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Monday, April 21, 2014

Proud Little Englander

Words from Victorian England continue to haunt advocates of freedom and peace

A battle of words from Victorian England continues to haunt advocates of freedom and peace in the 21st century.

British Sky Broadcasting's An Idiot Abroad is the latest attempt by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the creators of the BBC's The Office, to find humor in humiliating and ridiculing their friend Karl Pilkington—this time by sending him around the world to “experience” other cultures.

Merchant explains: “He is a typical Little Englander and he doesn't like going out of his comfort zone.”

In the context, it’s clear what he means, but I had never heard the term Little Englander used that way. The word comes down to us from the history of classical liberalism, where the British hawks called the anti-interventionist opponents of the British Empire “Little Englanders” to distinguish them from the true patriots of Great Britain.

The 20th-century equivalent smear, used both in the United Kingdom and the United States, is “isolationist”—implying that the opponents of an expansive interventionist foreign policy are trying to shut out the rest of the world, bury our heads in the sand, and attempt to wish away the impositions of an ever more global culture. By implication, it is the interventionists who are cosmopolitan and internationalist.

Merchant's use of the Little Englander epithet is a tiny, throwaway line, not at all the emphasis of the show—although it does get repeated in every episode of the first season, since it's part of the opening.

So why should we care? Isn't this just another example of how language changes over time with shifts in political and historical context?

Not quite. A quick Internet search suggests that while both meanings are current, the primary definition is still anti-imperialist, followed by the “colloquial” usage that means xenophobic.

Two recent examples of the term's use in British magazines illustrate this semantic divergence.

The Economist

In “Great Britain or Little England?” The Economist magazine frets that “Britain is on the way to becoming more solvent but also more insular,” opining that “the trick for Britain in the future will be to combine a smaller, more efficient state with a more open attitude to the rest of the world.”

Apparently, a “more open attitude” would take the form not of voluntary exchange between free individuals across international borders, but rather of precisely the sort of governmental intervention that classical liberals disparaged as “foreign entanglement.”

One irony is that The Economist is itself a descendent of the original Little Englanders. The magazine traces its lineage back to the Anti–Corn Law League, the early free-trade manifestation of the Manchester School.

The classical-liberal Manchester School is remembered most for its opposition to protectionism, which was rightly perceived in the 19th century as a way to tax the poor to benefit the landed aristocracy. The Economist has not remained a liberal publication in this historically libertarian sense, but it has generally honored its free-trade roots. Has it lost track of the other side of the Manchester coin—opposition to war, imperialism, and foreign entanglements?


In contrast to The Economist's conflation of anti-interventionism and xenophobia, Spiked magazine ran a piece last fall by Patrick West called “A 'Little Englander' and proud.”

Unlike Merchant or The Economist, our Spiked author does address the history: “The term 'Little Englander' was coined in the late-nineteenth century, an imperialist slur directed at members of the Liberal Party who were opposed to the Second Boer War (1899–1902).”

And the article's subtitle highlights the irony of the ahistorical colloquialism: “Ignore the jibes of the pro-intervention crew: it's the Little Englanders and 'isolationists' who are the true internationalists.”

What was lost?

So what are we to make of this irony, these opposed connotations of nationalist bigotry on the one hand and peaceful internationalism on the other, wrapped up in a single term?

For one thing, the contrast is no accident—no more than it is an accident that the term liberal can mean left- or right-wing, pro- or anti-market, an advocate of hard capitalism or soft socialism, depending on the context and the speaker.

At the time of the Manchester School, when the slur Little Englander was being coined, the term liberal unambiguously meant a reformer who wanted to dismantle the conservative status quo. Liberals were unequivocally in favor of individual freedom, open borders, free trade, and international capitalism in its anti-Mercantilist and anti-Marxist sense. They opposed big government, high taxes, tariffs, political privileges, and all but the most limited and purely defensive war.

It was this final value—a principled preference for peace over war—that led the interventionists to coin the term Little Englander. Liberalism, as a term and as an ideology, was too popular for the conservatives and socialists to attack it directly. Socialists therefore connived to appropriate the term through redefinition. Conservatives, in contrast, attacked the liberals' patriotism with the dichotomy of Great Britain and Little England.

There is a division within libertarianism over the question of vocabulary and the importance of semantic positioning. While some debate the definition of, for example, capitalism or patriotism, others argue that it is folly to get stuck in struggles over terminology. Explain what you mean, the latter contend, and don't worry over the words.

I understand why the semantic quibbling can seem both endless and pointless, but the lesson I take from the linguistic history of our movement, broadly defined, is that the words do matter. The slurs work, and their effects can still be felt over a century later, when the specific debates have long been forgotten. 

So what was lost in the imperialists' semantic victory with the term Little Englander? Why should we care if an entertainer uses it to signal his friend's parochialism? What does it mean for the future of freedom when we have reached the point where even The Economist, without any apparent irony, uses a term of derision that was originally aimed at its founders—and uses it in keeping with the worldview of the political interventionists the magazine was founded to oppose?

What was lost was the connection in the public mind between the philosophy of freedom and a policy of peace. To be pro-capitalism and anti-poverty strikes our contemporaries as perverse. A philosophy that is pro-market and anti-war creates cognitive dissonance in today's mainstream, and yet these values were assumed to go together at the height of our movement's popularity and effectiveness. In letting our opponents, both on the left and the right, redefine the terms of the debate, we have allowed ourselves to descend to the position where we constantly have to explain what we don't mean.

This is not to say that we should let ourselves be derailed by terminological disputes. But neither should we let go of our history—or the language of that history.

The principled advocates of liberty can even reclaim, I hope, some of the terms used against us—anarchism, capitalism, isolationism, among others. That these terms can cause misunderstanding is not sufficient reason to abandon them. Everything about our philosophy can cause misunderstanding among the uninitiated.

I look forward to the day when we can join Spiked in proclaiming ourselves proud Little Englanders (whether we have any personal connection to England or not) and be understood to stand for cosmopolitan open-mindedness, individual liberty, and a policy of peace.