Becoming British? Union and Disunion in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Course Material 2024/25

If the eighteenth century was the period, as Linda Colley famously claimed, in which ‘Britons’ were forged, this paper insists that there was nothing tidy or inevitable about this. During the past thirty years or so, our picture of this period has changed out of all recognition. Against tired invocations of staid ‘stability’ or ‘balance’, historians have come to emphasize the forces that threatened to topple an ostensibly fixed order.

Old conflicts over parliament, the monarchy and religion persisted, alongside the tensions generated by new political, economic and social structures. Violent unruliness cohabited with the exciting cultural and commercial dynamism of urban enlightenment. If this was a period of structural integration within the ‘British Isles’, those processes, too, were challenged: Anglo-Scottish Union in 1707 and the Irish Union of 1801 were bitterly debated. The growing reach of the central officialdom into the English regions was resisted by those who resented the state’s enhanced ability to dip into their pockets, press them into the armed forces or otherwise interfere in local affairs. The accession of a Dutch monarch, William III, in 1688, and a German dynasty, the Hanoverians, in 1714, posed new questions about the crown, the constitution, diplomacy and the churches.

All of these events shaped, and were shaped by, a turbulent international context: periods of prolonged continental warfare; colonial rivalry between Britain and her European rivals; the massive expansion of the Atlantic trade in enslaved people and the bitter campaigns that surrounded its dissolution. The story this paper tells, then, is of a polity and society at once shaped by inherited ideas and institutions and struggling with the shock of the new: one that was ‘ordered’ but seldom rigid. Not surprisingly, this subject matter has generated a rich and varied historiography: from E.P. Thompson’s patricians versus plebeians to Paul Langford’s ‘Polite and Commercial People’ to Jonathan Clark’s ancient regime and Linda Colley’s Britons, not to mention a host of up-to-the-minute work.

This paper will equip those who take it with an awareness of how those debates have nuanced our awareness of the period and broadened our appreciation of whose ‘voices’ mattered. At the centre of the paper is the idea of Britishness: a far-from-neutral term that, as recent scholarship has emphasized, was often wielded with authoritarian, nationalist, racial, gendered, class-based and sectarian implications.