The outgoing German ambassador, Dr Peter Ammon, observed last week that some Brexiteers had a sense of national identity forged by the Second World War. This is not surprising. It was almost the last time we were encouraged to have a national identity – something membership of the EU, with its obsession with “a Europe of the regions”, actively deterred. Also, “the Nazis” are a mainstay of the fabulously unambitious GCSE history course.
On her trip to China, Mrs May expressed her view of British identity – or what she called “the British dream”. It was that each generation should be richer than its parents’. In a country where history is taught so poorly as, apparently, hardly to be worth teaching at all, it is perhaps no surprise that even its Oxford-educated Prime Minister should have such a perverse idea of British national identity.
Patriotism is a natural impulse in a decent country, so today’s young cling to what little they know the British have to be proud of – the defeat of the Nazis.
To some of us, “the British dream” – Mrs May even had to borrow an American idiom to express herself – has little to do with the acquisition of wealth, pleasant though that may be. It sits in the idea of the historic liberties of an old country, won steadily and incrementally since Magna Carta, through civil wars, a glorious revolution, reform Acts and, indeed, two world wars.
It embraces democracy and a rule of law, ideas our membership of the EU corrupted, and to whose corruption too many charged with safeguarding our liberties turned a blind eye for decades. More lucid Brexiteers – Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nigel Farage and Michael Gove – have alluded to this.
For Mrs May, however, it is another ungraspable concept detaching her from most of the people she purports to govern, and from her core supporters.
A hundred years ago, Lloyd George sat at a dinner – recalled by Duff Cooper in his memoir Old Men Forget – and spoke, as a Welshman, about how hard it was to put anything over on the English.
He claimed the English still remembered the Hungry Forties and the fires of Smithfield, and would fight for liberty and the bread on their tables. The Hungry Forties were still – just – in living memory; the fires of Smithfield had been snuffed out 350 years earlier. It was an age where children left school at 13, but had enough of a grounding in history to know certain important things about where they had come from. Patriotism is a natural impulse in a decent country, so today’s young cling to what little they know the British have to be proud of – the defeat of the Nazis – and identify with it.
The lack of political leadership, of which we are all now so painfully aware, includes a failure to reflect the achievements of the British past beyond 1939-45. Instead of Mrs May articulating the banal idea that our national “dream” is for our children to have more on their balance sheets than we do, she should be talking about the rebuilding of our democracy in which, post-Brexit, we once more vote for those who take the key decisions affecting us, and the reinstitution of a rule of law justiciable in our own courts.
For too long – since, it seems, Mrs May was at school – we have not taught the history of these things, which should be central to our idea of who we are. It is time to start.