Modern nationalism could be described as a collective identity, resulting from social and political cohesion. Colin Kidd identifies that the British nation grew in the 18th century from ‘materialism and idealist factors,’ This has often been referred to as the influence of religion, the change in industrialisation, growth of Empire and the impact of war. It is arguable that such developments occurred at the expense of traditionally regional and local variation. This essay analyses how these factors influenced Britain’s development as a nation in the 18th century and to what extent it eroded these localities and regions.

Firstly, it is significant to suggest that although identity was primarily regionally based in 1707, this does not imply that forms of nationalism did not exist. One’s daily life may have been based on a ‘culture peripheral to economic life,’ yet one’s identity was also partially influenced by the state religion, the monarchy and the outcome of wars. Jennifer Mori reiterates this, ‘patriotic allegiance to the king did not need to be created as it had been established since 1688 as part of a British identity. As Britain developed into a state, this patriotic nationalism was emphasised; the result arguably being a demise of the regionally based experience. However, the growth of British nationalism was not that simple, in that a generalisation of social change cannot be made for all sectors of British society.

Different factors in the ‘forging’ of Britain affected different classes and groups. For example, the importance of Anglican autonomy was arguably irrelevant for thousands of Dissenters. Therefore, nationalism cannot be seen as being a completely common experience but grew at protean rates and intensity. Variations in the growth of nationalism can be seen between the lower and upper classes.

Indeed, the Union of 1707 was ultimately created in the interest of the latter. Even though all people in Britain were affected and included in its development as a nation, the lower orders did retain regional and local identities longer. Hence, this essay analyses specifically the development of Britain as a nation among the lower orders. A study will be made to what extent religion, industrialisation and politics affected the regions and localities.

The first significant factor of Britain’s development as a nation was the role the state religion played. Linda Colley states that, ‘economic growth co-existed… with a profoundly Protestant patriotism. ‘ By this Colley places emphasis on religion as a main factor in the development of Britain as a nation. If this were the case, religion would to a great extent supersede differences found in regions and localities. The ritual burning of Pope effigies, the triumph of the Glorious Revolution plus the role of the Parish in everyday life seem to support this analysis.

However, this is an exaggeration of the importance religion played throughout the 18th century as a whole and among the people. Anglicanism played a huge role in the creation of Britain among the ruling classes. It gave legitimacy to the monarchy, political structure and was also used to justify war and commercial innovations. However, the religious experience for the lower orders is a different account. A significant decline in religious participation shows how it was increasingly insignificant in people’s identity.

There are two major reasons for this. Firstly, Anglicanism was fundamentally experienced on a local level, within the governing structure. Although the Church as a governing body appears to be consistent throughout the country, it was variable in practice among the parishes. One’s welfare and identity was claimed within this periphery and not upon the Church as a whole. Because of this role the Church played in secular affairs, it had a decreasing affect in spiritual leadership. Kidd reiterated this, ‘this governing function the Church played meant it segregated itself from popular culture and opinion.

‘ This increased when in Urbanisation the Church failed to accommodate for new regions and towns, furthering its inability to serve spiritually. Secondly, by 1800 the increase of Dissenters plus greater toleration emphasises how religion was not a national unifier but was preached regionally and practiced individually. Various Dissenting religions were successful in different regions, such as the Baptists in Kent and Leicestershire. Therefore, although many people viewed Britain as a ‘nation of Providence where the Almighty smiles upon,’ religion in practice was mainly an experience within the locality. This was arguably not the case with industrialisation. Although industrialisation was significant in the development of Britain as a nation, it arguably had only a limited affect on the growth of nationalism among the lower orders and consequential regional erosion.

Pat Hudson argues that during the 18th century, interregional flow of labour and capital was less developed due to the cultural, institutional and social rigidities. We can see this limited flow of labour within a case study of the name of Bailey. The village in east Lancashire contained, before 1780, many people of this surname. Yet we can see a specific movement of Baileys directly to Oldham, not many miles away, during these few decades. The reason for this transition was probably the pull of work in the growing neighbouring district of Manchester. At the same time as this migration of Baileys one can see the creation of a turnpike system allowing the connection from Burnley and Blackburn directly to Rochdale and Oldham.

With this one can see how industrialisation flourished within regions or extended traditional boundaries. The growth of Manchester pulled together smaller traditional localities, forming an industrial region. These regions grew largely because of specialisation, such as cotton in Lancashire. These markets continued to be contained as such even up to 1830. In fact, the growth of new industrial towns arguably saw the strengthening of regional independence, away from the centralization of London due to foreign markets trading directly with these towns. We can see this in the dramatic expanse of western coast ports such as Liverpool and Glasgow.

Changes initiated by urbanization such as the dissolution of the family working structure and traditional gender roles were apparent, yet this had little direct affect on the development of the nation but were again achieved within the regional framework. Yet, although industrialisation had this limited affect on the development of the nation by 1800, it arguably created an atmosphere for the awakening of a national political conscience. Britain generally developed as a nation a large extent due to the increasing political activity of people outside the traditional ruling elite. Whilst this occurred throughout the century for an emerging middle class, the latter-end of the century is often regarded as a political awakening among the lower orders. This can be analysed as having occurred in two stages. Firstly, due to the greater interaction of the lower orders within the towns, and secondly due to the social upheaval of the 1790’s.

In relation to the first point, E P Thompson stated, ‘free labour had brought with it a weakening of the old means of social discipline. ‘ Thompson rightly points out that industrialization had weakened the traditional patriarchal structure, encouraging the independence of labourers, especially through the loss of non-monetary payments. This was surely significant, as it would result in a decline of regionally based economy, therefore encouraging interregional trade and communication. This process is evident among artisan labourers. The results of interregional interaction that grew within this group can be connected to their primary involvement as contributors and promoters of Jacobinism in the 1790’s. Yet it is an exaggeration to consider that a decline of gentry-populace relations would automatically result in a union of the lower orders throughout the regions.

The upper orders still held authority whilst it also controlled the main functions of trade. Therefore, whilst new movements such as the Wil kites and for the repeal of the Dissenter’s Act appeared more universal, they lacked consistency throughout the regions. Similarly, the tradition of riots continued to be local and far from being a revolutionary threat. However, the second point of political activity in the 1790’s, did have unprecedented results among the lower orders. By 1800 Britain’s development as a nation was greatly influenced by the political activity of the 1790’s, arguably resulting in the demise of regions.

Thelwall at this time described a ‘large and comprehensive system of reform’ among the masses of Britain. He was considering the establishment of numerous Corresponding Societies plus the 200,000 copies of The Rights of Man circulated in 1792. The printed word did to a great extent broaden the political consciousness of the lower orders to a national level yet in practice the regions remained the base of political incident. Belchem explains why this was so, ‘Paine found both the language and the program to attract working people to politics, underlining its relevance to their experience of economic hardship. ‘ The charismatic leadership of a few individuals emphasised Jacobinism in specific towns such as Sheffield, Manchester and London, whilst basing it on that city’s economic experience. For example the Manchester Association of Poor Mechanics, although associated with the radicalism of Jacobinism, was only established to meet the needs of this particular group of workers.

Therefore, although appearing national, reform movements alternatively could be seen as emphasising regional differences. As a result, Paine’s national call for a ‘Republic on the Thames,’ was marginalised whilst people focused on politics through riots or loyal addresses in their own peripheries. This continued through the 19th century as many reform movements were regional ized, for example, the Anti-Poor Law of Lancashire and factory reforms of Yorkshire. However, this seems inconsistent when considering the expression of nationalist patriotism at the threat of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The Defense of the Realm Act in 1798 indicates considerable enthusiasm to participate in the war effort against a national threat.

Sheffield Iris commented at this time, ‘a spirit of unanimity and patriotism, unexampled even in the annals of this favoured country, displays itself among all ranks of people. ‘ On 29th June 1795, in St. George’s Field, crowds gathered to address the King and sing the national anthem. Yet this display of patriotism was not necessary a reflection of Britain as a completely united kingdom. As already stated, an enthusiasm for ‘King and Country’ had been in existence throughout the 18th century as well as being an integral part of one’s identity. Historians have constantly said Britain’s identity was created from being separate from an ‘other,’ or in this instance, France. With the specific threat of Revolutionary France in which Louis XVI had been executed this xenophobic patriotism was emphasised.

However, in practice, this patriotism does not mean regional allegiance was of secondary importance. Rather, the contrary. Colley rightly points out that half of the volunteers were only willing to fight within their locality. ‘National defense patriotism’ as Cookson described it, was regionally based, for example, in Norfolk 600 volunteers were recruited for cattle drives in case of an invasion in that vulnerable area. Furthermore, in 1800 Britain had not yet experienced national-based victories such as Trafalgar or Waterloo. Only after 1800 when Britain stood alone after the failure of numerous alliances, the greater threat from Napoleon plus ongoing war with America, would conscription extend to a national priority rather than a local one.

In 1746 Newcastle said, ‘I am as little partial to [Scotland] as any man alive… however, we must consider that they are within our island. ‘ To the middle and upper classes the 18th century saw social and economic change as part of a conscious plan. It was necessary for these people to merge as one United Kingdom for solidarity against internal threats and for the promotion of their commercial interests. Although national identities in Scotland, Wales and Ireland still existed, the priority of the Kingdom as a whole became paramount. Therefore, through inter-marriage, trade and politics, Great Britain developed with the subsequent erosion of regions and localities. However the experience of national development was a difference experience for members of the lower orders.

It was in essence an ‘intrusion of the fiscal military state’ Therefore, transition from a regionally and locally based identity to a national one was not smooth or straightforward. Often it was not desirable as seen in Land Enclosure or conscription. Therefore, nationalism that did exist was often ‘situational’ and ‘negotiated. ‘ The reluctance or inability to change regional tradition meant that it continued to stay intact, at least up to 1800.

Therefore, whilst for many people Britain was a very real situation, it was a nation made up of many regions that continued for many others, particularly the lower orders, to be the basis for life. 2,084 words


Belchem, John, ‘Thomas Paine,’ at HYPERLINK web web on 30/10/02 Colley, Linda, Britons: Forging the Nations 1707-1837, (New York, 1992) Easley, Clive, British Society and the French Wars, 1793-1815, (London, 1979) Hudson, Pat, The Industrial Revolution, (London, 1992) Kidd, Colin, ‘British Identities before Nationalism,’ at web Mori, Jennifer, Britain in the Age of the French Revolution, (Harlow, 2000) Thompson, E.

P, Customs in Common, (Harmondsworth, 1993).