Wednesday, 17 May 2023

A 1000 year Reich?


Former Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, once said that, “between the mid-sixteenth century and the mid-eighteenth century Wales had practically no history at all, and even before that it was the history of rural brigands who have been ennobled by being called princes”. For him, Welsh history, apparently, only really started with the Industrial Revolution and the growth of Britishness across these islands. One of the implications – that the same was not true for England, and that English history thus long predates Welsh history, was left unsaid.

The English nationalists currently in charge of both his old party and the current governing party, on the other hand, repeatedly proclaim an unbroken history of these islands dating back to 1066, or ‘a thousand years of history’ as which they often approximate it. It’s a phrase heard a lot during the recent royal Brit-fest. (It often strikes me as somewhat odd that English history, as they see it, began with the defeat of the English and the imposition of French rule by force, although that is far from being the only odd feature of an English nationalist view of history.) Whilst the sundry acts of union seem to put clear dates on the incorporation of Wales into England, the union between England and Scotland, and the subsequent union between the UK and Ireland, the truth is a great deal messier, with allegiance and submission generally in place well before the formal acts, even if sometimes being recognised and sometimes rather less so and the rule of the English Crown sometimes being more theoretical than real. What is unarguable, though, is that the start of that 1,000 years of history was in a very much smaller land area of these islands than is covered by today’s United Kingdom. The ‘continuity’ in which they take such pride is very much an English phenomenon, although perhaps I should really say ‘Norman-French’. For them, it’s not so much that Welsh history doesn’t exist, it’s more the case that English history displaced it; English history is our history too, since even before they gobbled Wales up.

The extent to which it is important is a matter of opinion, of course. Our sense of history is one of the factors shaping our sense of identity, but erasing that sense of identity requires more than erasing our sense of history, as the experience of Wales surely shows. Or, rather, has shown to date. The English nationalists running the UK have repeatedly tried different approaches to imposing a uniform idea of nationality and culture on us, but have often lacked the degree of ruthlessness and consistency which success would require; for a century or two, they were too busy trying to impose their culture and language on a world-wide empire to pay too much attention to the differences at home. Besides, the Welsh among the ruling classes bought in to the imperial mindset anyway, and the masses didn’t matter.

Things are, however, changing. With the empire gone, and the deliberate decision to reduce British influence in the world which Brexit represents, those nationalists are now retreating into ‘home’ territory. Deleting alternative identities is the only way that they can feel secure in their own. (Or at least, that’s what they currently believe. If they were to succeed, they would probably find other reasons to feel insecure.) One of the themes coming clearly from the National Conservative movement (often shortened to NutCon, or something similar, I understand) is the idea that the state equals the nation, and that all those living within the state boundaries must be made to feel part of the nation (or be driven out). And the nation of which they must feel part is one which shares their values, religion, culture, language and attitudes, whilst those who don’t are traitors, Marxists or worse. It’s authoritarian and sees enemies everywhere. Even though they’re in control of the government, they somehow believe that they are not and that enemies of the state are using nefarious means to control them. And there's a generous dose of antisemitism included in that view as well.

Their view of history is (like much of their thinking) distorted. Most historians looking at the ‘1,000 years of continuity’ would see many episodes of rupture and change, but history should never be confused with fact. It’s continuity if enough people can be persuaded to believe it is continuity, by being fed a redacted and over-simplified view of the past. It's a dangerous mindset, as a more comprehensive view of history quickly teaches us, but it has a stronger hold on the narrative than is healthy. It’s easy to dismiss these people as cranks and nutters – the very personage of Jake encourages that dismissiveness – but they actually represent a real and present danger to the freedoms of all of us.

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