The importance of national history

A people cannot forever remain a people if they forget what it is that binds them together

Do our children understand what it means to be British?
Henry Hill
On 9 April 2013 17:17

There are few things more important to a nation’s sense of itself than an understanding of its own history. In fact, it might well be the most important thing of all. How the citizens of a country view that country and its place in the past can have profound consequences for the politics of that country or even, in extremis, its future existence.

This was really driven home to me in a debate I ended up in last week where I once again found myself, as so often, defending Michael Gove’s schools reforms. This position was somewhat surprising because I’m currently living in Dublin, having finished the last classes of my postgraduate degree in Modern Irish History last week.

The scene was my very last seminar. One of our tutors had put it together in order to have a discussion about the practice of historical study, what changes we’d noticed in how Irish history is studied, what we’d change, and where we think Irish historiography (for such the study of the study of history is called) is going. If this all sounds a bit like specialist academic naval gazing, it is – the evolution of history justifying the continued employment of historians – but I do have a point.

What brought Gove under attack was the topic of popular history and, in particular, national history. Ireland is currently in the opening stretch of the so-called “Decade of Commemorations”, an eleven-year string of centenaries starting with the Ulster Covenant and ending with the close of the Irish Civil War. The source of the debate was a recently published book about the Irish Famine.

Now, the famine sits at the centre of an on-going debate in Irish history between nationalist historians, who cleave to the traditional narrative of Irish history where the English take the role of inveterate villains, and the revisionists who maintain that it’s all rather more complicated than that. To take an extreme example, a certain nationalist view of the famine maintains that it was an act of genocide, deliberately perpetrated against the Irish people.

This is not a view that has held much currency in academic circles for a while, even amongst nationalists. Yet this new book, published to take advantage of an anticipated rise in demand for national history by the Irish public, had eschewed all the historiographical advancements of academic Irish history to take up the tired arch-Anglophobic line. Why?

Short answer: that’s what people want and expect. ‘Irishness’ is informed by an understanding of its past more than many other countries, and the narrative that counts as received wisdom centres on an adversarial relationship with the big island to the east. This cultural understanding, steeped in assumptions and folklore, does not evolve to keep up with the fashionable theories of a suspect group of West Brit historians holed up in Trinity College.

Challenging the traditional interpretation of an historical event thus isn’t just an academic issue, but could have profound implications for the way an Irish person understands their own nationhood, which means that it is difficult to get such changes to take root outside university departments. Our tutor, somewhat despairingly, mooted that the “Decade of Commemorations” might set back the development of Irish history by eleven years.

What has any of this to do with Michael Gove or Britain? Well, in the course of this debate I offered up the UK as an example of the opposite problem: where Ireland meditates perhaps excessively on its own history, recent generations of Britons haven’t been raised with a national understanding of their own history at all.

When my father was at school, the UK had a sense of national history every bit as strong – and patriotically one-sided, for that matter – as its Irish counterpart. It was a national story that usually started at 1066 and ran the full gauntlet: kings and queens, the Tudors, the Civil War, the Empire with its full cast of red-coated generals and heroic explorers, and the wars. People learned about the industrial revolution through the prism of “look at these amazing machines we built!”

And so it went on. Now, with the dispassionate modern eye it is very easy to spot all the flaws in this approach, but one thing it did do was give all the young people of this country, from Scotland to Cornwall, a sense of their country’s place in the world, and a better understanding of the common enterprise that they and generations of their predecessors were engaged upon beneath the Union Jack.

Then, of course, everything changed. Suez and Harold Macmillan’s ‘winds of change’ started to dismantle the empire. Left-wing scholars and teachers swooped in and, in a heroic bit of overcompensation, turned the Empire into one of history’s ‘bad things’ whose story was boiled down to slavery, partition and decolonisation. Eventually, the narrative style of history teaching in schools was abandoned altogether in favour of a disconnected series of isolated topics.

The result was the kicking away of the traditional basis of the British identity. The Left did try to bring about a new one, with 1066 being replaced by 1945 and the national narrative boiled down to the birth and life of the Attlee state. But whilst some aspects of this have adopted a strong position in the national consciousness – see the treatment of the NHS in an opening ceremony which, to the likely astonishment of the departed generations of pre-war British, tried to take in the full sweep of industrial British history without featuring a single red coat – it hasn’t really provided the glue needed to hold Britain and ‘Britishness’ together. Into the resultant vacuum, the various fragmentary nationalisms have come.

As a result, one of the Gove reforms I’m most in favour of is the attempt to reform the curriculum in such a way as that learning history actually gives British pupils an understanding of their own past.

In doing so I’m fully aware of the challenges: it is impossible today to go back to the rather one-dimensional view of the world taught during our imperial heyday. A fine line will have to be found in order to teach the history of the empire in a manner that neither white-washes nor demonises it. The deep and abiding aversion of much of the modern teaching profession to “privileging certain pieces of knowledge over others” – i.e. the teaching of facts and dates and so on – will need to be overcome.

Perhaps more difficult will be coming up with a curriculum that balances the traditional historical narrative of high politics and war with alternative historical approaches. I’m not one of those who believes a child can only engage with the history of people like themselves. It seems patronising to only teach working class children about working class people and the idea of channelling girls into “herstory” feels a lot like inviting them to withdraw from the dining room and leave the gentlemen to their port and cigars. But there is much to be gained from a balanced approach to history that takes in the lives of ordinary people as well as the escapades of the great, just so long as the former doesn’t descend into hand-wringing and the latter are actually included.

Yet perhaps the most important thing of all is finding a curriculum that the Labour parties in the Scottish and Welsh devolved administrations would be willing to implement as well – after all there is no British education secretary these days. There’s only so much point in reminding English pupils of British history if their compatriots across the borders continue to forget it, and a people cannot forever remain a people if they forget what it is that binds them together. 

Henry Hill is the author Conservative Home's Red, White, and Blue column every Thursday and the Dilettante blog. He can be found on Twitter @Dilettante11

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