25th May 2016
Patriotism and History
-By Cllr Sean Woodcock-
You may have missed it, but on 14 May 2016, Levellers Day took place in Burford. The Levellers were a group of radicals who emerged amidst the chaos of the English Civil War (though alongside many historians I believe that this name is insufficient for a series of conflicts which raged across the whole of Britain and Ireland in the middle of the 17th Century.)
Burford, in the heart of the Oxfordshire Cotswolds, was the town where three of the ringleaders of this group met their end in the churchyard in front of a firing squad organised by Oliver Cromwell.
The Levellers deserve remembering. They were a manifestation of that quintessentially British radicalism that also appeared in the Peasants Revolt of 1381 and in the Chartists under Queen Victoria. This same radicalism can also be seen in action at the American Declaration of Independence of 1776. They called for universal suffrage (for men), equality before the law and religious toleration at a time when such things were not in fashion; all things that we now take for granted.
Any Levellers Day that does take place should be celebrated by people across the political spectrum as a tribute to a movement that contributed to the parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy that we have today.
But Levellers Day has been hijacked by the Left. Previous years has seen its keynote speakers dominated by Union Leaders. This year it was John Rees, of Stop the War Coalition and People’s Assembly Against Austerity. This commemoration of a pivotal time in British history has become an opportunity for like-minded liberal lefties to rant about the government.
The Left are not alone in seeking solace in historical events or using them to promote a particular point of view. We have seen in the current EU Referendum debate that the spirit of Churchill, 1940 and the Battle of Britain, is particularly poignant for people on the Right. I remember a poll some years ago which showed that Conservatives ranked 1940 as the most important date in British history while for Labour it was 1948 and the foundation of the National Health Service. So there is a tendency among politicos on both sides to parcel off bits of British history that they feel comfortable with.
But as the debate about identity politics has gathered momentum, whether regarding the Englishness or patriotism and Labour, history doesn’t seem to have entered the conversation. This is a mistake.
A shared history is at the very heart of a shared identity. And this means embracing and accepting all of that history, even the bits of our history that we on the Left find distasteful.
The British Empire is possibly the clearest example of this.
There is a lot to dislike about the British Empire. Exploitation of people and resources being chief among these. The Empire was often unforgiving towards those of its subject peoples who showed hostility to it. The Boer Wars and the Amritsar uprising are stains on the Empire on which the sun never set.
But the British Empire was not all bad. With the Redcoats went aspects of civilisation to areas of the world which it had previously never touched. Things like the rule of law and education. These are certainly not to be sniffed at, especially if we look at some former colonies today.
The British Empire, for all its faults, meant that Britain was able to survive during arguably its darkest but also its finest hour; being alone in Europe against Nazism in the summer of 1940. It is impossible to think of Britain surviving Hitler without the Empire. Being a key reason for the defeat of Nazi Germany ranks as an achievement in any history book. Without survival in 1940 and victory in 1945 there would have been no NHS in 1948.
Which brings me back to the issue of shared history and the importance of it on our identity. Whether we like it or not, the story of England as much as the story of Britain, belongs to all of us. Voters, beyond one or two bigots, accept that being English carries with it baggage. Good and bad.
Because none of English history happened in isolation. Without one person, or event or era, none of the rest of it would likely have happened, or at least not have been the same. To get a Florence Nightingale, you needed Wellington at Waterloo.
If Labour people are to understand English identity they need to see English history not as something to dismiss or cherry-pick but as something that we share with everyone else here, including people on the right.
Labour Parliamentary Candidate, Banbury GE2015. Leader of the Opposition & Labour group on Cherwell DC. Banbury Town Councillor & ex-Mayor.