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October 13, 2011

English history: why we need to understand 1066 and all that

By Sir Simon Jenkins

History is more than just isolated moments. Only with a knowledge of the complete evolution of English politics, argues Simon Jenkins, can we address the problems facing today’s society

Which “bits” of English history do we need to know? Should they be Simon Schama’s peasants’ revolt, Indian empire and opium wars, or David Starkey’s rules of chivalry? Or is the Cambridge professor Richard Evans right to dismiss “rote learning of the national patriotic narrative” out of hand, in favour of studying “other cultures separated from us by time and space”?

The answer is none of them as such. All seem static moments torn out of the context of history to suit a particular outlook on the world. Evans is the most wrong of all. His disparaging use of words such as rote and patriotic implies that facts about one’s own country are in some way irrelevant, even shameful. All history must start from the reader’s own standpoint in place and time. Otherwise it is just a blur.

The reason for learning history is not to hear stories but to follow themes that might help us understand the world about us. Without history, politics is fumbling in the dark. When Margaret Thatcher imposed a poll tax on the Scots in 1989, she seemed blind to the history of such taxes – disastrously so. When the British tried to rule southern Iraq in 2003 and to drive the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2006, they also ignored history.

The story of the nation in which we live is not a stage set crowded with isolated tableaux: the Norman conquest followed by Henry VIII, Charles I, the Industrial Revolution and finally leaping to Hitler. Sturdy tales of slavery, gender oppression and the defeat of Germany yield anecdotes that may raise the reader’s blood pressure. But they are history neutered of argument, uncreative, essentially dumb. They may make us angry, but not wise. History must be continuous, building from cause to effect and reaching a crescendo in the present day.

England’s narrative flow should be exhilarating and empowering. No country has such an eventful past, from the time when Germanic Angles and Saxons first pushed westwards across ancient Britain after the Romans withdrew in the fifth century. The English were, on any showing, a remarkable people, asserting their power and spreading their culture first across the British Isles and then round the world. They showed a confidence, sometimes an arrogance, which in the 19th and early-20th centuries led them briefly to bestride the globe, with an imperial countenance they still cannot shed.

To me, two threads run through this narrative. The first is England’s relations with its neighbours. This is so often sublimated into “British history”, or that of “the English-speaking peoples” or worse “our island story”, as if the English owned and occupied the other half of the British Isles still populated by Celtic descendants. In truth, the western and northern boundaries of England reached the line of Offa’s Dyke, Hadrian’s wall and the Irish Sea in the dark ages, and have hardly moved since.Saxons, Normans and Tudors could conquer the British Isles, but they could not suppress its people or their desire for greater self-government.

I have no doubt that England’s first empire – over the Celts – will fade in the 21st century. In 1920 Ireland had enough and most of it broke away, as eventually will Ulster. In 2000, Scotland and Wales began the same process. The reality is that these places have distinct histories of their own, as anyone knows who lives in them. As throughout Europe, provincial identities are acquiring political force. This is not good or bad, but inevitable. The same distinctiveness will apply to England. I have therefore sought to disinter England from the political homogeneity of Britishness.

The other thread is that of the distribution of power within England, between central authority and local consent. Almost all the great events of English history concern this struggle: Becket’s murder, Magna Carta, Henry VIII’s tyranny, the fight against the divinity of kings and the campaign for universal franchise. In each case, central power was pitted against church, baronage, parliament or people. A version of that struggle continues today in the argument over the future of the welfare state.

Running through this story is the primacy of money. From the Domesday Book to the present day, the obsession of England’s rulers was with war, first against the French and the Scots, then for an empire and then as guarantor of European and world peace. War requires money, and this was granted by taxpayers only in return for redress of grievances. Even Edward I, “hammer” of the Celts, wondered when taxes “paid to us out of liberality and goodwill … may in future become a servile obligation.” There had to be compromise or kings could not fight. The belligerence of England’s rulers was ironically the engine of early rule by consent.

In this story there was one overriding hero: parliament. Emerging from the early Saxon witans, parliament had by the 14th century already taken on the bicameral character it has today. It never lost its centrality in the constitution. It steered England through the agony of civil war. Under the Hanoverians, parliament and its “parties” took over the reins of government and was the cockpit for reform in 1832. Parliament, however “rotten” at times, never lost control of the argument. It was a creation of political genius.

These themes, like history itself, cannot be told spasmodically. Today’s debates over the electoral system and the reform of parliament are vacuous if not informed by previous ones. Britain’s ambivalent relations with Europe and its confused global policy remain opaque if they ignore the experience of Pitt, Palmerston, Salisbury and Churchill. The devolution process is absurd if typified by David Cameron’s “I will fight for the union with every fibre in my body.” And how can we grapple with the size and role of government without watching the state wax ever bigger over the centuries, to become a colossus in the 20th century?

I cannot see how any narrative can avoid starting at the beginning and running to the end, however hard it may seem to tell it that way. Reformers who have led history’s decline into “optionalism” in the school curriculum want it taught by dipping in and out, claiming that to follow events through dates is boring and hard. Yet ends come after beginnings. Causes precede effects. Time’s arrow flies through “one damned thing after another.” I am an unashamed chronologist.

Reformers also imply that England’s political evolution is only a partial reflection of its history – and neglects social, gender and cultural themes. But history must start with the framework of authority. The distribution of power within a state is its essence, as wielded by kings, generals, politicians and electorates. Their story has to start with the much-derided reigns, battles, statutes and elections. History without dates wanders aimlessly in a fog. It is chemistry without elements or physics without maths.

I have written a book that covers the main characters and events of England’s history, short enough to be read at one sitting. It is “argued history”, intended to inform and empower debate. The challenges faced by England today remain as they have always been: relations with its neighbouring peoples, and the internal tension between state power and personal freedom. To be in ignorance of how these challenges were met over 1,500 years not only misses a great story. For a democracy, it is dangerous.

Simon Jenkins’s A Short History of England is published this week by Profile books, price £25, and will be serialised in the Guardian over the coming weeks.



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