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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1901

At a time when nations that have existed for generations are either disintegrating or threatening, to disintegrate, Linda Colley, a professor of history at Yale University, has produced a book that explores how the United Kingdom, one of the oldest and most illustrious nations, formed itself into a cohesive political system. Beginning with the Act of Union in 1707, which united Scotland politically and economically with the rest of Great Britain, she chronicles the development of the nation up to the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837. The period saw the last of the Stuart monarchs succeeded by the Hanoverians. This dynasty, from an obscure German principality, began in 1714 to fulfill the requirement established by the Act of Succession of 1689 that English monarchs be Protestant. Although the first two Hanoverians spoke no English and exerted little influence over national affairs, George III, whose reign spanned sixty years, became one of the nation’s most revered monarchs. As Colley’s account demonstrates, the Hanoverian period laid the groundwork for Great Britain’s prominence as a European power and its domination of vast portions of the world during the nineteenth century.

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The period 1707-1837 possesses a historical configuration all its own. For Great Britain, the distinguishing feature was a succession of minor wars with France, England’s most significant continental opponent, conducted almost entirely outside Britain’s borders. The first prolonged historical conflict with France, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, was waged over territorial claims by England within France itself. The later struggle grew out of ideological and commercial rivalries between the two nations. In the religious conflict dating back to the Reformation, France replaced Spain as the leader of European Catholic opposition to Protestant England. As Colley points out, the persistent foreign threat aided in creating a sense of national identity and purpose.

If France did not fully commit to war on its own, it lent assistance to those who sought to create difficulties for Britain, offering support to the two Stuart pretenders who led minor rebellions in 1715 and 1745 as well as to the American colonists. The American Revolution, occurring at about the midpoint of the period, was the only war that Britain lost, and Colley believes that the defeat brought a sense of national humiliation. Although the Americans enjoyed some French support, they were the only Protestant people that warred against the British during the period and the only enemies who prevailed. Renewed patriotism and more effective policies following the defeat prepared Great Britain to emerge successfully from the Napoleonic Wars. In the aftermath of Waterloo, Great Britain became the most powerful European nation. Only then could it turn its attention to long-deferred reforms such as the abolition of slavery in its colonies, electoral reform, and religious freedom for English Catholics. When the era ended, Britain was poised for additional developments that promoted national unity as it faced a revolution of a different sort in industrial production,

transportation, and communications.

The roots of British nationalism extended deep into the past, and geopolitics accounted for many of the developments as well as the problems faced by the emerging nation. England stood in the vanguard of the historical movement toward nationalism, a movement that received its strongest impetus from the Reformation. By 1707, most of the island had formed a single unified monarchy. Historically, Wales, Scotland, and the far southwestern portions—areas Colley designates as the “Celtic Fringe”—remained somewhat isolated from the more populous central and southern areas of Britain. Reasons for this extend back many centuries. Beginning in the first century A.D., successive invasions and settlements by Romans, Anglo-Saxons, and Danes drove many of the Celts, the island’s earliest known inhabitants, westward and northward into Wales and Scotland, where they concentrated. There, in sometimes forbidding terrain, they preserved their original language, customs, and culture, and because of their remoteness achieved a measure of independence. Following the Norman Conquest, English monarchs began to challenge the relative independence of these groups.

Monarchical motivation was simple enough to understand. Initially, the kings built castles along their borders to protect against marauders from less affluent areas. Later, as the historical movement toward nationalism gained momentum, territorial expansion became a major factor. The Plantagenet monarchs, particularly Edward I and Edward III, made the conquest of Wales a primary objective, and their Lancastrian successors furthered the objective by appealing to patriotism while severely repressing Welsh nationalism. Only the Tudors, invoking the Arthurian myths dear to the Welsh and citing the Welsh origin of Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, succeeded in bringing Wales into a reasonably close bond with England.

Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Scots retained their own independent kingdom, despite periodic conflicts with their powerful southern neighbors. When James VI of Scotland also became James I of England in 1603, the two nations formed a single monarchy, although they retained separate parliamentary, judicial, and economic systems. During the seventeenth century, the Stuart monarchs themselves encountered extreme difficulty in their relations with Scotland, and following, the Glorious Revolution, the allegiance of James II and his male heirs to Catholicism alienated staunchly Protestant Scots. Clear economic interest and opposition to the Stuart rebellion made the Scots willing, to support official union in 1707, accepting the Hanoverian Succession and uniting the two parliaments. Although sympathy remained for the Stuart Pretenders, particularly among, highland Scots, the majority supported the national union. It is safe to assume that most Scots did not think of themselves as natives of Great Britain before 1707. Colley shows that throughout the following century a patriotic sense of nationalism developed among, the Scots and other inhabitants of the Celtic Fringe, who accepted the concept of the larger union as secure protection against hostile outside forces.

Although her lucid, rational analysis suggests a traditional historical narrative, Colley’s approach is far from ordinary. Hers is clearly not a history of heroes and heroism. Sir Robert Walpole, the Whig prime minister who dominated the first half of the eighteenth century, receives only brief mention. Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, who led the victorious British army at Waterloo, fares little better, and Horatio Nelson, England’s greatest naval leader, is treated as a figure of popular political iconography. On the other hand, King George III is accorded lengthy treatment as a monarch who contributed to the patriotic spirit of the age and gained the affection of his subjects because, paradoxically, they identified with his human weaknesses. The very fact that English monarchs held estates all over the island, rather than having a central palace that served as an official residence, brought the monarchy closer to the citizens.

Instead of chronicling the deeds of heroes and the development of institutions, Colley addresses a much more elusive task, that of explaining how a patriotic sense of national identity developed within the British population over time, following the Act of Union. To put the problem in another light, she attempts to explain how the sense of local identity and loyalty among, Welsh, Scots, and other somewhat isolated populations was replaced by a sense of national identification and loyalty. Insofar as she describes the idea of a nation, she writes intellectual history. As she characterizes the developing sense of nationalism among the people, she includes social and cultural history as well. She draws upon popular culture, particularly descriptions of epic paintings—calculated to instill a sense of national pride, self-sacrifice, and patriotism—and cartoons that satirically depict national enemies. The numerous illustrations in this volume are often accompanied by lengthy analytical descriptions. She also draws heavily upon contemporary newspapers, handbills, and popular books that shaped national taste. In addition, she examines the records of various local patriotic societies and clubs to show that patriotism was widespread among all classes. The practical results were sometimes comically mixed: During the Stuart rebellion of 1745, many patriotic clubs signed loyalty oaths and voiced strong support for the Hanoverian dynasty but clearly were willing to fight only if the conflict reached their local area.

In maintaining that Protestantism served to unite dissenters and members of the national church in a common cause, Colley uses in her defense religious and polemic tracts of the age. These influential writings show the English inclination to view themselves as chosen actors in a providential history. This inclination did not wane when France became a power more secular than religious at the time of the French Revolution. All Britons could look back to the Reformation and the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 as indicators of the guiding hand of providence and omens of the future. History and culture combined to promote a strong, sense of providence in human affairs.

Socially and economically, forces produced by the Act of Union brought a greater commonality of interests. During the period when Lord Bute, a Scot, served as prime minister, Scots moved to London to take positions in the Government. Daughters and sons of wealthy landowners married and linked estates in England, Scotland, and Wales. In addition, thousands of less prominent Scots found positions in the colonial service and thereby hitched their economic fortunes to those of British companies.

In education, a subtle change served to reduce conflicts between classes. During the eighteenth century, English aristocrats, who previously had studied at home under tutors, began attending the established schools as a matter of course. Although the English public schools enrolled only a small elite and were by no means egalitarian, they assured that the offspring of nobility would mingle with students of different backgrounds and absorb the national and imperial values that were part of the curriculum. Although small by continental standards, the English upper class, like the monarchy, was closer to the lives of commoners than its European counterparts.

In her conclusion, Colley considers contemporary tensions marked by the reemergence of national separatist movements in Scotland and Wales. Given her analysis of the reasons the union was achieved in the first place, some countermovements are to be expected. As she observes, the influence of Protestant Christianity as a unifying factor has waned over time. No pressing threats from abroad are perceived, and the monarchy alone seems insufficient to preserve a passionate sense of national identity. Having suffered a relative decline in prosperity and an absolute decline in world leadership, Britons can no longer view themselves as agents appointed by providence

to lead lesser peoples toward the light.

Although Colley acknowledges that no one can predict with assurance how the tendency toward disintegration will resolve itself, it would appear a mistake to become too pessimistic about Britain’s prospects. Britain’s finest hour is not, after all, so far in the past, and a tradition of national service and self-sacrifice in a just cause still resonates throughout the land. Monuments, works of sculpture, paintings, and museums, in abundance throughout the island, commemorate British contributions to national unity and preservation. A shared culture and language and tightly intertwined economic interests may preserve the national unity that has evolved over ten centuries.

Sources for Further Study

The Guardian. September 17, 1992, p. 28.

History Today. XXXII, October, 1992, p. 56.

Kirkus Reviews. LX, August 15, 1992, p. 1030.

Library Journal. CXVII, September 1, 1992, p. 188.

London Review of Books. XIV, October 8, 1992, p. 6.

New Statesman and Society. V, September II, 1992, p. 37.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIX, November 19, 1992, p. 35.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, October 11, 1992, p.11.

The Spectator. CCLXIX, September 19, 1992, p. 32.

The Times Educational Supplement. October 16, 1992, p. S9.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 16, 1992, p. 5.

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