Are our versions of history sundering or reconciling us?

Martin Kettle in the Guardian pens a lament for the ignorance of the English about their own history. The outcome, he claims is a” loss of national self respect” and the threat of a disintegrating Union. For once, the term “English” is used deliberately. It’s a long time since AJP Taylor’s superb English History 1914 -1945 simply equated “ English” with “British,” and  referred mischievously  to “ the Scotch.”

Could the opposite apply to us non-English , that overheated versions of history are equally responsible for the supposed sundering (which mark my words, will not happen, although with too little  deliberation ).

Do the smaller nations  know too much history for our own good or too self regardingly – the old cliche of the English never remembering and the Irish never forgetting?.

But with disaggregating, is the picture any clearer?   Irish history can’t be properly understood  without a working knowledge of the British mainstream, not all of it empire bashing or wallowing in Irish victimhood. With the end of Irish  history  nowhere in sight, history with a reconciliation theme is Irish State policy, as I noted in September , even if the edges are a little smoother than some would like. Better, all the same, than the blank ignorance Kettle identifies.

 The ties that bind the British nation state in which the English are the majority have been loosening in part because the English mind is in neutral. The English need to reclaim their self-respect. But you cannot respect what you do not know. The English need to learn their own history. It might surprise them.

The people in the British Isles who are being systematically deprived of any sense of their own history are not the Scots or the Welsh, let alone the Irish of either the north or the south. Whatever shortcomings there may be in the teaching of history in the non-English parts of the islands, they do not extend to the almost wholesale neglect of a sense of national narrative. Yet that is the case in England. It is in England where the problem is deepest, and England where the need for change is most urgent.

In fact the nature of their own historical experiences may mean that the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish also know more about England’s history than the English do. Few Irish school students would be in any doubt who Oliver Cromwell was, for instance. Nor Scots about Edward I. For the English, by contrast, they are hidden figures.

Oddly the Kettle thesis ignores the  rise of Englishness as a sulky  reaction  to devolution in the asymetrical Union. This can seen seen at its narrowest in  little Englander Europhobia and UKIP. Yet  a broader civic Englishness  is emerging from Britguilt about the Empire and cultural cringe  about the  rest of these islands. It’s  being carefuly charted by our own Arthur Aughey of the University of  Ulster. It takes an Ulsterman’s sensitivity towards indentity  to do justice to the theme.

, , , , , , , , , ,

  • BarneyT

    perhaps ignorance has come about through avoidance which is triggered by shame?

    It is true to say that perhaps more Irish are aware of the atrocities carried out at the hands of the British Empire (intrinsically the English empire) in India and other far flung colonies than the English are.

    Their ignorance depends on the event I would argue. Dont mention the war!

  • My brother who was a taxi driver in Belfast for the past few years was struck by how little his tens of thousands of passengers knew about Irish History apart from the “big” events.. So he took time out to write a number of books. His first, dealing with the period of the latter half of the 16th century and called Tyrone Triumphant has just been published and is available from Amazon UK
    He also includes a biographical section describing how he became a bigot at a young age and how it took a long personal journey to “recover” from the “illness”.

  • Mc Slaggart

    “Irish history can’t be properly understood without a working knowledge of the British mainstream, not all of it empire bashing or wallowing in Irish victimhood. ”

    I will pass over your slant on things and point out to you that Irish history is part of European history of which “England” is only one small part.

  • sherdy

    Is it not ironic that the leader of UKIP bears a French name?

  • David Crookes

    Thanks, Brian. Nietzsche once complained about what he called ‘morality as vampirism’. Sometimes I feel like complaining about ‘history as victimology’. Too many academics are making careers out of using the word ‘postcolonial’ in every sentence. If we teach our children that most of our history is shameful, they will WANT to be ignorant of that history.

    There are forms of orientation in academe that have no business to be there. I happen to be moderately leftish in certain areas, but it annoys me to know that the modern cult of educationism, which has waged war on genuine literacy for several decades, is beset by doctrinaire leftishness from head to toe.

  • Brian Walker

    Mc slaggart, You couldn’t pass over my slant if you tried. So France Italy and Germany had an equal impact on Ireland had they? The Rights of Man, the Wild Geese, Young Italy and Young Ireland and all those simultaneous failed risings. Only kidding – but take care not to hate important bits of yourself.

    Peter Barry, Irish foreign minister 1973-77 had a good phrase you’d like just after both had joined the EEC. “Britain is an island which blocks Ireland’s view of the continent.” So sophisticated from the tea blender from Cork.

  • Brian Walker

    mister joe..more power to your former taxi driver author brother. A big change from the usual old patter.

  • Mc Slaggart

    “So France Italy and Germany had an equal impact on Ireland had they?”

    It is interesting that you view history by country. What the Normans did in history for example is interesting. How each “country” views that history is interesting. For example that great English king Richard the ‘Lion Heart’. Was not a lover of “England” and did not even speak English.

    The Welsh would say they was defeated by the European Normans.

  • Red Lion

    If the English are in neutral then thats the best place to be.
    I’m slightly envious of the English, they aren’t uptight with constitutional or identity or historical issues like the rest of the smaller nations, they are at ease with themselves and just get on with life. England is a great country and a great place to be and i always feel reinvigirated and a real zest for life when i visit there.
    England is a truelly modern country, diverse, nuanced with a massive whack of liberalism. It ain’t handicapped by history its got better things to do, good luck to it!

  • Mc Slaggart

    McSlaggart talks a load of shite it would suit him better if he to actually get put his brain in gear and did something useful. But why bother when you can work your wife into the ground.

    Truely pissed off wife

  • sherdy,

    Not in the least bit ironic. Lots of the English and Welsh aristocracy have French sounding names; if you recall, they came from Normandy.
    Besides, the population of the UK, like Ireland and America and Canada etc are all “bastard” nations and we all benefit from it. “Nation States” are a fairly recent innovation and, in essence, are slowing phasing out.

  • slowing = slowly

  • David Crookes

    Brian, the lea-blender from Cork is supposed to be getting an annual pension of 126000 euros. It makes me want to set up the Irish Tea Party.

  • “referred mischievously to “ the Scotch.””

    I know where you’re coming from on this one, Brian, but ‘Scotch’ is in regular use in NI. There’s Ballyrock Scotch on the west side of the Bush Water; it’s next door to Ballyrock Irish. Carrickfergus has its Scotch and Irish Quarters and there are several Scotch Streets.

    “With the end of Irish history nowhere in sight, history with a reconciliation theme is Irish State policy”

    By its very nature, the end of any history is nowhere in sight. Is the absence of Northern Irish history an oversight?

    I did a little history in school but it had little or no local relevance for me. My interest in political analysis followed on from time spent in genealogy and local history, studies that commenced around 1990. I understand that the teaching of history in primary schools begins with family and local history and broadens out from there. Unfortunately local history resources are rather thin and I’ve been disappointed that our university in Coleraine has done very little work in this sphere.

  • BarneyT

    Red Lion – of course it’s always dangerous to generalise about a country or its people, positively or negatively. I had quite a spell in England….about 21 years with a 2 year US sabbatical sandwiched in between.

    I lived and studied in the northeast, worked in the south and eventually headed north towards the midlands. I’ve travelled all over with work, so I’d like to think I can judge to an extent.

    There are four groups of people that I could either identify with or appreciate more than others.

    North Easterners
    South Westerners (to an extent)
    East Londoners (natives)
    Brummies (for their dry sense of humour)

    Overall I found Englanders to exhibit aggression and hostility from Barnsley to Portsmouth. I found the midlands to be the most distasteful, particularly in terms of tolerance, their negativity and racism (in all directions). I also found them to be endless complainers. No subject is out of bounds.

    I found little substance in the English and in that I do generalise (excluding those from the northeast whom I mostly identify with), but I can only judge a people from the thousands I have engaged. I even married one once 🙁
    I could not get over their obsession with class and status. I became intolerant of the “stating the bleeding obvious” and talking nonsense and drivel culture (you can only have the same conversation so many times) and the general lack of maturity that seems to pervade.

    I eventually had to leave England (driven out I would argue by the midlands) as frankly it was driving me mad and it was sapping my will to live and provide zero political or cultural stimulation. I found myself on countless occasions saying, there has to be more to life than this.

    It’s strange to look back on a place where I spent most of my adult life to date, however I am now happy to go to England as long as there is a promise of a swift return or a transition to somewhere else.

  • Red Lion

    Funny BarneyT, horses for courses, I lived in Bristol, London and a little village in Warwickshire. London was a great place to be when young, my workmates were all brilliant and it was one of the best times of my life.
    I had a funny job in Bristol where i met the most resiliant people ive come across, and were so laid back in the face of adversity.They were laid back and they made do.There is something a bit ancient about the SW of England that i can’t quite put my finger on. In Warwicks they were just obsessed about cricket, but the little country pubs in summertime i could have sat in them all day.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Interesting that Aughey is charting this. 8 or 9 years ago I had the unique luxury of being given a small research budget to do a short conference paper for my research agency on the topic of my choice. I chose perceptions of English and British identities among people from a couple of selected minority ethnic groups in England. A small piece of qual only, but it was interesting when doing some background reading how little research seemed to have been done on contemporary English identity. Notable too that my then (white English) bosses, despite being social researchers, struggled to understand the premise behind my project.

    If England does end up reviving as a nation, it will have a rather large number of its own citizens to convince that they are ‘English’. The British identity is way more important for most non-white people in England than the English one. The task of building a multi-cultural English, as opposed to British, identity is still in its infancy. But it can succeed, I’m sure, if it dawns on English society that they need to do it. The availability of Britishness at the moment means Englishness has been largely spared that task.