Tuesday 16 June 2015

Magna Carta isn't as English as we're told it is

Englishness has always been a kind of rag and bone shop of the heart, a subject I'll be returning to when my book How to be English comes out next month.  You only have to look through the gamut of English peculiarities to find it - umbrellas and queues (French), marmalade (Spanish), tea (Chinese) and so on.

None of this is said in any way to belittle the English, and at least half my genes are English too - so why would I - but it does mean that when people claim that Englishness is something exclusive, isolated, unique and unblemished, you need to be a little bit suspicious.

I'm not accusing anyone in particular, but yesterday's Magna Carta-fest springs to mind.  So does David Starkey.

There is an argument, carved from the Whig View of History, with an added Tory tinge, that Magna Carta was distinctively English and marked the beginning of the attachment to liberty enjoyed exclusively by the English.

There are obviously elements of truth about this.  But Magna Carta would have been quite impossible without the Pope - a medieval and archaic version of the European Commission - and certainly without the invasion of England shortly afterwards by the heir to the throne of France.  It was also written in Latin.

As it was, King John rapidly repudiated the document and it required an Anglo-Norman, with a less than English name (Simon de Montfort) to use it as a bargaining chip against Henry III two generations later.

I can't quite escape the embrace of the Kipling View of History either ("The Saxons are not like us Normans"), and believe it myself to some extent - but there's no doubt that we are not English because we hold ourselves apart. We are at our most English when we understand the forces from outside that are involved in our development.

There is another blog to be written here about the way the BBC European Service during the Second World War became the prototype for post-war European co-operation - and quite deliberately so, thanks to its Liberal Director of European Broadcasts, Noel Newsome.  But not now.

It is enough to say: be careful with the hype about Magna Carta - especially when the forces that threaten our liberty are as much internal these days, as they are external.  Try phoning the Tax Credits Helpline next time you think that England is a idyll of liberty.

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