Britannia’s Unlikely Rise and all too predictable fall

Peter Forbes
Jan 28 · 16 min read

How, in the 19th century, did a small, previously marginal, North West European country manage to install its Queen as Empress of India, the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire? Why didn’t the Mughal Emperor conquer Britain?

This, of course is a deliberate echo of Jared Diamond’s famous question: “Why did Pizarro come to capture Atahuallpa, instead of Atahuallpa’s coming to Spain to capture King Charles I?” It is surprising that Diamond’s geography-first method has not been applied to the singular case of Britain’s one-time role as the world’s greatest power. This is an interesting question per se but it takes on an urgency in the light of the agenda of Boris Johnson’s new government. When Johnson first came to power in July 2019, he selected a group of strongly right-wing MPs for prominent roles in his Cabinet: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel, Kwasi Kwarteng and Liz Truss. We didn’t have to guess the orientation of these newcomers because in 2012 they had jointly written a manifesto entitled Britannia Unchained. The thrust of this was that Britain had to become a bustling buccaneer country again as it had been at its peak. The route to this was Thatcher plus: more deregulation, a further shrinking of the state. All this would unleash the energy that had once made Britain great — so it claimed.

But history doesn’t repeat itself like this and to understand why the Britannia Unchained programme is fatuous we need to answer the pseudo Jared Diamond question. There have been plenty of attempts to anatomise Britain’s post World War 2 decline. Indeed, even as far back as the 1890s, commentators were agonizing that Britain was being overtaken by Germany and America. But what answer would most Britons, before 1945, have given to the question “Why did Britain become the most powerful nation the earth had seen? I think most, high and low, either explicitly or implicitly, would have answered: because we earned it; we deserved it. The very fact of Britain’s dominance from, say, the 1850s on, derailed any reflective enquiry. We have rightwing historians of Empire, such as Niall Ferguson, who essentially, but with more data, give the same answer. But the absurdity of that response has been exposed by the manner in which other countries have caught up with and often surpassed the UK. The unstated premise of all studies of Britain’s “decline” since the days of supposed Imperial glory is that it is an aberration, a falling away from the natural state of things: Britain’s superiority.

But nowhere was it ordained that Britain should become the major power in the world: it happened for a reason, or rather reasons. Where should we start in charting the true causes of Britain’s rise? Why did we have so far to fall? The last phase of the ascendancy came from Britain becoming the first fully industrialized state. Plenty of historians have investigated the reasons for that. They all lie in prior conditions. In the 1760s Britain, much smaller than France, the dominant European power, was a successful mercantile country with some colonial possessions (although about to lose America) and a lively share of world trade. It was also undergoing an agricultural revolution, both as a response to and a stimulus for population growth. The immediate cause of industrialization is generally taken to be a result of this burgeoning population in a small cold island where wood was in big demand for heating, cooking, construction and building the ships for Britain’s large navy. The upshot was that Britain was becoming deforested. As it happened, the country was sitting on a mountain of wood’s perfect substitute for some of those uses: coal. This had been extracted ever since Roman times but easily mined coal seams were being worked out. Deeper mines were needed but flooding prevented their exploitation. The steam engine was originally developed to pump out such deep mines to allow more coal to be dug. This was successful and then of course it became apparent that these machines could do so much more: they could power any machine, facilitating the rise of a textile industry that could out-compete any in the world at the time. Then came the railways.

All of this is well mapped but why was pre-Indusial Britain growing so fast it depleted its natural resources? Why didn’t another northern European country dig deeper for coal and hence pioneer the age of steam?

In the Middle Ages, Britain had been a remote European outpost. By the 16th century it had grown in all ways: splitting from the Roman Church, engaging (belatedly) in the European Renaissance, and playing a full part in the European voyages of discovery, conquest and plunder, but at first no more so than Spain, France and Holland, its main rivals.

In the 17th century, several major developments occurred that many commentators believe to be crucial to Britain’s rise. The overthrow of the monarchy in 1640, and the radical turbulence of the following decades led to a political settlement in 1690 in which the seeds of liberal government was established for the first time in the world. Some historians trace Britain’s subsequent pre-eminence to a constellation of factors that grew from this political settlement. For Niall Ferguson, there are six “killer Apps: Competition, Science, Property, Modern Medicine, Consumerism and the Work Ethic”.

But all of these were equally Dutch traits — indeed the King of England was an imported Dutchman, William of Orange, and the English Fens had been drained during the 17th century by Dutch engineers. So what brought these two neighbouring small countries in northwest Europe to this pitch and why did Britain eventually dominate?

One historian has attempted a suite of explanations to account for Britain’s rise: Ian Morris in Why the West Rules: For Now. Morris argues that Britain was the best placed country in Europe to be the first industrial power, citing higher wages, more coal, stronger finance, and arguably more open institutions and, having beaten off France and Holland, “more colonies, trade, and warships”. But although Morris is to some extent a disciple of Jared Diamond, he is a pure historian; he doesn’t delve into the prehistory, genes and adaptations that I believe are necessary to account for Europe, and ultimately, Britain’s anomalous success.

But there is a narrative that has emerged from studying our genes that can explain northern Europe’s eclipsing of the Mediterranean cultures, eventually arriving at a point with Britain at the top of the pile. There is a time in the past to which we can return and then work forward. Now we are not unravelling complex recent history but starting effectively from scratch. This is a point not too far back when nothing that possibly could have contributed to Britain’s rise existed.

You might have noticed that 10,000 years is a number often cited now: “what distinguishes us from them [human hunter gatherers of the Pleistocene] is the knowledge we have accumulated over the last 10,000 years” (Stephen Hawking); “If you want to know how bison, chimpanzees, or birds lived 10,000 years ago you need only study how they live now (in the wild). But for humans, you would learn nothing by that method.” (David Deutsch).

What’s so special about 10,000 years ago? It was of course the birth of farming: of the cultivation and domestication of crops and the herding and exploitation of animals for meat, burden, and eventually, rather crucially as we shall see, milk and milk products. The whole concept of civilisation began in this Big Bang around 10,000 years ago. Before that archaeologists chart human progress in micro-refinements in the design of flint heads.

Ten thousand years ago, Britain was still attached to Europe and the ice was still retreating following the huge global event of 11,600 years ago when the world warmed by perhaps 7o C worldwide (in Greenland where we have ice core data it warmed by 10 o C). But there was nothing much to see in Britain then; around the time of the birth of farming it was only just becoming fit for permanent human settlement again after the Neanderthals had become extinct in Britain around 40,000 years ago.

We don’t need to investigate the all-too-many waves of cultures and innovations of the last 10,000 years to spot the crucial thread that leads to Britain. The big picture revealed by archaeology and eventually written history is of an arcing movement of successive civilisations in the direction South East to North West. So the Middle Eastern civilisation ceded to Greece, to Rome, then the so called Dark Ages of Germanic cultures and the emergence from obscurity of dominant Western European civilisations. Why this clear southeast to northwest trend?

What has illuminated and changed the picture has been the evidence of genomics, both from ancient DNA and living populations. There is a single mutation in modern humans that has spread to dominance faster than any other so far discovered: the gene that allows adults to drink milk. And the proportion of the population who have the gene also increases in that arc from south east to north west.

In 2003 it was discovered that the source of the ability to drink animal milk throughout adulthood, common in modern Europeans, derived from a single base mutation in the gene controlling lactose digestion. The mutation was originally dated to around 7500 years ago. This immediately suggested that the ability to digest milk began to spread through dairying populations from this point on.

This process is very incomplete across the globe, ranging from less than 10% in East Asia, around 30 % in northern India and southern Europe, rising in an arc from the south-east to the northeast to over 90% in Britain, Holland and Scandinavia.

The cultural practice of cattle rearing and milk drinking and the lactose tolerance gene co-evolved. This was an example of synergy, or positive feedback. The milk culture did not begin with someone who had the mutation wandering out to look for a cow to milk. In a community with cattle, those with the mutation would have an advantage which then reinforced the attraction of keeping dairy cattle, and so on.

Recent evidence, as more and more samples of ancient DNA are sequenced, shows that the spread of the lactose tolerance gene didn’t really begin take off until 5000 years ago. It is associated with the spread of a dominant migratory culture, originating in the shores of the Black and Caspian seas and then travelling both west across the great grassland plain of the steppe across western Europe and east to northern India. These people, known as the Yamnaya, developed a culture, initially nomadic, of herding; they used wheeled wagons and could move fast. Eventually, they had war chariots. They began to drink the milk of their animals, horses as well as cattle and goats.

When the agricultural revolution began in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia, Europe, populated by hunter gatherers, was still slowly recovering from the last Ice Age. The rapid spread of the lactose tolerance gene demonstrates how successful the new farming culture was. In the world of 5000 years ago, in Europe, to be able to drink milk conferred a huge advantage. You could keep animals alive during hard winters and drink the milk. The population grew and large populations mean two things that promote economic development: innovation and pressure on resources. These two works together to lift a society to a higher level and this is what happened in Western Europe. The dairying culture began on the steppe but as the pastoralists migrated north eastward they felled the forests to create pasture land in the increasingly temperate climate.

The new genomic evidence brings intriguing evidence to bear on this article’s opening question: why Britain and not India? Wherever the Yamnaya genes are found, milk drinking and Indo-European language are found. All of the main northern Indian languages — including Hindi, Urdu and Bengali — are Indo-European and northern Indians have a relatively high degree of lactose tolerance — around 30%.

In the case of Britain, around 4500 years ago, post Stonehenge, 90% of the population was replaced by the migrant Bell Beaker culture, which was the westernmost wave of the Yamnaya migrations. The Greek historian and geographer Strabo (c. 63/64 BCE — 24 CE), who lived in Rome, wrote of the Ancient Britons: “Their habits are… simple and barbaric…some of them, although well supplied with milk, make no cheese”. Caesar echoed this: “Most of the island inhabitants do not sow corn, but live on milk and flesh”.

So if the Yamnaya brought milk drinking and their language to both India and Britain why was it Britain that claimed India as part of its Empire and not the reverse? More geography of course. The milk gene spread through a pioneering northern European population following the retreating ice. No such frontier imperative existed in the much hotter India. Interestingly for the history of the Industrial Revolution, India was in the vanguard of iron smelting in the second millenniu BCE. Northern India had quite a package: the milk gene, the Indo-Europe language, iron, but something was missing.

The growing populations of Europe had one more migration to make: across the Atlantic. From the late 15th century, Europe’s growing population began to look to its coasts and beyond. The discovery of the Americas began from Spain and Portugal, so the arc of civilisation hadn’t at this time moved far from Rome. But as time went on, the countries with more western coastline became dominant. Britain being the only large island in Europe, inevitably, became a major player in the colonisations that followed the voyages of discovery and plunder.

Germany might always have seemed the country most likely to dominate Europe but Germany is a mostly landlocked country, part of the Central Europe that did not participate in the early voyages and colonisation. The two dominant European exploring and colonizing powers were Britain and Holland, the ones dominated by coastline. Holland was a serious rival to Britain in the 17th century: culturally and scientifically more advanced but much smaller. Britain learnt a lot from Holland but, in the end size matters.

Scandinavian countries might have been contenders but, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland are small countries and inhospitable over too great an area. As an island, Britain was able to avoid further invasions following the successive migrations and conquest that ended in 1066.

Britain’s population growth in the 18th century far outstripped that of France. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, at the beginning of the 19th century, Britain, once a very poor relation of France, had become its equal. Between 1750 and 1900 the British population grew six fold whereas that of France rose by only 56%. The French were very aware of the importance the British attached to cattle, hence the tag “les Rosbifs”. It would not have occurred to them that the Brits’ secret weapon was not the meat of the animal but the milk.

Britain’s loss of its American colony hardly dented is increasing dominance. Its transatlantic trade developed a fiendishly successful and abhorrent nature during the years of the slave trade. In a triple shuttle, ships would leave for Africa with traded goods; from there they would pick up slaves to be shipped to the Caribbean and America, and from there return to Britain with the sugar and other products from the plantations. And American cotton was process in Lancashire for export to the burgeoning Jewel in the Crown: India. No other country had such a command of world trade. This system really was Britannia Unchained but it was reliant on slaves who were chained. The Britannia Unchained cabal’s talk of “buccaneering” evokes some very unpleasant associations.

So the answer we have been leading up to that can account for Britain’s rise is: milk plus geography — “milk” standing for the pastoral culture that started in the steppes and swept through Europe leaving its genes as the dominant strand in today’s populations and fuelling dramatic population growth; and geography meaning all the advantages that accrue to an island whose population is growing fast and seeking new frontiers further west

The idea that geography is major determinant of cultural development is the controversial thesis of Jared Diamond. When Diamond wrote Guns, Germs and Steel in 1997 there was no genomics to flesh out the details of crop and animal evolution and human genetic development and migration. All this, especially in the work of Svante Pääbo at Leipzig and David Reich at Harvard has massively corroborated his thesis.

Guns, Germs and Steel. The future was with the North West in Europe and North America because the new culture was more powerful than the olive and the vine. Roman culture was Iron Age Culture but iron really becomes dominant only when it is used to produce machines and the Romans never discovered sophisticated metal machinery. The country that did, of course, was Britain.

It’s hard to believe now — because the singing of Rule Britannia at the Proms has become a pathetic embarrassment — Britain having turned her back on the sea, but the industrial revolution plus Britain’s worldwide trading outlets and colonies conspired to produce a dominant global civilisation of a kind the world had never seen. In 1900 Britain had around 50% of world trade.

Although a confluence of factors favoured Britain’s’ emergence as a world power, this dominance was not inevitable. China might have been the world’s dominant power for the last 500 years, not merely the coming power of this century, but for an apparently crazy decision to destroy its fleet, then the largest in the world. By 1525 they had all gone. China turned inwards for almost 400 years. We see today many countries with huge potential resources dragged down by corruption and bad politics. Britain could, at any stage of the process, have squandered its natural advantages. Like the Chinese emperor, Britain’s rulers could have looked the steam-based industrial culture in the eye and rejected it: no Satanic mills here, let’s keep our green Jerusalem. Indeed, there was a feeble attempt to do this. Many landowners refused to allow the railways through their land. In the ancient bastions of Oxford and Cambridge the railway was kept well away from the dreaming spires. But this was only token resistance: money and the prospect of power were too alluring.

Britain capitalised on its fantastic good luck of being the right place at the right time. It couldn’t have done this 5000 years ago when the Pharaohs ruled and — whatever the Britannia Unchained fanatics say — it can’t do it now. Another great civilisation that passed has the answer to that: “We do not step in the same stream twice” (Heraclitus). Britain’s reign was inevitably going to be very short.

The benefits of geography still exist in the globalized world but under the schema of this article it’s clear that the advantages that accrued to Britain no longer count. Coal is a liability; Britons have not only turned their backs on the sea but also on the industry that powered their rise. Britain still ranks high as a scientific nation (second only to America in Nobel prizes) but that is increasingly due to the munificent hospitality of the universities to foreign scientists. You can walk into labs in Britain where English is the lingua franca but not a single person speaks it as a first language. Young Britons reject science as a career choice; film and stand-up are their obsessions; humanities is what they study and they aspire to enter the world of arts and entertainment. Of course the law and finance are also always lures but they are subservient to Britain’s “nothing knowingly made here” offshore, extractive over-financialised culture which is the only logical outcome of the Britannia Unchained cabal’s. Programme. Science and technology worldwide are increasing dominated by those of Indian and Chinese descent, who have the scientific and technological zeal that Britons have lost.

In the globalized world, geography counts for less than it did. It took only a century for the tables to be turned on Britain’s annexation of India as its “Jewel in the Crown”. In 2007 India’s Tata Steel bought former commanding height of the British economy British Steel. Not quite a perfect reversal of roles but heavily symbolic nonetheless.

The overturning of much of Britain’s history up to this point is a running theme in British life. Milk may have made us but that too is facing intense scrutiny: “Whether for health issues, animal welfare or the future of the planet, ‘alt-milks’ have never been more popular. Are we approaching dairy’s final days?” asked Tim Lewis in an Observer feature. Of course, the modern diet is rightly coming into question: it exacts a huge toll in terms of environmental damage (animal farming is a major contributor to global warming) and human health. So just as the “rosbif” that the French identified as a British not-so secret weapon has become the villain that destroys forests and contributes to the toll of human cancer, milk is similarly under a cloud.

Just as Britain has lost all the natural geographical advantages that made it so powerful (as Venice did when the trade routes shifted), it is likely that all of the factors that assisted the rise of technological civilisation over the last 10,000 years are not operative in a globalised world dominated by IT and uncontrolled capital flows. But whatever our future, the story of how we got to this point matters. False national narratives have always fuelled catastrophes. The British mistook their temporary good fortune for perpetual entitlement. The new government, with Unchained Britannics at the helm, speak of “unleashing Britain’s potential”. But what is the game plan? It was once brutally simple: Empire plus Industry. The would-be unchainers of Britannia don’t seem to care much about industry but they do have a hankering for Empire. To paraphrase Steve Jobs when asked by Barack Obama about the possibility of repatriating IT jobs to America: the Empire is not coming back. Having enacted a gruesome withdrawal from the Europe which powered her to prominence and to which she inexorably belongs, the fantasy of unchaining Britannia would seem to be game plan.

As I write, the direction the Johnson government will take is still unclear. Early moves may be feints to wrong foot expectations encouraged by the years of Brexit propaganda and the Election campaign, or might they really be trying to signal that all that was just to win the Election? — now you can see what we’re really going to do! In January, The excellent commentator John Harris reported in the Guardian “a long conversation with a senior minister” who claimed that the mood music of the Conservative Party ahd changed with all those Northern former Labour seats to keep happy: “Things like Britannia Unchained…that’s all off the agenda”, he said. But Johnson’s slogan “Unleash Britain’s potential” is the Unchainer’s song. If there is a Plan B, we await it’s unveiling.

No bounty awaits as we enter the pointless, self-harming secession of Brexit. We need to own our true history — one in which we capitalised brilliantly, ruthlessly and often in ways that we now find abhorrent, on a fortuitous array of natural advantages — and to soberly find our place in a world in which many other countries are better favoured.

Peter Forbes

Written by

I write about biomimicry and nanoscience in books and review science books for the Guardian and Independent. Teach Narrative Non-fiction at City University.

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