Leading article: The people who really made Britain

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The Independent Online

A list of 12 individuals who shaped British history has all the makings of a seasonal parlour game. In fact, the list in question was the nation's Christmas present from the Conservatives, a part of their review of the teaching of history in our schools. And the criteria are narrowly drawn: the 12 earned their places not as the greatest Britons ever, but as founders of the institutions that have made Britain what it is.

This explains some of the seeming idiosyncrasies. Why, for instance, should Henry II be preferred to Henry VIII or Elizabeth I? Answer: because he is regarded as the founder of today's common law. Why does Robert Clive take precedence over Winston Churchill? Because Clive exemplifies the British Empire, good and bad, while Churchill was "only" a war leader of genius. And what did Thomas Gresham do to deserve his place, when Shakespeare is overlooked? He founded the precursor of the Stock Exchange - the Tories are a free-market party after all.

There is politics even in the apparently non-political - and vice versa. Why is Sir Robert Peel the only Tory on the list? Because today's Conservative Party does not want to seem too ideologically hidebound and because combating crime is something on which all major parties agree. The inclusion of Aneurin Bevan, founder of the National Health Service, at the expense of Margaret Thatcher sends another inclusive message. What David Cameron is trying to say is that Thatcherism is their past and that the NHS is safe with them.

Commenting on the list, the shadow Education Secretary, David Willetts, said it was neither definitive nor exhaustive, but intended to stir up a debate. We are happy to take up the challenge. Our list will seem a little less - how shall we put it? - establishment. Boudicca, Tom Paine and the rest are not exactly icons of the status quo. Our list is more secular and earthier - Chaucer rather than St Columba - and less squeamish about direct action. We choose Sylvia Pankhurst above the more ladylike Millicent Fawcett. We are sportier, too, and more attuned to popular culture.

Some will see these lists as exemplifying alternative outlooks and divergent agendas. They show rather the limits of this approach. A list of 12 people, however defined, is far too short to encompass the rich diversity of our history. The pupils of tomorrow need to know about more than 12, and more than 24, individuals. We need Scottish and Welsh representation, not to speak of more women and members of the ethnic minorities who have contributed so much. How about 100 names from our past and a course called "Celebrities of British history". We welcome your ideas. Let's have a full-blown national debate.