Three Little Englanders


By Kenneth Roy

Only occasionally now does the domestic news on the BBC bear any direct relevance to affairs north of the border. This distinction is no longer always explicit; there are so many matters reserved to Edinburgh that it may have become too tedious to mark each story ‘for England and Wales only’ or ‘Viewers in Scotland may go and put the kettle on’.

Many Scots are intensely irritated by hearing so much about English law, English education and the English approach to public health, on what purport to be bulletins of national and international news. Their frustration is understandable, yet these programmes have an incidental value. It is useful to be able to compare policy differences, as well as more general divergencies of outlook. I doubt that we would be so aware of these differences if Scotland presented its own version of the national news, although the case for a ‘Scottish Six’ and for the devolution of broadcasting as a whole, is in other ways inescapable.

The loosening of the ties of the constituent parts of the UK will continue to be an important theme of this decade, and probably of several decades to come. It is the latest enthralling instalment of that long-running soap opera known as our islands’ story. No intelligent history of Scotland could be written without serious reference to our relationship with England; and the same is true vice versa. Do I state the obvious?

That is what makes three new histories of England so striking: for, in each of them, Scotland is either ignored or treated as an irksome distraction. In last weekend’s FT, the Princeton scholar David Cannadine gave them a withering collective review, mainly for this reason.

John Julius Norwich – an entertaining name which could be improved by the addition of the word City – makes it clear in ‘A History of England in 100 Places’ that he would not be in the least distressed if Scotland went its own way. One of his main points is how unlike the English are to any of their neighbours, overlooking the likelihood that the neighbours feel the same about themselves.

The most ambitious of the trio is Peter Ackroyd’s ‘History of England, Volume 1’, the first of a six-parter which. Cannadine notes acidly, ‘will test the stamina not only of the author but also of his readers’.

Simon Jenkins, who once edited a newspaper (the Times) with pretensions to serve the whole of the UK, writes off Scotland as a country with an unrivalled ‘capacity for causing trouble’, but otherwise has little to say about it. Admittedly he has little to say about the Industrial Revolution either; it is disposed of in a few lines. Jenkins sees the history of England mostly in terms of kings and queens and helpfully provides a list of them, along with his choice of 100 key dates, ‘turning points in the national story’. Cannadine mocks such journalistic banalities, but is more impressed by the extreme narrowness of the canvas, the denial of the reality that Little England was (and remains) part of a bigger story.

The most ambitious of the trio is Peter Ackroyd’s ‘History of England, Volume 1’, the first of a six-parter which, Cannadine notes acidly, ‘will test the stamina not only of the author but also of his readers’. Ackroyd considered including the histories of Scotland, Wales and Ireland, but concentrated on England because a broader approach would have run the risk of making the others seem to be ‘mere extensions of England’. According to Cannadine, that is how they are treated anyway.

If all three histories of England published recently give, as Cannadine puts it, ‘no more than walk-on parts’ to Scotland and the other nations with which England interacts, one might well go on to wonder about the prevailing attitudes of the English population as a whole. When I last wrote about this subject in a piece headed ‘What on earth do they think about us down there?’, Nigel Dewar Gibb invited me to visit the website of the Campaign for an English Parliament. I have just done so.

Its most arresting visual image is of a young couple with black tape across their mouths, accompanied by the words ‘No Parliament, No Voice’. The message is that the UK is an unbalanced union favouring Scotland ‘against England’ and that a ‘great injustice’ is being done to the people of England. ‘England has nothing’, the organisers of the campaign declare baldly. Where that leaves the 533 MPs (out of a total of 650) who represent English constituencies in the House of Commons, or the Bullingdon boys in the cabinet who reserve the right to send us to war in the UK’s interests, is not immediately obvious.

It is tempting to dismiss such enterprises as the Campaign for an English Parliament as unrepresentative of intelligent thinking south of the border. David Cannadine’s assessment of the three new histories of England suggests an alternative, more disturbing possibility.


Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review