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Henry Hill Red, White and Blue

Henry Hill: The challenge of teaching non-nationalist national history

Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist, and author of the blog Dilettante. Follow Henry on Twitter. He is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.

Teaching national history, avoiding nationalism

How to teach history in schools is a fascinating, complicated and important topic. It is also a fundamentally political one. Given that most school pupils do not go on to study history at an academic level at university, or even past GCSE level, their school lessons can underpin their understanding of the past for the rest of their life, an understanding which often shapes someone’s identity and even their politics.

I recently wrote elsewhere about the hornet’s nest that is the teaching of ‘national history’. That article was prompted by a debate held in the closing stages of my Masters degree here in Dublin about the practical impact of changes in historical understanding and practice (called ‘historiography’). Between them, the Irish and British examples demonstrated the problems both of teaching a historical narrative to school pupils and of not doing so.

In the comments below that article, a couple of Anglonats pose the interesting question of how to disentangle ‘British’ history from the discrete histories of the home nations. I might not agree with them about Britain being a lesser sort of entity than England, but even for a unionist with a British identity it’s an intriguing puzzle. Do you simply teach completely separate history until the Act of Union, or the annexation of Wales? Or do you take the view that the histories of all areas of Britain have informed the modern British identity and nation, and teach it to everyone? If, as is likely, the proper answer lies somewhere between the two, how do you strike the balance?

Wales might be the first to try. A panel commissioned by the Cardiff administration has come to the conclusion that Welsh pupils ought to be taught to be familiar with ‘a map of their past’. They point out that in many instances (‘ordinarily’) a country’s history curriculum focuses on the history of that country, whereas in Wales many history teachers teach a version of British history which is dominated by England, to the extent that they are taught the history of their country at all. Much like the rest of Britain, Welsh schoolchildren are often taught in the 'thematic' style, based on a series of disjointed examples cherry-picked from European and American history.

This does not appear to be an exclusively nationalist exercise – the report also claims that not enough attention is paid to the other home nations, and one hopes they maintain that inclusive spirit in a Wales-centred history curriculum. Nonetheless, there are snares to dodge.

The essential question of history is ‘why’, rather than ‘what’. It is this essentially speculative element that elevates history above the memorisation of facts into the debate-filled subject it is. The problem with a narrative approach is that you risk following a chain of cause and effect without dwelling on the vital ‘why’ junctions in it. Trying to teach the history of a country in the confines of a few hours in a school week will inevitably pose problems of what to include and what stance is taken on them.

Balancing the teaching of Welsh history with a proper understanding of British history will likewise be complicated, since the very nature of the multi-layered identity of these islands means that a child almost always has more than one ‘map’ in their history. A curriculum that does not recognise the Britishness of Welsh children sells them short.

I for one hope they pull it off, and perhaps provide a model for balancing home nations and British history that Gove and others can follow. Yet reading further down, I do hope that the call for the entire school curriculum to be set to national purposes goes nowhere. Injecting country into history is vital. Injecting it into everything is not.

Police Scotland: Cracking down on medieval crime

Knife crime is one of those things one is always glad to hear the police are doing something about. Yet, unlike firearms, knives are readily available on the high street, so you rarely hear of the police seizing caches of them. Yet this week, Edinburgh saw the seizure of over £100,000 worth of bladed weaponry, including not only knives and daggers (the latter are bladed on both sides, apparently) but also such exotic items as katana, broadswords, battle axes and a big blade on a pole that looks like a glaive.

These have all been seized as part of a licencing issue, and are apparently going to be destroyed. That seems slightly tragic but if it neither is government policy not to simply hold the stock until the proprietor can secure a licence, nor sell it to properly licenced vendors, then fair enough. Yet the idea of a police officer, with a completely straight face, intoning about how bad knives are for “communities” (of course) against a backdrop of seized medieval weaponry strikes me as better suited to a comedy routine than the news. After all, axes and knives sufficient to murder an unarmoured human being can all be bought over the counter from kitchen or tool shops, and if Edinburgh has had a spate of broadsword murders recently I’ve not heard anything about them.

Let’s hope that Scotland’s other purveyors of obsolescent weaponry all have their licences in proper order.

Gay marriage splits Northern Ireland Assembly along constitutional lines…

An attempt to legislate for same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland – the only part of the UK without such legislation – was defeated this week. In the most religious and traditionally socially conservative province of the UK this might not be surprising. Yet the way the vote divided was thought-provoking.

Despite the Catholic Church arguing against the vote, every single nationalist MLA voted in favour of gay marriage. They were joined by a grand total of three unionists, including the liberal ‘McUnionists’ we so signally failed to tempt into the party, John McCallister and Basil McCrea. The Democratic Unionists introduced a veto, although along with the Ulster Unionists they’d have been able to defeat the motion in a vote anyway.

In part, this is probably a reflection of the fact that nationalist parties in Northern Ireland are normally left of centre, the unionist parties right of centre. Yet the break between the nationalist parties and the Catholic Church is an interesting development, which hopefully presages a further weakening of the iron hold that confessional identity has had on the politics of the province to date.

The fact that the established parties of political unionism closed ranks against it is more concerning, and highlights once again the difficulty the electorate must have in putting a cigarette paper between the DUP and the Ulster Unionists. Whatever your opinion on gay marriage, Northern Irish unionism needs a liberal wing.

Best of luck to Anglesey Conservatives

After their election was delayed by a year, the isle of Anglesey will be the only part of Wales voting in the elections. It’s a bit of an odd one, since it appears the local Conservative and Liberal Democrat groups have dissolved themselves. Whether Tories are standing under their party name or a local grouping, this column bids them good luck.

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