The Battle for Britain's history
Our multicultural island story, part two
All nations have narratives, often deliberately created for states which weren’t countries to begin with. National history comes to be about telling how a group came to be, and in the Old World at least, of a common ancestry, often mythical.
During the past year and a half, for example, pro-Russian propagandists have been telling us that Ukraine is an artificial creation with an invented history, yet that is true for all countries — except England, of course. I say that only half in jest, because for geographical reasons England is unusual in the antiquity of its nationhood, an identity that dates as far back as Bede and was well-established long before the arrival of the Normans. (Only Denmark and Norway are as old).
But England’s national narrative as most people were taught it dates to the 16th century, in part because it was then home to perhaps the great storyteller who ever lived, but also because that period saw both the break with the old religion and the start of the ‘British Empire’, a term coined in Elizabeth’s time. It also saw the rise of a literate urban middle class, historically the biggest supporters of nationalist narratives.
What followed might be referred to as the Our Island Story narrative of English history, one characterised by military heroism, pride in empire and a certain Whig vision of the world getting better thanks to Parliament, the Royal Navy and science. This was epitomised by the men and women who appeared on the banknotes of my youth — Florence Nightingale, Wellington, Isaac Newton and Shakespeare.
Our Island Story as a narrative was never going to survive the modern age - too focussed on empire, too Protestant and too earnestly patriotic in an age when irony reigns (or cowardice and despair masquerading as irony). What took its place, in a very short space of time, was a conscious attempt by the authorities to retcon British history as multicultural.
The recent campaign to promote the importance of the Windrush generation in building Britain is an example of that new invented community. It is was done for understandable, even noble, reasons: inclusivity is a core value in so many schools, as well as being a wider social virtue, and it is felt that a history that (accurately) portrayed Britain’s past as essentially all-white would alienate the children of recent immigrants. This followed on from the 2000s-era creation of Mary Seacole as a historical figure of interest, a cult which has seen her eclipsing her contemporary Nightingale, despite the latter being far more significant.
But the major reason for this change is the intellectual flight from nationalism. For a number of reasons, but in particular the expansion of higher education, the most highly educated segment of society have largely come to feel detached from any sense of national identity, and to find it distasteful.