The Quest for Englishness

Paul Rich describes how the aggressive imperialism of the late Victorian age co-existed uneasily with the intellectual search for English 'roots' in a pre-industrial and mythical past.

Nationalism in English society has not been a subject that has especially interested historians until comparatively recently. This is perhaps in part a legacy of the Whig domination of English historiography and the emphasis on parliament and good government to the exclusion of political doctrine, which has often been seen as more of a bogy in continental European political history. The attainment of political stability by the mid-Victorian era has thus usually been perceived as a result of the insulation of English politics from the turbulence of European nationalism and a preoccupation with other issues surrounding the moral responses to industrialisation and urbanisation.

Even in its heyday, though, the 'condition of England' question in the nineteenth century assumed a form of unique cultural and political entity entitled 'England'. There was, in fact, in a considerable body of Victorian thought a conscious 'idea' of England that may not have reached the ideological precision of European nationalist visionaries such as Mazzini, but which nevertheless exerted a hold over both educated and informed opinion and more popular sentiments.

Unlike many of its European counterparts, England lacked a nationalist intelligentsia and by the 1880s much of the energy of intellectual opinion passed increasingly into a wider imperial enthusiasm that came to be termed (after a book by Sir Charles Dilke published in 1867), 'Great Britain'. Many historians of the latter part of the century have thus chosen to emphasise the growth in imperial sentiment behind England's mission and to show how more parochial and inward-looking versions of English patriotism tended to become eclipsed by a more expansionist jingoism that eventually culminated in the 'mafficking' mobs of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.

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