Britain Wrestles with its Past

We talk with the writer and political commentator Fintan O'Toole about how British politics can and should deal with its imperial past in the age of Brexit. From battles over statues to fights over nationalism we explore whether history has become the new democratic divide. Why does Churchill loom so large over our politics? Can Labour reclaim the mantle of patriotism? Will the Union survive the history wars? Plus we ask whether there has been a generational shift in attitudes to race and identity. With Helen Thompson.


Talking Points: 


Debates over statues and monuments are really more about the present than the past.

  • They don’t necessarily lead you to a real engagement with either your history or your contemporary identity.
  • Britain has a long history of questioning how the past is thought about in the public sphere. 


Is it possible to have a serious political argument about Churchill’s legacy anymore?

  • In the age of Johnson, is everything a proxy? 
  • Churchill can’t be separated from the Second World War in British historical memory.
  • The Churchill question goes deep into the Union question. If you take away the experience of the two world wars, it’s not clear what keeps the Union together.


How do you articulate a sense of British patriotism when the state is in decline and the history it’s wrapped up in is often disgraceful? 

  • For example, you could celebrate Britain’s move to outlaw the slave trade—but almost every historian would point out that this is shot through with hypocrisy.
  • There’s a profound problem around the history of Britishness. 


Over the last 10 years, two different consensuses have broken down, and these interact with each other quite lethally. 

  • First there’s consent to Britain’s membership in the EU; this broke down more in England and in Wales.
  • Second is consent to the Anglo-Scottish union breaking down in Scotland.
  • And the fact that the referendum produced a Leave vote meant that the Northern Ireland question came back into play.


Nationalisms always want to purify themselves into victimhood.

  • What this does is occlude the complexity of the history of the nation itself.
  • Nationalism involves telling a story about the past that often, though not always, involves trying to break away from some larger political authority, often an empire.
  • Part of the present moment’s attitude towards British history is not new: the sense that British history was delegitimated by Empire has been there before.


Mentioned in this Episode: 


Further Learning: 

And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking




 

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