Monday, January 29, 2007

History and Nation

Gracchi has an excellent response to my piece on liberal guilt and history. He is a superb blogger, probably the best of the left wing blogosphere at the moment, and puts the case for cynicism of historical nationalism well but I shall, nevertheless, attempt to defend my hopeless, romantic pride and its transmission to new generations. Essentially, he argues that my vision of history giving modern Britons a sense of identity both underestimates and overestimates the role that the studying of history can play in our lives. Underestimating its capacity because I do not ask that history provides a subtle picture of the flawed characters who make up its central players. Overestimating its ability to provide a source of national identity.

We are, to a certain extent, arguing at crossed purposes as I do not seek that the national identity building history of Britain that I am calling for should act as a substitute to the broader study of history. Indeed one of the topics that I chose to study most during my degree was twentieth century economic history of the United Kingdom, hardly the proudest of periods. However, I do think that the study of important, formative, periods in British history can have a particular function in giving people a sense of where they come from and of pride in their nation particularly if combined with a broader study of history.

Gracchi contends that history's ability to build identity is questionable by posing the question of whether I can relate to Cromwell's crimes as well as his achievements. He quite sensibly points out the problems with my playing the eternal soccer fan crying "we won" when I played no part in the game. However, I think that he is taking a rather unfortunately materialistic view of the nature of nations. If our nation is merely one big nexus of social contracts then can we expect self-sacrifice in its name? Can we expect people to do more than pursue their narrow self interest within such a nation?

Nationalism motivates people to stand by their nation and fellow citizens by appealing to instincts of group loyalty hardwired into our nature. Even if we wished to avoid it we would likely only replace it with other loyalties such as the loyalties to extended family which it is thought impede democratic development in large parts of the Muslim world. There is a famous psychological study which found that, even if separated only by the modern artist they found most appealing, people still displayed significant loyalty to their group. Now, we can either have this national bond be based upon a heroic narrative, the sense of an old and grand project or a new and exciting one as in the States, or we can have it be based on something else; racial differences are a common substitute. It is a central conservative insight that working with the grain of human nature is far more productive than fighting it.

I do not think that, in order for history to contribute to this sense of nation it need be a caricature. Not Saussure is right to note that the Glorious Revolution is, like almost any historical event, divisive. However, some events like the Glorious Revolution are important as formative events and a knowledge of them helps us understand our nation's origin and place in the world. There are other events which might give us pride; there is plenty in the history of a nation as great as ours to celebrate even while acknowledging subtlety. For example, it is right and proper to acknowledge that there was hardship and sometimes cruelty in Britain's making of man's economic fortune in the Industrial Revolution but that does not obscure the importance of Britain's contribution to world prosperity. We do not require saints to inspire us; mighty achievements will do. Although not bound by blood or personality myself, Cromwell, Cnut and Churchill are all part of a great shared historical endeavour. If we can teach British children they are a part of that endeavour too they might show spirit worthy of such a heritage.

1 comment:

Francesca E S Montemaggi said...

I'm afraid I'll have to disagree. Nation-states and nationalism are a relatively recent phenomenon that have plunged Europe into WWII and its unprecedented horrors (although ‘universal’ education and health care could have not been delivered otherwise). Nationalism relies on selective memory and a distortion of history; in this sense it negates history. Brown and Cameron are currently at pains to find a way to define Britishness: respect for the rule of law? Liberty? Equality? These are not solely British values, but values that have adapted and developed as a result of the meeting and sometimes clash between cultures. If the purpose of national identity is the ‘defence of the nation’, i.e. war, we should hurry to get rid of it, especially at a time when we are very unlikely to ever need an army to defend ourselves, as the main threats come from terrorism and climate change. The army would be best used for ‘humanitarian’ purposes such as Rwanda and you don’t need a national identity to move people for that. On the contrary, you need soldiers to see themselves in the ‘other’ (what nations have generally defined themselves against), they need to feel part of the same humanity. To say it with Virginia Woolf, "As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the world".