Is England Played Out? by Grant Allen

Story type: Essay

Westminster Gazette, 1 (25 February 1893)

Britain is now the centre of civilisation. Will it always be so? Is our commercial supremacy decaying or not? Have we begun to reach the period of inevitable decline? Or is decline indeed inevitable at all? Might a nation go on being great for ever? If so, are we that nation? If not, have we yet arrived at the moment when retrogression becomes a foregone conclusion? These are momentous questions. Dare I try, under the mimosas on the terrace, to resolve them?

Most people have talked of late as though the palmy days of England were fairly over. The down grade lies now before us. But, then, so far as I can judge, most people have talked so ever since the morning when Hengist and Horsa, Limited, landed from their three keels in the Isle of Thanet. Gildas is the oldest historian of these islands, and his work consists entirely of a good old Tory lament in the Ashmead-Bartlett strain upon the degeneracy of the times and the proximate ruin of the British people. Gildas wrote some fourteen hundred years ago or thereabouts–and the country is not yet quite visibly ruined. On the contrary, it seems to the impartial eye a more eligible place of residence to-day than in the stirring times of the Saxon invasion. Hence, for the last two or three centuries, I have learned to discount these recurrent Jeremiads of Toryism, and to judge the question of our decadence or progress by a more rational standard.

There is only one such rational standard; and that is, to discover the causes and conditions of our commercial prosperity, and then to inquire whether those causes and conditions are being largely altered or modified by the evolution of new phases. If they are, England must begin to decline; if they are not, her day is not yet come. Home Rule she will survive; even the Eight Hours bogey, we may presume, will not finally dispose of her.

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Now, the centre of civilisation is not a fixed point. It has varied from time to time, and may yet vary. In the very earliest historical period, there was hardly such a thing as a centre of civilisation at all. There were civilisations in Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Etruria; discrete civilisations of the river valleys, mostly, which scarcely came into contact with one another in their first beginnings; any more than our own came into contact once with the civilisations of China, of Japan, of Peru, of Mexico. As yet there was no world-commerce, no mutual communication of empire with empire. It was in the AEgean and the eastern basin of the Mediterranean that navigation first reached the point where great commercial ports and free intercourse became possible. The Phoenicians, and later the Greeks, were the pioneers of the new era. Tyre, Athens, Miletus, Rhodes, occupied the centre of the nascent world, and bound together Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece, Sicily, and Italy in one mercantile system. A little later, Hellas itself enlarged, so as to include Syracuse, Byzantium, Alexandria, Cyrene, Cumae, Neapolis, Massilia. The inland sea became “a Greek lake.” But as navigation thus slowly widened to the western Mediterranean basin, the centre of commerce had to shift perforce from Hellas to the mid-point of the new area. Two powerful trading towns occupied such a mid-point in the Mediterranean–Rome and Carthage; and they were driven to fight out the supremacy of the world (the world as it then existed) between them. With the Roman Empire, the circle extended so as to take in the Atlantic coasts, Gaul, Spain, and Britain, which then, however, lay not at the centre but on the circumference of civilisation. During the Middle Ages, when navigation began to embrace the great open sea as well as the Mediterranean, a double centre sprang up: the Italian Republics, Venice, Florence, Genoa, Pisa, were still the chief carriers; but the towns of Flanders, Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp began to compete with them, and the Atlantic states, France, England, the Low Countries, rose into importance. By and by, as time goes on, the discoveries of Columbus and of Vasco di Gama open out new tracks. Suddenly commerce is revolutionised. France, England, Spain, become nearer to America and India than Italy; so Italy declines; while the Atlantic states usurp the first place as the centres of civilisation.

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Our own age brings fresh seas into the circle once more. It is no longer the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, or the Indian Ocean that alone count; the Pacific also begins to be considered. China, Japan, the Cape; Chili, Peru, the Argentine; California, British Columbia, Australia, New Zealand; all of them are parts of the system of to-day; civilisation is world-wide.

Has this change of area altered the central position of England? Not at all, save to strengthen it. If you look at the hemisphere of greatest land, you will see that England occupies its exact middle. Insular herself, and therefore all made up of ports, she is nearer all ports in the world than any other country is or ever can be. I don’t say that this insures for her perpetual dominion, such as Virgil prophesied for the Roman Empire; but I do say it makes her a hard country to beat in commercial competition. It accounts for Liverpool, London, Glasgow, Newcastle; it even accounts in a way for Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, and Sheffield. England now stands at the mathematical centre of the practical world, and unless some Big Thing occurs to displace her, she must continue to stand there. It takes a great deal to upset the balance of an entire planet.

Is anything now displacing her? Well, there is the fact that railways are making land-carriage to-day more important relatively to water-carriage than at any previous period. That may, perhaps, in time shift the centre of the world from an island like England to the middle of a great land area, like Chicago or Moscow. And, no doubt, if ever the centre shifts at all, it will shift towards Western America, or rather the prairie region. But, just at present, what are the greatest commercial towns of the world? All ports to a man. And the day when it will be otherwise, if ever, seems still far distant. Look at the newest countries. What are their great focal points? Every one of them ports. Melbourne and Sydney; Rio, Buenos Ayres, and Valparaiso; Cape Town, San Francisco, Bombay, Calcutta, Yokohama. Chicago itself, the most vital and the quickest grower among modern towns, owes half its importance to the fact that there water-carriage down the Great Lakes begins; though it owes the other half, I admit, to the converse fact that all the great trans-continental railways have to bend south at that point to avoid Lake Michigan. Still, on the whole, I think, as long as conditions remain what they are, the commercial supremacy of England is in no immediate danger. It is these great permanent geographical factors that make or mar a country, not Eight Hours Bills or petty social reconstructions. Said the Lord Mayor of London to petulant King James, when he proposed to remove the Court to Oxford, “May it please your Majesty not to take away the Thames also.”

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“But our competitors? We are being driven out of our markets.” Oh, yes, if that’s all you mean, I don’t suppose we shall always be able in everything to keep up our exclusive position. Our neighbours, who (bar the advantage of insularity, which means a coast and a port always close at hand) seem nearly as well situated as we are for access to the world-markets, are beginning to wake up and take a slice of the cake from us. Germany is manufacturing; Belgium is smelting; Antwerp is exporting; America is occupying her own markets. But that’s a very different thing indeed from national decadence. We may have to compete a little harder with our rivals, that’s all. The Boom may be over; but the Thames remains: the geographical facts are still unaltered. And notice that all the time while there’s been this vague talk about “bad times”–income-tax has been steadily increasing, London has been steadily growing, every outer and visible sign of commercial prosperity has been steadily spreading. Have our watering-places shrunk? Have our buildings been getting smaller and less luxurious? If Antwerp has grown, how about Hull and Cardiff? “Well, perhaps the past is all right; but consider the future! Eight hours are going to drive capital out of the country!” Rubbish! I’m not a political economist, thank God; I never sank quite so low as that. And I’m not speaking for or against Eight Hours: I’m only discounting some verbose nonsense. But I know enough to see that the capital of a country can no more be exported than the land or the houses. Can you drive away the London and North-Western Railway? Can you drive away the factories of Manchester, the mines of the Black Country, the canals, the buildings, the machinery, the docks, the plant, the apparatus? Impossible, on the very face of it! Most of the capital of a country is fixed in its soil, and can’t be uprooted. People fall into this error about driving away capital because they know you can sell particular railway shares or a particular factory and leave the country with the proceeds, provided somebody else is willing to buy; but you can’t sell all the railways and all the factories in a lump, and clear out with the capital. No, no; England stands where she does, because God put her there; and until He invents a new order of things (which may, of course, happen any day–as, for example, if aerial navigation came in) she must continue, in spite of minor changes, to maintain in the main her present position.

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But a truce to these frivolities! The little Italian boy next door calls me to play ball with him, with a green lemon from the garden. Vengo, Luigi, vengo! I return at once to the realities of life, and dismiss such shadows.

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