Part of the problem for those who would define Englishness in terms of highly visible emblems is that so much of our general culture has become part of the general culture of the world, for example industrialisation, representative government and organised sports.
David Landes in his “The wealth and poverty of nations” is emphatic about England’s unique status. At a time when casual and gratuitous public insult of the English is commonplace, the book is a salutary reminder of how disproportionate an influence this country has had on the world. Two of the chapter headings will give a flavour of this: “Britain and the others” and “Pursuit of Albion”. In the latter Mr Landes is emphatic on England’s importance: “The Industrial Revolution in England changed the world and the relations of nations and states to one another…The world was now divided between one front-runner and a highly diverse array of pursuers. It took the quickest of the European “follower countries” something more than a century to catch up”. 1 In other words, without England industrialisation would have been at best greatly delayed and at worst have never occurred. (To that immense influence, may be added the Empire, the founding of the United States by involuntary proxy, the development of parliamentary government, the international success of the English language and the individual likes of Newton, Locke and Darwin.)
Before English readers get too bigheaded, it should be added that Dr Landes is distinctly critical of Britain’s failure to maintain the momentum of their initial industrialisation and cites as dreadful warnings to others such failures as Britain’s inability to keep the lead in the chemical industry in the nineteenth century and the dismal story of our car industry since 1945.
There is a curious tendency amongst academics these days to denigrate England’s status before 1500, to represent her as backward, weak, insignificant country on the cultural as well as geographic periphery of Europe, altogether a second or even third rate power. The problem with this view is that it puts its holder in a quandary not unlike that which afflicts those who argue for a general European inferiority vis-a-vis Ottoman, Chinese and Indian cultures in the late Middle Ages. The question is this, if England was so negligible in 1500, how was she able to meaningfully compete with supposedly vastly greater and more sophisticated powers, and compete so successfully that by 1760 she had replaced the Dutch as the leading commercial power, bested France and Spain in the colonial game and was on the doorstep of the first Industrial Revolution?
The only reasonable answer is that England was far from being a backward, third rate power in 1500. (One should not forget that she had spent much of the previous century and a half running riot in France during the Hundred Years war). Being divided from the continent by a channel only 22 miles at its narrowest point had ensured that England was never culturally isolated. Most importantly, it was a rich country. Visitors to England time and again over the centuries leading to the Industrial Revolution remark on the county’s general prosperity and note particularly the superior material condition of the English poor compared to the continental poor.
To understand exactly how advanced England has been in comparison with all other states we need only consider the condition of the country which is generally considered to be her main competitor for the title of archetypal nation state, France. When the Bastille fell in 1789 no French national parliament had met for one hundred and seventy five years. Executive power derived both in fact as well as theory solely from the King. Political power such of it as was devolved from the crown remained overwhelmingly the prerogative of the higher aristocracy, while the notion of equality before the law was treated as a quaint absurdity with the French nobility both protected from the legal actions of commoners and granted privileges over them such as the lettres de cachet which allowed the imprisonment of Voltaire for insulting a nobleman. As for that perennial first bugbear of all pre-modern states, finance, France was renowned throughout the eighteenth century for her gigantic inability to balance her books. On the micro economic level, feudal dues and impositions were not merely maintained through the inertia of custom, but were actually enforced more severely in the eighteenth century as landowners sought to compete with the growing wealth of the bourgeoise. But revolutionary
France was no Britain dancing attendance upon an industrial revolution. She was and remained until the twentieth century, primarily a rural land. Not until the 1930s did fewer than fifty percent of Frenchmen and women derive their living directly from the land.
Consider what the world today would be if England had not existed. There would have be no USA. Approximately an quarter of the states represented at the UN would not exist. The English language would not dominate international communication, especially in the fields of science and technology and be the language of the Internet. Those things are certain. Others are probable, such as a failure to develop parliamentary government or an industrial revolution.