp (61 factories in 1874), imports and exports of fish, custom receipts, shipping tonnage, distribution of railways, passenger traffic, the postal system, money orders, telegraphy, banking, taxation, army recruitment (16,602 recruits from the whole of the United Kingdom in 1873, leading to a force estimated in 1877 - 1878 of 7153 commisioned officers, 16,968 N.C.O.'s and 109,599 rank and file), yeomanry and militia (total 632,911 men), Naval expenditure, increase of armour thickness in ironclads (previous to 1870 no thicker than 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 inches, 1870 to 1873 6 to 8 inches, the "Alexandra" of 1877 having 8 to 12 inches and the appropriately named "Inflexible" under construction in the same year being 16 to 24 inches in the central part), number of religious denominations ("no less than 122" including Apostolics, all shades of Baptists, Calvinists, Christian Teetotallers, Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion, Eclectics, Episcopalean Dissenters, Halifax Psychological Society, Hallelujah Band, Inghamites, Jews, Peculiar People, Plymouth Bretheren, Protestant Members of the Church of England, Protestants "adhering to articles of Church of England, 1 to 18 inclusive, but rejecting order and ritual", Quakers, Ranters, Recreative Religionists, Roman Catholics, Sandemanians, Swedenborgians, Trinitarians, Unitarians, Welsh Free Presbytarians, among others), progress of education in the upper and middle classes, progress of education among the lower classes ("While these efforts were made to improve the education of the upper and middle classes, the lower classes of the population were not altogether forgotten."), Proportion of persons unable to sign their names to marriage registers (lowest in Westmoreland at 8%, 11% being able to sign in Rutlandshire, although there we must not forget the high rate of illegitimacy, 17% failing in Yorkshire, 18% in Lancashire, Staffordshire topping the table at 30% of men and 37% of women), number of prisoners (165,142), number of police (28,550), number of paupers (728,350 in 1877), revenues of hospitals, classification of charities as to objects, progress of savings banks, incomes from lands, trades and professions, growth of capital and more besides.

Before closing with some information about the government and law of England and Wales, Mr Martin has this to say concerning England's position in the world:

[T]he late Mr Dudley Baxter [...] expressed [the] belief that, while "the income of England is the largest of any nation, and shows wonderful good fortune and prosperity, we must not forget that it rests on an unstable foundation. The turn of trade, or obstinacy and short-sightedness in our working-classes, or a great naval war, may drive us from the markets of the world, and bring down our auxiliary as well as our productive industries.

[...] England's position is not that of a great landed proprieter, with an assured revenue, and only subject to occasional loss of crops, or hostile depredations. It is that of a great merchant who, by immense skill and capital, has gained the front rank, and developed an enormous commerce, but has to support an ever increasing host of dependants. He has to encounter the risks of trade, and to face jealous rivals, and can only depend on continued good judgment and fortune, with the help of God, to maintain himself and his successors in the foremost place among the nations of the world."

As for Government and Laws Mr Martin, getting all meta-textual on us, quotes the article CONSTITUTION AND CONSTITUTIONAL LAW:

England differs conspicuously from most other countries. Her constitution is to a large extent unwritten, using the word in much the same sense as when we speak of unwritten law. Its rules can be found in no written document, but depend, as so much of English law does, on precedent modified by a constant process of interpretation.

This last, the notion of an unwritten constitution, is surely one of the most fundamentally British concepts, and one I'd personally be very happy to see continue. Of course there is a very sizeable proportion of our Labour government who would prefer to remedy this situation, so this may be a 'core value' that is on its way out.

Instead, therefore, we might look for an idea of Britishness amongst resonances in the data sketched above with the Britain we know today. I would suggest illegitimacy, illiteracy, growing hemp production, religious diversity (hurrah! Although whatever happened to the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion?) and also a general pessimism and insecurity about the future prospects of the nation. Although it is now merely a historical issue, I also think that it would be rather nice to celebrate the increasing thickness of armour of the nation's ironclads: yes, we all know the role that ironclad-mania played in the escalations that launched the Great War, and that Argentinian deployment of French Exocet missiles in the Falklands War may well have marked battleships as effectively useless except as resupply depots for wars against mostly land-locked nations, but 24 inches, Ladies and Gentlemen! Does that not fill your heart, be it English, Irish, Welsh or Scots, with a certain thrill of British pride?

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