Wednesday, 9 November 2011
A Short History Of England's relevence to English Nationalism
I have been reading Sir Simon Jenkin’s Book.
It is a good read and I recommend it to anyone interested in reading about the narrative and sweep of English history.
From a political point of view though his comments are largely restricted to the Introduction and Epilogue.
I therefore set them both out here, largely in full, with his most interesting comments in bold.
I HAVE ROAMED ENGLAND all my life. I have climbed Cornwall’s cliffs, wandered Norfolk’s marshes and walked the Pennine Way. I know England’s cities and towns, churches and houses. For all that, until recently, I did not really know England, for I was not aware of how it came to be. My England was a geographical stage set, a backdrop for events and characters familiar from my childhood: Alfred the Great, the Norman conquest, Magna Carta, Agincourt, Henry VIII’s wives, Good Queen Bess, Cromwell, Gladstone, Disraeli, the Great War, Winston Churchill. Each stood as a magnificent moment in time, but they did not join up. They lacked a narrative.
I set out here to tell that narrative as simply as possible. I was helped by finding it exhilarating. England’s history, its triumphs and disasters, must be the most consistently eventful of any nation on earth. Its origins lie in the Dark Ages, and possibly before, in the occupation of the eastern shores of the British Isles by Germanic tribes from the continent. They brought with them the name of Anglii, probably from the ‘angle’ of the coats of Germany and Denmark. Their settlement on the north-east coats was named Angle-land and later England. These newcomers quickly drove the earlier inhabitants, so-called ‘ancient Britons’ to the west and north, to beyond Hadrian’s Wall, the Welsh uplands and the Irish Sea, forming boundaries of England that have remained roughly constant ever since.
The English were themselves invaded by Vikings and by Normans. But while they had obliterated their British predecessors, they kept their Anglo-Saxon culture and language through all subsequent incursions. They were astonishingly resilient, aided by the security of an insular geography and the seafaring enterprise often shown by island people. They quickly evolved a common language, common laws and a common system of government, rooted in a tension between the Saxon autonomy of ‘kith and kin’ and the Norman tradition of central authority. That tension is a leitmotif of my storey. England was a nation forged between the hammer of kingship and the anvil of popular consent, a consent regularly withheld, not least by the Celtic half of the British Isles which came to form the first ‘English empire’. The result was such conflicts as led to Magna Carta, the baronial wars of Henry III and the Peasants’ Revolt, culminating in the religious and political revolutions of the Tudors and Stuarts. These revolutions resolved into a constitutional monarchy subject to a parliamentary democracy that was to prove the most stable in Europe.
The story was not always happy. Relations with France, the land of the Norman conquerors, were mostly dreadful, with conflict throughout the Middle Ages and again in the eighteenth century. Most British rulers understood the need for a defensive rather than aggressive stance towards the outside world. Yet from the Plantagenets to the elder and younger Pitts, the craving for overseas domain rarely dimmed. It led Britain to amass the largest empire the world has ever seen. It brought much glory and helped bind together the peoples of the British Isles in a ‘united kingdom’ of shared endeavour, whose legacy continues to this day. But the British empire came at a price and lasted barely two hundred years. In the twentieth century Britain’s global dominance passed to its offspring, America, leaving behind as a tidemark the extent of spoken English. Britain then declined, to become a relic of its former greatness and something of a poseur as a world power, its sovereignty compromised by European government and by the disciplines of a global economy. I return to these themes in my epilogue.
This is specifically a book about England. I regard Wales, Scotland and Ireland as countries with their own histories. They have spent less than half their existence as components of a union of ‘Great Britain and Ireland’ an embrace that tends to subordinate them in conventional histories of Britain. But England is a country in its own right, different from its neighbours and with a people who call themselves English in differentiation from Scots, Welsh and Irish. Only when referring to all these collectively do I use the terms Britain and Britons. Indeed England is now part of two confederacies, of the United Kingdom and of the European Union, with separate assemblies and variable tiers of sovereignty. To be British and to be European is to be a legal member of one of those unions, and to become British is to sign a piece of paper. To be English is more a matter of self-definition, identifying with a distinctive culture and outlook as well as geography. To become English is a matter of assimilation, which can take a few years or a few generations. The genius of Englishness is that it encompasses all origins and races, but in a culture specific to the territory defined by the original Anglo-Saxon occupation.
The English have never been good at describing themselves. In the age of imperial confidence they did not feel the need. Today most of them dislike seeing themselves as Europeans, but they are not better at defining themselves as against their Celtic neighbours. They waged wars of suppression against Wales, Scotland and, with peculiar brutality, Ireland. At the start of the twenty-first century they find themselves with Ireland mostly detached and Scotland and Wales semi-detached, politically as well as culturally. The English component of the United Kingdom is thus left in a strangely anaemic limbo. It has no parliament or distinctive political institutions of its own. To refer to England and the English as distinct from Britain and the British is often treated as hostile to the cosmopolitanism implied by the union, even as racist. The English flag of St George has acquired a tinge of chauvinism and xenophobia and been adopted by the far right. I find this absurd. England is a country entitled to define itself and take pride in doing so. I believe that definition should begin with a narrative of its history.
To some, history is a matter of chance, to others it is fashioned by heroes and villains, and to others it is buried in geography, economics, even anthropology. There are many ways of a telling a nation’s story, with a current fashion for the personal and controversial. There are histories social, cultural, ‘popular’ and, in England’s case, imperial. But a short history can only be selective, and the selection will be mostly devoted to politics. A nation is a political entity and its birth and development form a narrative of those who deployed power within it, be they monarchs, soldiers, politicians, the mob in the street or, more recently, the mass of voters. I regard history as more than a straight chronology but as links in a chain of cause and effect. It is this chain that holds the secret of how England came to be where it is today.
The book then takes its readers through a brisk and well written narrative of English History until it reaches the Epilogue. Simon Jenkins is reliable for the facts on almost all domestic history but he does err over Cromwell's alleged massacre at the Drogheda which has been conclusively shown not to have been directed at civilians but only at the, mostly English, Royalist soldiers of the garrison. He does also get into a bit of a muddle over the causes of the First World War but these are quibbles about what is otherwise excellent.
ENGLAND HAS BEEN A SUCCESS AS A COUNTRY. It matured early into nationhood, with remarkably little bloodshed and with only two sustained civil wars in its history, in the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. By the end of the Georgian era most of its people enjoyed a security, prosperity and civil freedom that were rare anywhere on Earth. Even today, when other nations have equalled and even overtaken it, England still regards itself as a world power, with nuclear arms and claiming status with America as global policeman. It boasts pre-eminence in education, medicine, science and literature. Its capital city, London, its countryside, heritage and artistic activity attract visitors from all over the world.
A number of factors contributed to this success. Early in the story, the fertile geography of the eastern half of the British Isles suited the Saxon agrarian settlers. The borders formed by the North Sea, the English Channel and the uplands of Wales and Scotland were seldom peaceful, but they proved effective barriers against incursion. The Viking and Norman invasions were overwhelming, but did not obliterate the Saxon English. Newcomers were assimilated and Saxon settlements, culture and language remained largely intact. From then on, as Shakespeare remarked, England’s insularity served ‘in the office of a wall, or as a moat defensive to a house’. It was a defence that sufficed against Philip’s Armada, Napoleon’s grand army and Hitler’s blitzkrieg. ….
…. I regard this openness of English society as the crucial message of history. Today it is again being tested. Unless the central state shows more respect to community and territorial loyalty, it starves itself of renewal from below, of innovation, experiment and new blood. England in its most potent era, the nineteenth century, was driven by a civic provincialism far from the metropolis. People are likely to lose faith in self-government when those exercising it on their behalf grow distant and unfamiliar. This is already noticeable in declining confidence in public services and a turning to private ones, for health, education and security. Few people in England can identify or name a leader of their local community. This anonymity is depoliticising communities and entrenching social divisions in a peculiarly domestic class system. While countries such as Spain, Italy, Germany, and even France have devolved power to provinces, communes and mayors, England continues to concentrate it on London, Westminster and Whitehall.
That said, the picture is not all gloomy. The professions, universities, media and the law remain strong and relatively pluralistic, buttressed by such recent innovations as the internet, freedom of information, human rights law and a new supreme court. There is also a significant exception to the centralising trend, constitutional devolution within the United Kingdom to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The boundaries set for England in the Dark Ages are gradually re-emerging from the mist of time. The accretion of central power, required by the Saxons and then the Normans to define and defend England from the ancient Britons, is being reversed. The power of London, already withdrawn from the empire overseas, is now withdrawing from the empire at home. It is possible to see the acts setting up assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast as the first documents of a new constitutional settlement.
England is thus losing the will to govern the non-English peoples beyond its borders, even those elsewhere in the British Isles. There is a continuing need for institutions of a ‘united kingdom’ as long as the Scots, Welsh and some of the Irish want them. But the asymmetric nature of the Westminster parliament, with England’s government in partial thrall to MPs from the semi-autonomous Celtic fringe, cannot be sustainable in the long term. It is a distorted democracy. Sooner or later, England will need its own assembly, either inside or outside the ambit of the Westminster parliament.
I used to regard written constitutions as a device of immature states. I have changed my mind. The incorporation of the European convention on human rights into British law has already given Britain a sizeable ‘written’ charter, whether or not it is later supplemented or replaced by a new bill of rights. The tradition of constitution where, in Tennyson’s words, ‘freedom slowly broadens down/from precedent to precedent,’ is no longer sufficient to guard against elective dictatorship. Rights need writing down since they are persistently under threat, whether from surveillance technology, an obsession with imprisonment and an ever growing state discretion. The scope of local democracy needs codifying, to refresh a public sector that now consumes a third of England’s wealth. There is nothing novel in this. Such layered, subsidiary politics operated through most of English history, and still applies in the rest of Europe.
It was to these open traditions in England’s history that the American revolutionaries turned for inspiration in the eighteenth century, even as they rebelled against the English crown. They mimicked the independent Tudor boroughs, counties, sheriffs and mayors, and the hallowed democracy of the town meeting. They turned to the early rule of law, to the Long Parliament, the glorious revolution and the bill of rights. The nations of the British Commonwealth, such as Canada, Australia and even sub-continental India, followed suit. They wrote down what mattered, and were guided by it in creating what are now exemplars of world democracy.
The message of history is that nations evolve most successfully when any change, social, economic or political, surges up from below. Central power corrupts those who wield it, becoming a conservative, repressive force. Those who believe in freedom and democracy must forever hold it in check. Hence Kipling’s ringing words in saluting the earliest such curb, Magna Carta:
And still when Mob or Monarch lays
Too rude a hand on English ways,
The whisper wakes, the shudder plays
Across the reeds at Runnymede.
And Thames, that knows the moods of kings,
And crowds and priests and suchlike things,
Rolls deep and dreadful as he brings
Their warning down from Runnymede!