Whig history Mark II

Edwin Jones’ book (see last post) had got me thinking again about modern myths of Englishness. I did a piece on this in November, but his comments on the Whig view of history have given me a different take. Maybe what we have now in English mythology (especially in the right-wing newspapers) is essentially a truncated, secularised version of the Whig view. This no longer starts with Protestantism and the Spanish Armada (whose anniversary in 1988 had little contemporary resonance). Instead it is the myth of Britain resisting tyranny, essentially based round the twin poles of Napoleon and Hitler. (Even WW1 has no real resonance now – there’s no nostalgic feeling of ‘plucky little Belgium’ to be tapped into). What is depressing about this mythology is not just that it is held to define our relationship with France and Germany forever more, but that it is essentially reactive. Unlike in the US, the Great World War Two myth is not the liberation of Europe, but the Battle of Britain, just as Trafalgar has more resonance than Waterloo. England’s role in Europe is not to lead it to a better future, but to resist its encroachments. In this myth even concepts such as human rights have no real merit, since they’re essentially just nasty French Revolutionary ideas (unless someone can re-popularise Tom Paine).

I don’t see an easy way of getting from here to there (acceptance of the EU) and I don’t think Jones has the answer. But I think it needs to be done, since the alternative is ever greater isolation. The isolationist tendency in right-wing thought is even more extreme than previously, since there’s no longer any British Empire or even solidarity with Protestant bits of Europe. The Conservative Party may claim they want to be in the EU, but their policies towards it are the completely unrealistic ones of demanding that existing treaties are renegotiated. They won’t get that, so will they then say the truth, which is that they want to get out? And then? Other than becoming the Fifty-First State (but we’re too blue state to get accepted), the UK will exist in a strange world, seemingly comprised largely of Switzerland, Iceland and Singapore, and with about as much international influence.

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4 thoughts on “Whig history Mark II

  1. If I understand you aright you are saying that, in interpreting the events of the last few hundred years, modern historians/politicians/journalists, etc are putting emphasis on our British resourcefulness, pluckiness and ability to go it alone. This leads us to reject the idea of the European Union (although we do actually belong to it) and become increasingly isolationist and lacking in international influence.

    I’m not sure what is wrong with being isolationist. It may mean we have fewer sources of military support and in this way compromise our international influence but it’s not clear what sort of wars anyone will be fighting. Meanwhile it doesn’t stop us trading with other nations. One of the biggest threats to trade to emerge this year has been China: I can’t see the EU doing much to tackle this problem.

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  2. I enjoyed this article. I would prefer to join the EU than suffer an even greater degree of americanisation. However it doesn’t seem to fit the British temper to be one of a team and we are, as a nation, ill disposed towards the intelecctualism that separates us from the european mind.

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  3. I think it’s increasingly difficult to be isolationist in the modern world. International trade is increasingly a reality and both terrorists and natural disasters (global warming, avian flu) don’t respect national boundaries. The UK can’t just walk away from the rest of the world’s problems.

    That doesn’t mean we have to be in the EU. But it is looking more and more that it will be the large countries in terms of population/resources that will decide how the world is run, whether the rest of us like it or not. The new and coming giants are the US, China and India. Norway, Japan, Singapore, however technologically advanced, aren’t likely to get a look in on making the big decisions. And one of the many sad conclusions of the Iraq war is that the UK on its own has negligable influence on the US even when it’s its ally. The EU doesn’t do a lot of things it should do, but it potentially has more influence than individual nations.

    On a personal level, one big advantage of the EU is that it allows free movement of labour. Given that several of my relatives have had jobs in Europe, if they lost easy access to them, that would be a shame (as would be the loss of the ability of European medievalists to come and work here).

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  4. I think you are saying we’re too small – in population and resources – to go it alone or to have much of a say and be listened to; therefore we may as well ally ourselves with Europe with good grace. I can’t find a reason to disagree.

    The advantages/drawbacks of free movement of labour no doubt depends on skills offered and wanted. If my friends and relatives were involved I’d naturally be on their side.

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