Colin Brazier: Are we neglecting British history over our US obsession?
We've taught our children to be suspicious of our history – we tell them it's a dark period of colonialism and oppression, insufficiently diverse and where all hero-worship
It may be a new year, but some things don’t change. The Great British obsession with America shows no sign of abating.
This week, for instance, expect wall-to-wall coverage on BBC and Sky News of the first anniversary of the storming of the Capitol Building in Washington DC.
This coming Thursday, brace yourself for the rending of journalistic garments and the gnashing of some very white TV teeth, as our mainstream media personalities seek to convince us that – not since the rise of fascism in the 1930s – has Western democracy hung by such a gossamer thread.
Personally, I don’t think the Western way of life was in any serious jeopardy just because a gang of horn-wearing headcases stormed a government building, however prominent. But I do think that in obsessing about the recent history of a country 5000 miles away, we risk forgetting our own, older history.
An increasingly neglected Island Story which, in its own way, speaks to us today with great power, if only we would listen.
I’m talking about our own Capital Insurrection.
It happened 380 years ago... To The Day. It saw our seat of democracy, the cockpit of our nation, our Parliament itself, stormed on the orders of a man who felt he was being denied justice.
He was King Charles the First and his actions on January 4th 1642 set in motion the English Civil War and, ultimately, saw the creation of a system of parliamentary democracy which would be successfully exported around the world, including the New World of America.
I wish I knew more about this revolutionary and bloody and seminal period of our ancestors’ back-story.
I know that the City of my birth, Bradford, played a small part. That its Cathedral withstood the King’s artillery, by placing sacks of wool on the bell tower. But beyond the names, Naseby, Marston Moor, Edge Hill, my knowledge is limited to what I learned at school. But that’s a lot more than many young people know now about a moment that shaped modern Britain like no other.
My children know a lot about the American Civil Rights movement, about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. They know next to nothing about the English Civil War, Charles the First and Oliver Cromwell.
Kids only have so many hours in the day to learn. And by squeezing in another module about the suffragettes, or the liberation story of Caribbean slaves, we squeeze our own roots dry.
We’ve taught our children to be suspicious of our history – we tell them it’s a dark period of colonialism and oppression, insufficiently diverse and where all hero-worship – whether that’s of Churchill or Nelson or Drake - is conditional and suspect.
If you think I overstate the case, have a look at a survey of a thousand schoolchildren last year. It found that almost half had no idea what the Battle of Britain was. Given that level of ignorance, how many have any understanding of how Britain pioneered the concept of constitutional monarchy? I blush to think.
You may accuse me of being a Little Englander, but I don’t think I’m the one being parochial. By focusing too narrowly, too exclusively on recent American history we fail to equip the next generation with a worldview that is comfortable with the complications that real life throws up and, where it’s not always obvious who the good guys are.
By turning history into identity politics we do our children a colossal disservice. On Thursday, we’ll be at it again. Acting as if America’s democracy is somehow indivisible from ours. That the threats it faces are our threats. Its struggles, British struggles. Some are. Many are not.
The fixation of our mainstream media with America has two unfortunate consequences. We are left with a sense that our own story is grey and bland – it’s anything but – and by shining so many spotlights at the Capitol Building this week, we will overlook what’s happening in the shadows of the world.
In China, where democracy – that we gave such new life to – is now a dead dream, and where bitter men with long memories plot a future that gives them greater power than any English monarch could ever dream.