I have been reading up on late medieval British history (for a course I’ll be teaching) and so have been trying to come to grips with some of the key developments in constitutional history, such as Magna Carta and the early development of Parliament. What I’m most conscious of, looking at them for the first time as a historian, is how much it was chance (or at least external events) that gave them their long term significance and success. It was only because Henry III succeeded as a minor and needed to secure his position that Magna Carta was repeatedly reissued and came to be seen as a fundamental statement of English liberties. The extension of Parliament to include burgesses was part of Simon de Montfort’s attempt to gain support for his coup d’etat; the continued series of Parliaments in the reign of Edward I, which fixed its form, were largely due to his need for money to fight incessant wars. The developments were not due to some innately English character or ideas.
I thought of this when I came across a reference to a report by the right-wing think-tank Civitas on ‘Why history remains the best form of citizenship education’ (http://www.civitas.org.uk/pdf/CivitasReviewJuly05.pdf). This is written by a professor of philosophy, presumably because they couldn’t find a historian willing to write such tosh. The idea that you can learn about the British constitution via its historical development is fair enough. But it’s the details that are so dubious. Take the report’s claim:
‘A primary didactic purpose of teaching history in British schools should be...to serve the civic function of giving pupils the wherewithal for feeling justifiably proud of being British and for being attached to their history and their traditions.’
It then goes on to endorse the ‘Whig Interpretation of History’, which it says is:
‘distinguished by its portrayal of the history of Britain and of the native English-speaking diaspora more generally, as having been marked by an exceptional degree of material and moral progress’.
The article’s views are so ridiculous that it’s hard to know where to start. The author wishes to show that using history to develop citizenship isn’t a new idea and so quotes John Locke. He could have started a thousand years ago and more with Roman history. History was written primarily for the purpose of moral education for the vast majority of recorded history. The rise of professional history, a history that is more concerned with events than providing a moral commentary on them, is a relatively recent development. But one of the main reasons it happened is the obvious one: real life, the past real life that is history doesn’t fit into the neat categories of morality. The good don’t always win, the God-fearing nation (whatever God that may be) isn’t necessarily triumphant and bad ideas not only don’t disappear, but they flourish. Similarly, the idea of the exceptional ‘moral progress’ of the British/Americans (let alone white South Africans) just doesn’t hold much water today, because it’s obviously not true.
The old Whig interpretation of history (whatever David Starkey may claim) doesn’t work as a basis for a history of Britain (for one thing, it is effectively English history before 1707). It might be possible to produce a more progressive and inclusive ‘Whig history’ of Britain’s constitutional developments, in which an acknowledgement of an increase in liberties is done with less crowing about the inferiority of all other races. But this still leaves a big problem: what do you do about the bits of history that don’t fit the model?
Take Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290. That now seems an important aspect of his reign (although it’s not mentioned in ‘Our Island Story’ (http://www.mainlesson.com/display.php?author=marshall&book=island&story=_contents), Civitas’ preferred history book) and there’s an obvious moral lesson there. But will it make children ‘justifiably proud of being British’? And what, more generally, do you do about the fifteenth century? What is there to be justifiably proud of in the Hundred Years’ War or the Wars of the Roses? That a war of aggression by England was initially successful because of superior weapons technology (the longbow)? If you are going to stick to the morally uplifting story of how Britain (England) became so superior, you pretty much have to write off everything between Wat Tyler and the Reformation and hope no-one notices a gap in the textbook. Alternatively, you go back to the notion that the purpose of teaching history in schools is to give pupils an idea of what happened in particular periods of time, with inculcating patriotism only as a secondary function.