Do we need a national history? | Books

WWe have heard a lot about the importance of stories in recent years. Vote Leave has been said to have won the Brexit referendum because they told a better story than Remain; that Donald Trump won the U.S. election in 2016 because he told a better story than Hillary Clinton, and lost in 2020 because her story fell apart. Some believe the Labor Party has struggled to turn the tide decisively against a corrupt and chaotic government because it has no clear story to tell.

Stories have been at the heart of community organizing as long as communities have been organized. As Nesrine Malik writes in her insightful collection of essays, We Need New Stories: “Every social unit, from the family to the nation-state, operates on the basis of mythology, stories that set them apart from others. National histories can support any point of view: left or right, liberal or authoritarian. They are an integral part of nationalism and represent a form of identity politics. While many on the political spectrum dislike nationalism and identity politics, the world is predominantly made up of nation states. Unless that changes, these nations will continue to be a part of how we identify with ourselves – whether or not we embrace their dominant values. Politicians of all stripes ignore the power of national histories at their expense.

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National histories may encompass science, the arts, and religion, but they are rooted in history: they create a narrative of how a nation, in a unique way, was formed. These stories are always exceptional, suggesting that “our” nation is different (and generally superior to) others. They are meant to exclude as much as they are meant to unite.

In Britain there have been many attempts to build national mythologies out of a complex and turbulent history. Our Island Story by HE Marshall, first published in 1905, is still frequently referenced today; in 2010, then prime minister David Cameron named it his favorite childhood book.

Marshall pointed out that Our Island Story “is not a history lesson, but a storybook.” She advised her young readers: “I hope you don’t put this next to your textbooks, but right on the other end of the shelf, next to Robinson Crusoe and A Noah’s Ark Geography. Whether this advice was effective or not, many of them internalized its description of an exceptional ascent to greatness.

National histories are not set in stone. In fact, comparing different versions written decades or centuries apart can reveal dramatic changes. In 1746, the Duke of Cumberland, son of George II, defeated the Jacobite rebels of Bonnie Prince Charlie in Culloden. Cumberland ordered that “no quarter” be given to the Jacobite survivors. The massacre ensued. Immediately after his bloody triumph, Cumberland was hailed as a “god-hero” in England (and much of the lowlands of Scotland). He was burnished as an icon of progressive British freedom against the regressive and superstitious authoritarianism of the Catholic Stuarts. The Highlanders and Jacobites who had fought him were portrayed, in the words of historian Murray Pittock, “as savages to be tamed.” Handel wrote his famous oratorio chorus “See, the conquering hero is coming! In honor of Cumberland.

A century later, everything had changed. Queen Victoria was then on the throne: she worshiped Scotland, and particularly the Highlanders. The truth about Culloden was now well known. Victoria’s great-great-uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, was no longer seen as the “divine youth” of Handel’s choir, but as the “butcher of Culloden”: a monster, a villain, an embarrassment.

National history has changed to accommodate this. The statue of Cumberland in London was removed in 1868. It is believed that Victoria herself ordered the deletion of the word “Culloden” from her memorial obelisk in Windsor Great Park. In 1856, a popular history book, The Comprehensive History of England, stated that Cumberland “had left behind in Scotland the name of the butcher, and the people of England, disgusted earlier than any other by cruelty, confirmed this title to the hero of Culloden ”. The story continued to be one of British and English exception, modernity and unity. The difference was that in 1746 these values ​​had been demonstrated by the English celebrating Cumberland, while in 1856 they were demonstrated by their rejection.

So while national histories may be rooted in history, they are not history. As historian Richard Evans said: “History is not a discipline that makes myths, it is a discipline that destroys myths. The process of historical inquiry inevitably challenges national histories. He is therefore often seen as a threat by their supporters: as evidenced by the recent attacks on the National Trust for stating puzzling facts about some of its properties’ links to colonialism and historic slavery in an academically rigorous report.

National stories are propaganda, fairy tales, origin stories of superheroes. They are meant to unite and exclude by belief. As with all forms of faith, true believers will vigorously defend them. In repressive societies, this defense of the faith often trumps historical research and analysis. Societies more comfortable with themselves tend to be much less anxious about the truth being revealed.

It is possible to tell sober and restrained national stories; which speak of shared liberal values, democracy, artistic and scientific achievements, diversity of points of view or identities. Basically, these are still fictions. Those who tell them will be proud of the unique sophistication of their own national adult stories versus everyone’s absurd illusions, thus once again reinforcing the paradigm of exceptionalism.

Maybe one day someone will find a more compelling story to tell beyond nationalism, and national stories will cease to have such a hold on us. For now, they are with us whether we feel we ‘need’ them or not. As long as this remains true, it is important to recognize that the biases in them are never set. Each generation questions and questions what it is told: stories must adapt. The enduring popularity of myths may frustrate historians, but we can take comfort in the fact that these myths are always on the move. It is a sign of health if our societies are open to change; if we never quite agree.

Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History by Alex von Tunzelmann is published by Headline. To support the Guardian and Observer, purchase a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Further reading

British forging the nation 1707-1837 by Linda Colley (Yale, £ 16.99)

We Need New Stories: Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind Our Age of Discontent by Nesrine Malik (W&N, £ 8.99)

Imperial Nostalgia: How the British Were Conquered by PDK Mitchell (Manchester, £ 14.99)


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