Monday, January 01, 2007

Who's got the six-pack?

Madeleine Bunting at The Guardian

The abolition of the slave trade is a painful reminder of British imperial history, which we have, incredibly, managed to largely forget. Who remembers the Bengal famine or Hola camp, the empire's opium trade with China or our invention of concentration camps in the Boer war? We too easily overlook how empire was a linchpin to British national identity, vital to welding Scotland and England together. Indeed, historian Linda Colley suggests three ingredients for British identity: "Great Britain is an invented nation that was not founded on the suppression of older loyalties so much as superimposed on them, and that was heavily dependent for its raison d'etre on a broadly Protestant culture, on the treat and tonic of recurrent war, especially war with France, and on the triumphs, profits and Otherness represented by a massive overseas empire."
I have already written on the absurdity of beating ourselves up over the slave trade, but that is beside the point. Notice how the events we have to come to terms with are all events we are supposed to be ashamed of. Coming to terms with history for people like Maddy of the Sorrows is always penitence for wrongs done to others, who are implicitly assumed to be innocent. The analysis she quotes is one done from Zero, that is, as if the starting point were Eden or Rousseau's noble savage, so that everything that comes from the past, such as social cohesion and the national sense of self, is an artifice. The pre-Protestant, pre-imperial country just disappears as if there were no continuity between Chaucer's England and Disraeli's Imperial Britain.

In a sense, the real problem (if that is right word) for British identity is its success. What holds this country back from the moist embrace of Europe is the difference in starting point between these islands and the continent. France, Germany and Italy needed Europe as a bulwark against their past political failure and the fear of similar future catastrophe. Just count the systems of government employed by those countries over the 20th century. Contrast it with the one system that has been evolving here (with a brief interuption in the 17th Century) since the Norman invasion. Only a fool rushes to change something that has been so successful, and while economic forces push us towards the EU, we are rightly very diffident about the political cosiness that would seem to follow.

Perhaps there is no clearer sign of the difference bestowed by Britain's historical success than its willingness to act while the Europeans talk. The great question remains hovering over the continent: will it ever have the confidence to match its economic muscle with a military six-pack? While that question hovers unanswered, the UK does well to keep its distance and to re-assert its identity not just in the microcosm of these islands, but in the macrocosm of the Anglosphere. Of course, it is just that confidence here that Madeleine Bunting and her ilk most want to undermine.

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