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A Brief History of Britain for Migrants (and Theresa May)

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It may be because I’m a professional historian, and so proprietorial towards my subject, but I’ve always objected to British history’s being used – ‘prostituted’, would be my word for it – in order to inculcate patriotism, as Theresa May’s latest idea for a citizenship test for immigrants seeking British nationality appears to envisage. For a start it must be questionable how far our history ‘defines’ us as a nation, as opposed to our present-day circumstances, and influences from abroad. Second, history taught in order to teach patriotism must be ‘patriotic’ history, which is bound to be selective at best. Third, I rather like the Swedes’ view of their national identity, which is defined much more in terms of their aspirations – equality, and the like – than of their history. Just as well, perhaps; Sweden has quite a number of skeletons in its historical cupboard: as of course does Britain.

Still, if the Tories are set on this, there must be a way of doing it that is better than simply listing some ‘illustrious’ men and women (all white, incidentally; the Queen, the Duke of Wellington, Emmeline Pankhurst, Churchill and sundry inventors, poets and composers are the ones mentioned so far); emphasising the centrality of Christianity (another suggestion); and, presumably, trotting out the stock ‘key dates’ of our island story: 1066, 1215 and so on. Here’s a first stab at it: a short account for immigrants of the history of the country they are aiming to join.

As immigrants to Britain, you are following in a long tradition. Britain’s origins lie in successive waves of immigration from the European continent: Celts, Romans, northern Germans, Scandinavians and Norman-French, most of them coming as conquerors, but some just to settle; and then bands of refugees from political tyrannies and economic deprivation from the 17th century to the present day. Many of Britain’s most distinguished later citizens have been, or have been descended from, these immigrants. They include some of the country’s greatest artists, scientists and industrialists; most of its older aristocracy; and its present queen.

To complement this, Britain has also been a nation of emigration, sending ‘settlers’ to North America, Australasia and Southern Africa, usually displacing the original inhabitants; traders, investors and slavers all over the world; and conquerors and rulers to India, Africa and elsewhere. Some of the settlers could be regarded as economic refugees from Britain and Ireland, driven by hunger. You may well have come across their descendants and the legacies of what is called ‘British imperialism’ in your countries of origin. There are differing opinions over whether the latter has overall been a force for good or ill.

Back home, Britons have long prided themselves on their toleration, which made possible their generous ‘asylum’ policy in the past; the ‘freedom’ of Britain’s institutions, especially the law, and the jury system that underpins it; and – latterly – parliamentary democracy. All these however have had to be struggled for, usually by the ‘common people’ against a political class that has not always shared the same values; and they can never be said to be absolutely secure.

The United Kingdom’s historical ‘identity’ is confused, differing not only according to class, which is still a powerful factor, but also according to nationality (English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish), region, ethnicity, religion (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, atheist…) and gender. Like every other nation in the world it has a mixed history of proud achievements, usually in defence of ‘liberty’, both its own and others’ (slaves, Nazi-occupied Europe), and egregious sins, some of them committed in its colonies.

Britain is not defined by its history, but is ever developing, in response to internal dynamics and global pressures, including movements of population. To become British is to identify with this complex and changing identity. To become a good citizen will involve embracing the best features of it, and rejecting the worst.

Comments on “A Brief History of Britain for Migrants (and Theresa May)”

  1. streetsj says:

    I suppose the self denigration captures some of the angst of the liberal British historian but I think the irony of 1066 and all that captures a more genuinely British tone.
    The implication, or so it seems to me, of

    “and – latterly – parliamentary democracy. All these however have had to be struggled for, usually by the ‘common people’ against a political class that has not always shared the same values; and they can never be said to be absolutely secure.”

    that this is in contrast to longer lived, more stable, more representative, democracies that are to be found all over the world and, probably whence the immigrants have come.

    Protesting not enough, methinks.

    • Bob Beck says:

      I don’t read any such implication in that sentence. But certainly, for parliamentary democracy, a necessary though not sufficient condition is universal adult suffrage. In English-speaking countries including my own, for all their present-day self-satisfaction on the subject, that wasn’t achieved until well into the 20th century — against, yes, ferocious elite opposition. (And to judge from recent vote-suppression efforts by right-wing parties, this elite opposition still isn’t quite dead).

      The self-satisfied are right to point out that universal suffrage still isn’t universal, meaning global. But they sometimes do so in order to downplay or gloss over unpleasant historical facts, or contemporary realities.

  2. Whompity Whomp says:

    “Like every other nation in the world it has a mixed history of proud achievements, usually in defence of ‘liberty’, both its own and others’ (slaves, Nazi-occupied Europe), and egregious sins, some of them committed in its colonies.”

    Whiggery much?

  3. Bolbol says:

    A timely and relevant intervention. Thank you. A (relatively) minor quibble, though. The account of immigration seems to me to be a little Anglocentric. It is true it begins with the Celtic migration from continental Europe, but when it comes to Scotland we also have to add the second migration of Gaelic-speaking Celts (‘Scots’) from Ireland to parts of what subsequently became Scotland, an important factor in producing the Scotland of today – although Scotland is by no means reducible to it. This would tie in nicely with the important point made about the complexities and confusions of the UK’s later historical identity.

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