A glance along my bookshelves reveals such titles as The English, Elizabeth’s England, The Black Death in England, Gothic England, English Social History, The English Abbey, A History of English Architecture, The Earliest English, England in the Age of Thomas More, various volumes from a series called simply English History, and another entitled History of England.
Then there’s Britain BC, Blood of the British, British Prehistory, Britain in the Middle Ages, The Isles (you needn’t guess which isles are referred to) and, by way of slight variation, India Britannica.
That’s a selective sample, of course, but I think you’ll see a pattern emerging. And I’m no little-Englander.
If it’s true (and of course it is) that history is written by the winners, what do such titles tell you?
Not that it’s England, or Britain, that’s victorious in the world. I have other books bearing the names of Ireland, Russia, France, the USA, the Jews, the Roman Empire.
The real winner is simply the idea of the nation.
Not just this nation, but any nation. Any people associated with a particular piece of territory.
It’s a concept so deeply ingrained that most of us, nearly all the time, take it for granted. An idea we almost never question. But it is only an idea.
History doesn’t have to be defined along geographical or tribal lines. It just nearly always is.
The world hasn’t always been divided entirely into countries, with borders and frontier security. It just looks that way to us now.
It may be relatively easy for us in Britain, surrounded as we are by sea, to imagine our territory, and our nation, as fixed. But look at all those book titles with the words “England” or “English”. What place do the Scots, or the Welsh, have in that history? And what of Ireland, divided as it is between independence and subservience to its neighbour?
What about all those people who live in these islands but retain a strong link with a heritage elsewhere? Or those – vastly more numerous – who live in other lands but have British heritage? All those many millions Winston Churchill tried to scoop up in his History of the English Speaking Peoples.
On the mainland, of Europe or any other continent, the picture gets rapidly more blurred.
Consider that territory which over the past century has been Russian, German, Polish, Lithuanian, Russian again, German again, Soviet Russian and is now independent Lithuania. Today it’s a small country, but once it ruled part of what is now Poland, a large slab of what’s now Russia, and all of present-day Belarus and Ukraine.
Should any written history of Lithuania consider all the lands it once contained, or only the shrunken area it denotes now? Or should its focus keep widening and narrowing as it moves through the centuries?
Some of my ancestors grew up in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, considering themselves Russian, speaking Russian. The Nobel Prize-winning writer Czeslaw Milosz was raised there as a Pole, speaking Polish. Yet somehow the Lithuanian language survived and now flourishes, within its much reduced borders, along with a strong sense of Lithuanian identity.
The question is: Why?
The answers are many and complex. Some are no doubt beyond my understanding. But the question is still worth asking. Not just about Lithuania, or England, or Britain.
Why, when throughout history it has caused more wars, death and suffering than any other idea except maybe religion, do we cling to the idea of the nation?
It’s a particularly pertinent question now when Europe, where the idea first took hold, is reverting to old nationalisms.
If the grand experiment of European union ends up collapsing in nationalist fragments, I shall take no pride in belonging to the nation that started the process.
Not that I ever thought national pride had much point to it. It’s not my fault that I was born in the country whose rulers once sold thousands of poor Irish into slavery. (Don’t believe it? Look it up.) And if I can’t accept blame for the sorriest episodes in my island’s history, I can hardly take credit for its various glories either.
What exactly is this nation of mine, anyway? My passport says (below the fated words “European Union”): “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. It doesn’t specifically mention England, where I have lived all my life. Or Scotland, which I may choose to emigrate to should it sever its union with England to preserve its union with Europe.
The words on the inside cover are interesting too. It “requires” all other nations to let me “pass freely without let or hindrance” and give me “such assistance and protection as may be necessary”.
I wonder if those good words will have to be repealed when Britain puts all its eggs in one Brexit.