It took a Scot

Colin Kidd

  • The Formation of the English Kingdom in the Tenth Century by George Molyneaux
    Oxford, 302 pp, £65.00, May 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 871791 1
  • The English and Their History by Robert Tombs
    Allen Lane, 1012 pp, £14.99, June 2015, ISBN 978 0 14 103165 1
  • Conquests, Catastrophe and Recovery: Britain and Ireland 1066-1485 by John Gillingham
    Vintage, 345 pp, £10.99, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 09 956324 2
  • From Restoration to Reform: The British Isles 1660-1832 by Jonathan Clark
    Vintage, 364 pp, £10.99, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 09 956323 5
  • Britain since 1900: A Success Story? by Robert Skidelsky
    Vintage, 472 pp, £10.99, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 09 957239 8

Until our recent discontents England had never succumbed to doctrinal nationalism. Absent from English history was the obsessiveness found in many countries across Europe about the recovery of authentic nationhood. Although the English have often been perturbed about the condition of England, they have rarely floated nationalist solutions to their problems. The slogan ‘English votes for English laws’ strikes a discordant note in the dominant melody of English history.

It’s not that the English have been immune to chauvinism or national mythologising. Since the later Middle Ages at least – and arguably for much longer – they have enjoyed a strong sense of national consciousness, but one more obviously tempered with complacency than tinged with nationalist grievance. After all, for much of modern history, England was, in the memorable phrase of Sellar and Yeatman, ‘Top Nation’: both an imperial power and the first industrial nation. Sellar and Yeatman’s comic masterpiece 1066 and All That (1930) poked fun at England’s not quite nationalism. But if it’s not nationalism, how should we describe England’s distinctive sense of self? Probably the most useful descriptor is Whiggism, after Herbert Butterfield’s incisive dissection in The Whig Interpretation of History (1931) of the tendency ‘to emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present’.

There is a further near coincidence. In 1929, Lewis Namier began the patient deconstruction of England’s constitutional myths in The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III, which jettisoned a grand narrative of statesmanship and party principle, and put in its place the microscopic study of individual politicians, their interests, networks and connections. Clearly, from around 1930 the Whig mythology that had for centuries shaped the narratives of historians and informed debate about the character and purposes of English political life no longer sufficed for serious historians. It took aspiring statesmen a few decades longer to shed Whiggish tropes about our glorious heritage of liberty, especially after Britain’s lone stand against Hitler in 1940-41 when Butterfield himself succumbed to Whiggery in The Englishman and His History (1944). By the 1960s, however, the Whig interpretation had lost its potency, though no subsequent idea of Englishness has proved anything like as successful.

Rather than the understated influence of Whig historians Englishness is now a matter of the shrill nativism of a forgotten white working class, and the pained nostalgia of the elderly, who can remember a straight-faced version of our ‘island’ story. Even if England has never been an island, a vagueness about the contours of its political geography was for centuries a core ingredient of the nation’s identity, and remains a staple of neo-English resentment. A confusion about who the English are and how they relate to the rest of the British people remains evident in the oddly miscellaneous collection of party labels found among English nationalists: the English Defence League, the British National Party and Ukip. In addition, the Conservatives – or, more properly, the Conservative and Unionist Party – also have an English nationalist wing.

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