Virtually every war fought since the Act of Union had gone badly at some stage, but before 1783 none had ended in defeat. Nor would any major war in which Britain was involved after this date end in defeat. Those who are curious about this country's peculiar social and political stability probably need look no further than this for essential cause.
In the past, the British had signally failed to build an effective structure of royal authority and administration in their American colonies. As a result, no possibility existed of soothing and winning over influential and talented Americans, in the way that influential and talented Scotsmen were increasingly being won over, by giving them increased access to state employment.
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Recognising that an ostentatious cult of heroism and state service served an important propaganda function for the British elite does not mean, of course, that we should dismiss it as artificial or insincere. All aristocracies have a strong military tradition, and for many British patricians the protracted warfare of the period was a godsend. It gave them a job, and, more important, a purpose, an opportunity to carry out what they had been trained to do since childhood: ride horses, fire guns, exercise their undoubted physical courage and tell other people what to do.
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From the 15th century to 1688, England and Wales, like Scotland, had been peripheral kingdoms in the European power game, more often at war with each other that with Continental powers, and - except under Oliver Cromwell - scarcely very successful on those occasions when they did engage the Dutch, or the French, or the Spanish.
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In the last quarter of the 20th century, Britons have been understandably obsessed with the problem of having too little power in the world. In the third quarter of the 18th century, by contrast, their forebears were perplexed by the problem of having acquired too much power too quickly over too many people.
For women to be supplying the soldiery with banners, flannel shirts and other material comforts was, superficially, all of a piece with their ministrations to their menfolk at home. Such contributions to the war effort were socially acceptable because they could be seen as an extension into the military sphere of the traditional female virtues of charity, nurture and needlework. Yet in reality what the women were doing represented the thin end of a far more radical wedge. Consciously or not, these female patriots were staking out a civic role for themselves. And many of them relished it.
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In virtually every Continental state at this time, aristocracies had to live with the risk that their property might be pillaged or confiscated. Only in Great Britain did it prove possible to float the idea that aristocratic property was in some magical and strictly intangible way the people's property also. The fact that hundreds of thousands of men and women today are willing to accept that privately owned country houses and their contents are part of Britain's national heritage is one more proof of how successfully the British elite reconstructed its cultural image in an age of revolution.
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In the wars against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, as in so many later conflicts, British women seem to have been no more markedly pacifist than men. Instead, and exactly like so many of their male countrymen, some women found ways of combining support for the national interest with a measure of self-promotion. By assisting the war effort, women demonstrated that their concerns were by no means confined to the domestic sphere. Under cover of a patriotism that was often genuine and profound, they carved out for themselves a real if precarious place in the public sphere.
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Human beings are many-layered creatures, and do not succumb to the hegemony of others as easily as historians and politicians sometimes imply. Those Welsh, Scottish and Anglo-Irish individuals who became part of the British Establishment in this period did not in the main sell out in the sense of becoming Anglicised look-alikes. Instead, they became British in a new and intensely profitable fashion, while remaining in their own minds and behavior Welsh, or Scottish, or Irish aswell.
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It would be wrong to interpret the growth of British national consciousness in this period in terms of a new cultural and political uniformity being resolutely imposed on the peripheries of the island by its centre. For many poorer and less literate Britons, Scotland, Wales and England remained more potent rallying calls than Great Britain, except in times of danger from abroad. And even among the politically educated, it was common to think in terms of dual nationalities, not a single national identity.
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Most Britons still lived and died without encountering anyone whose skin colour was different from their own. Slaves, in short, did not threaten, at least as far as the British at home were concerned. Bestowing freedom upon them seemed therefore purely an act of humanity and will, an achievement that would be to Great Britain's economic detriment, perhaps, but would have few other domestic consequences.
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Ever since the Reformation, the case of legislation confining Catholics had been constructed primarily to protect a nervously Protestant against what was assumed to be a fifth column in its midst... Ministers believedm with some justice, that Catholics retained an attachment to their exiled co-religionists, the princes of the House of Stuart. After the Battle of Culloden had confirmed Jacobitism's insignificance, however, government attitudes towards Catholicism began perceptibly and logically to relax.
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These developments - a massive transfer of land by way of inheritance and purchase, an unprecedented rise in the profitability of land and increasing intermarriage between Celtic and English dynasties - helped to consolidate a new unitary ruling class in place of the more separate and specific landed establishments that had characterised England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland in the Tudor and Stuart eras.
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A British imperium enabled Scots to feel themselves peers of the Ebglish in a way still denied them in an island kingdom. The language bears that out very clearly. The English and the foreign are still all too inclined to refer to the island of Great Britain as 'England'. But at no time have they ever customarily referred to an English empire.
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The pre-war empire had been sufficiently informal and sufficiently cheap for Parliament to claim authority over it without having to concern itself too much about what this authority entailed. The post-war empire necessitated a much greater investment in administrative machinery and military force. This build-up of control had to be paid for, either by British taxpayers or by their colonists.
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Contrary to received wisdom, the British are not an insular people in the conventional sense - far from it. For most of their early modern and modern history, they have had more contact with more parts of the world than almost any other nation - it is just that this contact has regularly taken the form of aggressive military and commercial enterprise.
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