Joyce McMillan: Learning lesson of history revision

KNOWING THE truth about the past is important when it comes to looking to the future, writes Joyce McMillan

David Cameron delivers a speech during a service to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Picture: Getty Images
David Cameron delivers a speech during a service to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Picture: Getty Images

When I was a teenager, back in the 1960s, one of our less controversial amusements – particularly when threatened with a history lesson – was to get out a copy of the great satirical classic 1066 And All That by lively jokers W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman, and to have a good laugh at the expense of the standard narrative that still dominated British history teaching in those distant days. Sellar and Yeatman, whose book first appeared in 1930, were partly absurdists, of course; their sequence on the Great Scone of Scone, mighty symbol of Scottish sovereignty, conjured up images never to be forgotten.

There was method in their jokery, though; and their main purpose was to send up the conventional “Whig” narrative in which Britain inevitably ended up Top Nation, through a self-evident combination of superior virtue and true grit. In the 1960s of course, it seemed obvious that that narrative had had its day; the age of Empire was over, and the old British ruling class seemed like a faded joke, about to disappear into history.

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We failed, though, to anticipate the effect on the national psyche of 30 years of regressive economic policy, with the constant demand it creates for distraction in the form of patriotic grandstanding and facile them-and-us rhetoric. And so it is that in this second decade of the 21st century – what I sometimes think of as the age of Gove – we find ourselves confronted by a series of efforts to restore that old Top Nation narrative; the very version of British history that 20th century iconoclasts like Sellar and Yeatman thought they had demolished for good, more than 80 years ago.

And I fear that it was partly in pursuit of that aim that all the great and good of the realm gathered at Runnymede earlier this week to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, signed there on 15 June, 1215. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with a sensible celebration of Magna Carta. It was a decent statement of rules which placed clear limits on the power of the king of England, and contained two particularly powerful paragraphs on the rule of law; and given its widespread influence on legal and constitutional codes across the planet, during the period of the British Empire, it is difficult to disagree with the Queen’s well-judged comment, written in the Runnymede visitors’ book, that its legacy is “substantial and enduring”.

It’s not only possible but necessary, though, to take issue with some elements of the speech made by the Prime Minister at Runnymede, which was, in parts, an example of Gove-ism at its most florid. In the first place, David Cameron uttered a mighty list of radical causes, from the suffragette movement to the struggle against apartheid, that drew some inspiration from Magna Carta – without once reflecting that his own party has a near-perfect record of bitterly opposing all those movements, often with some violence. In the second place, he made a tasteless attempt to use the occasion to justify his policy of ditching the UK Human Rights Act of 1998, which of course enshrines many Magna Carta principles.

And thirdly and most importantly, he committed the dangerous and jingoistic howler of asserting that Britain – or England, at the time – was “the place where these ideas were first set out”; even though the primacy of the rule of law was asserted both by Greek philosophers, and in Islamic documents as early as the 9th century AD, and mediaeval Europe was dotted with parliaments and assemblies, from Iceland to Poland, which have a good claim to pre-date both Magna Carta and the English parliament by many centuries.

The idea that England was alone in formulating ideas of liberty and the rule of law, 800 years ago, is therefore as inaccurate as it is arrogant. And it’s all of a piece with the rivers of nonsense about the “uniqueness” of the British royal family that accompanied the recent royal birth and state opening of parliament, with last year’s chilling revisionist attempt to re-frame the First World War as a necessary patriotic battle against tyranny, and last week’s breathtaking effort, on Radio 4’s Any Questions, to promote Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Waterloo, 200 years ago this week, as a triumph of “liberal democracy” – this at a time when Britain had allied itself with every autocrat in Europe to defeat Napoleon, and when one of the most reactionary governments in British history was putting down the fledgling trade union movement with a savagery that led both to the notorious Peterloo Massacre of 1819, and to the great Scottish Rising of 1820, led by John Baird and Andrew Hardie.

British history is a great and complex thing, in other words, like the history of any other nation; and what’s clear is that the kind of patriotism that refuses that complexity, and claims some special destiny and virtue for one nation only, is always both ill-founded and dangerous. As a small nation seeking greater autonomy in a postwar world well warned of the dark side of nationalism, Scotland has had to learn that lesson the hard way; bit by bit and strand by strand, the SNP has had to strip away the ethnic and cultural essentialism, and the matching claims of superiority, that often taint the politics of national self-determination, until today its leadership has a more progressive record on issues of identity, citizenship, migration, inclusion, and internationalism than the leadership of any other British mainstream party.

No community is ever immune, though, to the temptations of that language of specialness and destiny; no political leader can be unaware of its huge emotive power. And if that warning applies, every day, to Scotland’s newly dominant SNP, it surely applies just as strongly to the government of the UK – a government which is currently using patriotic rhetoric, backed by a casual assumption of superiority, with a carelessness that both riles and chills; and that robs the British people of a vital part of their birthright – the true and accurate knowledge of their country, and of where it stands in the world, that is finally the only possible basis for wise decision-making about its future.