A Radical Narrative for Britons

In the Observer, historian Tristam Hunt has entered the debate about teaching British values. As with others, he believes the key is teaching a British narrative in schools and museums. However, he argues that while the public iconography of our history is one of Empire and monarchy (the influence of the Victorians), there is plenty of material of the radicals and key moments which led to the democratisation of the British state – Magna Carta, the Levellers Agreement, the Glorious Revolution, Catholic Emancipation – that should be the core of the narrative.

He also believes it will engender a commitment to democratic participation:

“It does not have to be a Whiggish narrative of ever- broadening freedom, nor yet a Marxist account of aristocratic and imperial intransigence. Rather, a complex, conflicting, yet ultimately progressive history of the ebb and flow of democracy and the people who made it happen. If we lose this cultural memory of democracy, if we turn Levellers’ Day from a living history into a museum piece, then it will be no surprise if the trip to the polling booth becomes ever more unpopular.”

  • kensei

    Why is History teaching here typically good, and teaching in the US typically bad? Because one focuses on the study of sources and the other presents a narrative. History doesn’t have a narrative. It has hundreds. A historians job is to pick through them and try to find the best fit, based on evidence. Being able to do that is 100 times more important than being versed in a history as propoganda.

    If want our children to have anything then an ability to critically reason, make judgements based on evidence and to detect and account for bias is a far better goal than some nonsense about values. If the history of Britain truly is a “ultimately progressive history”, then that will come out naturally as the strogest supported argument from study, with the benefit that there will be competing views to challenge and ultimately strengthen it. And if your country if truly progressive and democratic, it should naturally find many voices in most areas.

    Can anyone explain to me why some imposed “narrative” is anything other than propoganda?

  • Garibaldy

    This is all fine in theory, but really the story of the democratisation of the British state is not as radical or dramatic as he’s making out. One example some like to cite is the fact that in 1914 a wider section of the population had the vote in Germany than in the UK, but you would never think that from the discussion of WWI in popular culture.

    Also some of the examples mentioned here, and in the article where he quotes Linda Colley, are ambiguous. Fair Deal discusses “our history”. Of course, the Glorious Revolution, the union with Scotland, and the Irish Act of Union do not appear as shining examples of democracy to everyone, nor as part of their history to many.
    During 1988, Ireland was deliberately excluded from British commemorations because the Glorious Revolution led to the Penal Laws. Even Emancipation was a step back for democracy in some senses. The property qualification was raised from 40 shillings to £10, disenfranchising many of the poor who had the vote so that less than 100 Irish catholics could sit in Parliament.

    Britain does have a radical heritage, but it is by no means the dominant feature. The US and French Revolutions were unabmiguously radical. The same cannot be said for many of the events Hunt, who after all is a New Labour apologist, has cited.

  • Garibaldy

    Kensei,

    I think Hunt’s argument, and more particularly that of the guy in the Times, is that in most countries, children get a sense of the constitutional development of their state which they no longer get from history as taught in the UK. This used to be the case in the UK, with the focus on 1066 and all that, but that is no longer the case.

    The danger is that the citizenship classes that are ongoing in England will provide no context. So trying to give people a sense of identity with the state without a sense of its history is somewhat doomed to failure in the first place, as it’s harder to realise the import of the ideas taught.

    As for propagandising children, everey state does it. The question is how is it done. There’s nothing wrong with teaching 1066, 1215, 1649 etc, nor 1798, 1916 etc, so kids have a sense of what happened, and then at a more advanced stage opening up the criticism of all these things you advance as crucial.

  • The Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Highland Clearances would also help. So too would the genocide against Australian Aboriginals, Britain’s dropping of an A bomb there (no one there, only a few Abos), the No Dogs or Chinese policy, the Opium Wars, Stanley Mathews, the Indian Mutiny, Morecambe and Wise, the General Belgrano, democracy and Hong Kong, Cliff Richard, Ian Paisley, Nobby Stiles, Enoch Powell and Only Fools and Horses.

  • foreign correspondent

    I would argue that Only Fools and Horses was one of the better byproducts of English culture-better than cricket or warm beer anyway 🙂

  • kensei

    “I think Hunt’s argument, and more particularly that of the guy in the Times, is that in most countries, children get a sense of the constitutional development of their state which they no longer get from history as taught in the UK. This used to be the case in the UK, with the focus on 1066 and all that, but that is no longer the case.”

    By all means study constitutional development, but don’t impose a narrative. The question of what the key events were are as much worthy of discussion as the events themselves? Along with the question f how related they are.

    “The danger is that the citizenship classes that are ongoing in England will provide no context. So trying to give people a sense of identity with the state without a sense of its history is somewhat doomed to failure in the first place, as it’s harder to realise the import of the ideas taught.”

    The values espoused should be universal. There is probably more of an argument of taken them in wider context then focusing on how they arrived in Britain, rather then labelling them “British values”. Rather than teacing a narrative, it should focus on discussion and debate and then have the class make the judgments. Surely that teaches more about democracy than anything else?

    “As for propagandising children, everey state does it. The question is how is it done. There’s nothing wrong with teaching 1066, 1215, 1649 etc, nor 1798, 1916 etc, so kids have a sense of what happened, and then at a more advanced stage opening up the criticism of all these things you advance as crucial.”

    I got primary and secondary sources drummed into me from the second I stepped into secondary school. I think I benefited from it. Getting people to learn lists of dates and the like ultimately puts people off the subject and backfires.

    Many people will not do History beyond third year in secondary school. Opening it out in GCSE or A level is too late. What is suggested is a truly regressive step.

  • DK

    The problem is that there is too much history to take in. Do you gloss over the Romans and the Vikings to concentrate on the magna carta and Henry VIII, then rushing past industrialisation, empire, napoleon, WW1 & 2. Not to mention all of the various progressive things like science and the welfare state.

    If you have 1 lesson a week for 1 hour on this stuff, how would you split the 30 odd hours per year? 1.5 hours per century?

  • foreign correspondent

    Of course Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and Blackadder should also be remembered.

  • Brian Boru

    “However, he argues that while the public iconography of our history is one of Empire and monarchy (the influence of the Victorians), there is plenty of material of the radicals and key moments which led to the democratisation of the British state – Magna Carta, the Levellers Agreement, the Glorious Revolution, Catholic Emancipation – that should be the core of the narrative.”

    The ‘Glorious Revolution’ happened because James II was a Catholic. Had he remained a Protestant it would not have happened – after all Charles II had done some of the same things e.g. packing the corporations to secure Tory parliaments under the Corporation Act – and he survived. James’s downfall was because of the Declaration of Indulgence which suspended the laws against the Catholics and Presbyterians. It is ironic then that the Presbyterians would remove the man who removed discrimination against them in favour of a new regime which reimposed most of those restrictions. I think it illustrates how much the ‘Glorious Revolution’ was founded on anti-Catholic bigotry. While I accept that for Anglicans, the system became more democratic, it was the exact oppose for what was then 90% of the Irish people as well as English, Scottish and Welsh Catholics. This leaves a stain on this aspect of British history.

    On Catholic Emancipation, let us remember that William Pitt had originally promised Irish Catholics that it would be part of the Act of Union. George III blocked this idea so we had to wait until 1829 (28 years) for it to happen. Even then, it would not have happened but for the trojan efforts of Daniel O’Connell and his huge monster rallies up and down the country. The British granted Emancipation because they feared a major national uprising against their rule in Ireland. It is worth remembering this because otherwise some might be fooled into thinking this was something freely granted by Britain without duress. And even then the Emancipation Act actually greatly reduced the number of Catholics who could vote with a stricter wealth-qualification. (Catholics in Ireland had the vote since 1794 but could not sit in the parliament). Catholic Emancipation in 1829 also did nothing about the ban on Catholic admission to univerities or the obligation to pay tithes (taxes) to the Anglican Church, which remained until 1871 and the 1850’s respectively. The people still choked under landlord oppression too.

  • kensei

    “The problem is that there is too much history to take in. Do you gloss over the Romans and the Vikings to concentrate on the magna carta and Henry VIII, then rushing past industrialisation, empire, napoleon, WW1 & 2. Not to mention all of the various progressive things like science and the welfare state.

    If you have 1 lesson a week for 1 hour on this stuff, how would you split the 30 odd hours per year? 1.5 hours per century? ”

    Easy. First term / module – overview of the key points of British history, discussion around which were the important events, and some discussion around it. Rather than focus on a narrative, focus on competing views and have coursework related to sorting them out.

    Second term – select one of them and go in depth on it, including some discussion on relations to previous events.

    If it’s GCSE, you might want a compulsory question on WWII, so you might then have a term on it, and a another term on another key event.

    Also has the advantage of broadening the ciriculum and giving people a wider choice. Bit more work in preparing exams and mark schemes, which is probably why it’ll never happen.

    It’s not perfect, but better than nonsense on values.

  • The levellers still present a radical challenge to the British state of today. They argued for a written constitution which enshrined the sovereignty of the people, things which Britain still doesn’t have.
    The glorious revolution avoided such dangerous ideas and simply replaced the Stuarts with a dynasty that would be more compliant towards the wishes of the whig oligarchy, notably the City of London.
    In Walter Bagehot’s terms, the ‘dignified’ spectacle of the monarchy was designed to direct the attention of the common people away from the ‘efficient’ workings of the oligarchy that actually took the decisions.
    This is why the whole idea of teaching children about citizenship and the constitution is more problematic, even subversive, in Britain, than in countries like the US with a constitutional tradition based on leveller ideas.

  • Martin

    Sorry Garibaldi and Brian, but tired Anglophobia is what you get from any poster on British history on Slugger today. What Hunt is trying to get away from the Queen and Empire school of history. That is to be applauded. Or would you rather we glorified the Empire, or (more accurately) wore sackcloth and ashes constantly. I am sure that Hunt too would admit that the last 700 or more years of British involvement in Ireland was an unmitigated disaster. That is not to deny the upside – even if the upside was elsewhere.

    What Brian and Garibaldi suggest is that British Schoolchildren should be forced to wear sackcloth and ashes for the rest of their lives. Sure the American and French Revolutions were more radical than any UK upheaval but they too had their downside.

    Garibaldi, do you really think Paris during the Terror was a better place to be than London?
    And, I agree, for sure the US revolution the average American IF he happened to be white but was a step back for Black America, given slavery in England was abolished by Lord Mansfield’s decision in Somersets Case in 1772, and would be abolished in the rest of Empire a generation before it would be in the US.

    Equally, Brian, the Glorious Revolution was a great step forwad for the liberties of the average subject in Britain IF he happened to be Protestant but a huge step back if he happened to be Catholic. There were huge winners and losers and the Irish were the losers, almost always, and yes indeed that should be taught but the “we’ve always been bad” school of history is counter-productive. The best way to see a rise in nationalism is to denigrate a persons sense of pride in his nation.

    What really really P**sses me off about any discussion of British history in Irish nationalist circles is the the inability to see ANY nuanced view. The other week someone on here said, in essence, “oh we were right to stay neutral, Churchill was worse than Hitler.” There were valid reasons to stay neutral for Ireland I agree but moral equivalence wasn’t one of them. It’s that sort of unthinking, knee-jerk, Anglophobia that created the Sean Russells of this world and the intense embarrasement of De Valera signing condolences for Hitler whan he had failed to do so for Roosevelt earlier the same year.

    As an Englishman there is a hell of a lot I am ashamed of in my nation’s history but a lot I am proud of too. It’s a balanced view we should be looking for. Brian and Garibalidi and the like simply would not be happy with that but would rather English schoolchildren went around as a bunch of self-hating loons.

  • foreign correspondent

    The Hitchhiker´s Guide to the Galaxy was written by an English fella too, wasn´t it? Give them their dues, like.

  • Garibaldy

    Martin,

    An interesting analysis of my posts. The first one questioned the list proferred by Hunt on the basis that any attempt to make them the backbone of a list of democratic steps to be taught to children throughout the UK, i.e. including NI, would only annoy many people. The Glorious Revolution was of course a step forward in terms of individual rights and the role of Parliament, but it can’t be taught in NI as an unambiguously positive thing, and any attempt to do so would be ham-fisted, and stir up sectarianism.

    And I questioned how radical the tradition Hunt drew on was. That was done on the basis of comparisons with comparable powers, and had nothing to do with Ireland. Make no mistake that Hunt is pushing the Blairite political agenda here, so I questioned the political assumptions behind it, and the list he suggested.

    As for my second post, it talked about the importance of a sense of history for any proposed citizenship classes, and discussed how constitutional history in any country should be taught to schoolchildren.

    How was any of this Anglophobic, tired, wide awake, or in other state?

    As for Paris during the Terror, it was cetainly a better place to be if you were a radical than London. Radicals played an active part in the government of their local areas, their city, and their country. The government was operating in the interest of the lower orders, both politically and economically. I’d personally take that over the treatment dished out to Horne Tooke, Thelwall et al any day of the week, never mind the treatment dished out to Irish radicals in the later 1790s, which seems to me a better comparison of how the French and British governments treated their opponents during a period of extreme danger due to the ebb and flow of the Revolutionary Wars.

    Slavery was abolished in England in 1772. What steps were taken to abolish it in the colonies as a result of this decision? None, so on what basis are you hinting that it would have made any difference to the abolition of slavery in America had independence never happened.

    We must of course treat things within the context of their time. But to cite the Levellers as some fantastic example of British radicalism on a power with the US and French constitutional traditions is to ingore the fact they were crushed – unlike the US and French Revolutions. Cite the Commonwealth surely, and correctly, if one wants to talk about democracy. But then that wouldn’t fit either the obsession with the less democratic 1688, nor the current political status quo these classes are designed to bolster. This is my point about the British radical tradition not actually being all that strong. There were winners and losers in British history indeed, and the radicals, never mind the Irish, were usually the losers.

    As for WWII, if you look back over that debate, my position on Dev was the same as yours.

    I don’t want British schoolchildren in ashes and sackcloth, any more than I want Blair apologising for the Famine, or Bush to apologise for slavery. Every society teaches its schoolchildren myths to sustain itself. But when someone presents a political project for citizenship/history classes and says stressing the British radical tradition would help stop events like 7/7 I’m more than entitled to question their assumptions. (Hunt does this in his quote at the end of the Times article.) Especially when an unashamedly positive approach to several of the events mentioned would make terrorism more likely to happen in NI.

    Finally, I’m not a nationalist. I can’t speak for Brian, though I think he is, and he and I have debated Irish history before, particularly over the responsibility of the Irish bourgeoisie for the Famine. If you’re serious about the study of Ireland, you need to adjust your range of concepts for analysing Irish history and politics beyond the bipolar disaster enshrined in NI today. Perhaps your own grasp of nuance is somewhat lacking.

  • Its important to remember that the Levellers were English, not British. What they represent is not so much an example of radical Britishness, as a radical alternative to Britishness, (which was always essentially the corporate brand of the post-1688 establishment) an English Commonwealth.

    The Leveller event at Burford actually commemorates a mutiny by soldiers who Cromwell wanted to send to Ireland.

    Their opponents accused them of sympathy with the Irish confederacy, although I have been unable to stand up claims that there is direct evidence of this.

    Their real concern was to keep the New Model Army in England, as a popular force which could force Parliament to concede a proto-democratic constitution.

    Their defeat meant the failure of the English Revolution, and opened the way for the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland.

    However, the fact that so many radicals were sent to Ireland left its mark on history. They contributed to the Protestant republican tradition that would eventually feed into the United Irishmen.

    The Levellers were great English patriots, but the values that the stood for pose a fundamental challenge to the British state in its present form.

    By all means put Leveller values on the curriculum, butlet’s put them into the constitution as well.

  • Dread Cthulhu

    “Martin”: “What really really P**sses me off about any discussion of British history in Irish nationalist circles is the the inability to see ANY nuanced view. The other week someone on here said, in essence, “oh we were right to stay neutral, Churchill was worse than Hitler.””

    The irony of your statement, given the nature of Irish “neutrality” is amusing…

    You inability to see the nuances of Irish “neutrality” undermine your very point. Riddle me this — how many German pilots were repatriated to the Luftwaffe and how many British pilots were interned for the duration?

  • Reader

    Dread Cthulhu: Riddle me this—how many German pilots were repatriated to the Luftwaffe and how many British pilots were interned for the duration?
    Hardly a compelling distinction. Allied servicemen were allowed to wander back over the border at night-time. That was the cheap option, wasn’t it? But the Irish Govt certainly didn’t want Luftwaffe pilots wandering over the countryside looking for fishing boats to steal – even if the Luftwaffe could have found volunteers to try to get past the royal Navy.
    No – for an impressive demonstration of nuanced neutrality, look at those who signed up for the allied forces instead. But consider also the censored newspaper reports for those that died or were injured. “Lead poisoning”, indeed.