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Is England Played Out?
by [?]

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.

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.