What Made Britain Great?
See Also: Great Britain in History
It was prophesied that the Lost Ten Tribes and especially Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh) would be immensely populous (Genesis 15:5, 22:17, 24:60, 32:12, Numbers 23:10, Isaiah 10:22, 26:15 Hosea 1:10), wealthy with agricutlural advantages (Genesis 27:28 49:25 Deut 33:13-16 Hoshea 2:8), and mineral resources (Genesis 49:25 Deuteronomy 33:13, 15) as well as being powerful (Numbers: 24:7-9 Micah 5:7-9, Deuteronomy 33:27 33:29 Jer. 51:20-21, Zechariah 10:7, Jeremiah 51:20) on a world scale. Relatively speaking they would do justice and establish principles of righteousness throughout the world (Genesis 18:18-19, Isaiah 42:1, 6, Amos 5:15). These blessings along with others came to fruition in Western Nations of Israelite descent. Great Britain and the USA were especially blessed in this regard.
Divine Providence works through nature and the right combination of circumstance. The notes below give prosaic reasons for the greatness of Britain.
Britain being an island and thus relatively free from invasion and foreign interference.
Being placed in the Atlantic Ocean close to the major Trade Winds.
Taking advantage of the above and developing a powerful Navy and using it.
Having a fertile soil suitable for grain, agriculture in general, and sheep.
Mineral reserves: coal, shale, iron ore, etc. In Ancient Times copper and tin with gold in Ireland.
Innovations such as the steam engine and railways to take advantage of the mineral reserves, etc.
The trading instincts of the British People combined with an aggressive foreign policy.
The British were fair. They believed in basic human dignity. They offered the opportunity through free trade to compete on equal terms.
It was never straight forward exploitation. in most cases British Rule was better for the majority of subject than untrammeled rule by their own potentates.
The British had laws and legal principles and abided by them. Procedures were predictable and not arbitrary. They did not break agreements. They paid allies to fight for them or alongside them.
The British had intellectuals and entrepreneurs. They searched for new processes and opportunities and for new understandings of the world around them.
All this and more helped make Britain a Great Country at one stage ruling directly over a quarter of the world surface and indirectly very influential concerning what happened in much of the rest.
Why has England and the UK punched above its weight for so much of history?
Extracts from a Selection of Answers to the Quora Question
Andre Teissier du Cros
There are many reasons, but all of them were the consequence of three basic reasons....:
England is an island of the right size, right climate and fertile soil to become home of a significant population. Japan is in a similar situation, but with the handicap of earthquakes. Both went through many wars and problems before they got united but they did it.
This island had colossal reserves of coal, shale and pit, plus iron ore, offering the possibility of a massive industrial development built on low cost energy and on cast iron and steel. The steam engine was first designed as a pump in coal mines. Railways first were used in these mines to carry ore. Serious competition began after 1850 only, and mainly from Germany at first.
A series of kings and later heads of state had the intelligence of establishing constitutional laws encouraging free thought, free speech, free enterprise, free trade, and private property, including patent laws meaning intellectual property. Then, of establishing the most powerful navy on earth. And then, of using it not to England's selfish advantage but to establish freedom of the seas to the benefit of all, therefore of free trade, therefore of England first. In a nutshell, the English people were excellent at taking an innovative advantage of the natural heritages they owed to nature. Isambard Brunel, borh a French royalist, carried alone a huge part of the undertaking. The British Empire was the consequence...
In a thousand years, Britain went from a bunch of inebriated shepherds and peat bog diggers to economic dominance of the globe.
No nation benefited more from the lessons of Roman administrative government than Britain.
The chronology of British prosperity looks like a feedback loop. Laborers enabled skilled craftsmen and a well-fed and well-armed military that enabled prosperity that enabled an intelligentsia that returned remarkable benefits of science, medicine, art, cultural diversity, and industry back to the common labor force..
Of the one hundred most influential people who ever lived, TWENTY are from the UK (FIVE were from tiny Scotland):
Sir Isaac Newton (1642 - 1726) English mathematician and physicist; he invented calculus (#2 on the list; Muhammed is #1: Jesus is #3)
James Watt (1736 -1819) Scottish inventor, mechanical engineer and chemist, he is famous for developing the first steam engine,
Michael Faraday (1791- 1867) British scientist who helped turn electricity into a property that could be easily used.
James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) Scottish physicist. Maxwell made a significant contribution to understanding electromagnetism
Adam Smith (1723-1790) Scottish philosopher and economist. His opus, The Wealth of Nations, laid down a framework for the basis of free-market economics.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616). English poet and playwright - Shakespeare is widely considered to be the greatest writer in the English language.
John Dalton ( 1766 - 1844) English Chemist who introduced atomic theory into chemistry, revolutionising the subject and laying the foundations for modern chemistry.
Oliver Cromwell (1599 - 1658) British defender of Parliamentary democracy fighting a tyrannical King. His defence of Parliament led to the development of a modern democracy.
Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) Scottish inventor, most notably credited with inventing the modern telephone.
Sir Alexander Fleming (1881 - 1955) Scottish biologist and pharmacologist who discovered penicillin.
John Locke (1632-1704) English philosopher who developed the concept of individual rights and the social contract, the idea government of rights and responsibilities.
William Harvey (1578 - 1657) English physician who made contributions to understanding how blood circulated in the body.
Ernest Rutherford (1871 - 1937) NZ born British physicist who made discoveries in atomic physics. His work on splitting the atom was influential for the development of atomic science.
Joseph Lister (1827 -1912) British surgeon who introduced principles of cleanliness and antiseptic routines, which drastically helped to improve survival rates from surgery.
Edward Jenner (1749 -1823) was an English doctor who helped create and popularise a vaccination for smallpox,
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) English scientist and lawyer who developed and popularised a scientific method which marked a new scientific rigour based on evidence, results and a methodical approach to science.
Elizabeth I was Queen of England and Ireland from 1558 until her death in 1603. She reigned - honestly, it appears- during the Age of Explorstion. She presided over an era of economic and political expansion, which lay the framework for Britain's later dominance as a world power. It was Queen Elizabeth who also established the supremacy of Protestantism in England.
Francis Crick (1916 - 2004) British molecular biologist, biophysicist, and neuroscientist. In 1953, he co-authored with James Watson KBE (born1928), an American molecular biologist, geneticist, the academic paper proposing the double helix structure of the DNA molecule.
100 most influential people in the world
It began in the 16th century during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1 that England moved from being an economic and military underdog to a power to reckon with.... Elizabeth came up with out of the box strategies like Pirates/Sea Dogs as a naval strategy, reaching out to the Muslim world (Morocco, Ottoman Empire) for alliances, encouraging adventurers and traders like Anthony Jenkinson to go to faraway kingdoms in Persia and Central Asia. Her meritocratic court saw the rise of men like John Dee, one of the most well-read persons in Europe who envisioned an English Empire, and Sir Francis Drake, the man who circumnavigated the world, raising the morale of his nation. The Spaniards trembled at hearing his name and called him El Draco (the Dragon). When Drake and other English seamen sunk the invincible Spanish Armada in 1588, England had entered an esteemed league of formidable powers.
After Elizabeth's half a century of golden age, England never looked back. Of course there were other factors, like England's unique position where the English channel acted as a natural barrier, protecting her from continental powers like France. Some credit goes to Elizabeth's father and grand-father Henry VIII and Henry VII as well for kickstarting the Royal Navy, that would ultimately allow them to dominate the oceans and strategic straits until the end of the 19th century.
Oxford and Cambridge University also kept up and continued to produce brilliant scholars through the centuries. The combination of brains and brawn allowed England and later Great Britain to build one of the greatest empires world had seen.
Being an island, and not being invaded for the past 1,000 years, has meant every talented, aspiring individual had a very good chance to achieve their potential without impediment from religious bigots in the Catholic church, grinding poverty, lack of capital, lack of education, etc. This allowed individuals to be eccentric, to be a maverick, to try new things, to be different, without being condemned, imprisoned or treated with contempt - a key element in human progress. Most ground-breaking innovations are created by one or two individuals.
Now, of course, not everyone could overcome poverty, disease and other problems, but enough of them did, especially from the mid-17th century onwards to enable the UK to become a world leader in literature, military engineering, industry, finance and so much more, without foreign interference.
Secondly 'Not Being Poor'. The Romans invaded England because it was rich - rich in sheep - even today the UK has half of all Europe's sheep - and by far the richest source of metals, above all in Cornwall and Wales.
This wealth of resource became central to England's higher standard of living compared to Europe, and only rarely did starvation occur. In the 18th century our global trade of all kinds, protected by the Royal Navy, made the nation the wealthiest in the world. Napoleon was eventually defeated due to the enormous payments made to his opponents' armies - Prussia, Austria and Russia - to keep fighting, even after numerous defeats over 30 years.
This wealth, centred first on the City of London financiers and merchants, spread to the rest of the country. And, when in the 18th century the first manufacturing and engineering industries based on canals and then coal, and then railways, started - there was a mountain of capital in England ready to fund its extraordinarily rapid expansion. The construction of the world's first large network of railways was an immense 'efficiency-and-productivity multiplier'. Aristocrats who owned the land piled in, and funded many early, risky developments like deep coalmines and big waterways such as the Manchester-Liverpool shipping canal - unlike their mean, blighted counterparts in France.
The huge pottery industry centred on Stoke-on-Trent was turbocharged by the then largest industrial research programme - thousands of individual clay material experiments by Josiah Wedgwood, he of the eponymous china company. This was new to history. He invented nearly all types of china clay porcelain - slipware, earthenware, stoneware.
Third: Resources. The gigantic reserves, of steam coal and iron ore located close together, copper, slate (Wales roofed the world), good farmland, half decent rainfall (London only gets 25 inches pa), and Portland stone gave the UK huge advantages over France and Spain in particular, and immensely boosted total UK wealth.
The first industrial revolution led to the creation of an affluent, consumer-oriented, if not wealthy middle class, and after 150 years, living and working conditions of Edwardian Britain were far better than early Victorian, or pre-industrial Britain, though still far behind conditions today, of course.
The tradition of individual enterprise - think of Brunel, Parsons (steam turbine), and other engineering greats - quality education, a decent, unarmed police force, and a century of Pax Britannia, put Great Britain top of the world.
It leads in language, books/literature... Even in the late 17th century England published 30,000 newspapers and newsletters), deep education (top universities), culture ... best-selling TV shows ... diplomacy (most of the world's borders were set by the British, longest trading links with 240 nations except for the Dutch perhaps), Pax Britannica, enduring legacies of the British Empire administration in Africa and Asia; archaeology and exploration... modern computing/AI, original design (Apple),... shipping and insurance (liners and merchantmen); City of London finance services, aerospace (second only to US), ...even a world class food industry (whisky, smoked salmon, beef, lamb, flavoured porridge, whisky marmalade, world�s best apples and rhubarb?), and many more.....
Oh, and winning two world wars when at times it looked impossible to win either.. One fact: in WW2 Britain outproduced both Germany and Soviet Russia in every category of war material, eg aircraft, ships, tracked vehicles, steel, ammunition, except tanks. Along the way it invented pencillin, which has saved more lives than any other drug), radar ('radar won the war; the atom bomb ended it'), modern cryptography, electronic warfare, and the riskiest-ever war campaign: D-Day.
As a Swedish TV producer once remarked to me: 'Why does every programme about the origins of absolutely anything always seem to start in England??' A bit of an exaggeration but a nice one.
I think one could easily argue that England wasn't all that special until Elizabeth. Up until then, the Spanish and Portuguese were doing the real global sea expansion, and the French had been the continental superpower since Charlemagne, and Italy had been the host of the Roman Empire, and of course there were wonderful civilizations outside of Europe. So the real question is what happened in the 1600s that led to the British Empire's premier role for the next 250 years?
I believe it could be traced to science. While the continent was doing things like putting Galileo in house arrest, Francis Bacon and later Isaac Newton were escaping the restrictions of literal fundamentalist Christianity (thanks to Henry VIII's libido). Newton in particular led the way, by demonstrating that Nature followed certain rules, to the concept that man could control nature. That led to steam power and the industrial revolution, which in turn led to greater wealth, and wealth always leads to greater power.... Captain Cook's famous first voyage to the South Pacific was funded by the Royal Society (a scientific body) to measure the transit of Venus across the sun (and so fix the distance from the Earth to the Sun, and all other planets by extension). That voyage of Captain Cook was the reason that New Zealand and Australia ended up in the British Empire.
And England gave opportunity to the non-wealthy when they were capable in these new endeavors. Newton himself was of modest means; the reason he was assign master of the mint was to get him a government income. England did some things really well, and that model worked in other nations following her lead away from fundamentalism and away from a no-opportunity-for-the-modest-of-means society that limited any chance of brilliant discover to just the very wealthy class.
Combination of factors.
First they stayed out of the thirty year war that shredded Europe.
Second they swiped Ottoman cannon forging techniques. ( The Ottomans sold a lot of cannons during that war)
Then they put cannon on big wooden ships
Which they paid for with an innovative credit system/ stock exchange
They sailed this combo all over the planet clobbering everyone they met ( there are a LOT of sore losers btw .. especially the French)
It really paid off when they discovered tea.
At home they combined their forging with their calculus to make steam engines.
And made bigger cannons on faster ships to clobber more people. There are only some twenty two polities on Earth that the British did not attack. Apparently they figured there was no chance of tea or spices in those places....
In terms of international relations a country's influence depends on its total wealth and military strength. The UK's power has always been economic and in the 1800s it was able to buy foreign support (mainly because of the introduction of income tax the arrangement with the Rothchild Banking family) and still does with its overseas aid programme. Militarily Britain has, since about 1700, mainly been on a par with other European powers.
The three biggest reasons: location, location, and location.
To begin with, it's an island.
This gave it a strategic advantage against land-invasions, and resulting border-skirmishes, which Spain, Italy and France didn't have.
This gave Britain a significant naval advantage.
Likewise, it was on the far west of Europe, giving it an advantage against invasion from the East.
Then, there was the proximity to the Americas, and the trade-winds.
Real GDP per person was far higher in Britain, the Netherlands, and Italy than in China by 1600: the West was far ahead of the rest by the time of the Industrial Revolution. However, Britain was the first to industrialize, which gave it an advantage. Up to that point, it was not an exceptional European country. By the middle of the 19th century Britain accounted for 23% of global industrial production, British workers were the richest in Europe, and comparatively few of them worked on the land.
Victorians gave God the credit. Others claim it was the right mix of freedom and property rights. It also had an educated population and lots of coal. However, nobody really knows, there are lots of theories but few stand up to scrutiny.