There's no such thing as British history

'I was brought up tolearn both the imperialversion of history atschool and its left-wingmirror image at home'

The keepers of the Grail are rumbling again. Yesterday, The Daily Telegraph devoted both an editorial (headed "The British race") and a large news feature to the latest threat to our national heritage. The peril has come in the form of a report from the Runnymede Trust - the highly regarded think-tank that looks at race relations in Britain - snappily entitled The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain and published today. This "sub-Marxist gibberish", according to the Telegraph, threatens the inclusiveness of Britain by questioning the very idea of a common British identity and instead suggesting that we talk about "a community of communities". Whereas, says the newspaper, "until now we have thought of the shaping events of our history as everyone's heritage, regardless of where their ancestors lived".

The keepers of the Grail are rumbling again. Yesterday, The Daily Telegraph devoted both an editorial (headed "The British race") and a large news feature to the latest threat to our national heritage. The peril has come in the form of a report from the Runnymede Trust - the highly regarded think-tank that looks at race relations in Britain - snappily entitled The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain and published today. This "sub-Marxist gibberish", according to the Telegraph, threatens the inclusiveness of Britain by questioning the very idea of a common British identity and instead suggesting that we talk about "a community of communities". Whereas, says the newspaper, "until now we have thought of the shaping events of our history as everyone's heritage, regardless of where their ancestors lived".

Now you don't have to be a mad postmodernist with his trousers on his head to quibble with the easy assumptions in that sentence. Who is the "we" here? And what are the "shaping events"? I was brought up to learn both the imperial version of British history in school and its left-wing mirror image at home. For every royal act, I could cite a popular rebellion; for every parliamentary debate I could find an even more significant act of civil defiance. There was the Wars of the Roses here, and the Peasants' Revolt there. In the end I accepted neither story in its entirety. That made history, for me, a wonderfully fluid interaction between facts and interpretations; between primary and secondary causes; between trust-worthy and mendacious original sources. Above all, it meant that you could go on rediscovering history for ever.

For some people, though, such rediscovery is still dangerous. They appear to believe that we already know and understand all that we need to about this country's history. Now, we simply need to get on and teach it so that our children also understand what a wholly unique and admirable place this was up until the foundation of the European Community (and could be again). The received version of what the Telegraph calls "our island story" (and how freighted that phrase is!) suits both its idea of itself and its desires for the country's future.

It is with that received version that the Runnymede Trust takes issue. It points out, as have historians such as Linda Colley, that Britishness is a recent political construct, not something that flowed with the ancient water out of the iron hills and into our bloodstreams. Sometimes this questioning borders on the pedantic. The report's observation that the British Isles' "separation [from the Continent] occurred only 8,000 years ago" may be true, but it's not very helpful. One may want to deny that Britain has always been insular; but there seems little point in downplaying the fact that it has - for a very long time - been an island.

The trust, like the Telegraph, has an objective. It wants "deep-rooted antagonisms symbolically written out of the national story". In other words, it wants to reconstruct a history with the exclusive myths of Englishness themselves excluded or at least balanced out. That would mean, for instance, no more uncritical "mother of parliaments" stuff. And a whole lot more, one surmises, should be made of the experiences of immigrants, up to and including a chapter on the Maltese of Shepherd's Bush. (Unfortunately, the report does not quarrel with the use of the term "Anglo-Saxon" to describe a people thoroughly intermixed with Celts and - more particularly - with Scandinavians.)

As the Runnymede Trust and the Telegraph battle it out for the past in front of an audience of thousands, BBC television has been presenting its A History of Britain to millions. Or rather, Simon Schama's A History of Britain. Sulkily (because I once harboured the unrealistic ambition to present such a series myself), I switched on to Schama's first episode and was completely hooked. Schama's chronology and selection of events is in many ways deeply conventional. Alfred was succeeded by 1066; the Magna Carta will follow; and so on till Good Queen Bess.

But two things are deeply satisfying about the series, even to someone who thinks he knows the ground well. The first is the fineness of Schama's own judgements and language. He questions the veracity of sources, balances various accounts and contextualises succinctly and - for my money - accurately. The second is that when Schama builds in new information, it has all the more impact for having been set in the older story.

Nowhere is that truer than in Schama's inclusion in his series of the expulsion, by Edward I, of the Jews of England in 1290. That act made England the first European nation to declare itself Judenfrei, and I was never taught it at school. I came across the extent of Jewish persecution in England almost by accident, as I paddled round the country for the book I was then writing. Originally, I had planned my visit to Lincoln to provide a chapter looking at the sub- Barchester Chronicles goings-on at the cathedral, where the dean and the bishop were at war. It was going to be a giggle. But then - in the cathedral, looking for Derek Nimmo lookalikes - I came across the shrine of Little St Hugh. Hugh was the boy who, in 1255, was alleged to have been kidnapped and ritually slaughtered by the city's Jews, many of whom were hanged.

But what was so extraordinary about the story was that it was believed for so long. Chaucer mentions it in "The Prioress's Tale"; ballads were still being sung about it in the 1950s. Some citizens of Lincoln accepted the truth of the tale until early last century. As a reaction, I suppose, the more enlightened clergy of today have wanted it buried. Over the shrine is a small apologetic notice, referring briefly to the libel and going on to say that "such stories do not redound to the credit of Christendom and so we pray: Remember not, Lord, our offences, nor the offences of our forefathers".

Remember not our offences. Which is to say, the Telegraph version of history. Just down the hill from the cathedral in Lincoln is the medieval structure of Jew's Court. There's a plaque there that says, "Owned by a member of the Jewish community in 1290." But it does not explain who owned it in 1291. Or why.

Now let me tell you what I think follows from all that, and what doesn't. If what is wanted by the Runnymede Trust is the simple questioning of the self-serving myths of British history, and the inclusion of a bit more information on the peoples who made their way to Britain after the Norman Conquest, it is hard to quarrel with them. If, on the other hand, what is desired is the replacement of one idealised notion of community with another, then I take issue. The role of history is not to act as a post factum builder of self-esteem, a scholarly Prozac building up one's intellectual serotonin. There is nothing innately more historically noble about the gypsy than about the landowner.

Meanwhile, I can't help but observe how the future may be pressed into political service, as well as the past. In the same edition of the Telegraph there was a scientific story about the movement of the land-masses of the world. Britain, it seems, is destined gradually to be pushed up toward the Arctic, as vast tectonic movements create new super-continents. What does that mean? It means, "Britain will remain in splendid isolation from Europe for another 250 million years." Or, as the Runnymede Trust might put it, "only 250 million years".

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

Comments