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Mind your language

The original Little Englanders were anti-imperialists

What lies behind David Cameron’s latest barb for the Brexiteers

18 June 2016

9:00 AM

18 June 2016

9:00 AM

In the art of insult, the sting lies in the adjective, no matter how derogatory the noun. So it is ‘You stupid bastard.’ Last week, David Cameron, by calling opponents of the EU Little Englanders, wanted the epithet little to be transferred to them. He urged voters to say: ‘We don’t want the Little England of Nigel Farage; we want to be Great Britain.’ It recalled a remark from 2014 by Nick Clegg, who actually asked where voters wanted to live — ‘Great Britain or little England?’

Literally, that makes no sense. Great Britain is not a kind of Britain that one would like. It is a geographical term. In 1604 James was proclaimed ‘King of Great Britain’ — Scotland, England and Wales. But what does Little England mean? We can set aside a sense from the Elizabethan period meaning a microcosm of England, or even the part of Pembrokeshire called ‘Little England beyond Wales’. No, the derogatory sense got going in the 1870s. The Little Englanders opposed imperial adventures.


To elucidate the meaning, The Spectator archive is far more useful than the Oxford English Dictionary. In The Spectator, discussion of Little Englandism reached a height between 1890 and 1910. In 1896, Sir Mountstuart Grant Duff (a retired politician) was praised for observing that it was ‘a little silly’ for ‘Englishmen to parcel themselves into Big-Englanders and Little-Englanders, and fly at each others’ throats on the strength of that very unmeaning, because abstract, distinction’. In the same year, The Spectator noted that Gladstone’s dislike of jingoism and his ‘disposition to throw cold water even on colonial progress’ was called by his opponents Little Englandism. Opposition to imperialism is the nub of it. But even half a century later, its character was controverted. ‘There never has been a time when Radicals have naturally been Little Englanders,’ wrote The Spectator’s political columnist Henry Fairlie in 1955. In 1958 the historian Paul Bloomfield wrote of the 1830s: ‘Most Radicals were thorough-paced Little Englanders then as they are now.’

I suppose Mr Cameron means to suggest isolationism. But he chiefly hopes to sound dismissive — as Swift’s Big-Endians were of the Little-Endians of Lilliput.


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