LEADING ARTICLE : Just a few bits of old history

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The Independent Online
THE TROUBLE with this thing called history is that there is a great deal of it. A great many wars, several agricultural, industrial and technical revolutions, a few global empires, many different traditions of living and thinking and worshipping, and all of them overlapping and shading from one period to the next and from one part of the world to another. Suffering and flourishing, growing and dying under this multitude of labels - the British Empire, say, or the Ming Dynasty - there is the needlework of billions of individual lives. Sometimes the label helped supply the individual's identity: Civis Britannicus sum. And sometimes it did not: a girl at the loom of a Lancashire cotton mill could not think of herself as a victim or beneficiary of the Industrial Revolution because that term was born only after the specific facts - a mill chimney here, an abandoned village there - could be looked back on as a social and economic transformation.

The beauty of this thing called history is its variety, the layers of life that merge imperceptibly with each other, down and down and back and back. The uses of this thing called history can range from the modest to the immense. A woman buys a jar of marmalade at an English country house: result, enhanced toast and a small profit to the National Trust. A 19th-century scholar translates Sanskrit into modern European languages: result, a new view of ancient Indian civilisation and the beginnings of Indian nationalism. The danger of this thing called history is to think of it as a too solid chunk of human identity, rather than the slippery and fluid substance it actually proves to be.

John Major makes this mistake with Scotland and many commentators make it with Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister, in an anti-devolutionary speech in Glasgow on Friday, said that the common experience of Scotland and England over the past three centuries "cannot be tossed aside as bits of old history which have no power to stop the hearts of our generation ... Lord knows, we see enough examples in this country of the damage that is done when our traditions are ridiculed and the lessons of the past ignored''. That is Mr Major saying that Britishness still matters as an identity - which it does - but not allowing that it is declining as a way people, especially in Scotland, see themselves, as though Flanders, the Spitfire and Scott of the Antarctic burn as bright today in a unitary national imagination as they did 50 years ago. Not even the fiercest Scottish separatist wants them "tossed aside''. But we no longer live in that world, it is slipping down the layers, overlaid with a new strata of MTV and McDonald's.

Bombs and guns have forced Mr Major to show greater imagination in Northern Ireland, where he is asking Unionists (and perhaps yet Republicans) to do the thing he says is so unthinkable in Scotland, to toss aside national identity as bits of old history that stand in the way of a peaceful solution. History of the solid-chunk kind says that this cannot be - that the people of Northern Ireland will always think of themselves primarily as Billies and Dans, that 1690 and 1916 will always be the vital dates, that you either believe in the Queen or the Pope. And yet, as the Irish writer Fintan O'Toole pointed out last week, the people on either side of Ireland's political divide are probably closer to each other in the way they live than ever before. The clichs of social difference - Belfast shipwelder versus Mayo peatcutter - are submerged beneath pax consumia, where the weekly trip to the supermarket is replacing the weekly visit to the church or chapel in an island that shares television programmes, problems of poverty and crime, and the same kinds of people in Club class to Brussels.

None of this signals that the peace process, if it lasts, will end in a united Ireland. History, discounting Armageddon, does not have ultimates. The people who live in the British Isles may have a more complicated relationship with each other than two nation states allow. In the words of a Northern Irishman, Louis MacNeice:

Under the surface of flux and fear there is an underground movement,

Under the crust of bureaucracy, quiet behind the posters.

Unconscious but palpably there - the Kingdom of individuals.