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Britain is a nation that can no longer agree on what ‘Britishness’ means

Peter Flanagan says the UK is having an identity crisis, fuelled by a government that doesn’t listen to science and an education system that ignores its history.

Image: AP/PA Images

“I TAKE THE knee for two people: the Queen and the missus”. So said UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab, when asked last week if he’d perform the gesture in support of Black Lives Matter.

Worse, Raab dismissed it as a ‘symbol of subjugation’ borrowed from Game of Thrones, highlighting not only how little he knows about the movement, but how little he cares. The sentiment highlighted a bitter division in the country today, between those advocating for societal change, and those defending the status quo. Fundamentally, Britain is a nation that can no longer agree on what ‘Britishness’ means.

coronavirus-tue-may-5-2020 Dominic Raab Source: PA

The brand is on the ropes and has been for the best part of a century. The Scots and have eyes on the door, as do many in Northern Ireland, while even the Welsh are beginning to look a little skittish. Meanwhile, in England, the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue has exposed the gaping, pulsating fault lines in the English national identity.

Who wrote the story?

The debate is not unique to the UK: from New Zealand to Belgium, nations are being forced to have uncomfortable conversations about their ugly colonial histories. What is notable about the UK isn’t that it has an imperial past, but that there is a section of society who can’t accept that English hegemony is in the past at all.

For this vocal, fanatical sect, the toppling of monuments to problematic figures isn’t just an attack on history, but an affront to the delusions of the present.

The streak of vitriol running through the debate shouldn’t be seen as a failure of national character but as a failure of education. I would argue that the British education system leaves its students fundamentally unable to relate to anyone outside of their own narrow identity. They say that the winners write the history books, but the English might as well have written theirs in crayon.

The average UK student leaves school knowing a bit about World War Two and Henry the 8th’s love life, but little else. When it comes to the Empire, positives are accentuated and negatives are skirted over.

Students could be forgiven for thinking colonialism was just the Gap Year of its day – adventures posh people went on, brimming with amusing cultural misunderstandings.

Perhaps it is the ability of the English psyche to look on the bright side of things that stifles meaningful reflection. Sure, millions of Indians died of famine under British rule, but weren’t they given railroads? Certainly, Cromwell slaughtered the Irish, but he also ended the absolute power of the monarchy.

This nuanced take on history is never applied by British teaching to elsewhere in the world: no one learns about about Chairman Mao’s educational programmes, Mussolini’s infrastructural projects, Castro’s healthcare system, and so on. However, when it comes to English history, a cool dribble of good is allowed to distract from a hot current of bad.

Does the new Britannia rule the world?

The role of this Conservative administration in the maintenance of this mindset cannot be overstated. Since Michael Gove’s public denunciation of experts, the proliferation of English exceptionalism and the ignorance which sustains it has arguably been the government’s most consistent policy objective.

Economists and scientists who do not agree with government policy are either attacked or ignored. Boris Johnson once compared Jeremy Corbyn to Joseph Stalin, but it is the anti-intellectualism of his party that has faint echoes of similar leaders.

The divide in English society at the moment – whether the debate concerns statues, trade deals, the pandemic or so on – might be best characterised as a row between people who have done the reading, and those who haven’t.

There are those in Britain who remain genuinely perplexed at the idea of a border in Ireland causing complications to a clean Brexit – if these people cannot grasp the geography of the UK, what hope do they have with its history?

A time to grow

English society shouldn’t necessarily disown the likes the Churchill and Cromwell if they don’t want to – but they should at least be mature enough to hear the case against them. Their statues are not just reminders of English history; they are reminders that the English do not know their history. They are not just historical artefacts, but mementoes to ignorance, totem poles of un-enlightenment.

Of course, dealing with colonial legacies need not be a binary choice between vandalism or covering one’s ears and humming Rule Britannia. There is a third option.

In Ukraine, a 2015 ‘de-communisation’ law was to see the removal of Soviet-era monuments. But in a square on the outskirts of Odessa, a statue of Vladimir Lenin presented an opportunity for a local artist.

Instead of being demolished, Lenin was re-imagined as Darth Vader.

Encased in a black titanium suit and switching a scroll for a lightsaber, Lenin became the world’s first public monument to a Sith Lord. I cannot think of a more appropriate re-invention for someone like Cromwell, or a more perfect expression of the duality of feeling these statues encompass. And yes, I’m aware Vader did some good things, too.

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Peter Flanagan is an Irish comedian and writer. You can find him on Twitter at @peterflanagan.

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