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Is England Played Out?
by [?]

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.”

“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.

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.