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Our Island Story

Martin Kettle writes here about what seems all of a sudden to have become a pressing subject, that being the teaching of history in our schools. And he makes the important point that one might find it difficult to teach a common history within a land that is no longer monocultural. Or, in his own words,

Britain, though, has special difficulties of its own. Not only is there no overarching British narrative, as distinct from English, Scottish, Welsh and at least two sorts of Irish narratives. English culture, in particular, is still disabled by unresolved class differences as well. History from above? History from below? Or a synthesis? And which one?

Which is a central question, and one needing put to those charged with the task of writing any new syllabus with the intention of teaching of a ‘common history’ at its heart. Nonetheless, if the legacy of the liberal left, with its devotion to multiculturalism and cultural relativism, has been a fractured sense of common identity, then perhaps one small way of countering that fracture is to return to a history syllabus that encompasses everyone in the same tale, in the same ‘Island story’.

At the same time, we mustn’t become too simplistic. Truth is, we have never really ever been a monoculture – though we have certainly shared patriotic commonality. Trying to make everyone look and think the same is never the answer – trying to encompass everyone in loyalty for their homeland certainly is.* So when Kettle says ‘Without a common culture, a common history remains out of reach,’ he is going too far. And in so doing, he risks accepting that narrow cultural imperialism that says we must all think and look the same or else we must all be irreconcilably opposed.

It’s worth bringing in here Ana the Imp, commenting on the contemporary refraction of the (relatively recent) idea of the nation state into endless parochial identities, especially in relation to the EU project;

The nation-state, in its modern form, is a largely artificial creation; the child, not of nationalism, as is usually assumed, but of the Age of Enlightenment. The European Union might be said to be a reaction against this, a process by which the nation state will be rendered obsolete. But all the evidence suggests that there is no European identity as such. Rather what can be seen is the liberation of a patch-work of local identities, formerly sublimated within the nation state. What we can see, in other words, is Transylvanian, Basque, Breton, Flemish, Scottish and a host of other fragmentations; what we can see is a revival, it might be said, of the crazy patchwork of the Holy Roman Empire.

Which is true,  and helps explain the flourishing of different nationalisms in our own lands at the moment – they are simply the next step down, so to speak, of the political construct known as United Kingdom, and the local identities that constitute it.  Only, this has problems of its own. As I have tried explaining to certain Scottish nationalists over the years, Scottish independence is essentially the restatement on the local level of precisely that which it seeks ultimately to refute: ‘Scotland’ is every bit the arbitrary political and cultural construct as is ‘Britain’. It contains the same internal contradictions, and tries to unify internal social, cultural and historical identities through appeal to a transcending, though largely artificial, sense of monocultural unity.  In this sense, the nationalists have let the genie out of the bottle, and their logic will consume them; those who deride unionism by appeals to nationalism will eventually succumb to the demands of regionalism. Or, in Ana’s words,

This process of division and subdivision is likely to continue, always looking inwards, towards ever more parochial loyalties. Consider the Scots… once the old ‘oppressive’ English state is factored out, once the sense of historical grievance is removed, what then? How will the Gaelic Highlands see the Saxon Lowlands? How will the east sit with the west? How will Glasgow sit with Edinburgh? I can’t answer these questions; I do not have sufficient prescience. All I can say is that more and more prince-bishops and margraves are likely to emerge in a modern form as we move wider still and wider.

As I have written before, as a northern, working-class Roman Catholic, I will construct my identities and my loyalties, my history and culture differently to a southern middle-class Protestant. The question is, need this mean we must therefore be disparate? I think not, and the idea that difference must be inimical to unity is fallacious – the wealth of local and regional identities add depth and breadth to the national; they are not irreconcilable with it.

Which leads, inevitably, back to the question of ‘what constitutes the national’, or at least, what is the transcendent that unifies? For which I offer no detailed answer here – though my chosen title of this piece is something of a clue. Further, if I tell you I have more sympathy for the monarchist and his realms than I do for the bureaucrat and his regions, then you might get some idea of my own thoughts on the matter.

*I instinctively think here of the brutally persecuted Catholics, living in the time of Bloody Bess, who nonetheless remained loyal to their Queen, and this through wider loyalty to their realm and the desire to not cede it to the French (through Queen Mary’s marriage to that tribe). Clearly, identity through such oppositional conflicts would be largely obsolete these days – at least on a ‘nationalistic’ axis.

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