British Steel and the end of Britishness

For patriots who base their pride in Britain on her history, the recent collapse of her manufacturing industry should be a heavy blow; much more so than the fall of the Empire, which was never – as I once spent a 475-page book trying to explain – of very great interest to the great mass of Britons, let alone of pride. It is only in recent years that ‘imperialism’ has loomed so large in our retrospective self-identity; and also in foreigners’ ideas about us, for the understandable reason that it was British activities in the wider world that impinged on them most. It’s also convenient, if you’re feeling unfriendly towards us Brits, to be able to associate us with something which is so widely deplored today. I won’t go into this here; you have those 475 pages to look forward to if you’re interested.

But what does that leave? If it wasn’t her imperial dominion which made old Britons puff out their little chests as they sang ‘Rule Britannia’ (I’ll explain that away some other time; it had nothing to do with empire), then what was it? Not her culture, surely. Just about everyone conceded primacy here to the Continentals. (I’ve written about this, too.) Certainly not banking. And obviously not her weather, or her food. God no.

In fact what elevated Britain above all other nations in her own eyes, in the nineteenth century and at any rate the beginning of the twentieth, were two other proud accomplishments. Firstly there were her ‘liberties’. (‘Britons never never never shall be slaves.’) ‘Freedom’ is of course a slippery word: one person’s ‘freedom’ is, or can involve, another’s ‘slavery’; and it is obvious that very many Britons lost out on it, in practical terms, in the nineteenth century. Then it was mainly defined, negatively, as the absence of government, which did women and the working classes, for example, few favours. It needed the socialists to put that right. Still, ‘freedom’ was supposed to be the great quality that distinguished most Britons from most foreigners. Even the workers and women paid obeisance to that.

Britain’s second great distinction was her industry. The ‘industrial revolution’ started there, of course. (Does this need to be said? I’m told some Americans believe it started in the USA.) It rested mainly on steam power and mass production, and transformed Britain in nearly every way within the space of a very few years, before spreading into the world  – usually not through the agency of formal empire, by the way. Look at those maps of the British rail network at the end of the nineteenth century – far more ubiquitous than maps of the British Empire: the whole country criss-crossed with lines carrying heavy, snorting, smoking steam locomotives. (There’s a big one in Hull Paragon station, Platform 2.)

Britons were immensely proud of these. Look at the ‘Great Exhibition’ of 1851: celebrating Britain’s industrial pre-eminence above everything, far more than her empire, and by contrast with the effeminate ‘art’ productions that the Continent chose to display. I personally remember this pride, watching these great steam beasts from the ends of cold, dirty railway platforms, as I ‘spotted’ their numbers, and crossed them off in my little Charles Allen (?) booklets. Even today, the sight a couple of weeks ago on television of the restored ‘Flying Scotsman’ steaming from King’s Cross to York aroused in me a nostalgia for the power we used to have: solid mechanical power, not the sort exerted over benighted natives; expressed also in the cars and ships and airplanes and factory machinery we used to produce, in huge quantities, until a relatively short time ago. That’s all gone now; replaced by cheap Asian manufactures, tatty diesel trains like the ones that carry me from Hull to Doncaster, and the fragile ‘service’ – or should it be ‘servile? – industries now apparently underpinning our economy.

With it have gone the myriad of values and images that were associated with heavy industry. Hard work. Muscle. Honest dirt. Invention. Enterprise. Honesty. Solidity. Masculinity, if you like. The co-operation and community we associated with industrial trade unionism. The sort of heroism one attributes to the great engineers, and which it’s difficult to see in hedge fund managers. But above all, an essential element of ‘Britishness’, as it was conceived in our industrial heyday.

I understand some of the reasons for this, especially ‘globalisation’: or – alternatively – our too ready acceptance of it, from Thatcher on. It might have been inevitable. I’m not saying. But, as an Englishman who still remembers the old proud industrial Britain – I once worked at Fords in Dagenham – I still miss my steam locomotives, quite desperately.

And now our already diminished steel industry seems about to disappear. That must be the end. And a far sadder one, patriotically, than the largely unnoticed decline and fall of the Empire.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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1 Response to British Steel and the end of Britishness

  1. Andrew Rosthorn says:

    Your little book of engine numbers was published by Ian Allan [29 June 1922; died 28 June 2015]


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