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.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London