Julian Jackson’s 2018 biography of Charles de Gaulle is entitled A Certain Idea of France. I am sure it would horrify many in this country to be compared with the General, but don’t we share a similar national mythology?
We are currently in a season of remembrance. On 1 November Christians traditionally remember all the dead; we have a national day of thanksgiving that we were saved from terrorism on 5 November; for the last 100 years we have commemorated our war dead on 11 November. I get the feeling, however, that our national pastime is remembrance. No anniversary, particularly those relating to world war, is left unmarked. We celebrate our Britishness and bask in the golden glow of past British glories.
In the first phase of lockdown I read Ian Sansom’s novel The Sussex Murder. One of his main characters has a:
“belief that Britain and the British are essentially the product of the stories we choose to tell about ourselves rather than some immutable national identity based on race, or religion or ideology. […] Britain is an imagined community.” (pp218-19).
What are those stories we tell ourselves? That we are one country. That we are a great industrial nation: the workshop of the world. That we stood alone against oppression and world domination. That we are a beacon of democracy. That the sun never set on the British Empire.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland lasted 120 years, four generations, and for almost half that time parliament was debating Irish home rule. Scotland has never shared a legal or educational system with England or a state religion. The current prime minister addresses us about Covid-19 each day from between two Union flags. This in itself is promoting a myth because when it comes to health matters Great Britain does not exist. Johnson and his advisors speak for England.
I have just returned from visiting the Forest of Dean, where we walked through what had been an industrial landscape: a landscape which was created in 1875 and was obsolete by 1935. Here in the East Midlands the story is the same. All our landscapes are man-made, and we remake them in every generation. British industry has been replaced by woodland and wildlife. Most of the gravel pits in the East Midlands are now leisure lakes. This summer I have also been using nineteenth century Ordnance Survey maps in another project, and it became clear to me how much of the built industrial environment of our country was created after 1875 and has now disappeared. The majority of factories, railways and canals we see are heritage sites, often recreated by volunteer groups.
We have never stood alone. All our wars were fought in alliance with other countries. As for combatting world domination, one suspects that most of the nations we fought under the British flag felt that we were the aggressors.
Which neatly brings us to the Empire. Whilst England had colonies for 350 years most of what we fondly remember was acquired during Queen Victoria’s reign This became clear to me when I met a Kenyan friend whose grandfather remembered the British coming. Within a generation the British had gone. Across Africa the postcolonial leaders were all children of people who had seen the British come. Looking at it from a British perspective, Sir Winston Churchill took part as a young man in campaigns which expanded the Empire. He was a minister when the Empire reached its greatest extent in 1919. He saw all the white Dominions have their independence confirmed in 1931, and was involved in discussions about Indian independence. By the time he died in 1965 Britain had very few overseas territories. We remember something which lasted one man’s lifetime.
In 1962, US Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously said that, “Britain had lost an empire and failed to find a role”. Like many of us I expect my understanding was that the European project was our national response. Fifty-five years later, however, Benjamin Martill’s post-Brexit analysis was that “Britain has lost a role, and failed to find an empire.” Like Gatsby we have failed to realise that we can’t recreate the past.
National myths are not restricted to our country of course. The Greeks look back to their classical period, so much so that in order to showcase the Parthenon they destroyed 2000 years of post-Periclean buildings and history. The problem for all nations is that the past we glorify was transient. The people who created our country (or rather, countries) in the form that we glorify did not look back, they looked forward, and they adapted to the world in which they found themselves.
Myths have their purpose, but they are not the basis for a continuing national existence. Our challenge is to redefine what Britain stands for, and what makes us British in this new chapter of our island’s story.