Linda Colley's Britain: A National Endeavour

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Colley’s Britain: A National Endeavour “Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837” was written by Linda Colley in 1992 and charts the emergence of British nationalism following the Act of Union in 1707 to the ascension of the Victorian Era in 1836. Colley argues that the British identity was forged based on four principles; Britain was a primarily Protestant nation pitted against a largely Catholic Europe, it is an island nation with a peerless naval strength rather than a powerful army, the metropolitan center of the whole empire was within the boundaries of the United Kingdom and the British Empire served as a direct rival to the then largest power in Europe, France. Colley explores whether the British identity founded in the eighteenth century can survive into the modern era as much of what bound the Britons together, i.e. religion, imperialism and colonization of the Continent, are no longer factors today. Colley starts in 1707 after the Act of Union brought Scotland and Wales into the fold of the United Kingdom. The establishment of a “Britishness,” Colley says, develops from the British sense of differences with the European continent, both culturally and geographically. As in many cases, religion was a driving force behind the nationalism movement, unifying as Protestants in opposition to the Catholic France. The rivalry between France and Great Britain was intensified by the mercantile growth of Britain’s economy and the ongoing conflict surrounding the Stuart family and their Catholic ties with the French king. The success in the Seven Years War and subsequent failure in the American Revolution greatly altered the landscape of what defines British patriotism. Throughout this 130-year period, the British national sense of “us vs. them,” the true Britons vs. foreigners, was crafted as a result of religion, commerce, war, monarchy and imperialism. The social and economic changes taking place in the country affected everyone, from the landed elites to the working class men. The central argument presented by Colley is the idea that the British have always defined the concept of nationalism as a struggle against an external “other,” which during the eighteenth century was Catholic France. In particular, Colley emphasized that Britain is a nation forged by war, what holds the national identity together is fear of the others. Continual warfare with France played a large role in creating the British national identity that helped to unite the Scottish, Welsh and English, and later Irish, in solidarity as the United Kingdom. At the center of the hostility between Britain and France, as is often the case, is the religious conflict of Protestantism versus Catholicism. In the British mindset, Protestant Britain, the “us,” represented a patriotic, God-fearing chosen people of providential history who have freedom and prosperity under Protestantism. Likewise, what struck fear in British hearts was embodied in Catholic France, a tyrannical enemy rife with poverty. Between 1689 and 1815 Britain was at war with Catholic France on nine separate occasions, totaling 57 years. The English, Scottish and Welsh found themselves welded together by their common concern to repel the threat of Catholic domination. Protestant Britons, she contends, came to have a distinct idea of themselves only through recurrent and protracted conflict with a Catholic other. Colley also argues that Protestantism stood as a unifying factor amongst the variety other identities that existed in the British Isles. Colley states that nations, particularly Great Britain, are an “invented nation, superimposed, if only for a while, onto much older alignments and loyalties,” that the formation of Britain did not blend different regional cultures, but rather that Britishness existed alongside of, and not in competition with, attachment to England, Wales and Scotland, that one could be both Scottish and British or Welsh and British. In that regard, Colley emphasizes the