The Hanoverians were the most successful of all Britain’s dynasties: German monarchs chosen by the British people. When George I became King exactly three hundred years ago, it was not by divine right but by the Act of Settlement of 1701, passed by both the English and the Scottish Parliaments. This Act had led inexorably to the Parliamentary Union of 1707 that fully united Scotland with England and Wales to ensure that there would be no remnant of support for the displaced Stuarts. The attempt by James II’s son,the Old Pretender, to supplant George I by invading North Britain, the home of his Scottish ancestors, in 1715, ended in farce. The Union is a corollary of the Hanoverian succession and the Hanoverian era was the time of England’s long and productive love affair with those two models of Protestant probity and intellectual eminence, the Germans and the Scots.
In 1714 Britain was a small, unimportant, offshore island on the edge of Europe. It had only recently emerged from decades of internal strife and political instability. But by 1837 when Queen Victoria came to the throne Britain was the world’s first superpower. Britain dominated the trade of the entire globe and her powerful navy, as big as that of any two of her rivals put together, policed the oceans. When Queen Victoria died the British Empire was the largest ever seen, with a bigger population than China and a bigger land mass than Russia, an empire with a reach and impact that made those of Macedon, Rome or Spain seem trivial. Under the Hanoverians Britain became the world’s very first modern commercial and industrial nation by the end of the eighteenth century and went on to be the workshop of the world in the first half of the nineteenth century and the world’s great banker and investor in the second. The Hanoverians were our golden age. Everything before them was provincial and everything since then has been decline. The Hanoverian monarchs were successful not because of what they did but because of what they did not do. They refrained from meddling in the lives of ordinary people and allowed them freedom to trade and manufacture, to speak their minds, to travel and to create their own institutions. The great merit of the first Hanoverian, George I, was that he was a German who could speak no English and was more interested in his native Hanover than in Britain. He did nothing and the British people did everything. George I knew full well that the terms of his being chosen as King in preference to the descendants of James II were to guarantee that Britain would have a Protestant monarch who accepted the constitutional limits on his power and he very sensibly kept out of things. George II was also born in Germany; he spoke English, but as his third or possibly fourth language. He spent his summers in Hanover where he proved to be a capable soldier, took little interest in British domestic politics and followed the advice of his sensible and intelligent German wife Caroline of Brandenburg-Anspach. She was Regent when he was away and worked closely with the leaders of the British parliament. German hands-off meant good and minimal government for Britain.
The reigns of the first four Georges were good for England but even better for Scotland. Had there been no Hanoverian stability and prosperity there would have been no Scottish Enlightenment, no great age of Adam Smith, David Hume, Colin Maclaurin, Robert Adam, Joseph Black, James Hutton and Allan Ramsay. It was an age of remarkable Scottish achievement rooted in the Scots’ distinctive systems of education and religion (now long defunct) but it required English governance and German kings to allow it to emerge and flourish.
George II’s German-speaking younger son and godson of the King of Prussia was William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. By his victory at Culloden in 1746 and the forceful Prussian pacification of the Highlands that followed he made God-fearing, civilized, thriving, commercial Lowland Scotland safe for ever from the raiders, plunderers and extortionists of the wild North. The last remnants of tribal and feudal Britain had been extirpated and Britain in its entirety became a modern market-based society. Culloden and Adam Smith made Mrs Thatcher not just possible but inevitable.
George III was not really German enough and his strong British patriotism and sincere Anglicanism caused problems. Yet as a man he embodied the virtues of his age through his passionate interest in agriculture and science. Farmer George was a keen sheep breeder, who had Spanish merinos illegally smuggled out of their native country to cross with British sheep and improve their genetic stock, and he wrote about improving the land for agricultural periodicals. He founded the Royal Academy of Arts and his vast collection of books today forms the heart of the British Library. He was well-educated in the arts and the sciences, could mend a watch and turn a lathe, and had his own astronomical observatory. George III’s virtues are summed up in a single portrait, Johann Zoffany’s John Cuff and his Assistant, 1772, showing the king’s telescope and microscope maker grinding a lens in his workshop. How many kings of that era would have honoured a scientific craftsman in this way? We should cherish the memory of the quiet and frugal domestic life of George III, a king with no mistresses, no bastards and no debts. It was in George III’s reign that James Watt’s improved steam engine with its condenser made possible the industrial revolution. Watt was a pure Scottish genius but it took the Englishman Matthew Boulton’s entrepreneurship and capital to bring his invention to market. It was another Anglo-Scottish triumph and today Boulton and Watt appear on the Bank of England’s £50 note while their godfather Adam Smith is there on the twenty, a tribute to the Hanoverian Scots.
The culmination of Britain’s greatness occurred under Queen Victoria. It was our final era of Caledonian and Teutonic glory. Queen Victoria herself was a strong upholder of the cult of the Germans and the Scots. Most of Victoria’s ancestors were German, since the little kingdoms of Germany provided the only sizeable reservoir of Protestant princesses and princelings who alone were suitable spouses for British royalty. Victoria’s mother was a German princess and her governess the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. It was not entirely surprising when at the age of twenty Victoria fell in love with, proposed to and married her most worthy cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, Albert the Good, with whom she always spoke German at home. Albert was the very embodiment of German industriousness and earnestness, well shown in his planning of the Great Exhibition of 1851 that celebrated Britain’s industrial supremacy. King in all but name, Albert was a keen supporter of science and technical education and had he lived longer would have helped to head off many of the problems that now haunt us.
Victoria and Albert were obsessed with the Scottish Highlands and made a home at Balmoral with tartan linoleum and a full-sized statue of Albert in a kilt. Albert the German loved shooting and he loved Scotland. The descendants of the hapless crofters, evicted from their holdings by their old clan chieftains, who after 1746 had turned into profit-seeking landlords, now found new employment as stalkers and ghillies, gamekeepers and beaters. These new tame Highlanders had been converted by Lowland missionaries to a strict Calvinism and proved enthusiasts for the creation of the Free Church in 1843. Their fundamentalist adherence to the Bible was to lead to the heresy trial of William Robertson Smith and his retreat to Cambridge. They were rigidly sabbatarian and foes to all ungodly fun. They were the most Scottish of the Scots and the Scots were in turn the most Victorian of the Victorians, the most British of the British in their fierce adherence to Protestant morality. Scotland, the very embodiment of Max Weber’s Protestant ethic, produced engineers, missionaries and doctors and provided the world with ships, locomotives and cotton thread. The British Empire was thoroughly Scottish from Nova Scotia to Otago. Scots ran commerce from the jute trade in Bengal to the fur trade in Canada. The Scots saw themselves as confidently superior and loudly proclaimed the fact whenever given the chance. ‘Here’s tae us; Wha’s like us.’
It is no accident that one of the greatest Scotsmen of all time, James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), a born-again Christian, flourished in this golden afternoon of the Hanoverian era. Maxwell explained the rings of Saturn, made thermodynamics precise and invented colour photography. The whole of modern science and technology is based on Maxwell’s equations, which unified our understanding of electricity, magnetism and light in a single system. The equations predicted the existence of radio waves and X-rays and the constancy of the speed of light in a vacuum, the basis, as Einstein himself recognized, of the theory of relativity. The Nobel prize-winner Richard Feynman has written that ten thousand years from now ‘there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics’. Yet it took England to nurture Maxwell, who when a student at Edinburgh University was seen as a teuchter, a dumb rustic, and was later sacked from his professorship by the unappreciative University of Aberdeen, which forced him to move first to King’s College London and then to Cambridge. A leading poet writing in Scots in our own time, Professor Keith Moffatt, has lamented that:
They ca’d him ‘dafty’ at the scule,
An’ that, we’ld think was awfie cruel…
Redundant in the granite city
An’ spurned by En’bro’, mair’s the pity,
He ended up awa’ doon South.
Without England Scotland is nothing. With England it has been everything. The union of the two countries during the Hanoverian years was the most fruitful in human history. Today the political leaders of an enfeebled Scotland with its collapsing national church,
predicted to die in 2033, and a bankrupt economy are seeking to turn its back on the glorious days of Hanover and go back to where it was in 1700. Scottish nationalism is both an admission of Scotland’s failure and an attempt to deny it.
Within thirteen years of the death of Queen Victoria, the grandmother of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Britain was at war with Germany, a fratricidal war that ruined both countries. Behind it lay the malice of the wayward and decadent Edward VII, who earlier in life had wilfully dropped out of the moral and intellectual educational programme designed for him by his wise German father Albert the Good. Edward was jealous of Germany’s economic and scientific success and loathed his nephew. He was a lover of the decadent culture of Paris where in his favourite brothel, Le Chabanais, he liked having sex with two women at once, though on account of his excessive portliness only with the help of a special chair and ropes and pulleys. It was Edward VII, a great meddler in foreign affairs, who was mainly responsible for the alliance with France, the Entente Cordiale of 1904, the details of which were not debated in parliament or revealed to the public. How much better for the world it would have been if Edward had been gay and sought the company of the Kaiser’s confidential associates, his camarilla of cinnaedi, who were very much that way inclined. As it was, Edward’s intrigues led Britain into the FirstWorld War, the first conflict since the Hundred Years War to lead to debt and decline.
Today Britain is back where it was in 1714, a tiny offshore island whose share of the world’s total trade and production is about what it was three hundred years ago. The official state newspaper of China, the Beijing Global Times, forcibly pointed this out to our chief commercial drummer, Mr Cameron, on his visit to the world’s new leading country when it called Britain ‘just an old European country, fit only for tourists and students’. The Hanoverian glory has gone and political correctness decrees that past greatness should not be mentioned, which is why we should now make a point of celebrating their memory – our memory.
(This article by Christie Davies, published in ‘The Salisbury Review’ Spring 2014, is reproduced with permission)