Friday 1 January 2010

England, whose England?

Happy new year!

I am belatedly posting a link to the Today programme discussion, broadcast on new year's eve, on whether patriotism can and should be taught in schools. This was part of the guest editorship of PD James: the discussion involved myself and David Starkey, chaired by Evan Davis.

PD James began the discussion by expressing her High Tory scepticism about the possibility of a shared patriotism in a multi-ethnic society. For me, this risks essentialising ethnic difference, and underestimating the extent to which our history has been one of successful integration over time. Whether, according to taste or ideology, your favourite symbols of the public institutions which do most to bind us together would be the Monarchy, Parliamentary democracy, the NHS, the Army or the BBC, there is little evidence that levels of allegiance differ greatly by ethnic origin.

David Starkey certainly wanted to polarise the discussion, both because he felt strongly about it though partly too for reasons of public entertainment. I think I was a bit discombobulated by that, since his device was to project on to me a caricature - that the teaching history should be primarily the site of a propagandist and instrumental account of multiculturalism - that I don't hold.

I was probably too vague in trying to dig myself out from underneath it: this Comment is Free piece and discussion on whether British identity and citizenship may be a bit clearer about some of the arguments I was trying to make about teaching citizenship and identity. (I personally prefer to describe this as a multi-ethnic society, which is an indisputable social fact, rather than a 'multicultural' one, which is a contested and polarised political argument, of which there has long been a plausible progressive critique).

I would be very happy with the idea that we should teach British history properly, and for the historians tell us - and argue about - what that should mean.

There has been a broad consensus that the loss of an overall narrative sweep is a bad thing. (That is the view of many on the left as well as the right. One does not need to have an instrumental motivation to also feel confident that a proper historical interrogation of our past would sometimes stand up many of our narratives and myths we live by better than theirs!)

That was argued rather well for the Fabians by Gordon Marsden back in 2006, discussing how the excessive Hitlerisation of the school history curriculum had in part been driven by a fear that teaching the history of Empire could be too divisive. Surely that is an indispensable foundation for understanding the making of modern Britain.

The discussion ends with Starkey disagreeing with my claim that British identity has always been a both/and thing. For Starkey, if Britishness can not win an emotional identity contest with Scottishness, then it amounts to little or nothing. I just don't see why what has always been a plural and civic identity for a multinational state needs to make that demand.

But, consistent with his on argument, I was struck by how much Starkey has emotionally invested in a rediscovery of Englishness, and how little in a British identity which he is certain will wither away.

Perhaps that is only natural for a great public historian of the Tudor Age, as was captured in Starkey's audio tour of the National Portrait Gallery for Today, broadcast earlier in the programme.

But I think we are going to see two opposing and competing, yet potentially complementary, reasons for a greater focus on Englishness.

Some, like Starkey, are for a post-British England, seeking in it an escape to an authentic past from what they think has become a banal, bastardised and contentless British identity.

Yet, as I was arguing here last St George's Day, I am with those who think it an important pro-Union project to make sure the English feel confident that the can come to the party as one of the varieties of Britishness. (Though I do find the argument that Englishness is suppressed odd: what's stopping us?)

Once that argument begins in earnest, we will soon find ourselves arguing about different English traditions and identities too. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I may be Starkey's English icons of choice. The England of the Levellers, Orwell and the Fabians will be among many others who will want to have our say too.


Anonymous said...

I'm English and will never be British.

Post-devolution Britain has merely confirmed what I've known for most of my life, the deadliest enemies of the English are the British.

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks for your comment. OK, you have every right not to personally identify with Britishness or a British identity: substantial minorities of different sizes in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as England may well agree with you.

And yet we are all British, as a matter of political citizenship. If you have a passport, you may find it confirms that. And that will continue until and unless you manage to convince a majority of your countrymen otherwise. It is certainly your democratic birthright to try and persuade us/them. But, for now, most of the English disagree with you. So perhaps then the enemy is us too.

(Similarly, some will never be Monarchists, but we are all citizens within and or subects of a constitutional monarchy until there is sufficient public consensus to change that. You could state 'I am not a subject of this Monarchy' and it would mean something in one sense, but not in another.