This is an early sketch of a piece I hope to place in the press just before my new book comes out.
‘If people are not proud to be British, or of our flag or Queen, they do not have to live in the United Kingdom. Perhaps they should move to another country they prefer’. That was Lia Nici, Tory MP for Great Grimsby. (Grimsby was one of the ‘red wall’ seats that turned from Labour to Conservative in 2019.)
This is obvious nonsense. I write, incidentally, as someone who has actually taken Ms Nici’s advice and moved to a country I currently prefer. But other considerations came into that decision too, more personal ones; and the word ‘currently’ is important here. I’ve fallen out of love with what Britain has become, partly because of people like Lia Nici. I still feel loyal to what I thought, maybe naively, Britain used to represent. That hasn’t changed; the country has. (Or so I think; and my new European neighbours too. We’re no longer admired abroad as we used to be.) Does Nici feel I ought to remain ‘proud’ of Britain regardless?
And because of our ‘flag and Queen’? Which are, I agree, valid historical symbols of ‘Britishness’, but among others (roast beef and cricket?), and with what exactly they represented having changed quite crucially over the years. As has the idea of British ‘patriotism’. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, for example, it was those who wanted to change Britain who classed themselves as ‘patriots’, and whose patriotism was famously excoriated by Dr Johnson as a result – ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel’. After the last World War it was those self-same patriots who voted to make Britain a better place than she had been before it. For patriots can want to build New Jerusalems, as well as to return to old ones. Especially where those past Jerusalems are so thoroughly misunderstood as they are by many Brexiters – and others; perhaps the majority of people – today.
And yet still those Brexiters persist in harnessing Britain’s ‘history’ to their cause. Jacob Rees-Mogg recently published a – quite awful – history of Victorian Britain, lauding the achievements of the ‘Titans’ of that time, as models for the present day. Boris Johnson similarly looks ‘back’ to various British ‘golden ages’ for inspiration; and to the Empire and Winston Churchill in particular. Margaret Thatcher lauded the ‘Victorian values’ that had once made Britain ‘great’, before the Socialists had got their envious hands on them. Much of the appeal of Brexit lay in its promise to ‘take back’ the control that Britain had used to have as a ‘sovereign’ nation, before she surrendered it all to Brussels. So a view of ‘history’ appears to be integral to the Brexit case. Perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised at this, at a time when many Britons feel they have descended so low.
There are so many problems with this approach, however, as to have provoked me, at the beginning of last year, into writing a whole book to try to put it right. One of the problems is that the ‘history’ that many of these ‘patriots’ appeal to is simply wrong. No, ‘we’ didn’t use to ‘rule half the world’, as populist mobs have been heard yelling today. (‘Half’ is an exaggeration, for a start. But there are difficulties with the idea of ‘ruling’, too.) No, Britain’s power and influence in the past weren’t to the credit (or the debit) of Rees-Mogg’s ‘Titans’, whose ‘spunk’ simply needs to be recovered in order to restore our ‘greatness’ again. No, ‘we’ – the British – didn’t win the two World Wars on our own. No, the Empire wasn’t an unalloyed force for good in the wider world; but nor also was it a tyranny comparable with Nazi Germany; and it wasn’t always ‘racist’ by most definitions of that word. Britain’s South African ‘concentration camps’ were entirely different from Hitler’s. (Of course. We shouldn’t be misled by words.) Winston Churchill was neither the saviour of his country in World War II, although his oratory helped hugely here; nor a Fascist. Apart from Churchill, it was the Conservatives of the time who were the ‘appeasers’, not Labour; and the working classes who were the staunchest supporters of the war effort. You wouldn’t think that to hear some of today’s Tories.
Apart from these factual errors, and others, present-day popular views of Britain’s past – not only on the Right – often err by not giving enough consideration to context. Context is the essential contribution the historian can make to our understanding of the past, more important even than verifying the ‘facts’. Which is why my forthcoming book needs to be a little bit fatter than it would have been if correcting mistakes were the only point of it. (It’s still quite short.)
Beyond all this, however, there lies the question of whether people’s loyalties towards a nation should be based on its history at all. They don’t need to be. In Swedish schools, for example, children are taught to love their country for its aspirations – equality and so on – rather than for the Vikings or Sweden’s 17th-18th century Stormaktstiden (when she was a ‘great power’ in northern Europe). It may be natural to be fond of the country we were born and live in, and to admire its past achievements; but we surely shouldn’t be expected to feel pride in those achievements, if we had no part in them, as we obviously won’t have done for most of ‘history’. I’m entitled to feel neither pride nor shame for my country of birth’s imperial past, simply because I happen to live on the same little patch of the earth as the imperialists did 100 years ago. (Although, to be fair, I was still around in its dying days, albeit as a critic.) I can possibly admire that past, or regret it, or even help make up for the damage done by it; but I can bear no responsibility for most of it. We can’t choose where we were born. Immigrants can take pride in the country they migrated to – they after all did (we presume) choose it. But not the native-born, and not with regard to anyone’s country’s past history. ‘I’m sorry, officer. It had nothing to do with me. I wasn’t there.’
This is why Lia Nici’s implied insistence on blind allegiance to ‘flag and Queen’ is not something I personally can relate to. More importantly, however, it can muddy the picture of Britain’s past, if that is what people are basing – in part – their views on Brexit upon. Of course these views don’t necessarily depend on ‘history’ at all. There are other and I would say much better arguments both for Brexit and against, leaving history out of the question entirely. It’s for those who do rely on ‘history’, however, that my book – now on its way to the printers – is intended. After reading it people can still come to their own conclusions about whether Britain should have exited the EU, or remained within it; and whether she should now stay out of it, or seek to return. If Britain’s past history is a factor in their choice, then they might do worse than read Britain’s Contested History. Lessons for Patriots (Bloomsbury Press, early summer of 2022), to put them right about one or two things. Otherwise they won’t need to fork out the £20.
An inspired piece of writing, Bernard. Bravo!
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