Monday, 8 March 2021

Is there a case for the Union? 5: A shared history


Next up in the pantheon of arguments for perpetuating the UK is the idea that these islands have a long, shared history. It’s an argument that has the merit of being superficially true. There can be no argument that – even before the union with Wales, let alone those with Scotland and Ireland – the history of the people of these islands was intimately intertwined. Rivalries over land, wealth and power were no respecters of borders, and neither borders nor nations had anything like the meaning that they have today. Although, in strict legal terms, the unions between England, Scotland, and Ireland were based on parliamentary consent, whilst the incorporation of Wales was more blatantly based on military conquest, the reality is that ‘consent’ was given in a context where there had long been military conflict and conquest. Even England, as a construct, is based on the outcome of wars between different kingdoms within the territory recognised as England today. Having an intertwined history isn’t the same thing as having a common history. Whilst the events surrounding any military conquest might be undisputed, the conqueror will always interpret those events in a very different way to the conquered. At its simplest, was the bringing together of the peoples of these islands a process of unification and merger, or was it a process of conquest and subjection?

That is in the distant past, of course, even if the echoes still reverberate today. Since the union, there is much more of a common history isn’t there? Well, in some ways yes, in others no. It’s true that many Welsh and Scots played their role in the collective effort which built an empire, and in the numerous wars which the rulers of that empire started or participated in across the globe. It would be a mistake to overlook the fact that many in Wales and Scotland have bought in to the myth of military glory and splendid island isolation which typifies the ‘standard’ view of ‘British’ history. And yet the basic rule – that the same events can appear very different from different perspectives – still holds true. When politicians (and this applies to Welsh and Scottish ones, as well as English or ‘British’ ones) talk about wanting to teach children their history, they usually seem to talk about making sure that children know about key events, largely ignoring the fact that what is more important is how those events are interpreted and placed into an overall narrative. It’s as if they don’t understand that the events which they select, and the importance they ascribe to those events, are neither absolute not objective; they stem from the perspective of the speaker.

The list of kings and queens of England (a classic example of the history which 'British' nationalists want children to be taught) is exactly what it says it is, and treating it as though it’s a list of kings and queens of the UK ignores the fact that many of them never ruled Wales, fewer ruled Scotland, and even fewer ruled Ireland. The way in which supporters of the union conflate English and British history is not only wrong in perception, it is wrong as a matter of fact. It might be possible to develop an interpretation of history which recognised difference, and didn’t seek to impose a single version on everyone, but that would be anathema to unionists, who would see it as weakening rather than strengthening their case. Basing their case on a common history requires everyone else to accept a particular version of history, but the days when history could be dictated are long gone. If I were looking for a strong argument for the union which would appeal to those currently inclined to support independence, I wouldn’t base it on trying to impose a narrow and Anglicised view of history.

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