Our Island Story

I have just begun reading Henrietta Marshall’s Our Island Story to my 8-year-old son. The story begins in the mists of time and mythology, with Neptune giving his beloved son Albion a beautiful island set in a silver sea – an island that the heroic Brutus, prince of Troy, later renames Britannia. We have got as far as the coming of the Romans. The brave Britons – our ancestors – have fought bravely but finally succumbed. Caractacus has been paraded through the streets of Rome but so impresses the emperor with his noble words, his love of his homeland, that he wins his freedom.

Of course, history à la Marshall, the sort of history we learned as children as late as the 1970s and early 80s, has long been condemned as ‘drums and trumpets’ history, ‘Whig’ history, history ‘from above’ – as propagating ‘the great tradition’, a ‘grand narrative’ which ignores alternative narratives, marginalises minorities, and is ill-suited to our post-imperial multicultural society. It has been replaced in schools by source-based history in which children, enacting for themselves the role of historian and archaeologist, learn to ‘sift evidence’ and draw inferences; and in academia by the cult of the non-judgemental micro-specialist. There has been a spate of televised histories of Britain in recent years. But for all their dramatic interest and special effects, they ring hollow. Lacking a unifying theme or motivating spirit (patriotism, perhaps?), the national story is flattened into a dry chronicle of events.

If the Whig tradition is a romance, a myth, it is at least a myth we treasure, a storehouse of memories and collective experiences, a story that binds us, the English people, together. Our national story grounds our English imagination; it expresses our collective consciousness. Without it, we lose our soul as a nation. Nothing wrong with myths, then. Besides, isn’t today’s multicultural ‘black presence’ history a fiction, a grand narrative imposed with totalitarian zeal to serve a political agenda, namely the deconstruction of Western civilization?

Visiting the Houses of Parliament in the summer, I was struck by the magnificent Victorian murals that depict key moments in our island history. It is history in pictures, Whig history at its most theatrical, confident and magnificent, the story of the ascent of a Protestant people toward parliamentary democracy. The tableau ‘Queen Elizabeth commissions Raleigh to sail to America’ takes one’s breath away. Our collective past is there on the walls. Are our parliamentary representatives never stirred?

In reading Our Island Story, I have the sense that I am bestowing a precious gift on my child. Yet to be initiated into English history, the history of the English people, is now a mixed blessing. He will (I hope) forever have a sense of belonging, of being at home, even of destiny. Every ancient building, monument, landmark, hedgerow, landscape, even the climate, will be charged with significance. But he had better not open his mouth about it. He is condemned to be mute, a guilty heretic, a silent witness to a horrible drama unfolding.

Of course, such talk is now distinctly dangerous, and marks one out as a dangerous extremist. How long will it be before such books are banned or burned, and those who disseminate them punished? How long before little groups, driven to the farthest ends of these islands, like the Celtic monks of Dark Age Britain, meet in secret to share the stories of English history, the remembrance of their lost Christian civilization?   


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23 Comments on Our Island Story

  1. The problem is that falling back on reliance on “drums and trumpets” history risks playing into the hands of critics from your Hard Left adversaries (e.g. Paul Mason and Prof Mary Beard, who will continue to shout “white racists”, “misogynists” from the rooftops). Far better, surely, to freely admit that the British Empire was not all for the good (the genocide of aborigines in Tasmania marking a low, as Niall Ferguson wrote), but to argue that in comparison with almost all empires throughout history it was, net, relatively benign and a force for good, that subject peoples were no freer of faults than their rulers, and that had they been the rulers, they would almost certainly not act in as enlightened a manner, as many post-colonial dictators have amply demonstrated.

    Furthermore, to argue from religion (specifically Christianity) risks building support on shaky foundations: i.e. pre-scientific mumbo-jumbo which accepts as axiomatic without question ideas from which greater intellects start their enquiries. Admittedly, Christianity was denatured and attenuated by the Age of Reason and The Enlightenment, but it’s core ideological foundations are still pre-scientific unprovable propositions.

    What you guys in Europe need is another Reconquista, but to garner broad support you need to base it on rational, enlightened and scientific principles, not fairy tales and mumbo-jumbo, which play into your opponents’ hands.

    • The view that our values (moral, cultural, political) can be founded on ‘rational, enlightened and scientific principles’, on rationally provable propositions, is fundamentally mistaken – the fallacy of mad liberal utility-maximising human rights mongers and revolutionary socialists constructing a new world and a new sort of person from ground zero. There are no a priori first principles of ethics or of value judgements, only norms and understandings that have arisen out of a specific social, cultural and linguistic inheritance.

      So though Kant’s moral imperatives might justify a certain abstract Enlightenment conception of universal human rights (that all people are free and equal before the law in the republic of rational beings), which we would not want to be without, and which take us beyond a narrow tribal view, they tell us nothing of how individuals should lead their lives, the ends they might pursue, of the tragic conflict that is inherent in the human condition, or why people should be motivated to act other than in their own selfish appetitive interest. Here, we are thrown back onto pre-Enlightenment values and traditions. Christianity gives substance to our lives on both counts.

      Moreover, surely the whole point of being a conservative is, as Burke said, that one trusts not to the individual’s private stock of reason, but to the accumulated wisdom of the ages. We must always start from our flawed human nature as it is, from our local attachments, affections and loyalties; not pursue rational ideals – liberty, democracy, equality, social justice – associated with some imagined utopia in which people might be perfected.

  2. Look, suspicion of grand narratives is not some left wing plot. Left wing ideology itself depends on the grand narrative, which – yes – ignores the mass of details which add up to messy, intractable truth. One such truth is that ideas are not projections of economic interest. Another is that profit comes from the organisation of labour, not its mere aggregation – so the Marxist claim that employment robs people is trash. It shows what a state we’re in today that, horrified by the march of the PC goons, we’re turning back to the foolish pieties of “our island story”. Have you seen how much damage the protestants did to our island in pursuit of “reformation”? What concern did they have for our history? Or our democracy? Look at the Pilgrimage of Grace – written out of history by the “island story” types, but a massive protest AGAINST that supposedly providential protestant “progress”. If, by the way, the “reformers” had their way completely we wouldn’t even have the surviving cathedrals; they would lie in ruins like the statues, stained glass, chantries and colleges which once adorned old England. Why, why, why turn back – consciously – to fairy tales and LIES when we should be gathering around the standards of endangered TRUTH?

    • Some thoughts on this: Isn’t English Protestantism, in the form of the Church of England (what is left of it), a compromise between Catholicism and Protestantism that is, as Scruton argues in ‘Our Church’, uniquely suited to the English temperament? The course of the Reformation in England was at times ugly and brutal: the destruction of the monasteries (we’ve all wandered the ruins, been struck by the sheer vandalism, and wondered ‘what if?’) and the puritanical zeal of Cromwell and his church wreckers. But the Reformation was going to happen in England at some point in some form. Didn’t the Englishman John Wycliff kick the whole thing off in the fourteenth-century?

      In addition, we owe English Protestantism, the Church of England, a great deal, not least the English hymnal and a magnificent tradition of choral music:

      Come down, O love divine, seek thou this soul of mine,
      And visit it with thine own ardor glowing.

      Don’t we owe something to the puritans and non-conformists too? They gave us our revolution. The Pilgrim Fathers founded modern America. They instigated the abolition of slavery. John Bunyan gave us ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’.

      No problem with questioning narratives, except that as Collingwood pointed out, the answers you get will very much depend on which questions you ask. We can’t escape some sort of narrative. In which case, why not that which we most value?

      As for Our Island Story, HM does refer to the Pilgrimage of Grace, the people’s rebellion, and is sympathetic. We learn that Norfolk asks, ‘Who is your leader?’ They reply, ‘Our leader is Poverty and we are driven on by necessity’. Henry VIII was, she concludes, ‘bad and selfish and, at the end of his reign at least, proved himself to be a cruel tyrant’. Not bad for a children’s history of 1905!

  3. “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”

    Never been there, and have suffered at the hands of the English for not being English – at least not fully English. Dear old Dad’s birth certificate was mangled, intentionally I suspect, by an English functionary who recorded his middle name as “Olive” instead of “Olav”. Oh, how we’ve laughed down these last 90+ years at that example of English racist wit!

    But nevermind, who are we half-breeds to complain, considering that the greatest living philosopher in England – “Roger” something – is this very day being dragged through the muck and mire for the offence of being pure English and speaking his mind as such. https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2018/11/will-roger-scruton-be-sacked-his-comments-date-rape

    • For fear some may think I’m being sarcastic – I am not. Many of his books and articles grace my bookshelves. I treasure and will always remember with delight reading his essay on the virtues of “Stigma”, published by “City Journal” (New York) back in the early Noughts. Or should that be “Naughts”?Merci d’avance de votre aide, M. Éditeur!

  4. Horrible Histories encourages contempt and derision towards the past. Can you imagine a series that encouraged people to laugh about the way people do things in distant parts of the world? The books are not quite so bad, it is true.

  5. I gave copies of ‘Our Island Story’ to my niece and both nephews.
    The removal of such history from these islands, is a deliberate attack upon us, and as Sheilagh correctly identifies, it is an attack from an element of white British society, needless to say a financially well rewarded, if morally empty, element.
    Even very recent history is altered if it is considered ‘problematic'(what a horrible word that is) to the ‘narrative of multi-cultural Britain’ which that white British element wishes to present.
    For example the contribution of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in conjunction with the Army, to maintaining as normal a life as possible in Northern Ireland during the troubles, has been dropped from any state sanctioned tales. Instead the Sinn Fein interpretation of intransigent ‘prods, nasty, bullying ‘Brits’ and a long suffering ‘nationalist minority’ is widely accepted as ‘the truth’. As is Sinn Fein/PIRA’s strange assertion that they ‘fought’ the British to a stalemate, when in fact they were comprehensively beaten by the time the first ceasefire was announced.
    It was Tony Blair’s desperation to be seen as a ‘great man’ that gave far too many concessions to the terrorists in the Belfast Agreement, and consequently forced the more considered Ulster Unionists and the SDLP out of main stream politics. As a continuation of this tale it is Tony Blair (and Janet Daley has written with great insight about this) who has been the driving force behind using the Belfast, or as he and Sinn Fein would have it, the Good Friday, Agreement to stymie the United Kingdom’s attempt to leave the EU. Thus demonstrating that misrepresenting even very recent history can have the most serious consequences.
    Of course, all of this would be more difficult for the enemies of the British to achieve if it wasn’t for the connivance of the BBC, and the decline in general journalistic standards, and of analytical thought and investigation (with a few honourable exceptions) within the Broadsheets.

  6. In my Latin American country, Europe was considered a shining beacon, not only the origin of our language, law, religion and culture but a model towards which we should approach as a future developed country. Not anymore, at least as a model for the future. Britain has occupied a special place in the Western civilization. How can historians forget all the achievements in science, culture, industrial development of the British Empire, trying to create a simplistic model based on their left wing conviction to a such complex Empire?

    • Muchas gracias/obrigada Leon for this wonderful endorsement. And how sad that you say “not any more”. I gather that the Enlightenment rockstar of his day Alexander von Humboldt was hugely influential. In Asia, we revere all the dead white males mentioned in our school science textbooks – people who contributed to the welfare of humanity and dragged us out of the darkness: Dalton, Darwin, Boyle, Laplace, Gauss, Volta, Avogadro, Lavoisier, Maxwell, Lord Kelvin, Rutherford, Hubble, Crick & Watson, Dr John Snow, Haber & Bosch…the list of “dead white males” is very very long.
      It is strange (and sad) what is happening to Britain. On the one hand, we admire the fact that anything and everything is open to question, but we are also puzzled by the self-loathing of many of the educated British elite, e.g. Kim Philby, and also note that many of the most vociferous of them and many of the people in power are not scientists, so they tend to vastly underestimate the contributions of Western civilization to the betterment of the world. C.P. Snow’s observation about the ignorance of most people in power in the UK in regard to science (his point was about the entropy law) is still valid. His comment equally applies to the media.

    • Yes, it is, isn’t it! I usually use it to criticize economists, who treat human beings as as fungible as door handles so that they can then argue for no borders, mass immigration and free movement of people as well as goods and services. They make no concessions to language and cultural barriers whatsoever (because most of them are monocultural monoglots and have absolutely no idea how difficult it is to adapt to life in another country, even one where the inhabitants speak English!)

      • Correct, as an economics major, everything was reduced to a commodity that could be analyzed by the supply demand analytical tools. If there is a high demand for employment relative to supply, you increase the supply. A commodity is a commodity, all of equal quality. Of course then the policy implications are what they are, all major govermental issues, underfunded pensions, tight labour markets, low birth rates all solved by immigration. The great imagination of our educated classes.

  7. Isn’t it ironic that the most zealous dismantlers of Western civilization who plague you Brits are themselves white British? Led by useful idiots such as Prof. Mary Beard, they employ post-modernist attacks on “grand narratives” and objective truth, and view The Enlightenment and The Age of Reason as simply elitist, Imperialist power plays.

    What they fail to understand (perhaps wilfully, as they are so desperate to signal their virtue to the downtrodden) is that i) the British Empire was not uniquely evil among empires in history; it was more benevolent than most (though making this even mild claim this can cost you your academic tenure in these 1984 days), and ii) that civilization involves more than great art and architecture – in fact, science and the rule of law are equally if not more important (although Beard and other non-scientists lack any awareness of this), and in that regard, the “West”, for complex reasons that Jared Diamond tries to fathom, was centuries ahead of the RoW until the mid-1900s, and bequeathed many benefits – e.g. the rule of law, modern medicine, democracy, institutions, the end of slavery, foot-binding and the final banning of sati in 1861, which have raised the RoW out of the Dark Ages. We in Asia love Western civilization (e.g. science, technology and classical Western music), and because it is fungible have been able to adopt it enthusiastically and contribute much to its flourishing.

    Beard and co. should be careful what they wish for, and let’s hear it for The Preventive Squadron!

    • The predicament of the English, described with deadly precision in the article, is the predicament of the Kerala Hindu. Ceteris Paribus, the fate of the English is the fate of the Kerala Hindu.

    • Sheilagh, you say: “Led by useful idiots such as Prof. Mary Beard…”

      I was just about to buy her “SPQR”. Thought it might look nice, placed next to Rosemary Sutcliff’s “Eagle of the Ninth”. Sort of like the University Boat Race between Oxford, which published RM’s EOT9th series (despite it being fiction) and Cambridge, where Beard earns her daily crust. But based upon your estimable negative opinion of Dame Beard, I shall give her a pass.

      • Beard is a top-notch Classics scholar (although in a competitive field – there are many who are better) so I would not dismiss her writings on this subject, although I found SPQR to be disappointing, so could not finish it – lots of interesting vignettes and details about Cicero and the founding myth and daily life in Rome etc. but no unifying theme.

    • So long as you don’t despise that part of your culture which is not European. So long as you see the strengths as well as weaknesses in your civilisation.

      Praising someone else for bringing you the benefits of Western Civilisation is admirably humble, but I hope you do have time for what the native fellows of Asia accomplished on their own.

      National self-loathing is detestable, no matter where it occurs.

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