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December 22, 2008

English History

Made Brief, Irreverent, and Pleasurable
Lacey Baldwin Smith – ISBN 9780897335478

A most apt title is this. It is, indeed, brief, irreverent and pleasurable. Its author clearly has a command of English history, else she could not summarize so readably and well. She canters through history with thumbnails of events, personages and periods with explanations sufficient to her intent. She disposes of minor—and not a few major—people and happenings in a paragraph or two. Nowhere does she dwell inordinately on anything. She is so skilled and concise, and so much fun to read that one overlooks what has to be missing in the sheer enjoyment of what is not. And she’s witty.

For instance, she initiates her brief discussion of the period from 410 to 1066 by observing that the Celts and Anglo-Saxons eventually “learned to tolerate, not exterminate, one another . . . [and though not certain they were a nation] they still liked to insult each other.” And James II is described as stodgy, stubborn and stupid; even his brother thought that James’s mistresses were so ugly and stultifying that they must have been assigned “by his priest for penance.”

She opines that the treasured American picture of God-fearing pilgrims “in black plug hats,” grimly determined to found a Puritan paradise is “not exactly true. . . . God’s people were clothed in the height of Stuart fashion” and came seeking profit as well as the welfare of their souls. Settlements were extremely expensive. For instance, Jamestown cost 100,000 pounds sterling in the first fifteen years. Not until the introduction of Indian tobacco, and the English acquisition of the habit of smoking it, did the colony become profitable.

The continental wars of 1739 and thereafter (the French and Indian War amongst them) were really conflicts between the English, Spanish and French, in which “the Frogs gravely miscalculated.” As a result France ceded Canada, Cape Breton, and her claims to lands between the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi River to Britain. She gave over New Orleans and the vast Louisiana territory to the Spanish, who, in turn, ceded Florida to England, leaving Britain the dominant power, leading eventually to her suzerainty over much of North America.

Enlightenment thoughts were spawned by Smith, Bentham, Ricardo, Malthus and others, which cascaded thru literate society, emerging from the old order of landed gentry, which led to vast changes in government. These changes resulted in the loss of wealth and power by said gentry. Contributing to this downfall was the growing “farm power” of the Americas from Canada to Argentina, which had become the breadbaskets of the world.

Franklin warned that obedience of the colonies “depended far less upon ‘forts, citadels, garrisons or armies’ than upon affection.” King and cabinet so scorned Franklin for this that he gave up on the empire and joined the revolutionary movement, whereupon he became the principal architect of its finance by France. Though having lost, Britain was shorn of responsibility for defending and administering the colonies. This facilitated the expansion of empire as England went on to “discover” Australia and New Zealand, firm her control of Canada and India, and promulgate the Industrial Revolution.

Her heady jaunt thru the industrial revolution notes that the “filthy sewers [where lived the peasants of the industrial centers] poured pure gold,” providing the wealth and power needed to finally defeat Napoleon, after which Britain was the unquestioned—and largely unchallenged--world power for the next century. The population grew immensely, providing the “new industrial slums,” which, in turn, transformed the spiritual landscape, brought hell-fire religion into these slums, and became the underpinnings for Victorian morality in the home, factories and in politics.

She gallops thru the African colonial endeavors: contests with France, Germany and Italy which efforts underpinned a European rush for allies. This promoted treaties and guarantees of support which set the stage for WW I. Having paid the price for the Industrial Revolution, Britain reaped its “dragon seeds.” Having financed the revolution the world over, she was now required to compete against those industrial giants—Germany, Japan the Americas, most notably the U.S.—which she had spawned. She lost her edge.

Reasons are not simple, but as “the U.S. leapt from the oil lamp to electricity, Britain remained with the gaslight age, largely because of the power of the gas companies.” Old habits and established powers assisted in her ruination. Coal mines became less productive, but failed to modernize; similarly so with other industries. As well there was a collective refusal to develop aggressive sales. English custom could not accommodate “cheek” (which Yanks referred to as their “can do spirit.”) And their industrial policy overlooked the fact that a ready supply of spare parts was just as important as the quality of the original equipment in keeping customers happy. They fell behind in the educational race, refusing to school her work force or maintain the connections between scientist and engineer. They bought into the concept of “effortless superiority;” they rested on their laurels and were overrun by the rest of the world.

The historic British social ideal was the landed country gentleman, never the engineer, scientist or industrialist. Gentlemen weren’t supposed to work. Rather, they dedicated themselves to the humanities, giving time to public service and ultimately authoring the socialist state. She thus became enamored of Empire, slipped into complacence and became second rate.

After the “war to end all wars” was over, the world advanced, but not so Britain; and after WW II technological improvements were rampant, but Britain was stuck in the past by attitude, proclivity, unions and state control. America, alone in having been undamaged by the war, had developed massive industrial capacity. Germany and Japan were destroyed, but offered a new beginning with wholly modern industry. England was hidebound, and intransigent.

“Deprived of its 19th century industrial head start and struggling to adjust to diminished world status, but still beset by out-of-date memories of Empire and economic hegemony, the Kingdom lurched from one humiliation and crisis to the next.”

She ends with a fair and balanced review of “Thatcherism,” with the resurrection of England, now in the process of failing again, it would seem. Too complacent? Who knows. But there are lessons for not only Britain but America and the world as well.

I strongly recommend a read. I expect to reread this little gem to further digest this phenomenal “outline of British history.”

Posted by respeto at December 22, 2008 1:51 PM