Five Possible Ways to Kill a State

Neal Ascherson

  • Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe by Norman Davies
    Allen Lane, 830 pp, £30.00, October 2011, ISBN 978 1 84614 338 0

‘Don’t you come that stuff, Jim Garland. We always were English and we’ll always be English, and it’s just because we are English that we’re sticking up for our right to be Burgundians!’ Those were famous lines, from a half-forgotten film made in a vanished kingdom. The Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico was shown in 1949, in a battered, dirty, rationed Britain which was nonetheless confident that the old United Kingdom had a happy and glorious future. Why, the war had just shown that Britain was invincible, with a little help from Uncle Joe and the Yanks. And indestructible, for all the Luftwaffe’s efforts. Unlike some other ropey foreign places which had vanished or come to bits under the strain.

In the movie, a bomb unearths a long-buried charter revealing that the London district of Pimlico was detached from England in medieval times and ceded to the Duchy of Burgundy. The locals (Pimlico was a shabby, ungentrified place in those days) decide to take the charter at its word. They barricade their streets into a foreign enclave, where everything is off-ration and Tube trains jerk to a halt for Burgundian customs inspections. But it’s too good to last. Black marketeers and spivs flood into Pimlico, and the British government places the enclave under siege. The last straw is moral, when the new Burgundians are accused of lack of patriotism and disloyalty to England. Then something snaps. ‘Don’t you come that stuff!’

On the face of it, this film is about a revolt against the restrictions of postwar Britain. But to read Norman Davies’s new book is to see many other ideas, some conscious and others perhaps unrecognised by the scriptwriters, stamped on the pages of Passport to Pimlico. Burgundy, as it happens, is one of the vanished kingdoms he visits. England is not, and yet reflections on the nature of political Englishness and the increasing frailty of the British state recur in chapter after chapter, from ‘Alt Clud’ (the post-Roman kingdom of Strathclyde) through ‘Rosenau’ (the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha dynasty) to ‘Eire’. Back in 1949, it was still possible to talk about ‘English’ virtues – in this case, a defiant and imaginative spirit of independence – without nervously vacuum-packing them as ‘British’. Those fictional Pimliconians understood themselves as part of a nation they knew as England. And that was an understanding which allowed them to grasp the difference between nation and state, and to rebel fearlessly against a government whose ‘Britishness’ was part of its distance from ordinary people. Might it not be more English to become ‘foreign’ rather than to accept stupid regulations made in Whitehall?

As a historian, Davies made his name with studies of Eastern and Central Europe, Poland in particular. Especially during the Cold War, he grew aware of the ignorance and condescension of ‘the West’ about the nations and polities east of the strategic divide. To his very great honour, he confronted a lazy, established historiography which had come to assume that Europe’s navel had always been located in Strasbourg or Frankfurt, and – not quite single-handed – shifted that centre to somewhere between Prague and Kraków. The same experiences taught him how effectively powerful and stable states can bury the past of less fortunate kingdoms, empires and republics. The general sense of Vanished Kingdoms is that all ‘earth’s proud empires pass away’, as the hymn has it, and that the greatest principality is no more than an artefact with its ultimate decay built into it. But some states are much less aware of transience than others. ‘Imperial nations, and ex-imperial nations, are particularly reluctant to recognise how quickly reality moves on.’

He cites the case of Britain. ‘Having led a charmed life in the mid-20th century, and having held out against the odds in our “Finest Hour”, the British risk falling into a state of self-delusion which tells them that their institutions are above compare, that their country is somehow eternal.’ The English ‘in particular are blissfully unaware that the disintegration of the United Kingdom began in 1922, and will probably continue’. Davies is right to notice the distinction between countries which assume themselves to be immortal and others, smaller and weaker, with a sense of their own mortality. That’s not just a matter of statehood. There are nations which can envisage their own cultural extinction: a Czech or Welsh novelist, or an Estonian poet, can imagine an approaching century when nobody in the world will still speak Czech or Welsh or Estonian. But other, more firmly founded, bossier nations simply can’t make that imaginative leap. Here, too, Passport to Pimlico has resonance. Those ingenious cockneys are so confident of their ‘eternal’ English identity that they can declare themselves politically Burgundian without the slightest fear that anything fundamental will change. Vanished Kingdoms returns to Europe’s past and shows how mistaken that sort of confidence has often been.

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