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National identity in Britain and Ireland, 1780–1840
National identity in Britain and Ireland, 1780–1840

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2 Britons and Britishness

The term ‘state’ generally refers to a form of political organisation governing a defined territory, embodied in a range of different institutions. The ‘nation’ is quite a different concept. Most scholars would agree that this abstract term refers to a group of people, a society, or a community who perceive common bonds between themselves. Indeed, the political scientist Benedict Anderson (1936–2015) famously described the nation as an ‘imagined community’ – a community that exists in the minds of its members (Anderson, 2006). While ‘states’ can be created regardless of the wishes of their inhabitants (by autocratic rulers, for example), ‘nations’ require the involvement (or at least the acquiescence) of their members.

Leaving Ireland aside for the time being, the historian Linda Colley (2003) has provided one of the most compelling descriptions of a British national identity that emerged among people living in England, Wales and Scotland during this period. For Colley, British identity did not result from a ‘blending’ or the ‘integration and homogenisation of disparate cultures’, but was instead ‘superimposed’ over a variety of regional and national identities (Colley, 2003, p. 6). In other words, ‘Britishness’ was an identity that could exist alongside ‘Welshness’, ‘Englishness’ or ‘Scottishness’. Colley goes on to explain that war and religion provided common causes for people living in England, Wales and Scotland during the period.

Successive wars against France, including the War of the Grand Alliance (1688–97), the War of Spanish Succession (1702–13), the War of Austrian Succession (1740–48), the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), the American Revolutionary War (1775–83), and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815) played a key role in the ‘invention’ of a British national identity. France was not only a threat to the state; it also seemed to represent everything that Britain was not. Until 1789, France was a Roman Catholic country governed by an absolute monarch. After the revolution, the country appeared to move too far in the opposite direction towards democracy and republicanism. In contrast to these extremes, Great Britain was a Protestant state, with a Protestant people and a Protestant monarch, and its constitution offered a balance of monarchical, aristocratic and democratic government. Shared participation and successes in war, trade and empire bolstered this common sense of national identity among the people of England, Scotland and Wales, particularly as these successes were interpreted as clear signs of God’s favour for the Protestant nation (Colley, 2003). Like Anderson, Colley sees the nation as a modern development, and suggests that the press, as well as popular political movements, played an important role in spreading the idea of Britishness throughout the island of Great Britain (Colley, 2003).

You will have noted the strong connection between Protestantism and Britishness in Colley’s definition of national sentiment at this time. However, you might be wondering about adherents of other faiths who lived within the boundaries of the state. Colley explains their position as follows: ‘Self-evidently, the Protestant construction of British identity involved the unprivileging of minorities who would not conform [to Protestantism]: the Catholic community, most Highland Scots before 1745, and supporters of the exiled Stuart dynasty, those men and women who were not allowed to be British so others could be’ (Colley, 2003, p. 53).

This is a good example of an instance where the ‘state’ and ‘nation’ are not fully compatible. Although Catholics lived within the boundaries of the state, the United Kingdom, they were not necessarily recognised as members of the British nation.