30 January 2013

British history in 416 words

Bernard Porter (Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Newcastle) isn't impressed with the history chapter in the British Government's new "Britishness" syllabus for immigrants. Here is his excellent very short history of Britain in full:
"As immigrants to Britain, you are following in a long tradition. Britain's origins lie in successive waves of immigration from the European continent and Ireland: Celts first of all, then Romans, northern Germans, Scandinavians and Norman-French, most of them coming as conquerors, but some just to settle; and then bands of refugees from political tyrannies and economic deprivation from the 17th century to the present day. Many of her most distinguished later citizens have been, or have been descended from, these immigrants. They include some of her greatest artists, scientists, industrialists and statesmen and stateswomen; most of her older aristocracy; and her present Queen. 
"To complement this, Britain has also been a nation of emigration, sending 'settlers' to countries such as North America, Australasia and Southern Africa, usually displacing their original inhabitants; traders, investors and slavers all over the world; and conquerors and rulers to India, Africa and elsewhere. Some of the settlers could be regarded as 'economic' refugees from Britain and Ireland, driven thence by hunger. You will very likely have come across their descendants and the legacies of what is called 'British imperialism' in your countries of origin. There are differing opinions over whether the latter has overall been a force for good, or for ill. 
"Back home, Britons have long prided themselves on their toleration, which was what made possible their generous 'political asylum' policy in the past; the 'freedom' of her institutions, especially the law, and the jury system that underpins that; and – latterly – her parliamentary democracy. All these, however, have had to be struggled for, usually by the 'common people' against a political class that has not always shared the same values; and they can never be said to be absolutely secure. 
"Britain's historical 'identity' is confused, differing not only according to class, which is still a powerful factor; but also according to nationality (English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish); region (north-south); religion (Protestant, Catholic, secular, Muslim etc); and gender. Like every other nation in the world she has a mixed history of proud achievements, usually in defence of 'liberty', both her own and others' (slaves, Nazi-occupied Europe); and of egregious sins, some of them in her colonies. 
"Britain is not defined by her history, but is ever developing, in response to internal dynamics and global pressures, including movements of population. To become British is to identify with this complex and changing identity. To become a good citizen will involve embracing the best and most liberal features of it, and rejecting the worst."

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