The left and British history

Interesting piece in the Guardian today by Tim Collins, the former shadow education secretary, who lost his seat at the general election, in response to a previous piece by Tristram Hunt.

Only in Britain is a broad understanding of your nation’s past regarded as anti-European, if not downright racist. I somehow don’t see the French agreeing to strip out all mentions of Bonaparte from their curriculum for fear of offending the present-day descendants of all those whom he butchered.

But you would have thought that the left could draw its own lessons from the past.

Personally, I’d have been a Cavalier, fighting to preserve the monarchy against those who ultimately turned Britain into a military dictatorship. But republicans and socialists for generations have taken inspiration from the Levellers and the Commonwealth. Similarly, I’d pick Disraeli over that dangerous old leftie Gladstone – but if smug moralising about what we’d now call the Third World is your bag, then by all means admire the Grand Old Man of Liberalism. (Education Guardian).

It was George Orwell who famously pointed out the unique hostility of the British left to nationalism in the Lion and the Unicorn.

That hostility is surely related to the role of the Empire in creating British identity. However, I don’t believe it’s simply a question of the left being anti-Imperialist and therefore anti-British.

Rather, the quasi-Imperial role which the British establishment still seeks, actually requires an ideology which is both cosmopolitan and statist, and therefore has a certain left-wing appeal.

Gladstone’s African interventions, which suited both the anti-slavery movement and the city of London are a good example, and Blair and Brown resemble him in this as in much else. 

Official ‘political correctness’ and the repression of ethnic identity, is not a negation of Britishness, but the essence of it, just it was the essence of other multi-national states, such as Austro-Hungary, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.

The only alternative to state-led imperial Britishness, is a popular, anti-imperialist Engish nationalism.

Perhaps the choice can be summed up by a quote from the King James Bible:

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul. (Mark  8:36)






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