The English: a people without a history?

Of all Britain's peoples, the English have traditionally been the centrepiece of 'British history'. Nonetheless, argues UCL historian Michael Collins, it is they who have the most to worry about when it comes to their sense of the past

According to A. J. P. Taylor, in 1934 Oxford University Press commissioned its History of England series on the basis that ‘England’ was still “an all-embracing word”. It meant “indiscriminately England and Wales; Great Britain; the United Kingdom; and even the British Empire” (A. J. P. Taylor, English History, 1914-1945, OUP 1965). Looking back from the 1960s, AJP still believed this to be the appropriate historiographical perspective to take, and in private correspondence he made this very clear. “I am obsessed with England”, he wrote to his editor G. N. Clark in 1961, “to hell with Scotland, Northern Ireland and still more the Empire!!” (A. J. P. Taylor to G. N. Clark: 20 May 1961, Clark Papers, Bodleian Library, Oxford, MSS Box 30.). One wonders if he thought Ireland even worth sending to hell.

Taylor never sought to conceal his Anglocentrism. He revelled in it. But having penned the fifteenth volume of the History of England series, he was far from being alone in assuming that England – its people, economy, government and monarchy – provided the central storyline for the history of these islands. The assumptions of English dominance inherent in J. R. Seeley’s famous lectures on The Expansion of England have resonated across the last century of historical writing. In fact, although a follow up series to the one begun in 1934 was commissioned by OUP – with the first volume appearing in 1992 – the editors still plumped for the title New Oxford History of England.

Professor Brian Harrison’s Finding a Role? The United Kingdom, 1970-1990 is the latest volume in that series, and – as the title implies – the story of the United Kingdom is central to the period in question, covering as it does the beginnings of the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland, the development of Scottish and Welsh nationalism and the entry of the UK into the EEC in a supposedly post-imperial age. Harrison’s book provides an admirable synthesis of the cultural, social, economic and political history of the period, but this is not ‘four nations’ history. Although the constituent parts of the UK do feature, England remains the central reference point.

For many professional historians then, England has, and often continues to be the primary historical mover and shaker in the history of these islands, and hence by implication the history of the expansion and contraction of the British Empire. This is unsurprising, for the historical profession in some sense owes a great debt to the national dimension of history writing. Leopold von Ranke, the ‘founder of the science of history’, often took the history of nations as his reference point. In the nineteenth century and beyond, the musings and memoirs of national elites and the politics of the nation-state constituted the historical archive, and in an important sense constituted the historical discipline as unified field of inquiry.

Much has changed since then. There are possible narratives about the history of these islands which go beyond national frameworks of analysis towards a new transnational history: narratives of exchange, of contact, of interaction, of ‘gains’ and ‘losses’ to be measured not on a balance sheet, but by the traces they have left behind, the legacies they have left for our present. A great deal of work has already been done, and yet arguably we still have only a very limited understanding of the ways in which the history of empire has shaped our politics, culture, economy and society. But this raises the question, do we still need ‘national history’?

If the nation is a fundamentally modern repository for collective identity, then are we living in a post-modern, post-national world, in which national history might lose its resonance? The evidence here is mixed, but it may be that our sense of selfhood today is more complex and multi-layered than it has been in the recent past. If so, then the place of national history seems to be an increasingly pressing question connecting professional historians with teachers of history in schools and with policy-makers in government concerned with the nature of citizenship and belonging.

Perhaps a starting point is a better understanding of the function that history – and especially the teaching of history – has performed in sustaining collective identities over time. It is precisely this that the timely History in Education project, currently underway at London’s Institute of Historical Research (IHR) under the guidance of David Cannadine, seeks to explore. But this kind of research still leaves open the question of whether national history is English or British, and this points toward the possibility of a looming paradox.

Debates about the English question, English votes for English laws and the problem of English identity can be seen as symptomatic of a crisis of confidence about the place of England within an increasingly disunited kingdom. And, for all the centrality of England to the history of Britain, if the break up of Britain should actually occur, it may be the English who are left as the ‘people without history’, for the history of England is a hostage to the fortunes of the United Kingdom.

Why should this be the case? As Krishan Kumar has perceptively and persuasively argued, the appropriate frame for understanding English national identity is not the distinction between ethnic or civic bases for nationhood, but England’s ‘missionary imperialism’: the expansionist fervour of the English people. Crucially, Kumar claims, this moves the emphasis of an English national identity from the ‘creators to their creations’ (K. Kumar, The Making of English National Identity (CUP, 2003), p. x.). If Kumar’s thesis concerning the source of England’s national identity is correct, then, as Kumar points out, the implications of the loss of those ‘creations’ – let us suppose Alex Salmond were successful in persuading the Scottish people to turn A. J. P. Taylor on his head and say “to hell with England” – are quite disturbing.

It is my view that complete severance is less plausible than a reconfiguration. But whether we are looking ahead to ‘Scotland the brave’, ‘England alone’ or some reinvention of the Union, what is certain is that the empire is gone for good, industrial supremacy is a thing of the very distant past and the Westminster model of politics has been found increasingly wanting. In addition, the monarchy under a future Charles III looks not just unpalatable but positively unconstitutional.

If the foundations of ‘Great Britain’ have either ceased to exist or are crumbling around us, it might be said that all histories working on the assumption – explicit or implicit – that the history of England equates to the history of England’s expansion and impact on the world – that is histories of England’s ‘creative work’ – are ultimately histories of decline and loss. This is why Niall Ferguson’s efforts to re-narrate a comforting island story about ‘how Britain made the modern world’ amount to little more than nostalgia. From the perspective of our twenty-first century present, there seems to be an absence of meaning at the heart of England’s history, and we need a great conversation about what to put it is place. 

About the author

Michael Collins is Lecturer in the Department of History at University College London (UCL). He specialises in Modern British and World History and the intellectual history of empire and decolonisation. He is the author of Empire, Nationalism and the Postcolonial World: Rabindranath Tagore’s Writings on History, Politics and Society published by Routledge UK.