Friday 19 August 2022

History is always selective


History – or rather, the way history is interpreted – has a lot to answer for. And most especially, the choice of when ‘history’ starts. His own interpretation of history is at the heart of Putin’s claims that Ukraine is historically part of Russia and that Russia and Ukraine are a single people and a single country, artificially separated by their common enemy. The Chinese interpretation of history is at the heart of China’s claim that the island of Taiwan is a province of China, sovereignty over which the mainland has an absolute right to regain, by force if necessary. There was an interesting analysis of that latter claim on the Guardian’s website yesterday. Neither the Russian claim nor the Chinese claim are entirely without merit, given the understanding of history on which they are based, but both are based on a nationalist interpretation and are selective about which parts of history count. And, as the writer puts it: “Nationalist renderings of history are always suspect”. It’s something of an understatement: as the war in Ukraine and the military forces being deployed by China tell us, a selective view of history deployed in the interests of a particular political position is not only suspect, it’s positively dangerous.

We’re not exactly immune to the same considerations closer to home. Whilst many independentistas in both Wales and Scotland deploy their own interpretation of history, which stresses that which went before the establishment of the UK, the Anglo-British nationalists argue that history effectively started in 1707 with the Act of Union, under which the previous kingdoms of England (already incorporating the territory which we now know as Wales) and Scotland were abolished (‘for ever’ according to them) to be replaced by a new United Kingdom of Great Britain (Liz Truss’s ‘single country’). In truth, neither tell the full story, which is about movements of people and conquests of territory dating back to before there is any recorded history to tell us what happened, let alone any concept of nationhood or even country. For nationalists, there has to be a starting point: a date of some sort which is regarded as the foundation of the ‘country’, before which ‘history’ doesn’t count and after which there is only one ‘right’ way of ordering states. It’s just that different nationalists choose different starting points. But those are all essentially arbitrary.

The above-referenced article on Taiwan poses a very pertinent question: “One has to wonder why ancient, pre-modern history seems to trump the contemporary will of the Taiwanese people for self-determination…”. It’s posed in a way which is specific to Taiwan, but the question it raises is of much more general application. Welsh and Scottish independentistas and Anglo-British nationalists alike seek to use history to define nations and borders, starting from the assumption that whether the people in a given territory are, or are not, considered to be a nation is the determinant of their right to self-determination. Certainly, feelings of nationhood may be a factor in deciding whether or not they want self-determination, but ultimately why should a selective view of history (and all views of history are ultimately selective) ever trump contemporary will? It is, of course, useful – to say the least – if the people in any territory share a common interpretation of their history, a common sense of nationality, or even a common language – but none of those are necessary prerequisites to self-determination. If sovereignty belongs to the people, and the people in Ukraine, Taiwan, Wales, Scotland or even Ynys Môn want to establish an independent state covering their territory, on what moral basis should that ever be denied?


CapM said...

Here goes (for the couple of large islands off the coast of mainland Europe)
Moral basis for denial- change in the proportion of nationalities self identified by the population in the defined area due to deliberate policies, facilitation or laissez faire attitudes emanating or encouraged by those from outside of the defined area.

Democritus said...

Formosa is not a de facto part of China and commands the material means to conduct a highly effective territorial defence. They comfortably clear the most basic westphalian test without the benefit of a single formal military alliance - and so far without resorting to their indisputable technical capability to manufacture thermonuclear weapons.