Tuesday, 25 October 2011

1000 years of history again. Really?

History tells us that Henry Ford said that ‘history is bunk.’ But nevertheless the suspicion that he may have been right always rears its head when our politicians appeal to history to support their cause du jour, in this case a referendum on our continuing membership of the European Union.

That phrase “1,000 years of British history,” heard on the floor of the House of Commons over the last few days, is clearly inexact; those on what we sometimes patronisingly call the ‘Celtic fringes’ will certainly quarrel with it; those Christians to whom these things are important will wish to trace an English identity to the major factor in binding together the newer inhabitants of these islands into a nation, the Faith brought to them by St Augustine in 597 A.D.
Yes, geography has helped to mould us and has separated us from our continental neighbours, although it didn’t prevent us from becoming a province of the Roman Empire. Anyone with even a tenuous grasp of the middle ages, or even of the shifting alliances of ‘modern’ history (to 1815, that is) will know that ‘England’ (Great Britain since 1707) has played its full part in the political  history of Europe, even if culturally, as a result of the peculiar nature of 'our' Reformation, we became somewhat detached.
The myth of a kind of splendid British isolation (our version of U.S. ‘exceptionalism’) reached its apogee in Victorian times with the growth of a world empire which caused us for a short while (in historical terms, if not in terms of popular perception – only 99 years from Waterloo to the sailing of the B.E.F. in 1914, and that's to ignore the Crimean War) to almost forget our geopolitical situation as a medium sized country a few dozen miles or so off the Atlantic coast of western Europe.
Even then, of course, our traditional concern with the balance of power in Europe led us to involvement in that system of alliances which indirectly brought about the outbreak of the First World War. A similar inherent sense of our European identity and responsibilities led us in 1940 to fight on alone against the tyranny of Hitler when a negotiated settlement could (although things would undoubtedly have been very different) have enabled us to concentrate on our imperial and commercial interests in the rest of the world. Our view of ourselves as an independent trading nation free from foreign entanglements is clearly at odds with the historical reality in so many ways.

But the greatest problem of the way the post-Treaty of Rome “European ideal” has been interpreted is its disastrous democratic deficit and the grandiose schemes of its unelected bureaucrats which takes so little account of the cultural and economic differences of all its constituent nations. From the point of view of the Church, of course, the most worrying aspect of modern ‘Europeanism’ (as opposed to the ‘catholic’ vision of its founding fathers) is that it has chosen in the name of multiculturalism to neglect and devalue, and even recently to try to eradicate from its public square, the one factor which over the centuries has bound us together, our faith in Christ and our historical relationship with the apostolic See of Rome. But that’s not just a continental European problem as we know to our cost; it’s simply a symptom of a general western post-christian crisis of identity.

British history is different, but then so is that of every European nation state. The resurrecting of the old Britain versus Europe myth does us all a disservice in that it seriously misrepresents the realities of the past and the present. I’ve heard similarly disillusioned comments about Brussels and the workings of the E.U. in the cafés and bars of the Vendée, and one not undistinguished inhabitant said to me in the summer that the wisest thing Britain has done in recent years was to keep its distance from the euro zone.
I’m sorry, but on this David Cameron is right. Talk of complete withdrawal from the E.U. (as opposed to a necessary renegotiation of the terms of our relationship if the ‘core’ members proceed to full economic and political union) in favour of a kind of undefined Atlanticist or Commonwealth future in what is a dangerous and changing world, would seem to be, to say the least, something of a reckless gamble.

But one thing is sure: the interpretation of history is too important to be left to politicians in search of safe seats and re-election.

Today, as well as being the feast of the Six Welsh Martyrs, is 'Saint Crispin's Day' (the Roman martyrs Saints Crispin & Crispinian here) This is the St Crispin's Day speech from Shakespeare's Henry V - the Kenneth Branagh production.
Undoubtedly politically, culturally and religiously part of the European mainstream at the field of Agincourt, too. One can't help wondering whether, even in this his most 'patriotic' of plays, Shakespeare was making a similar point...

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