Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 September 2009
Politics is, essentially, a matter of words.Pierre Bourdieu In Other Words
This book came out of thinking about the awkwardness of a particular phrase, the lumbering “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland,” which names the equally awkward new polity that came into being on 1 January 1801. Oddly enough, neither the phrase nor the reconfigured polity has received a great deal of attention in British Romantic studies despite ongoing interest in the construction of a new national consciousness around the turn of the century, when the imperial nation-state was at once expanding and defending itself. Whereas “Great Britain” and “Britishness” feature prominently in recent work, “United Kingdom” rarely surfaces, in part perhaps because the term refers not to a national identity but to a political unit. It names no “imagined community” (in Benedict Anderson's influential formulation) to command affection or allegiance, while its cumbersome articulation testifies to its provenance in the musty and dubious sphere of parliamentary legislation. The United Kingdom thus invokes an outmoded and narrow “politics” rather than the more current and capacious notion of “the political” with its ability to yield witty analogies and surprising intimacies across cultural zones. But both the politics and the awkward phrase are worth taking seriously, for “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland” defines the new state as less a solution than a problem from the start.