February 07, 2007

Returning to the History and Nationalism

My continuing dialogue with Matthew Sinclair has been interrupted neccessarily by some private family stuff but I do want to continue it. Matthew posted a very interesting reply to my article here- in which he made three crucial points in defence of his original position that it was good to teach national history in schools (the dialogue started with Matthew, I disagreed, Matthew offered some very interesting thoughts here and yet again I responded here).

Part of the problem with writing national history is a problem with all history. Its very easy to take a person and make them part of a grand narrative. Marxist historians were very fond of this in the early twentieth century- they told us that the radicals in the English Civil War were fixated on bringing in democratic utopias- well they weren't, they were far more interested in religious liberation. Conservative historians also tell us this- I frequently hear from conservative friends that everyone before 1800 was a Conservative- an interesting theory given that it was English law until the first decade of the nineteenth century, that goods for which too high a price was charged might be seized at a local market place- as for example they were in 1792 at Preston. Our concerns and our political values are very parochial- they stretch in historical terms to the limits of our temporal village and not much farther. You therefore have to worry about the history of a concept stretching backwards in time and what you are doing to it.

Why do you have to worry? Well I think the issue of nationalism illustrates my worry. Lets take the case of Cnut. Cnut was a Danish prince who came to England and conquered England from its Saxon Kings in 1015. He ruled and his sons ruled after him into the 1040s and he reorganised the administration of the English kingdom and reorganised the upper nobility. Cnut entered onto a society that was ethnically divided- largely English in the South and West and largely Viking in the North and East. Is he a part of a story of the land of England and those that have occupied it (in the neutral sense that I now occupy my bedroom)? Yes he definitely was. Is he part of the history of the English people to whom most modern English people trace decent? Yes of part of them- though many came later than he did and it should be remembered that another part of them he massacred. What connects Cnut to us? Almost certainly not mother tongue, definitely he didn't beleive in any of the values anyone would wish to think of as English today, he would probably have had no idea of what English means. Does it do anything therefore for either us or Cnut to call him English? Personally I doubt it- it doesn't help us understand Cnut- indeed it takes us further away from him.

If we come to Cromwell though we see the problem in an even better light because Cromwell did see himself as English- but what kind of English. Matthew you see doesn't really mean that when he wants to teach people English he wants to teach them a word and confirm that they are it- he also wants to teach them something about that word- otherwise he'll have a problem defining it when they ask him what this 'English' word mean. Well Cromwell beleived that an Englishman was a Protestant who didn't beleive in bishops, was part of an elect nation ressembling Biblical Israel, was the inheritor of a law that dated back to times unknown and which should not be changed at all, had signed an original contract by which he bequeathed his rights to a common store and received out of them the traditional rights of common law feudal Englishmen. That isn't quite the vision that Matthew would hold out for us- so what are we to say when Matthew teaches people that Cromwell was an exemplar of Englishness- what ultimately does the word mean?

I proposed literature rather than history as the best way to think about nationalism and that's really why. Its because I entertain doubts that beyond the physical facts of sharing maybe some genes and a piece of land (though my ancestors share genes with people from Norway and New Zealand as well- and have owned pieces of land around the globe) there isn't much I share with these historical characters. What would Englishness consist of if I were to take Cnut's, Cromwell's and Matthew's idea of Englishness and say they were continuous? If Matthew can show me a coherent concept I'd love to see it.

Art and literature though can present me with a vision of something that I can adhere to- a kind of mythical idea of Englishness- in this way you could argue that mythical characters like Robin Hood and King Arthur are much better characters to base a nationalism around than are Cromwell and Cnut. Robin and Arthur can be twisted to our priorities- they can speak our language- to fit Cromwell or Cnut into our Englishness we either have to deform what we aspire to or to deform the truth of who they were.

Matthew poses a last very sensible question to me which is whether a mild nationalism can ever be successful- whether acknowledging that the nation I love is an emotional construct, built over a political reality, but not itself an existing reality diminishes that love. There are two issues here- firstly Matthew conjures up a world of increasing instability where nationalism no longer bonds and secondly he argues that an emotional bond is always weaker.

Matthew is right in the sense that nation seems to have provided human beings down the ages with a good mechanism for uniting in solidarity. His second claim though is the one I'd like to disagree with- the point is that any political sentiment bound to an irrational body (and Matthew as I hope a good Burkean conservative could acknowledge that nationalism is both irrational and a good thing) must be moderate if it isn't to lead to catastrophe. The problem about nationalism is that it can so easily over spill into adherance to a national government, condemnation beyond the prudential of things that are are unnational or against the nation, resentment of outsiders and the kind of war fury say that possessed Europeans in 1914. Matthew I think would acknowledge all of this- the point I would make to him is that nationalism's power need not be based on a distorted image of the truth, but rather upon an emotional insight- that something binds me to this group of people. Emotional insights can be very powerful- love for example is one of the most powerful forces in the world- yet they need not, as love does not, call upon us to make judgements about what is. We all know that the judgements we make under their sway are provisional and must be reconsidered by reason. For me nationalism is not something that proceeds out of reason- its something that is an emotional reaction. Hence reason should arbitrate over it- and maybe that can help us avoid extremism.

I apologise for any incoherence- one of the things about arguing with good friends like Matthew- who are also very intelligent is that you can rely upon them to extract the good things from an argument and ignore the dross. I'm under a bit of pressure at the moment- but I hope this makes you think- and I'm looking forward to his answer.


Anonymous said...

I have a sense, it may be unwarranted, that Matthew's whole argument rather hinges on an exaggerated sense of education's place in a "sense of nation."

If anything, it is events, the aftermath of WW2 leading to the EU, the Cold War, etc. that have changed the face of nationalism.

Let's pick a good Tory gentleman from one of our previous discussions. The Rt Hon. Mr. Gove. Here's a man who has all the credentials for a good sense of nationalism. He's not prey to "lefty" notions of "Empire guilt" or "moral relativism."

And yet... his foreign policy perspective operates almost wholly in an "internationalist" mode. He talks about the actions Britain should undertake, but the whole overarching narrative is not about an "Island nation afloat in the world" but us as small cog in "The West."

"The West" is an amorphous (some might say, fuzzy and emotional) grouping of many nations, engaged (in Gove's view) in a struggle of civilisations with you-know-who.

Now, if we step away from my clumsy attempts at satire, there is a serious point here. We live in a world where the concept of nation is fundamentally less distinct. I could go all Thomas Friedman and blather about TV shows from America and call centres in India as well, but maybe that is over-egging the pudding.

The simple point is this. The nation is weaker as a concept everywhere. Education changes have played only a small (arguably vanishingly small) part of that. Does it really make any sense to turn to education to change it?

Ellee said...

This isn't my subject, but I am glad you are finding like-minded people like Matthew to share an ongoing debate and explore ideas.

james higham said...

I don't see the problem with teaching national history - there's fairly broad agreement on the major points, e.g. Pevensey, the fyrd, feudalism and so on and where there's dispute, simply give both sides of the argument e.g. Josephine Tey's argument about Richard III. On a matter of whether the English charged too early at Hastings, let it be discussed.

It seems to me it's not the concept of national history as such but how it's written which is the critical point.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Another great and thought-provoking post, Gracchi. I long ago came to the conclusion that to understand a people it is their literature and the evolution of their cookery that you need to study [as well as having a knowledge of historical events, of course; I say "events" because I cannot get to grips with the idea of history teaching that was prevalent in the 80s, ie., that you taught children what it might have been like to be an everyday roundhead, Cavalier, Norman, whatever, but didn't bother to tell them when any of this occurred]. I think one of the most difficult things for young people to grasp about history is the global timeline - ie., when "this" was happening in Britain, "that" was happening somewhere else. By the way, have you read J Shcell's "The UInconquerable World"? - His ideas upon how we might change the notion of nationhood/sovereignty might interest you. I am in danger of rambling again... Buona serata.

Francis Sedgemore said...

Cnut entered onto a society that was ethnically divided- largely English in the South and West and largely Viking in the North and East.

Interesting article (which I found via Dave Hill's blog).

At the time of Knut, did there exist a people that could be described as English? The non-Celtic tribes living in what is now the south of England were a mix of Angles, Saxons and Jutes. The Jutes came from Jylland: the region of Denmark that is part of mainland Europe, and adjoins northern Germany. The Angles originated in what is now the German province of Schleswig, which geographically-speaking is southern Jylland.

Interesting to note is that the EU have recognised the geographical and cultural reality by establishing the Euroregion of Sønderjylland-Schleswig. See the Wikipedia entry on Schleswig for more information:

As someone familiar with both south-east England and Denmark, but with, I have to admit, relatively little knowledge of academic history, I see very strong links between these two regions of northern Europe. In Kent, especially, the white people of today share many physical and cultural similarities with the indigenous population of Denmark, and it is beyond the scope of this comment to discuss them in detail, but I will consider writing about the subject in more depth.

As for languages, there are many similarities between Danish and English. Danish may to an English speaker not previously exposed to the language seem totally unintelligible, but relax the ear a little and you can hear that both tongues have the same core structure and flow. Danish is an easy language for English speakers to learn when they are immersed in Danish culture.

Of course, hundreds of years of genetic and cultural mixing has led to the wholesome smorgasbord that is contemporary England, but the fact is that Denmark played an enormous role in the forging of the English nation.

Ms Baroque said...

This is a fascinating discussion whcih is now ranging over four blogs, like a party with lota of rooms - and I'm very happy to see literature in the mix! Of course, many of these historical characters are, for the purposes of Nationalist feeling, essentially literary constructs anyway, viz. Alfred and the cakes. As someone or other has said above, though, I'm sure no one even knows that story any more. But Alfred was a great champion of literacy and opener of schools, and he did keep the Vikings out till, probably, Cnut arrived.

But let's think: literary characters? Rrobin Hood is more legendary than literary, And Arthur is a largely Welsh legend - though Tintagel is in Cornwall. It's still Celtic.

Quintessential English literary characters. The Wife of Bath? Tom Jones? Becky Sharp?