Britain’s national mythology – 1914-1918 gives us a chance to examine the past

The subject of national mythology fascinates me. National origins are always overlaid with all kinds of accretions, generally not quite true, if at all, and usually poorly-understood by those that accept them as the unvarnished truth.

The forthcoming frenzy of patriotic posturing by our political masters around the Great War is a perfect example of how mythology has replaced history and how easy it is to manipulate the mood of the nation.

I liked this piece by Simon Jenkins in The Guardian.

He asks the question “Can we really not do history without war?“.

I would suggest that in this country the answer is always going to be “No”.

Our national mythology is all about war – whether it is victory or defeat. The dates that resound in the public consciousness are 1066, 1588, 1805, 1815, 1914, 1918, 1939 and 1945. In some parts of the UK 1690 is as important as 1588, if not more so, but how many Unionists know that it was part of the War of the League of Augsburg (a.k.a. The Nine Years’ War) and that William of Orange was in an alliance with the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire?

People most likely don’t really know why any of those battles were fought, or why those dates are signficant, certainly the context will be vague at best, but the things that they think that they know are simple: Britain (safely forgetting that Britain didn’t exist in 1066 and 1588) won, our “brave lads” triumphed over foreign dictators and “our unique island heritage” was made safe for our “democratic traditions”. They certainly won’t stop and think that equal Universal Suffrage didn’t exist in the UK until 1928. The soldiers who endured the horrors of the Great War weren’t fighting for democracy because most of them didn’t have the vote.

People are not taught history at school, they are sold national propaganda. Even the English defeat at Hastings is somehow transformed into a victory for “Great Britain”. If you look at 1066 what you see is the founding of the Anglo-Norman elite that subsequently dominated English history until the Reformation. It is no real surprise that William’s victory is sold to generations of schoolchildren as a “win”.

History in the UK is a political weapon. The Whig narrative tradition is designed to do one thing, and that is to reinforce the position of our ruling elite. The century from 1588 to 1688 is problematic for our ruling class. On one hand it sees the rise of parliament against royal absolutism, but on the other hand it shows the common (i.e. non-aristocratic) people taking power and the monarchy being banished for a time. Of course, the 1688 coup d’etat, accomplished with the aid of Dutch military forces, is portrayed as Glorious, with a happy narrative of absolutism and Catholicism thwarted and “democracy” victorious, but the reality is actually something quite different.

Still, our method of disseminating history via military triumph is unlikely to vanish, regardless of who occupies the government benches because parliament depends on the same national mythology for its legitimacy.

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