My muse has given me leeway until the end of January to complete “Christmas”, giving me just enough time to examine the bigger picture
Between 1781, when Lord Cornwallis surrendered to the Americans at Yorktown marking the end of the First Empire, to 1942 when Percival surrendered to the Japanese at Singapore and effectively marked the end of the Third Empire, Britain did pretty well. By and large there was not a single concession in between those two dates – with British phlegm being marked by a few remarkable victories interspersed with some even more glorious catastrophes, such as the Retreat from Kabul; the Charge of the Light Brigade; the Sieges of Cawnpore and Khartoum; Isandlwana; and the Somme. The noble, defiant ignorance of the lower classes characterised Empire and was the basis on which it was built.
Since that time, we have had sailors like Arthur Batchelor blubbing away “when the Iranians, who called him Mr Bean, took away his iPod.” We have had a second withdrawal from Kabul where pets were being prioritized over people. Foreign policy has been of a somewhat reduced nature, and with that comes the question: have the British changed? Are we now a weaker nation, no longer capable of seizing the moment and battling for a greater cause?
I say, no. And I think we can see exactly where Britain remains as strong as she ever was. Here I examine the keystones of the imperial character, and how they still manifest themselves.
At the Battle of Jellalabad in 1842, Sir Robert Sale organised the Somerset Light Infantry to hold off thousands of Afghan jezails (after the inglorious / glorious massacre of British forces to the last man at Jugdulluk) for five months. Not only did these men of Taunton refuse to concede, but went on to capture 300 sheep from their assailants for provisioning.
Today this obstinacy and refusal to lie down continues, as shown by these courageous characters, who dressed as traffic cones for a stag do, blocking a local road and finally having to be arrested by the police:
Such was his desire to serve his country, Captain Scott and his four companions famously died in 1912, frozen to death in their vain attempt to be first to reach the South Pole. Yet this was a theme which had centuries of tradition for Britain, particularly in its rivalry with France. The imperial race that took us to the Americas and later the colonisation of Africa before they could, created much of the land holdings which allowed for the idea that Britain had an empire “on which the sun never set”.
And who are the heirs to Captain Scott? Step forward these men:
The Great Game raged between Britain and Russia over the Northwest Frontier region over much of the 19th century. A war that never quite was, Britain strove to counter and undermine the Russian ambitions in the East at every turn, leaving no stone unturned to do so including setting up trade routes and client states. Likewise, when Britain wanted a war with Spain or France, she relied on privateers and pirates to harass her rivals until a war was inevitable – perhaps none more so than the provocations that led to the Second Anglo-Dutch War, where the Royal Africa Company was established to seize Dutch ships and outposts along West African coast.
This guile remains in the blood of the British, as shown by Surrey farmer Robert Fidler, who for four years between 2001-2005 fought the tyranny of the Planning Permission board of Reigate, by hiding an enormous folie de grandeur behind haystacks. The local council was not aware of this military build-up until the it was revealed with a flourish:
(Note: Fidler ultimately lost the case and had to tear down the house in 2016, but it was the effort that counted)
Many wrongly see the height of the British Empire as that conveyed through the formal life of Late Victoriana: reviews at Spithead, Great Exhibitions, the Delhi Durbar. Yet as I have noted before, the real peak of Empire was a century or more earlier, with James Wolfe’s victory at Quebec in 1759, and Robert Clive’s victory over local warlords at Plassey two years earlier. Throughout this period, the British displayed unparalleled buccaneering spirit, just as they had in battling the French in the pirate wars. Britain stumbled into her Empire accidentally, on the whole, but she never missed a chance to assert herself at the expense of others.
This remains perhaps Britain’s greatest trait. When a container ship sank off Devon in 2007 – before the financial crisis when household balance sheets were still bloated by overvaluation and there was no desperation in the air – the reaction of the Great British Public was to scavenge as much as possible before anyone could catch them.
This was magnified a few years later, when rioters in London turned out to be just as keen to loot from JD Sports as they were for social justice.
And what of the French?
Our cousins across the Channel had a slightly different imperial experience. For a start, due to losing key engagements such as the Battle of the Saintes, France was largely left with bin-ends of empire such as the bone-dry sub-sahara. In Indochine, their most enduring contribution to civilization was the forcing of Vietnamese to eat baguettes and pate.
But they too were famed, whilst the contest lasted, for a sort of cunning. In the Americas for instance, the French were willing constantly to get into bed with local tribes in order to align short term interests against competitors such as British or Dutch. This came to a head in the French & Indian War (the Seven Years’ War) where they used the Delawares and Shawnees against the British colonists. However, whereas in the British this was a noble astucity, a dignified shrewdness of mind, in the French this can only be seen as double-faced artifice, the constant scheming of a younger brother who can never quite get what he wants.
Nowadays, French ingenuity is demonstrated in such activities as getting a free ride in defence spending through NATO, hijacking the European Union for their own ends, and this:
So I suppose we are all back to where we started …