I first met Professor Linda Colley in 10 Downing St, during those heady days after Blair's first election victory. Cherie Blair had invited the historian to deliver a pre-buffet lecture on Britishness. Exhilarating and erudite, the talk turned into a subtle critique of Cool Britannia, the daft "rebranded" national identity marketed by New Labour.
Since then I've bought all her published works. Each one, almost each page in each one, surprises and enlightens. The prestigious scholar eschews academic opacity, has flair, an instinct for engagement, a lucidly democratic style. She can reach that autodidact ex-miner, slothful student, amateur genealogist, louche Chelsea girl, loyal citizen, flippant politician and know-it-all journalist and get them to look through different windows to the past.
This collection of interconnected essays examines the ties and stories that bind the United Kingdom and also the nation's many disunities and fissures. As Ukip gets ever more popular and the Scottish referendum on independence looms, Colley takes on the biggest questions of our age. But on first reading, I felt the book was rushed, sparse and unsatisfactory. It is only 156 pages long with 27 of those given over to illustrations. The chapters are amplified versions of talks to be aired on BBC Radio4 this month. Big factual series often have accompanying books with additional material and information. To add value, this one, I thought, should have given us richer stories and details and deeper analysis than is possible on short broadcasts.
After the second reading – over and done in 50 minutes – the book's shape and purpose became clearer. So too Colley's alchemic genius. Size didn't matter that much anymore. With exactitude and select examples, she deciphers this unfathomable, irrepressible nation, considers abiding myths, geographical determinism, sense of destiny, imagined and real power, and conflicts from the Norman and Saxon invasions though to the uncertain future. For clarity and perspective, the narrative is structured around intra-national and cross-national legal agreements and Acts, going back to before the 16th century. But this isn't just a smart little digest. The sharp essays snip at and cut through unreconstructed patriotisms, tight certainties, received notions and political manipulations.
Take, for example, the stirring John of Gaunt speech in Richard II, which has become England's poetic acclamation. Gaunt, notes Colley, was born in Belgium and while Shakespeare makes him "speak patriotism, he also makes him minatory and sombre". The sceptre'd isle is, in reality, chaotic, bloodied, heaving with murderous plots and betrayals. Though Colley doesn't say this, the speech depicts the pomposity and delusions of English nationalism then and now.
Margaret Thatcher was manifestly the proud warrior queen of small England, an adamant opponent of the EU. Only she really wasn't, claims Colley. In 1979, five months after taking office, she went to Luxembourg and announced: "I always feel at home the moment I arrive in Luxembourg" and then made a speech: "Britain...could not have stood aside from a voluntary association designed to express the principles of western democracy with a strength appropriate to the challenges of the world today... our size, our contribution to the history, arts and civilizations of Europe would make that impossible." Clearly, this address was not merely about economic cooperation but a shared history, project, values.
The North/South divide in Britain seemed to me a family quarrel that could never be amicably resolved. But, until reading this book, I had no idea about how much calculated discrimination was suffered by northerners. The first university there, Durham, was built in 1832, hundreds of years after Oxford and Cambridge. Until 1880, there was no other. Yet, until de-industrialisation and de-unionisation became Thatcherism's first policy frontiers, the north had better civic government, pride in its modernist economic drive and achievements, had grit, strength and cohesion unlike the much less communitarian and prissy south.
The Scots too get a reality check. They believe themselves to have been among the first peoples of the world to be occupied and oppressed by big, bad England. Not so, writes Colley: "Scotland has never been a colony. It was never conquered or forced to submit to waves of alien settlers as Ireland was." The border between the two nations was, and is, porous; they are irreversibly conjoined. David Cameron, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were all either Scottish-born or came from Scottish families. Moreover, the Scots were joint oppressors of the Irish and very active in the British colonies. Ruthless too. They won't like these assertions north of the border. The Welsh were indeed ruled ruthlessly by the English and yet became enthusiastic imperialists, a truth that is not acknowledged by the devolved nation.
Other sections well worth reading are on abortive plans to create a greater British alliance between English speaking peoples and on the UK's island psyche which is both inward and outward looking, introverted and extroverted. Challenging and upending histories is what Colley does best.
However, when she affirms and justifies traditions, she loses spark and lustre, her unique edginess. Parts of the book read like a song for Edmund Burke's conservatism. The monarchy is waved through and kneeled before because it promises and delivers continuity. We needed more incisive commentary on how that continuity can also be a kind of terrible drug, making Brits bovine and accepting of a class structure they should have revolted against long, long ago. And although there is some mention of black and Asian migrants through the ages, it feels like an afterthought. This is a great pity because people of colour have been players in the making of Britain from its inception. Africans were in Roman battalions across the country before England materialised or Englishness was imagined.
These criticisms aside, this is a lively and urgent little tract. Drawing on art, literature, facts, landscapes and political dramas, it reveals the false unities and real disunities of the UK, past and present. By the end, one marvels and wonders how this complex and unsettled nation keeps the centre from falling apart. But it does. May it always do so.