[lg policy] The English: a people without a history?
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Mon Mar 15 13:45:00 UTC 2010
The English: a people without a history?
Michael Collins, 12 March 2010
About the author
Michael Collins is lecturer in twentieth century British history at UCLA
According to A. J. P. Taylor, in 1934 Oxford University Press
commissioned its History of England series on the basis that ‘England’
was still “an all-embracing word”. It meant “indiscriminately England
and Wales; Great Britain; the United Kingdom; and even the British
Empire” (A. J. P. Taylor, English History, 1914-1945, OUP 1965).
Looking back from the 1960s, AJP still believed this to be the
appropriate historiographical perspective to take, and in private
correspondence he made this very clear. “I am obsessed with England”,
he wrote to his editor G. N. Clark in 1961, “to hell with Scotland,
Northern Ireland and still more the Empire!!” (A. J. P. Taylor to G.
N. Clark: 20 May 1961, Clark Papers, Bodleian Library, Oxford, MSS Box
30.). One wonders if he thought Ireland even worth sending to hell.
Taylor never sought to conceal his Anglocentrism. He revelled in it.
But having penned the fifteenth volume of the History of England
series, he was far from being alone in assuming that England – its
people, economy, government and monarchy – provided the central
storyline for the history of these islands. The assumptions of English
dominance inherent in J. R. Seeley’s famous lectures on The Expansion
of England have resonated across the last century of historical
writing. In fact, although a follow up series to the one begun in 1934
was commissioned by OUP – with the first volume appearing in 1992 –
the editors still plumped for the title New Oxford History of England.
Professor Brian Harrison’s Finding a Role? The United Kingdom,
1970-1990 is the latest volume in that series, and – as the title
implies – the story of the United Kingdom is central to the period in
question, covering as it does the beginnings of the ‘troubles’ in
Northern Ireland, the development of Scottish and Welsh nationalism
and the entry of the UK into the EEC in a supposedly post-imperial
age. Harrison’s book provides an admirable synthesis of the cultural,
social, economic and political history of the period, but this is not
‘four nations’ history. Although the constituent parts of the UK do
feature, England remains the central reference point.
For many professional historians then, England has, and often
continues to be the primary historical mover and shaker in the history
of these islands, and hence by implication the history of the
expansion and contraction of the British Empire. This is unsurprising,
for the historical profession in some sense owes a great debt to the
national dimension of history writing. Leopold von Ranke, the ‘founder
of the science of history’, often took the history of nations as his
reference point. In the nineteenth century and beyond, the musings and
memoirs of national elites and the politics of the nation-state
constituted the historical archive, and in an important sense
constituted the historical discipline as unified field of inquiry.
Much has changed since then. There are possible narratives about the
history of these islands which go beyond national frameworks of
analysis towards a new transnational history: narratives of exchange,
of contact, of interaction, of ‘gains’ and ‘losses’ to be measured not
on a balance sheet, but by the traces they have left behind, the
legacies they have left for our present. A great deal of work has
already been done, and yet arguably we still have only a very limited
understanding of the ways in which the history of empire has shaped
our politics, culture, economy and society. But this raises the
question, do we still need ‘national history’?
If the nation is a fundamentally modern repository for collective
identity, then are we living in a post-modern, post-national world, in
which national history might lose its resonance? The evidence here is
mixed, but it may be that our sense of selfhood today is more complex
and multi-layered than it has been in the recent past. If so, then the
place of national history seems to be an increasingly pressing
question connecting professional historians with teachers of history
in schools and with policy-makers in government concerned with the
nature of citizenship and belonging.
Perhaps a starting point is a better understanding of the function
that history – and especially the teaching of history – has performed
in sustaining collective identities over time. It is precisely this
that the timely History in Education project, currently underway at
London’s Institute of Historical Research (IHR) under the guidance of
David Cannadine, seeks to explore. But this kind of research still
leaves open the question of whether national history is English or
British, and this points toward the possibility of a looming paradox.
Debates about the English question, English votes for English laws and
the problem of English identity can be seen as symptomatic of a crisis
of confidence about the place of England within an increasingly
disunited kingdom. And, for all the centrality of England to the
history of Britain, if the break up of Britain should actually occur,
it may be the English who are left as the ‘people without history’,
for the history of England is a hostage to the fortunes of the United
Why should this be the case? As Krishan Kumar has perceptively and
persuasively argued, the appropriate frame for understanding English
national identity is not the distinction between ethnic or civic bases
for nationhood, but England’s ‘missionary imperialism’: the
expansionist fervour of the English people. Crucially, Kumar claims,
this moves the emphasis of an English national identity from the
‘creators to their creations’ (K. Kumar, The Making of English
National Identity (CUP, 2003), p. x.). If Kumar’s thesis concerning
the source of England’s national identity is correct, then, as Kumar
points out, the implications of the loss of those ‘creations’ – let us
suppose Alex Salmond were successful in persuading the Scottish people
to turn A. J. P. Taylor on his head and say “to hell with England” –
are quite disturbing.
It is my view that complete severance is less plausible than a
reconfiguration. But whether we are looking ahead to ‘Scotland the
brave’, ‘England alone’ or some reinvention of the Union, what is
certain is that the empire is gone for good, industrial supremacy is a
thing of the very distant past and the Westminster model of politics
has been found increasingly wanting. In addition, the monarchy under a
future Charles III looks not just unpalatable but positively
If the foundations of ‘Great Britain’ have either ceased to exist or
are crumbling around us, it might be said that all histories working
on the assumption – explicit or implicit – that the history of England
equates to the history of England’s expansion and impact on the world
– that is histories of England’s ‘creative work’ – are ultimately
histories of decline and loss. This is why Niall Ferguson’s efforts to
re-narrate a comforting island story about ‘how Britain made the
modern world’ amount to little more than nostalgia. From the
perspective of our twenty-first century present, there seems to be an
absence of meaning at the heart of England’s history, and we need a
great conversation about what to put it is place.
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