England: the most extraordinary of national histories

The most extraordinary fact of English history is that it happened. On the periphery of Europe, sparsely populated for most of its history, always faced by powerful neighbours, it is barely credible that this people achieved such a prominent place in history. Rationally England should have been throughout its history a small impoverished  backward state, an extra on the European stage. Consider the history of Ireland which was placed in much the same general  situation as England. A novelist who created an equivalent fictional history would be laughed out of court on the grounds of utter improbability.

There is so much that is unusual about England. Not only did she possess the only world empire ever worthy of the name,  she produced the one bootstrapped industrial revolution, has displayed a quite unparalleled political stability and a unique political evolution leading to representative government and perhaps most importantly in the long run  created a language which for its all round utility cannot be equalled. England is the cause of the modern world. Let  her self-respect rest on that massive fact. The English do  not need to invent a mythical past for their self-esteem: the  reality with all its warts is splendid and marvellous.

But history is more than events and institutions. It is about great and influential personalities. England has many to  chose from, I will be self-indulgent and put forward some of my favourites. Alfred The Great (for his preservation of  England), Chaucer, Shakespeare, John Bunyan, Queen Elizabeth, Cromwell, Newton, Locke, Wellington, Darwin. All  left a mark on the world which went far beyond these shores.  (My choice does not include any person from the twentieth century because I believe it is too soon to judge their significance.)

Why did England become what it is and achieve what it has? The conventional explanations revolve around such  accidents of nature as its island status providing a barrier to disruptive invasion and its prolific quantities of coal  and iron ore summoning an industrial revolution. But none of these hold water because no individual reason or group of  reasons is unique to England.

Take the example of Japan, which in its island status, close proximity to one of the most advanced parts of the world and absence of foreign invasion for a great time most resembles England, never came close to achieving and industrial  revolution or any form of government which took account of  the whole of society. Ultimately, the cause of England’s difference must remain a mystery. If I had to put my finger on a general reason, I would say that England has come the closest of all countries to maturity as a people. General McArthur memorably said of the Japanese that they were a  nation of twelve year olds. We are not a nation of seasoned adults, but perhaps a nation of eighteen year olds. I suspect   that is about the best any country can hope for.

Is there an English personality? I conclude there is, for I believe all peoples develop a secondary personality. What are the English? They are sceptical, they are pragmatic, they are  (still) natural respecters of the law. Above all they are not murderously violent. It is a remarkable thing that mob  violence in England for centuries has rarely resulted in mass  deaths – this trait is seen in football hooliganism today. The conduct of the English Civil War was wholly exceptional  in its lack of sack and pillage which was the norm on the continent in the seventeenth century. The English have long possessed in spades the qualities which make civilised life possible.

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