Last Monday, I was driving to work and happened to hear a rare treat for English Nationalists, which I have had transcribed verbatim. It will warm the cockes of your heart!
BBC Radio 4 – Andrew Marr's "Start the Week" – Monday, 26th September 2011-09-30
[Andrew Marr (AM), Simon Jenkins (SJ), Gillian Clarke (GC) and Peter Conrad (PC)]
"AM Hello nations and national stereo types in music, politics and poetry today... First ... Simon Jenkins, who is the Chairman of the National Trust, who is battling the Government over the future of the countryside just now and he has found time to produce what he calls a Short History of England, running from the Saxon Dawn, to his call for a new English Assembly, or we might say a new English Parliament, at the end of the book.
This is an unashamedly narrative history. You felt there was a gap in the market?
SJ Yes, I think like most people, I saw English history as a series of static tableaux on the stage. Henry VIII with the Dissolution of the monasteries, Agincourt and Benjamin Disraeli and so on and I really want to have to chart them all the way through the narrative, the moving together, and I wanted to do so in a grown up way, not a book for children that simply said this is the story of England and it was short. It should not be a great huge tome that you put beside your bed and fall asleep to every night but you can sort of read it at one sitting. So I wanted to write literally a short history of England.
AM You were of a generation as I was brought up with battles, kings and queens, dates and so on so you have got narrative history as a child, that is what you were fed.
SJ Quite honestly no.
SJ I remember doing 19th Century Europe and Norman feudalism and so on but no-one ever taught me that the run through from the beginning to the end and therefore you got no sense of Cause and Effect, you didn’t know how the civil war followed on from the dissolution of the monasteries from the decline of feudalism. I just wanted to see how these things linked together. The parallel that I draw, the people who know London because they know Piccadilly Circus, Marble Arch and Hyde Park Corner, they don’t know the roads in between. I was trying to tell the story of the roads in between, in a simple a way as possible.
AM And this is very much the story of England not of Britain?
SJ The other theme, which actually was a voyage of discovery for me, I really was discovering about my own country, England that England is quite distinct from Wales, Scotland and Ireland not to mention the rest of the British Empire that was, and when you look at England and not as Britain, most histories of Britain are just Britain, including yours, and they kind of get side-tracked into what are quite distinct identities - these are the countries and when you are in
AM Becoming more distinct
SJ And becoming more so. I actually think I would predict were I so minded the eventual dissolution of the first British Empire which is the empire of the British Isles. No England is a proper country. It is a very remarkable country. I can rather boast about it. It is one of the most remarkable countries in Europe, if not the World. Its achievements are amazing! It ruled the world or much of the world for a while and it is in a collective decline as a inferiority complex for almost half a century but I think as Scotland goes; Ireland has gone, we almost forget; Wales will never completely go but it is becoming more and more distinct as a place. I think England will rediscover its identity and I think that is a valuable thing.
AM Because there is a hero in your book, as it were, but it is an institutional hero.
SJ The hero of the book is unquestionably Parliament. I am not a parliamentarian, I find Parliament a rather exasperating place, but to watch the emergence of Parliament from the early Witans, through the King’s Councils to Simon de Montfort and then this extraordinary assertion of Parliamentary Sovereignty in the 17th Century and then the collapse of Kingship under the Hanoverians. You have parliament parties, Walpole, Pitt and so on asserting themselves and this great event. I think the greatest event in English history, which is 1832 when Parliament decides there will not be a revolution in Britain as there was right across Europe because they have got to concede reform and the concession of reform in 1832 and onwards after that was the turning point when Britain became a hugely prosperous, essentially liberal country. It was a phenomenal event in European history and I think one which we can put it bluntly be pretty proud.
AM And relatively under discussed these days isn’t it. It is not something that people talk about much the great reform as they used to.
SJ Well one of the curiosities of English history is how many dates really don’t matter that much. 1066 was a battle between two Viking warlords, it wasn’t the Normans against the Saxons. Magna Carta was negated within two years. 1688 the glorious revolution was kind a spoof version of the invasion of Britain by the Dutch. 1832 mattered. 1832 was when really the aristocracy were told by Wellington that their game was up. They had to concede.
AM 1688 matters too doesn’t it. That is the moment when Parliament does finally establish its powers.
SJ 1688 matters, I mean dates matter. 1660 matters because of the Restoration we decide that revolution was ghastly and move the King back. All these dates matter. 1714 mattered when Queen Anne died and the Tories almost all wanting to have the Stuarts back and there is a sort of putsch and the Hanoverians. I give you 1832.
AM In terms of where we are now, to what extent do you think there has been the retreat from Empire. Has there been a retreat through the institutions:- the military, Parliament now in a pretty bad way, some of the institutions that were at the heart of your story, as it were now falling back a bit.
SJ One of the essences of English Liberty has always been Territoriality. It has been the Barons against the King, it has been territory against the King. These elements of localism I have always regarded as very important and I think the decline of localism in England, not I may say in France or in Germany or in Spain where it is if anything on the ascendant, the decline of localism in Britain is really deleterious. Parliament is left very important in the last election Parliament dictated how country should be ruled. So Parliament remains a totally dominant institution but I think Parliament and Government and Parliament are far too powerful and you are left with only really the British press over against parliament causing real trouble.
AM Do you have any sense, it is clear from the end of the book that you think the time is coming for an English Parliament or an English Assembly to rebalance things. Now that might happen simply because the Scots and the Welsh just carry on going their own way. Do you have any sense of the road through to that, how it might happen?
SJ It is very difficult. I think the English parliament was there before the Welsh and Scots and Irish were added to it. They have now been taken away from it and not being deprived of with the relevant number of MPs. I imagine one day that will come but we are looking way ahead, but one day I think one day the Parliament at Westminster will be the Parliament of England.
AM Gilliam Clarke - a Welsh voice?
G C I think it is extremely helpful that you started the book but not with the Saxon story but with the Celtic story. Very few stories in history do that. Children are starting with the Romans on the syllabus in England which means that we in Wales did feel a bit progressively and self-consciously Welsh because we were left out of the story. Your book not only includes the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish but actually therefore casts huge light on England. I love England much more now that I feel free from that sense that all the grown ups live in London and that we must do in Wales exactly what we were told. Do you think that children ought too in fact begin their learning of the history of England by knowing about the Celts?
SJ I actually start with adults rather than children. May be because the history books are meant for children. Give me the bloody adults first! Let’s get them in hand! Yes I did start with the Saxons so to speak arriving although there is a great debate as to whether they ever arrived or were they here all along but you are quite right England was born out of the pushing away, pushing back, of the Celts and it was a ferocious, savage, I mean however it was portrayed by modern archaeology, it clearly was a traumatic event and nothing again ever equalled it. The Anglo-Saxon language was the English language and swept away whatever was there before, the Brithonic or Celtic languages. When the Normans came and the Vikings came all subsequent invasions never succeeded in crushing the English language and it was the English language which I take as a great token of Englishness it carried forward right across the British Isles, the first Empire. It was carried across the British Empire, the second empire. It remains when the British Empire receded. They speak English right across the Commonwealth. It will remain when the British Empire in the British Isles recedes. It is spoken in Ireland. Englishness and English language and English culture are just phenomenally potent, they are very, very, powerful forces.
AM From that early mixing, that early grafting of two or three different
SJ It is moot whether there was much of a grafting or mixing. There is very little Brithonic, very little Welsh, or Gaelic, in English.
GC Apparently about 450 words in the English language are Welsh.
AM One of the points that you made in the past is the Welsh, what we call Welsh, was spoken really across Yorkshire, Scotland, all the way up.
GC The whole of the west of Britain.
SJ The thing you cannot mention in Wales is a joke that said the finest Welsh is spoken in North Wales because it comes from Cumbria, which of course is a Welsh word.
GC That is perfectly right.
SJ Your great hero Anirin.
GC And Wales was an English word.
SJ I was only saying to Andy that when you land in Edinburgh airport they have the cheek to write it up in English and Gaelic. It should be English and Welsh because they spoke Welsh in Edinburgh.
GC They did indeed.
AM Peter Conrad, you are an Australian by birth?
PC I was just about to confess that, although you will probably hear it the moment I open my mouth, so I am a bit detached from all of this but as someone who has lived here ever since being a student I just wonder whether this fragmentation, you know, aren’t we going to finish up with a completely tribalised society or no society at all? I mean not the sort of society that Margaret Thatcher was denying the existence of but a world of Gangs? Isn’t Britain, as a kind of useful fiction, because it is something that people who come here from all different parts of the world can pledge a kind of allegiance to? You remember the Queen and that famous speech that she made the night before Diana’s funeral - told everyone to be British, next day? She couldn’t have told them to be English could she?
SJ It is the new political correctness. You are absolutely right! When I was a boy the one thing I was taught was always talk about the “British Empire”. That is Britain IS the Empire. No-one does that any more but we still talk about “Britain”. You write as history, you have to write history of Britain and you have to eulogise the Union. David Cameron says ‘I would lay down my life for the Union’. Why? What is so good about the Union? The Irish have gone already, the Scots are clearly going. Why is it an absolute requirement of a British politician endlessly to harp on about “Britain”. I just think it would be quite useful if we accepted that there is a certain amount, of you call it Tribalism, but I call it Devolution.
PC Doesn’t there have to be some fiction of cohesion though, so that we all feel that with our different histories and different backgrounds, we are sharing something.
SJ Peter, on the day when the fiction of European Union is decomposing because it was an artificial Union. It had no flexibility, it had no acknowledgement of the differences of nations in it. It is decomposing at the moment. It is a bad time to be preaching, the suppression of tribalism!"
How are the cockles of your heart now???