Tuesday, 7 October 2014

History, Europe and Being British.

I’m looking at a portrait of my wife.  

That mere statement should identify me as rich, privileged and thus most likely a Conservative.  Which by outward appearance would be confirmed but in actuality could not be further from the truth.

The trouble is with us British, is that we don’t give enough account for difference, until that is it has becomes embedded: another layer in the thick, deep quilt that is modern Britain.  As we have always done though, each addition has always been initially resisted but ultimately accepted.  For example, who of us outside the realms of the BNP still harps on about the baneful influence of Huguenot refugees, the 19th Century influx of Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe, or the arrival of people of Indian heritage after being expelled by Idi Amin from Uganda?  No.  People we accept.  Ideas though take a lot longer.

This initial resistance to ideas is, although irksome to the more intellectual class of UK society, has actually being, and continues to be, a strength of British society.  We are a wary people; one might even say a small ‘c’ conservative people.  That comes too from deep history but one fashioned by no human virtue, but rather from geography.  Historically, it was that very geography that initially led us to be vulnerable, then defensive and ultimately offensive (in whatever way one might take that term), conquerers of what became the British Empire and, perhaps finally to enter a period of geopolitical decline, as air power superseded the power of the Royal Navy.

Our continental neighbours on the other hand have, well, enjoyed would not be the correct word, perhaps endured, a different past.  One of the waxing and waning of powers, of borders, of kingdoms.  Who remembers the princes of Burgundy or the extent of to Lithuanian kingdom?  Certainly if your knowledge of history is restricted to the curriculum taught in UK schools, you will wonder what the hell I’m on about and perhaps ask the question “why is this relevant?”   

Both are relevant because in Britain, we didn’t have to endure the trauma that such constant warfare did to communities and borders.  At least, not since the Civil Wars.  Britain was spared such brutality.  When the nephew of King Charles the First wanted to burn Leicester to the ground for the crime of not accepting terms of surrender, Prince Rupert was confronted both the burghers of the city and by his generals saying “We don’t do such things here in England.”  It is a shame that Cromwell, who showed similar restraint here in Scotland, did not do so in Ireland.  History shows that religious brutality does not work out so well.

What is my point?  We are all products of history: of the grandest of events.  Example: Billy Connelly.  This guy alway thought he was of poor Irish background only to discover, and that is only owing to his talent and fame, that actually part of his family took part in heroic deeds during the Indian Rebellion and his ancestry is partly Indian.  He would have never have known if he had stayed in the shipyards of the Clyde.

Owing to our geographical defences however, we have lacked a certain degree of empathy with our European neighbours.  Our islands were seldom under serious threat of invasion.  London has not endured the marching tramp of a foreign invading army in a thousand years.  I doubt if the Normans even marched.

Mrs Veart came from a different background.  Her great uncle was killed outside Moscow.  His last letter to his sister spoke that he knew he was to be thrown against the German invasion to his death.  Her paternal grandfather was a successful fighter pilot against the same foe.  

That is how come I am looking at a portrait of my wife.  She comes from a background where wealth was not necessary to have a portrait done.  Just the time and location.  
Neither of us are from a rich nor privileged background, just a different background.  

The differences within us may unsettle some but looking back, it is surprising perhaps how commonplace such differences are among the British.  We are a complicated people.  

So why on earth is it that we are encouraged to continually seek easy answers from our politics?