Thursday, February 01, 2007

History and Nation, Continued

Gracchi and I's debate on the merits of historical nationalism continues. The question has separated into whether historical national pride can be justified and whether, if historical nationalism is a lie, it is a noble one.

Firstly, Gracchi argues that the "shared endeavour" which I suggested we were all a part of by virtue of our Englishness/Britishness (that I keep writing English then going to rewrite it says something about the weakness of British identity at the moment) does not exist. He points out that the objectives for and understanding of Britain would have been desperately different between Canute, Cromwell and Churchill and that they can hardly be described as labouring at a single, coherent project. This is obviously the case and "shared endeavour" was a somewhat unfortunate choice of words as it suggests a common purpose. However, while people might have had different ideas of what the purpose of England, or Britain as a successor state, might be there clearly has been a sense of being a part of the English 'team' since around the time of the Tudors when English identity first developed. As such, while I might think that Cromwell's vision for our nation is a poor one that does not mean that we are not both a part of that nation for exactly the same reason that Gordon Brown's different vision of Britain to mine does not mean we cannot both be British.

That nationalism provides a link between people with so little else in common illustrates its strength. This is why it can create common feeling which prevents those with irreconcilable political differences tearing each other apart. This is why it can provide a common identity for those from different ethnic backgrounds to unite around. I have almost nothing in common with Cromwell but that we are both English. That this matters to me, would have mattered to him and a majority of the rest of the population (leaving aside the question of the minority nationalisms) illustrates just how real it is. This common nationalistic myth connects me to those in other historical eras and that connection, in turn, allows me to be inspired and proud of their achievements; as well as wincing at their mistakes.

For Canute the case is somewhat more problematic as he is from a period before England was a nation in the modern sense but I still think that he has something of a stakeholder interest in the country as one of those who made a contribution, however minor, to its formation. I don't think this is the same as those, post the advent of English nationalism, who actually understood themselves as English/British but it is still a very real connection and makes him a part of the story of England and, therefore, a part of my historical inheritance.

On the second question of whether or not historical nationalism is a good idea I think Gracchi's notion of being nationalistic when it is necessary but recognising its irrationality to keep us from getting too enthusiastic the rest of the time is a little unrealistic. Nationalism competes with many other group loyalties, ethnicity, family, ideology, class and more, and it is a key part of running a successful state that you ensure that it can compete with these other loyalties. If national loyalty is outcompeted by ethnic loyalty you get racial bigotry, if by family you get nepotism, if by ideology you get political violence and if by class you make industrial compromise impossible. Loyalty to nation encourages people to compromise the interests of the other groups they are loyal to in the interests of the common national good. Of course, the counterpoint to this which, I expect, Gracchi will raise is that nationalism encourages international division but I would argue divided nations have, historically, been more dangerous to the international order than overly united ones. Even classic examples of nationalism gone mad are unconvincing as cases that excess national unity is dangerous, Fritz Stern in Einstein's German World discusses how Germany chose militarism and then fascism in response to a failure to establish a national unity.

However, note that peoples united around their nation are historically rare. If nationalism were such an easy thing to establish that it could be turned on and off like a light in the manner Gracchi describes that might be wonderful but it seems more plausible that, when we turn to people's national loyalty to encourage sacrifice and get us through hard times we will find it absent and that subgroups are out for themselves.

It would seem to me that giving people examples of where people from their nation have achieved in the past would strengthen their desire to identify with that nation. In that regard an understanding of Britain's historical achievements might contribute to nationalism winning out over less uniting group loyalties. This does not have to and should not be the exclusive purpose of history but teaching some history to this end seems deeply worthwhile.

Building a cohesive nation is one of the great challenges for any state and building pride in the nation is the way to do this. There is plenty to be proud of in British history and giving young Britons examples of things worth taking pride in is a fine thing to do in citizenship lessons. British achievements throughout history might inspire and unite a people who can fracture like so many others have.


Anonymous said...

You readed what you writed before you bloggerd English? You clever thoughts deserve gooder writen. How about "Gracchi's and I's"? It would at least be wrong in a more consistent way.

Meg said...

I agree with Jenya, you definitely need more PlayBoy in your blog.

I'm really not sure why you seem to think it's an all or nothing scenario-- I haven't read Gracchi's latest post on it but I thought the one about presenting historical people and events that had both positive and negative characteristics was right on the money. Learning about the bad things a person did or the unfortunate effects an event had doesn't mean we can't still appreciate them and often think the benefits outweighed the costs. Yes, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. I was taught this in school at the same time I learned about their many, many great, nation-building achievements. I'm not wild about some aspects of these guys, but I'm still proud that they founded my country.
There's no reason to think nationalism won't exist if you don't teach "History 101: Rah, Rah England!" People who are going to look at a "present both sides" version of history and choose to see only the "Britain is evil" side would've done that anyway. So teach what actually happened and let the rest of us have the chance to take pride in the ACTUAL history of our country and not the whitewashed version.
(I'm really enjoying this topic, by the way)

Gracchi said...

Interesting Matthew you raise points I need to ponder. A response is coming.

Matthew Sinclair said...

Jenya's contribution has been deleted. I'm afraid that, while it was amusing, leaving adverts encourages others.

To Tode: You're a strange, strange creature. It's a pretty marginal grammar mistake if it is one at all and look at the sheer amount I write...

Meg, I'm not advocating teaching whitewashed history but that teaching British history in citizenship classes can be valuable and that such history teaching should include a discussion of national achievements. The problem my first post identified with Labour's proposal was that the proposed curriculum was entirely focussed on periods of national and ethnic strife. My disagreement with Gracchi is over whether teaching history can serve a useful purpose in bolstering nationalism.