Home » Books » The Gun, the Ship and the Pen

The Gun, the Ship and the Pen

Linda Colley, The Gun, the Ship and the Pen; Warfare, Constitutions and the Making of the Modern World, Profile Books, 2021, pp. 502.

Warships that encircle the planet; guns that kill at half a mile or more; written constitutions that allocate your rights and duties: all these are crucial features of modernity and, according to Linda Colley, they are functionally connected. The guns and ships create global possibilities in war and empire. The written constitutions are necessary because men (literally) have to be taxed and enlisted and – more generally – incorporated into the polity.

The proliferation of written constitutions after 1750, aided by increases in literacy and the falling costs of printing, is undeniable. Political theorists like Bentham and Rousseau could normally be assumed to be working on a constitution for somewhere, a case of general principles tweaked for particular circumstances. Colley insists that even the most unlikely autocracies were keen to be seen to be on the constitutional route. Catherine the Great’s Nakaz, her thoughts on politics and arrangements, were sufficiently radical to be banned by the French censors. A century later, in 1889, after the collapse of the Shogunate the emperor posthumously known as Meiji approved a constitution for Japan. Even in Britain there was a great deal of scholarly argument about the “unwritten” constitution we were assumed to possess already and a kind of exhumation of the Magna Carta. In this context the US constitution of 1787 was anything but exceptional.

Hats off to Linda Colley for giving us a book on the modern world which ranges widely and reads well. Sometimes the range seems rather random. For instance, we read of a Corsican constitution in the 1750s (Paoli’s, not Rousseau’s) and then we range across the world with the global war of 1756-63 and Corsica seems forgotten, but the French defeat precipitates the occupation of Corsica rendering constitutional devices as irrelevant. The author is unafraid of counter-factuals: if France had succeeded in forming a proper alliance with Spain in the Seven Years War then she would have maintained a military presence in North America and the anglophone population would have needed British protection – so no USA. Some historians disapprove of narratives as broad and speculative as this. (She can’t possibly understand all those languages.) But surely we need this kind of history as well as the rigorous, detailed stuff.

The making of constitutions has continued and even accelerated in the post-colonial era. On the whole I am inclined to see the process from a more sceptical angle than the author. They and the doctrines that underline them are a product of the hegemony of the “Enlightenment”, brought about by the erosion of traditional and religious beliefs. That does not imply that people believe the new doctrines. Rather, they are what Bertrand Russell called “Sunday truths”: we claim to believes them, but act as if we don’t. I am reminded of the tale told by a friend who grew up in the USSR. He was involved in the “widespread consultations” on the 1977 “Brezhnev” constitution, an even more liberal document than its 1936 “Stalin” predecessor. The consultative meetings, he said, were typified by “massive amounts of booze, massive amounts of cynicism”.

Lincoln Allison March 2021

(This review appeared in Times Higher Education in March 2021.)