Those of us who wish that the people of this country thought more about their own history, to better understand who they are and take reasoned decisions about their future, can sometimes be guilty of looking back at our own schooling through rose-tinted glasses.
True, we can at least be grateful that we did not endlessly study the Nazis to the exclusion of most of our own history, as too many children still do today. But the history that I devoured at school and university was British history in name only. In reality it was English not British. Most people educated in England know little about the history of either Wales or Scotland, let alone Ireland. And this ignorance carries a price.
That price is England’s institutionalised indifference about the non-English parts of Britain. When the English think about their country in the world, there is a blind spot where Scotland, Wales and Ireland ought to be. In an earlier, more unified British era, perhaps this ignorance had fewer political consequences. Today, it feeds Britain’s increasingly centrifugal politics, and means that the English are remarkably ill-equipped to understand or engage with changes in Scotland and Wales that are driving the future of the union.
This spring, for example, BBC Wales has been showing a remarkable series of history programmes. Presented by Huw Edwards, The Story of Wales consists of six primetime one-hour programmes on Welsh history. Polemical and romantic, the programmes have been phenomenally successful. Audiences have averaged 300,000 per episode. The social media response has been explosive.
Unfortunately, however, the series was shown only in Wales. The English, who have a need to understand Wales and its history too, have not seen the programmes. There is talk that the series will be shown across the UK in the autumn on BBC2. Until that happens, the reality is that most English people will remain just as ignorant about Welsh history as they always have been. And about Scottish history, of course.
The civic success of these programmes in Wales, and the almost total civic ignorance about them and their themes in England, illustrate two sides of a larger coin. They are another mark of the loosening in post-industrial Britain of the habits of mental association the home nations had with each other, and the constitutional ties between them. The devolved nations are exploring their own pasts and stories with increased enthusiasm, as the reaction to The Story of Wales shows. Alongside the institutional separations, there is now a separation of the mind.
This separation of the mind has long been extremely obvious in Scotland. Devolution is both result and cause. In Wales, the process has been slower. But programmes like The Story of Wales, whose underlying narrative is the emergence of a more confident and open Welsh identity embodied in the institutions of Cardiff Bay, show how it has gathered momentum there.
England, however, does not notice – and therefore does not respond, either constructively or negatively. Instead it does nothing. It is occasionally claimed that English identity politics are on the march, a late, stirring equivalent of what has happened elsewhere in these islands. An IPPR report this year described England as the dog that finally barked. To me, England is a sleeping dog that continues to doze. Its civic mind, in massive contrast to Wales and Scotland, is stuck in neutral. England barely notices what is happening in Wales or Scotland, or reflects on how the union might be reformed in the modern federal manner that Carwyn Jones – Wales’s articulate first minister, but an entirely unknown figure in England – has recently suggested.
A chief characteristic of modern Englishness is ignorance about elsewhere. It takes many forms, including ignorance about Europe. But the truth about English attitudes towards Scotland and Wales is that the English don’t really care. The British empire may or may not have been acquired in a fit of absence of mind. But the union could be being lost that way.
In his memoirs, Peter Hain describes a midsummer argument in Tony Blair’s government about powers for the Welsh assembly and the English regions. At one point, an exasperated Blair says to Hain: “I am more interested in my bucket and spade than in this issue becoming a huge controversy.” In this, as in much else, Blair understood and spoke for England.
Now, though, controversy has arrived anyway. Yet England has little to say. Partly this is the media’s fault. In the media the separation of the mind is well advanced. Scotland and, to a smaller extent, Wales now have their own introverted media. England, though, has the London media, which is more interested in California than Caledonia or Cymru – or even Cornwall. The London press must get out more. It needs to make a much more conscious and deliberate effort to report Scotland and Wales to England, as well to discharge a British responsibility to report to and for Scotland and Wales themselves.
England needs to decide whether it cares. Watch the way the local election results are debated over the coming days. For the metropolitan political class, left and right, it will all be about two things: the London mayor and the overall impact on Westminster politics. But local elections are actually about local government everywhere. A better way to assess the 2012 local elections might be to measure what they say about the slow disintegration of British politics and political institutions. To do that, though, would mean having to understand our own history.
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