The English in British Clothing
The Georgian cultural package was British, not English. The gentry, lairds and clan chiefs of “North Britain” were no longer dragooned by Cromwellian English populism, but invited to partake in a multilingual, classically branded culture which, being natural to nobody, could be adopted without loss of pride by anybody. This found a common outlet in the growing British Empire. An aggressive stance and scant respect towards the rest of the globe had been established by Drake, Hawkins and the other English privateers. This led to growing affluence from trade and a leading role in the industrial revolution that drive it. Once parliaments were conjoined and rebellions in the Celtic fringe faded into history, even the lowliest strata of society across the British Isles derived a pride in its global dominance and could improve their lot in burgeoning cities and factories or seek far-flung adventure in the colonies, navy or army.
This artificial construct of “Great Britain” served brilliantly—so long as nobody asked the common peoples. At the general election of 1885, they were given their say, and promptly voted along lines established for centuries: Southern England as a douce Conservative tribal fortress; Northern England with the bolshier Celts. As long as there was a world out there to conquer and plunder, nobody worried whether John Bull suffered schizophrenia, as long as he brought home the bacon. Matelots from Portsmouth to Portsoy, squaddies from Sligo to Slough happily shouldered the white man’s burden and shared pride in a pink-painted globe.
This appeared to simplify politics for the modern age. From 1885 until 2015, it was dominated by a polarised conflict: the Party of Southern England (aka the Conservative Party, with an outlier in unionist Ulster) versus a ever-changing federation of Outer England and Celtic Britain (embodied variously in the Liberal Party, Parnell’s IPP, the Labour Party and the SNP).
By the 21st century, this Tweedledum and Tweedledee arrangement, while suiting politicians and the media reporting on them, had long lost its way. Wile there was a case for social and cultural cohesion in the Celtic fringe because of their modest populations, the 50 million English were fragmenting on even more complex dimensions than in the Middle Ages. On top of existing cultural distance between north and south or town and country evolved blue-collar vs. white-collar; new-money industrialists vs. old-money aristocrats; music hall vs. opera; artisan vs. artiste.
Though all this caused social strain, throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the multilingual, classically branded culture mentioned above dominated society through a self-regenerating elite, based on public schools, Oxbridge and shrewd exploitation of the many financial opportunities available to that inner circle. They were none too precious about how their power was maintained over the less docile fringes of the home islands. In 1886, Randolph Churchill first played what he called “the Orange card,” happily countenancing violence in Ireland. Conservative leader Bonar Law all but openly succoured armed sedition in Ireland in 1913-14. Not to be outdone by him or his own father, Winston Churchill growled back at him in March 1914 that “there are worse things than bloodshed, even on an extended scale.”
To that elite, “England” wasn’t any real nation but a vision of Imperial HQ. Yet, after 1885, their power depended on the loyalty of southern English voters and a nationalism that they had to keep safely contained. Hence the deliberate confusion between the flags of “England” and of “the UK/Empire.” The English—above all, the southern English—had to understand themselves, implicitly, as the most-favoured nation.
(to be continued)