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Nationality Post by :hart404 Category :Essays Author :Augustine Birrell Date :November 2011 Read :3717

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Nothing can well be more offensive than the abrupt asking of questions, unless indeed it be the glib assurance which professes to be able to answer them without a moment's doubt or consideration. It is hard to forgive Sir Robert Peel for having once asked, 'What is a pound?' Cobden's celebrated question, 'What next? And next?' was perhaps less objectionable, being vast and vague, and to employ Sir Thomas Browne's well-known phrase, capable of a wide solution.

But in these disagreeable days we must be content to be disagreeable. We must even accept being so as our province. It seems now recognised that he is the best Parliamentary debater who is most disagreeable. It is not so easy as some people imagine to be disagreeable. The gift requires cultivation. It is easier, no doubt, for some than for others.

What is a nation--socially and politically, and as a unit to be dealt with by practical politicians? It is not a great many things. It is not blood, it is not birth, it is not breeding. A man may have been born at Surat and educated at Lausanne, one of his four great-grandfathers may have been a Dutchman, one of his four great-grandmothers a French refugee, and yet he himself may remain from his cradle in Surat to his grave at Singapore, a true-born Englishman, with all an Englishman's fine contempt for mixed races and struggling nationalities.

Where the English came from is still a matter of controversy, but where they have gone to is writ large over the earth's surface. Yet their nationality has suffered no eclipse. Caviare is not so good in London as in Moscow, but it is caviare all the same. No foreigner needs to ask the nationality of the man who treads on his corns, smiles at his religion, and does not want to know anything about his aspirations.

England has all the notes of a nation. She has a National Church, based upon a view of history peculiarly her own. She has a National Oath, which, without any undue pride, may be pronounced adequate for ordinary occasions. She has a Constitution, the admiration of the world, and of which a fresh account has to be written every twenty years. She has a History, glorious in individual feats, and splendid in accomplished facts; she has a Literature which makes the poorest of her children, if only he has been taught to read, rich beyond the dreams of avarice. As for the national character, it may be said of an Englishman, what has been truly said of the great English poet Wordsworth--take him at his best and he need own no superior. He cannot always be at his best; and when he is at his worst the world shudders.

But what about Scotland and Ireland? Are they nations? If they are not, it is not because their separate characteristics have been absorbed by John Bullism. Scotland and Ireland are no more England than Holland or Belgium. It may be doubted whether, if the three countries had never been politically united, their existing unlikeness would have been any greater than it is. It is a most accentuated unlikeness. Scotland has her own prevailing religion. Mr. Arnold recognised this when he observed, in that manner of his which did not always give pleasure, that Dr. Chalmers reminded him of a Scotch thistle valorously trying to look as much like the rose of Sharon as possible. This distorted view of Mr. Arnold's at all events recognises a fact. Then there is Scotch law. If there is one legal proposition which John Bull--poor attorney-ridden John Bull--has grasped for himself, it is that a promise made without a monetary or otherwise valuable consideration, is in its legal aspect a thing of nought, which may be safely disregarded. Bull's views about the necessity of writing and sixpenny stamps are vague, but he is quite sound and certain about promises going for nothing unless something passed between the parties. Thus, if an Englishman, moved, let us say, by the death of his father, says hastily to a maiden aunt who has made the last days of his progenitor easy, 'I will give you fifty pounds a year,' and then repents him of his promise, he is under no legal obligation to make it good. If he is a gentleman he will send her a ten-pound note at Christmas and a fat goose at Michaelmas, and the matter drops as being but the babble of the sick-room. But in Scotland the maiden aunt, provided she can prove her promise, can secure her annuity and live merrily in Peebles for the rest of a voluptuous life. Here is a difference indeed!

Then, Scotland has a history of her own. The late Dr. Hill Burton wrote it in nine comfortable volumes. She has a thousand traditions, foreign connections, feelings to which the English breast must always remain an absolute stranger. Scottish fields are different from English fields; her farms, roads, walls, buildings, flowers, are different; her schools, universities, churches, household ways, songs, foods, drinks, are all as different as may be. Boswell's Johnson, Lockhart's Scott! What a host of dissimilarities, what an Iliad of unlikenesses, do the two names of Johnson and Scott call up from the vasty deep of national differences!

One great note of a nation is possessed to the full by Scotland. I mean the power of blending into one state of national feeling all those who call what is contained within her geographical boundaries by the sacred name of 'Home.' The Lowlander from Dumfries is more at home at Inverness than in York. Why is this? Because Scotland is a nation. The great Smollett, who challenges Dickens for the foremost place amongst British comic writers, had no Celtic blood in his veins. He was neither a Papist nor a Jacobite, yet how did his Scottish blood boil whilst listening in London to the cowardly exultations of the cockneys over the brutalities that followed the English victory at Colloden! and how bitterly--almost savagely--did he contrast that cowardly exultation with the depression and alarm that had prevailed in London when but a little while before the Scotch had reached Derby.

What patriotic feeling breathes through Smollett's noble lines, The Tears of Caledonia, and with what delightful enthusiasm, with what affectionate admiration, does Sir Walter Scott tell us how the last stanza came to be written! 'He (Smollett) accordingly read them the first sketch of the Tears of Scotland consisting only of six stanzas, and on their remarking that the termination of the poem, being too strongly expressed, might give offence to persons whose political opinions were different, he sat down without reply, and with an air of great indignation, subjoined the concluding stanza:

'"While the warm blood bedews my veins,
And unimpaired remembrance reigns,
Resentment of my country's fate
Within my filial breast shall beat.
Yes, spite of thine insulting foe,
My sympathising verse shall flow,
Mourn, hopeless Caledonia, mourn,
Thy banished peace, thy laurels torn."'

In the same sense is the story told by Mr. R. L. Stevenson, how, when the famous Celtic regiment, the Black Watch, which then drew its recruits from the now unpeopled glens of Ross-shire and Sutherland, returned to Scotland after years of foreign service, veterans leaped out of the boats and kissed the shore of Galloway.

The notes of Irish nationality have been, by conquest and ill-usage, driven deeper in. Her laws were taken from her, and her religion brutally proscribed. In the great matter of national education she has not been allowed her natural and proper development. Her children have been driven abroad to foreign seminaries to get the religious education Protestant England denied them at home. Her nationality has thus been checked and mutilated, but that it exists in spirit and in fact can hardly be questioned by any impartial traveller. Englishmen have many gifts, but one gift they have not--that of making Scotsmen and Irishmen forget their native land.

The attitude of some Englishmen towards Scotch and Irish national feelings requires correction. The Scotsman's feelings are laughed at. The Irishman's insulted. So far as the laughter is concerned, it must be admitted that it is good-humoured. Burns, Scott, and Carlyle, Scotch moors and Scotch whisky, the royal game of golf, all have mollified and beautified English feelings. In candour, too, it must be admitted that Scotsmen are not conciliatory. They do not meet people half-way. I do not think the laughter does much harm. Insults are different....

Mr. Arnold, in a now scarce pamphlet published in 1859, on the Italian Question, with the motto prefixed, 'Sed nondum est finis,' makes the following interesting observations:--

'Let an Englishman or a Frenchman, who respectively represent the two greatest nationalities of modern Europe, sincerely ask himself what it is that makes him take pride in his nationality, what it is which would make it intolerable to his feelings to pass, or to see any part of his country pass, under foreign dominion. He will find that it is the sense of self-esteem generated by knowing the figure which his nation makes in history; by considering the achievements of his nation in war, government, arts, literature, or industry. It is the sense that his people, which have done such great things, merits to exist in freedom and dignity, and to enjoy the luxury of self-respect.'

This is admirable, but not, nor does it pretend to be, exhaustive. The love of country is something a little more than mere amour propre. You may love your mother, and wish to make a home for her, even though she never dwelt in kings' palaces, and is clad in rags. The children of misery and misfortune are not all illegitimate. Sometimes you may discern amongst them high hope and pious endeavour. There may be, indeed, there is, a Niobe amongst the nations, but tears are not always of despair.

'The luxury of self-respect.' It is a wise phrase. To make Ireland and Irishmen self-respectful is the task of statesmen.

(The end)
Augustine Birrell's essay: Nationality

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