“Cornering the Cheshire Cat: Reflections on the ‘New British History’ and studies in Early Modern British Identities” co-authored with Richard Connors

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“Cornering the Cheshire Cat: Reflections on the ‘New British History’ and studies in Early Modern British Identities” co-authored with Richard Connors

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  Canadian  Journal of History/Annales  canadiennes  d'histoire  XXXVI,  April/avril  2001, pp  85-108,  ISSN  0008-4107  © Canadian  Journal of   History review article  Richard  Connors  and  J.R.D.  Falconer Cornering the Cheshire Cat: Reflections  on The 'New British  History' and  studies  in  Early  Modern  British  Identities British  Consciousness  and  Identity:  the  making  of   Britain,  1533-1707,  by  Bren Bradshaw and  Peter  Roberts.  Cambridge, Cambridge  University  Press,  1998.  xii, 354  pp.  S69.95U.S. Protestantism  and  National  Identity:  Britain  and  Ireland,  C.1650-C.  1850, by   Claydon  and  Ian  McBride.  Cambridge, Cambridge  University  Press,  1998.  ix,  317 pp.  $64.95U.S. British Identities before Nationalism: Ethnicity and nationhood in the Atlantic World,  1600-1800, by  Colin  Kidd.  Cambridge, Cambridge  University  Press,  1999. viii,  302  pp.  S59.95U.S. Historians  courageous  enough  to  explore  and  begin  to  unravel  the  challenging subjects  of   "Britishness"  and  identities  should  be  congratulated  for  taking  on  the task.  Yet,  when  considering  these  subjects  — the  "New British  history"  and  the Cheshire  cat-like  qualities  of   national  identities  — one  cannot but  be  reminded  of Lewis  Carroll's  Alice  who,  by  chance  and  choice,  falls  down  the  rabbit  hole  "never once  considering  how in  the  world  she  was  to  get  out  again."1  And  like  Alice, historians  of   "Britishness"  and  national  identities  continue  on down a  similar ambiguous  path,  a  path  which  "dipped  suddenly  down,  so  suddenly  that  Alice  had not  a  moment  to think   about  stopping  herself   before  she  found  herself   falling  down what seemed  to  be  a  very  deep  well."2  Nevertheless,  the study  of   British  identities has  recently  enjoyed  considerable  scholarly attention  and an  emerging  and voluminous  historiography reveals  to  even  the  casual  observer  that  this  is  a  busy historiographical  building  site,  a  building  site  which  has  drawn  heavily  on  the materiel,  labour  and  tools  of   related  academic  disciplines.3  While  we  have '  Lewis  Carroll,  Alice's  Adventures  in  Wonderland  (New York,  1993),  p.  2. :  Ibid.,  p.  2. 3  In  addition  to  the  volumes  under  consideration  in  this  article  also  see  R.  Helgerson,  Forms  of Nationhood.  TheElizabethan  WritingofEngland  (Chicago  and  London,  1992);C.Harvie,5coí/a/trfí7nrf Nationalism:  Scottish  Societyand  Politics,  1707-1994  (London,  1994);  D.Cannadine,  "British  History asa  'new subject:'  Politics,  perspectives  and  prospects,"  in  A.  Grant  and  K.  Stringer  (eàs.),Unitingthe Kingdom:  The  Making  of   British  History  (London,  1995),  pp. 12-30;  J.C.  D.  Clark, "English  history's forgotten  context: Scotland,  Ireland,  V/n\es,"HistoricalJournal,  32  (1989),  211-28;  K.  Robbins, Great Britain:  Identities, Institutions  and  the Idea  of   Britishness  (New York,  1998);  D.  Broun,  R.  J.  Finlay  and M.  Lynch  (eds.),  Image  and  Identity.  The  Making  and  Re-Making  of Scotland  through the  Ages  86 Review Article:  CONNORS  and  FALCONER reservations  about  the  edifice  — a  Tower  of   Babel—that  is  being  constructed, there can be no  doubt  this  "hard-hat area"4  has  uncovered  some  important  findings  which need  to  be  recognised  and  acknowledged  by  British  historians as beneficial in helping  us  fulfil,  in  a  slightly  different  context, Peter  Laslett's  goal  of   "understand ing  ourselves  in  time."5 Coming  to an  understanding  of the  "nation"  (nations)  and  national  identities in  early  modem "Britain,"  scholars  have been  assisted  by the  recent  publication  of Brendan  Bradshaw  and  Peter  Roberts  (eds.),  British  Consciousness  and Identity.  The Making  of   Britain,  Tony  Claydon  and  Ian  McBride  (eds.),  Protestantism  and National  Identity.  Britain  and  Ireland,  C.1650-C.I850),  and  Colin  Kidd,  British Identities  before  Nationalism.  Ethnicity and  Nationhood  in  the  Atlantic  World,  1600- 1800.  These  three  volumes  — two collections of   essays  and one  monograph—offer new  insights into  a  subject  re-invigorated  by  Linda  Colley's  1992  study  on  the "forging"  of the  British  nation.  This  review article  seeks  to  place  these  three  texts in  the  context  of   both past  and  current  studies  on the  nation  and  national  identities and to situate  them within  the  emerging  new "British"  history.6  It is  therefore necessary  to  examine  and  re-evaluate  the  current  state  of   these  complex  fields  and to  present  what we hope  will  be  meaningful  insight into the significance of the findings  of the  contributors  in  these  three  volumes.  As  a  starting  point  we  offer  a general,  theoretical  and  historiographical  overview, past  and  present,  of   British identities  before  proceeding  with  a  particular  evaluation  of   Bradshaw  and  Roberts, Claydon  and  McBride,  and  Kidd. Realising  that  the  study  of   identities  and of   Britishness  is  a  subject  of   historical significance  is  in  itself   an  accomplishment.  Such  studies  free  British  historians  from a  traditional  and  thoroughly whiggish  teleology  which  has  depicted  1536,  1603, 1707 and 1801 as  temporal  reflections  of   greater  nationalist  forces  at  work,  but  also as  crucial  and  formative  moments  in  the  history  of  divinely inspired  island  peoples destined  to  dominate  a  globe  thick  with  'pink   bits' in  benevolent  splendour.  While such  a  vision  of the  collective  experiences  of the  peoples  of the  British  Isles  still  has its  proponents, such  an interpretation has  receded  as the sun has set  on  its  empire. The  oft  stated  aimof   scholars  pursuing  these  revivified  questions  of   identities  is  to develop  a  broader  holistic  approach  to British  history,  thereby  rallying  to  the  clarion call  of   J.G.A.  Pocock   whose  plea  for  a new  subject  for  British  history  will  be (Edinburgh,  1998);  A.  Murdoch,  British  History  1660-1832:  National  Identity  and  Local Culture (Basingstoke,  1998),  and M. Pittock,  Inventing  and  Resisting  Britain:  CulturalIdentities  in  Britain  and Ireland,  1685-1789  (Basingstoke,  1997). 4  This  apt  phrase  is  used  in  a  slightly  different  context  by  P.  Collinson,  De  RepublicaAnglorum.  Or, History  with  the  Politics  Put  Back.  (Cambridge, 1989),  p. 15. 5  P.  Laslett,  77te  World  we  have  Lost  —further  explored  (i^tà.,  London,  1983).  See  Chapter  10. 6  Inspired  by  J.G.A.  Pocock   (see  footnote  7  below),  the  "New British  History"  has  recently  attracted much  attention.  See for  example:  S.G.  Ellis,  '"Not  Mere  English':  The  British  Perspective,"  History Today,  28  (December,  1988),  41-48;  N.  Canny, "The  Attempted  Anglicization of   Ireland  in the Seventeenth  Century:  an  exemplar  of'British  History,'"  in  R.G.  Asch  (ed),  ThreeNations—a  Common History?  England,  Scotland,  IrelandandBritishHistory  c.  1600-1920.  (Bochum,  1993),  pp. 49-82;  J. Morrill,  "The  Britishness  of the  English  Revolution  1640-1660,"  Ibid., pp.  83-116;  K. M.  Brown, "British  History:  a  Sceptical  Comment,"  Ibid.,  pp.  117-27;  and  the collection  of   essays  in  G.  Burgess (ed.),  TheNewBritishHistory.  FoundingaModern  State,  1603-1715  (London,  1999).  Review Article:  CONNORS  and  FALCONER 87 familiar  to  most  readers  of   this  journal.7  This challenge  has  been  taken  up  by  early modernists,  in  particular,  under  the  umbrella  of   enquiries  into  the  "British  Problem.  "8 They  have  cast  light  upon  the  relationships  that  existed  between  the  ethnic communities  which  made  up  the  British  Isles  and  the  Atlantic  world  in  the  post- Reformation  period,  and have  explored  in  some  detail  what  Comad  Russell  has described  as  the  "billiard-ball  effect  of   each  of   the  kingdoms on  the  affairs  of   the others."9  While  we  have  a deeper  description  — perhaps  what  Clifford  Geertz  and Gilbert  Ryle  famously  characterised  as  "thick  description"  — of   these  communities we  have  bound  ourselves  to  the  methodologies  imported  into  this  field  from other disciplines.10 7J.G.A.  Pocock,  "British  history:  A Plea  for  a  New  Subject," Journal of   Modern  History,  41  (\975), 601-21;  Pocock.,  "The  Limits  and  Divisions  of   British  History:  In  Search  of   the  Unknown  Subject," American  Historical  Review,  87  (April,  1982),  311-36;  Pocock.,  "History  and  Sovereignty:  The Historiographie  Response  to  Europeanisation  in  Two  British  Cultures,"  Journal of   British  Studies,  31 (1992),  358-89;  Pocock,  "Two  Kingdoms  and  Three  Histories?  Political  thought  in  British  Contexts," in  R.  A.  Mason  (ed.),  Scots  and  Britons: Scottish  Political  thought  and  the  Union of1603 (Cambridge, 1994),  pp. 293-312;  Pocock.,  "Conclusion:  Contingency,  Identity,  Sovereignty,"  in  A.  Grant  and  K. Stringer  (eds.),  Uniting  the  Kingdom, pp. 292-302;  Pocock.,  "The  New British  History  in  Atlantic Perspective:  An  Antipodean  Commentary,"  American  Historical  Review,  104  (1999),  490-500. 8  In  the  last  decade  numerous  texts  dealing  explicitly  with  Britishness  have engaged  with  the question of   the  "British  Problem."  These  themes  were,  in  part  inspired  by  the  researches  of   Conrad Russell.  See  his  essays  on  the  subject  in  C.  Russell,  Unrevolutionary  England,  1603-1642  (London, 1990);  Russell,  77¡e  CausesoftheEnglish  Civil  ^(Oxford,  1990),especially,pp.  26-57;  Russell.Fo// of   the  British  Monarchies  1637-1642  (Oxford,  1991).  See  also,  H.  Kearney,  The  British  Isles (Cambridge, 1989);  R.  Mitchinson  (ed.),  Why  Scottish  History  Matters (Edinburgh,  1991);  R.  Asch, Three  Nations—a  Common  History;  C.  Kidd,  SubvertingScotland's Past  (Cambridge, 1993);  A.  Grant and  K.  Stringer  (eds.),Uniting  the  Kingdom:  S.  Ellis  and  S.  Barber,  Conquest  and  Union.  Fashioning a  British  State,  1485-1725  (London,  1995);  the  various  essays  in J.  Robertson,  A Union  for  Empire: Political  Thought and  the  British  Union  of1707 (Cambridge  1995);  B.  Bradshaw and  J. Morrill,  The British  Problem,  1534-1707  (London,  1996);  C  Kidd,  "North  Britishness  and  the  Nature  of Eighteenth- Century  British  Patriotisms,"  Historical  Journal,  39(1996),  361-81;  T.  Claydon,"The Problems  with the  British  Problem,"  Parliamentary  History,  16  (1997);  R.  Cust  and  A.  Hughes,  "Introduction: continuities  and  discontinuities  in  the  English  Civil  War,"  in  Cust  and  Hughes,  (eds.),  The  English  Civil War  (London,  1997),  pp.  1-30;  L.  Brockliss  and  D.  Eastwood  (eds.),A  Unionof   Multiple  Identities:  The British  Isles,  c.  1750-c.  1850  (Manchester,  1997);  S.G.  Ellis,  Ireland  in  the  Age  of   the  Tudors,  1447- 1603:  English  Expansion  and  the  End  of   Gaelic  Rule,  (2*1  edn, London,  1998);  R.  Langlands, "Britishness  or Englishness?  The  historical  problem of   national  identity  in  Britain,"  Nations  and Nationalism,  5  (1999),  53-69.  See  too  the  collection  of   essays  on  "The  New British  History"  in  G. Burgess  (ed.),  The  New British  History;  A.H.  Williamson,  "From the  Invention of   Great  Britain  to  the Creation  of   British  History:  A New Historiography,"  Journal of   British  Studies,  29  (1990),  267-76. 9C  Russell,  The  Causes  of   the  English  Civil  War,p.  27.  This  approach  is  also  used  in  S.  Ellis,"Not Mere  English,"  pp.  41  -48;  J.  Ohlmeyer,  "The  Wars  of   the  Three  Kingdoms,"  History  Today,  48  (1998), 16-22;  J.G.A  Pocock,  "Empire,  state  and  confederation:  the  War  of   American  Independence  as a  crisis in  multiple  monarchy"  in J.  Robertson  (ed.),  A Union  for  Empire,  pp. 318-48.  For  a  discussion  of   the broader  historical  implications  of   Russell's  concept  see  J. Morrill,  "The  Causes  of   Britain's  Civil  Wars," in  his  The  Nature  of   the  English  Revolution  (London,  1993);  J.P.  Kenyon,  "Revisionism  and  Post-Revisionism in  Early  Stuart  History,"  Journal of   Modern  History,  64  (1992),  686-99;  L.  Stone,  "The Revolution  over the  Revolution,"  New  YorkReview  of   Books, 39(11  June  1992),  47-52;  G.  Burgess,  "On Revisionism:  An  Analy  sis  of   Early  Stuart  Historiography  in  the  1970s and  1980s,"  Historical  Journal, 33(1990),  609-27. 10  C  Geertz,  The  Interpretation  of   Cultures  (New York,  1973),  pp.  3-30;  G.  Ryle,  "The  Thinking of   Thoughts.  What  is  'Le  Penseur' Doing?"  in  G Ryle,  Collected  Papers  Vol.  II,  Collected  Essays, 12-168 New York  171 .480-6.  88 Review Article:  CONNORS  and  FALCONER The  building  blocks  for  this  project  have,  in  part,  been  appropriated  from the sister  disciplines  of   sociology,  anthropology,  and  political  science.  From scholars such  as  Ernest  Gellner,  Hans  Kohn,  Elie  Kedourie,  John  Breuilly,  John  Hutchinson, Anthony  Smith,  J.A.  Armstrong,  and  Benedict  Anderson,"  historians  — Eric Hobsbawm and  Adrian Hastings,  amongst  others—have  acquired  a  convenient  and, at  times,  ahistorical  yardstick  by  which  we  can  measure  and  chart  the  emergence of   nation,  the  development  of   national  identity  and  the  rise  of   nationalism.12  For Anderson  and  Hastings  a  crucial  benchmark   in  this  process  is  the  growth  and availability  of   print  culture  and  print  capitalism,13  while  Hans  Kohn,  Ernest  Gellner, E.J.  Hobsbawm,  and Boyd  Shaferu  privileged  the  evolution  of   centralized  nation states  and  the  creation  of   industrial  societies.  Anderson's  thesis  that  nations  are "imagined  communities"  has  become  the  reference  point  fromwhich  most  of   the current  scholarship  on  the  nation  and  nationalism begins.15  Anderson  argues  that  the nation  "is  an  imagined  political  community  — and  imagined  as  both  inherently limited  and  sovereign."16 For the  late  Elie  Kedourie  what  was  beyond doubt  was  that "  H.  Kohn,  The  Idea  of Nationalism  (New York,  1945);  Kohn,  Nationalism:  Its  meaning and history  (Princeton,  1955);  Kohn,  "Nature  of Nationalism,"  American  Political  Science  Review,  33 (1939),  1001-21;  Kohn,  TheAgeofNationalism  (New York,  1962);  B.  ShaferjAiCiiiOiiijZzsm.-  Myth and Reality  (New York,  1955);  Shafer,  Faces  of Nationalism:  New Realities  and  Old  Myths  (New York, 1972);  A.  Smith,  Theories  of Nationalism  (2nd ed.,  London,  1983);  Smith,  77ie  Ethnic  Origins  of Nations (Oxford,  1986);  E.  Gellner,  Nations  and  Nationalism (Ithaca,  1983);  Gellner,  Nationalism  (New York,  1997);  J.  Armstrong,  Nations before  Nationalism (Chapel  Hill,  1982);  J.  Breuilly,  Nationalism and  the  State  (Manchester,  1982). 12 E.  Hobsbawm,  Nations  and  Nationalism since  ¡780  (Cambridge, 1990);  A.  Hastings, Construction  of   Nationhood,  Ethnicity,  Religion  and  Nationalism  (Cambridge, 1997).  One  reviewer commented  that  these  two  books  fight  a  "war  of   the  Wiles"  as  both  were  taken  from their  respective Wiles'  lecturespresented  at  Queen's  University  in  Belfast  (Hobsbawm 1986,  Hastings,  1996).  See  the review  of Hastings'  Construction  ofNationhoodby  Raymond  Pearson  in  English  Historical  Review,  115 (April,  2000)  which  highlights  Hastings's  refutation  of   Hobsbawm's  argument  in  Nations  and Nationalism. 13 See  B.  Anderson, Imagined Communities:  Reflections  on  the  Origin  and  Spread  of Nationalism(Revised  edn, London,  1991  ),  p.  44,  where  Anderson  writes  "print-languages  laid  the  bases  for  national consciousness  in  three  distinct  ways.  First  and  foremost, they  created  unified  fields  of   exchange  and communication below  Latin  and above  the  spoken  vernaculars....  Second,  print  capitalism  gave  a  new fixity  to  language,  which  in  the  long  run  helped  to  build  that  image  of   antiquity  so  central  to  the subjective  idea  of   the  nation... .Third,  print-capitalism created  languages-of-power  of   a  kind  different from the  older  administrative  vernaculars."  See  also  A.  Hastings,  Construction  of   Nationhood,  p.  12 where  he  argues  that  "ethnicities  turn  into  nations or  integral  elements  within  nations at  the  point  when their specific  vernacular  moves  from an  oral  to  written  usage  to  the  extent  that  it  is  being  regularly employed  for  the  production of   a  literature...  ." 14 See  for  example,  B.  Shafer,  Faces  of Nationalism,  (New York,  1972);  and  footnote  11  above. 15  Even  scholars  who  disagree  with  Anderson  find  it  necessary  to  refer  to  his  thesis  as a  means  of introducing  the  subject.  For  example,  Jeremy  Black   writes  "if   intellectuals,  who  have  spent  much  of   the century  ignoring  national  identities,  began  to  dissect  — if   not  entirely  subvert  — them  by  considering nations  as  'imagined  communities,'  they  nevertheless  recognised  that  identity  was  a  subject  worthy  of serious  attention  "J.  Black, "Confessional  state  or  elect  nation?  Religion  and  identity  in  eighteenth- century  England,"  in  T.  Claydon  and  I.  McBride  (eds.),  Protestantism  and  National  Identity,  pp. 53-74, at  p.  53. 16  Anderson, Imagined Communities,  pp.  6-8.  Anderson,  despite  his  attempt  to  qualify his  definition of   the  nation,  never  makes  it  fully  clear  what  is  meant  by  the  term "imagined" nor  does  he  show  who is  undertaking  this  process  of  imagining.  Moreover,  historians  would  do  well  to  remember  that Anderson's paradigm  was  of   an  imagined  political  community.  For  a  postcolonial  interpretation  and analysis  of   Anderson's  thesis  see,  Partha  Chatterjee's  essay  "Whose  Imagined  Community?"  in  G.  Review Article:  CONNORS  and  FALCONER 8') "[nationalist]  doctrine  divides  humanity  into  separate  and  distinct  nations,  claims that  such  nations  must  constitute  sovereign  states,  and  asserts  that  the  members  of a  nation  reach  freedom and  fulfilment  by  cultivating  the  peculiar  identity  of   their own  nation  and by  sinking  their  own  persons  in  the  greater  whole  of   the nation."17 Similarly,  Tom Nairn  has  posited that  in  "underdeveloped"  and  "peripheral" societies  a  "new middle-class  intelligentsia  of   nationalism  had  to  invite  the  masses into history;  and  the  invitation-card  had  to  be  written  in  a  language  they  understood [their  vernacular  culture]."18  Collectively,  these  theoretical  prescriptions  were, perhaps,  best  articulated  by  Ernest  Gellner  who  argued  that  "the  minimal requirement  for  full  citizenship,  for effective  moral  membership  of a  modem community,  is  literacy.  This  is  the  minimum:  a  certain  level  of   technological competence  is  probably  also  required."19  How then  do  historians  interested  in national  identities  help  themselves  to  these  theoretical  approaches  without  importing into  their  research  the  modernist  present-centredness  of   such  general  and  ahistorical assertions?20 Instmctive  here  is  the  observation  by  Derek   Sayer  that  "the  tacit assumption  that  nations  are imaginable  as communities  only  under  conditions  of modernity,  which  Anderson  shares  with  many  others,  needs  in  my  view  to  be seriously  rethought."21  Scholars  of   national  identities  may  be  well  served  by reflecting  on  Colin  Kidd's  observation  that  the study  of   ethnic  identities  within  their historical  contexts  "expose[s]  the  limitations  of   the  naked  ahistorical  models proposed  by  social  scientists."22  Of   similar  benefit  is  the  valuable  insight  offered once  again  by  Derek   Sayer  in  his  analysis  on  the  making  of   the  modem Czech nation.  Qualifying  the works of   Anderson  and  Hobsbawm,  Sayer argued  that imagined  communities  and  invented  traditions  should  "not  be  taken  to  imply, however,  that  a Czech  identity  is  anything  less  than  emphatically  real,  or  that  it  was simply  concocted  out  of   thin  air.  We  are  not  dealing  here  with  ideological  fictions, but  with  social  facts."23 Balakrihsnan  (ed.),  Mapping  the  Nation  (London,  1996),  pp. 214-25.  Chatterjee's  main  objection to Anderson's  thesis rests  on  the  idea that  the  historical  experience  of   Western Europe,  America  and  Russia provides  the  rest  of   the  world  with  "a  set  of   modular  forms"  fromwhich  other  nations  derive  their nationalisms.  Chatterjee  argues  that,  according  to  Benedict  Anderson,  "Europe  and  the  Americas,  the only  true subjects  of   history,  have  thought out  on  our  behalf   not  only  the  script  of   colonial  enlightenment and  exploitation,  but  also  that  of   our  anti-colonial  resistance  and  postcolonial  misery.  Even our imaginations  must  remain  forever  colonised."  p.  216. 17 E.  Kedourie,  Nationalism  (London,  1960),  pp.  71-72. 18  T.  Nairn,  The  Break-up  of   Britain: Crisis  and  Neo-Nationalism  (2nd ed.,  London,  1977),  pp. 337- 41.  See  also  T.  Nairn,  Faces  of Nationalism,  Janus  Revisited  (London,  1997),  pp.  1-17. 19E.  Gellner,  Thought and  Change  (London,  1964),  pp. 147-78.  Foran  expanded  summary  of   the varieties  of   theories  dealing with  nationhood,  nationalism  and  identities  see  J.  Hutchinson  and  A.  Smith, Nationalism. 20 See  J.CD.  Clark,  "Protestantism, Nationalism,  and  National  Identity,  1660-1832,"  Historical Journal,  43  (2000),  249-76.  Clark   raises  similar  questions  about  these  matters. 21  D.  Sayer,  77ie  Coasts  of   Bohemia.  A  Czech  History (Princeton,  1998),  p.  328  in  footnote  2. 22  C  Kidd,  British  Identities  before  Nationalism,  p.  288. 23  D.  Sayer,  "The  Language  of   Nationality  and  the  Nationality  of   Language:  Prague  1780-1920," Past  and  Present,  153 (November  1996),  182;  Sayer,  The  Coasts  of   Bohemia,  p.  29,  again  where  he reminds  us  that  "traditions  may  be  invented, nations  may  be  imagined  communities.  But  neither,  as a rule  is  simply conjured  up  out  of  nothing."
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