Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The English question

The ubiquitous David Dimbleby claims that his short BBC television series, The Seven Ages of Britain, which attempts to tell 2,000 years of British history though its ‘art and treasure’, is ‘filling in the gaps left by the less impressive treatment of history in the school curriculum’. In doing so, Dimbleby is repeating the recent claims of commentators such as the Independent’s Ian Birrell and the impressive Nige. Yet, the ‘great, and perhaps growing, interest in our history’, as Dimbleby puts it, may also be due to what might be termed the English question. The key events of English history have been marginalized and neglected; probably out of embarrassment: how dare one country contribute so much to the world and have so compelling a past! The result of such characteristically English coyness is that few people can offer even a basic summary of the Civil Wars (and Dimbleby struggled with that one, despite the advice of the esteemed John Morrill) or the Wars of the Roses; the Glorious Revolution or the Great Reform Act. Yet devolution, the growing impact of European political union, globalization and a utilitarian education system are forcing these questions to the surface. I suspect that the forthcoming general election (which Dimbleby will present to the nation) will produce more questions than answers, and ultimately those questions are best answered by historians. Which is why the BBC and other broadcasters should be investing time and money discovering the heirs to David Starkey, by some distance the most impressive public historian of his time. The most important questions of our time are those posed and answered by historians.

Jonathan Freedland, another political commentator, presented an engaging but ultimately unconvincing episode of The Long View on BBC Radio 4, in which he attempted to draw parallels between the repatriation of British soldiers through the Wiltshire town of Wootton Bassett and the efforts of Richard III to bury in consecrated ground his followers who fell at the Battle of Towton, the bloodiest battle of the Wars of the Roses, fought on Palm Sunday 1461. Though the narrative was engaging, the parallels felt forced. The historical background to the repatriation of British soldiers (in large part, a recently invented tradition) is a topic that has been covered recently in History Today and the subject of vigorous correspondence from our readers, all of whom shed more light on the subject than Freedland did.

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