Why is the history of Britain so often thought to be an ‘island story’? There is, after all, nothing inevitable about islands ending up as unitary states. If Greenland is the largest thing we can call an island only one of the ten largest islands is a unitary state: Madagascar. In the top 50 there are only four more. The United Kingdom is not such a thing, of course: it consists of the island of Great Britain and part of the neighbouring island. In fact the island of Great Britain has never been a self-contained and unitary state and the United Kingdom has not so far lasted as long as the Kingdom of Wessex, and may not do so.
Histories of Britain though tend to tell the story of the development of the UK and the associated development of Britishness as if that was the natural destination of political development. People writing ‘British history’ write about all sorts of other things of course—medicine, the economy, sexuality, art, farming, buildings, witches—but what is considered the proper subject of a ‘History of Britain’ seems to be fixed on explaining the development of the Westminster state.
This conflation of a political community with a geographical object is a very common reflex, evident for example in the oft-repeated ambition to ‘put the great back into Great Britain’, rather than the more accurate but less catchy ‘put the great back into the United Kingdom’. (In fact, it’s a shame there has not been an equally prominent desire to ‘put the united back into United Kingdom’, but that is an issue for another day.)
The ‘history of Britain’ in this sense is closely connected to identity politics in all sorts of ways. In fact, in general, history and identity are intimately related: it is hard to say who we are without talking about our past and when we introduce ourselves we often give a potted history. That is also true of collectivities—there are, for example, landmarks in the past that all Watford football fans would refer to in explaining their connection with the club. More importantly, Brexit seems to have rapidly become a dispute about who we are and what we will be in the future; and equally rapidly that has become an argument about our past, its significant features, who it shows us to be and who is included in it.
There is more to the island story than identity politics though: an interest in the origins of the UK and Britishness also reflects a more academic interest, of nineteenth-century origin. When history was professionalised European nation states were the most powerful political organisations in human history and the UK was the first among them and the most powerful. The origins of the UK were of more than simply local interest, and that claim for the importance of British history remained common among historians into the 1980s. The world now looks very different though, and questions about the origins of the UK seem less important.
In my new book I try to suggest an alternative: that we write the political history of Britain as the story not of identity but of political agency. The long chronology—the last 6000 years—is set by a desire to learn from as broad a range of experience as possible, not by the depth of the roots of the institutions of the UK and British identity.
The book explores the varying ways, over this very long period, people living on the island have used collective institutions to get things done: how that happened, who got to make things happen, and at what geographical scales they have acted. It is a history of political life on, rather than in, Britain.
Political power is exercised over our world but also over each other. Our collective institutions give us influence over our material and social world, but also particular people and groups power over others. At the other times though, collective institutions have protected us from what we might call the differential power of one group over others. Much of political history can be understood as the interplay of collective and differential power in the life of our collective institutions.
Writing this way also helps place British history in a broader geographical perspective. Collective institutions on the island have acted in response to material challenges and powerful ideas and what could be achieved at any particular time depended on what collective institutions were available through which to act. Those ideas and material challenges, and the institutional environment, have very rarely mapped neatly on to the island.
My approach prompts us to think more carefully about the geographies of political life, adopting a less insular perspective. It explores how developments affecting large parts of the globe affected the island—the rise of empires, the growth of trade, innovations in political thinking—and how people living on the island responded at scales both larger and smaller than the island.
The question here is not about identity, but who has agency at any given time, in relation to what and on what terms. This issue of agency, and the scales of effective political action, is of course a very pressing contemporary question.
In this sense, it is also a globalised history. The history of political life on the island is part of a history shared with a wider global region, and is often parallel to developments elsewhere. It is a history of the globe as seen from this place—a history not of how Britain made the modern world, but of how the world made modern Britain.
Memory is not just about identity: it is also a store of experience. By thinking about agency rather than identity, my book sets out to learn more broadly from the experience of the island’s previous inhabitants, giving us a much fuller perspective on where we are now, and more resources for thinking about what we might do next.
Mike Braddick is professor of history at the University of Sheffield. He has written extensively on the social, economic and political history of England, Britain and the British Atlantic. He is currently working on a biography of Christopher Hill, the great Marxist historian, and on the politics of the English grain trade between 1315 and 1815.
Cover image: The White Cliffs of Dover, courtesy of Immanuel Giel, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cliffs_of_Dover_01.JPG [accessed 6 June 2021]