Time for a fresh look at our place in history
By ANN DUMMETT
In immediate and narrow political terms, of course, during and just after the election, its meaning was clear: "Let us sink our differences: you drop your opinion and we'll have mine."
Although this appeal is clearly naive, it made use of a desire that many people obviously feel deeply and sincerely, a desire for a worthy ideal by which national policies can be guided, and which can conveniently be called "national unity" without offending anyone.
Yet it may well offend. In terms of the overall policies of the Westminster Government, such unity must embrace the whole of Britain and Northern Ireland. and we are immediately up against the difficulty that Scottish and Welsh nationalists have their own ideas about national unity as separate from England's, while Northern Ireland is divided between different kinds of nationalisin: the all-Irish nationalism that wants union with Eire and the so-called "Ioyalism" of those who want self-determination for the Protestant majority in the six counties.
The appeal for national unity mainly comes from English people to other English people and I believe that, while its concern is evidently to bring different parties together in the interests of governing all Great Britain, its emotional appeal lies not in a yearning for coalition but in the anxious search for identity and a sense of purpose that the English have been experiencing ever since the British Empire died.
The Welsh are self-confident in their own tradition; the Scots have a distinct history and identity. but the English are now not at all certain where they are at. For a sense of national unity and pride, they have to turn increasingly to dreams of past power and glory. The endless series of escapes from Colditz that we witness weekly on television are not so much antiGerman as pro-English. How gentlemanly we were then, how brave and resourceful! And look at Henry VIII, as rough on his women as James Bond.
Those were the days: telling a foreign Pope where he got off, and asserting Protestant England's power. Many features of traditional patriotism are anti-Catholic in character. Elizabeth I too has had long hours of celluloid glory on 'television. and the extraordinary series on the British Empire brought back, as though we were still at the height of imperi.alisni. a pageant of backward natives and remarkable Englishmen.
Not only historical fiction and documentary (like the BBC's "The Regiment" and ITV's "The • World at War") are nostalgic. Even with romantic drama, we are taken hack to a secure and magnificent England, populated by Christian gentlemen like John Halifax or self-assertive Forsytes.
The past had hopes and heroes: contemporary drama on television has problems instead. When sometimes it depicts a glossy world of contemporary success. it tends to grow more and more like the telly advertisements. an unreal world where people are laughing only because they are paid by the minute to do it.
We have of course been offered for some time as our national goal the hope of economic growth, but this has never had magic. Now tc are offered the goal of economic survival. and this too lacks excitement. You can pack tins of cocoa in wartime, and glow with ihe thought that you are helping to feed the troops who are defending us all, but you cannot pack tins of cocoa now and tell yourself you are helping the economil survival.
The idea is neither inspiring nor convincing. You know too well that economic survival depends on many forces over which you have no control whatever.
The sense of powerlessness (on which the Liberals have recently played, with an emphasis on manageable local issues) is one of the most striking characteristics of presentday England. The most seriow consequence of it has been tht rapid growth of racist sentimen. and behaviour in the las decade.
Unable to define their own Englishness in a realistic assertion of superior power among nations, technological advance beyond all others, or public riches, many English people have asserted their own superiority in the only easy way open to them; superiority over non-white fellow citizens who genuinely do have less power than white English people. The idea of "keeping Britain white" can find its mystique and its magic in many familiar and apparently respectable attributes of English culture. Indeed, white superiority seems self-evident to anyone who has accepted uncritically the assumptions behind much of our history teaching and our popular fiction. Racism offers a goal: getting rid of the blacks. Like the Jews in Nazi Germany, they can be used in an attempt to draw the rest of the population together in united persecution.
Anyone who thinks persecution too strong a term knows nothing of the police raids for "illegal immigrants" or the provisions of the 1971 Immigration Act and its accompanying documents "Control on Entry" and "Control after Entry." Temporarily, vocal patriots have dropped the race issue in favour of an appeal to united resistance against the foreign threat of the Common Market. But meanwhile irreversible damage is still being done to our society, not only because of the active racism of those who openly define their nationality in racial terms but because of the inertia of those who find racism distasteful but are not active in opposing it.
The country is divided partly as a result of the fact that there has been no new idea to fill the vacuilm of English identity since we have lost our former international power. The young English black people who attend African history classes, in search of' a heritage. are ironically in the same situation as the white society that has tried to deny them a heritage.
Both black and white are in need of a history that means something to their situation in present-day Britain. But whereas some black people have realised and articulated the need, white English people have so far taken refuge in dead dreams that have no new hopes, no new sense of identity, to offer.
If we try being realistic, we have to face the fact that the inhabitants Of this country are not sturdy Anglo-Saxon free farmers, laced with aristocratic Norman blood and a dash of Celtic romanticism.
We are a cosmopolitan and socially fragmented society, with extremes of riches and poverty, a culture drawing heavily on outside influences in its economic organisation, which increasingly relics on foreign investment, and in its arts, with Afro-American inventiveness the strongest influence in its popular music and Continental European styles dominant in its architecture.
We are a bit like Ruritartia, dressing up our beefeaters in colour ads. for foreign tourists and floodlighting our ancient castles; a hit like the United States with our communities of Poles, Italians. Irish, Chinese, West Indian, Spanish, Indian etc.: a bit like early imperial Rome with our variety of religions.
What we are not like is the England of Oman and Trevelyan. And if we want to find a unity that means more than a temporary political expedient, and less dangerous than the movement to the extreme Right that has taken place in many small countries since the war, we need first to understand our own past in terms that make sense of this sort of present.
If we are a cosmopolitan society, why do We not find inspiration in all the rich sources of that society? If we really value democracy and the rule of law, why is not our popular history set in terms of an English tradition of resistance to tyranny instead of a glorification of Tudor nationalism and imperial expansion?
A small and racially-mixed country can have a good life and a hopeful future if it knows what it is doing, and if it asks history the right questions.