My countries right and wrong
"Irish history is something no Englishman should forget and no Irishman should remember," said George Bernard Shaw. Geoffrey Wheatcroft's ahead of this weekend's 90th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising ignores the need for British remembering, while Danny Morrison of legitimising the armed struggle of IRA. For me, both Wheatcroft and Morrison are badly wrong yet how each needs the simplicities of the other. They speak not to Ireland today but to that of 1966, when the 50th anniversary of 1916 saw a Republican state celebration transfix a nation as much as any British Coronation. How that Ireland changed itself and the public understanding of its history offers some useful pointers to the emerging debate about British history and Britishness today.
I write as a member of the Anglo-Irish-Indian diaspora. Being half-Irish was at least as important to me, growing up, as being half-Indian. There is an attraction to an identity you have to choose to declare. Cork, where my mum was born, is closer to hand than Baroda in Gujerat while Rome's tenacity in winning the children meant that we were brought up Catholic. Of course, Britain, Ireland and India all had an influence. It would have been difficult not to be interested in history and politics. My Dad always failed the spectacularly - rooting for Australia last summer - but I, eventually, came to think of mine as a very British identity. I am a child not just of the rise and fall of empire but of the NHS, where my parents met working as a doctor and a nurse in the 1960s.
Perhaps that's as British as it gets. But surely I also had permission to fall into the trap, against which Orwell warned, of the English left becoming suckers for anybody's patriotism but its own. A first encounter with Indian or Irish history offers a grand narrative to project onto the big screen. A nation stirs against the imperial yoke; its brave heroes are martyred; their crushing defeats redeemed by independence and freedom. ( dies a hero, and Dickie Attenborough sobs his way to ). Yet every ending is another beginning. After independence, a more complex story. After Nehru's , the carnage of partition and the disappointment at India's slow growth. And how ideal Ireland - a parochial rural paradise "bright with cosy homesteads ... and the laughter of happy maidens" - imprisoned the spirit of Synge, Wilde and Joyce. (My gran would never hear a word said against Dev though.)
Yet that Ireland was liberated too. Europe offered the psychological space to escape England's shadow. A young country believed that public history mattered. The use of history in the north's Troubles added a sharp edge to this."'In a country that has come of age, history need no longer be a matter of guarding sacred mysteries," wrote leading revisionist Roy Foster in his seminal 1986 essay. The revisionists did not have it all their own way, being challenged in their turn. (Colm Toibin offers a brilliant of this in a piece on Foster). But no contemporary Irish discussion of 1916 can now ignore it. Listen to any debate today and the choices are not limited to uncritical celebration or consigning the past to the dustbin of history. It is in interrogating and re-interrogating the past.
Look at how Finlan O'Toole :
Of course the argument about the meaning of the myths matters still. Yeats recognised at once the "terrible beauty" of Easter 1916. Ninety years on, Morrison mocks him for agonising over political violence ("did those poems I wrote/end out young men the English shot") while Wheatcroft can not see any complexity at all. Yet the hard historical truth is that both polities on the island of Ireland owe their existence, in part, to the threat, and use, of arms. Wishing it were not so - my Irish hero is Parnell - is different from seeking to expunge the record. I take Yeats' side over Parnell ("") but the missed opportunity of home rule was ultimately a British failure.
Wheatcroft's argument for a British "democracy" or "limited representative government" misses the point entirely. For 40 years before 1916, the Irish demand for home rule was clear and consistent at the ballot box and in parliament. Gladstone was converted to the cause. He, at least, learnt the lesson of Edmund Burke's warning over America - "not whether you have a right to render your people miserable, but whether it is not your interest to make them happy". But Burke's Tory descendants did not. And home rule was impossible - despite getting through the elected Commons - while Britain's half-democracy gave an absolute veto to the aristocracy in the all but fully hereditary Lords.
Who unleashed the gun into 20th century Irish politics? In fact, it was the transition to British democracy - or rather the Tory attempt to prevent this. For amidst the near constitutional collapse that challenges most of the orthodoxies about British political history, the Parliament Act of 1911 meant that home rule would pass. Defeated three times in the polls and stripped of their hereditary right to veto the elected house, the Tories went quite mad. "There are things stronger than Parliamentary majorities," thundered , as the leader of His Majesty's opposition declared his party's divine right to control the ultimate destiny of a great empire, and inciting Ulster's loyalists to take up arms against an act carrying the royal seal. Many people know that the Great War split the Liberals. Few now recall how it saved the Tories from treason and self-destruction. Still Parnell's successor Redmond urges the Irish to the trenches, to earn Ireland's freedom. But after Easter 1916 they were swept away by a Sinn Fein landslide.
The constitutional path to home rule might well have proved simply a less bloody means of divorce, rather than some looser federation of the Isles. and India would have become nations without General Maxwell overseeing summary executions in Dublin castle, or General Dyer firing on crowds in Amritsar. Still, those were moments when the rubicon was crossed. They determined how independence came about.
History is what happened, and what has made us the nations we are. It is also what we choose to believe about it. The Hindu nationalist or the Sinn Feiner can choose to edit out the complexity and connections, and return to a purer past. The "anybody but England" tendency, taken to extremes leads to moral blindness: still IRA leader 's wartime collusion with fascism is exonerated or celebrated.
An alternative approach makes us products of our histories, and of the mutually defining contacts between them, but not prisoners of what we inherit. At its best, this can root patriotisms which are the more secure for not needing to falsify their own pasts. These can, in turn, provide the foundations for a secure and rooted internationalism. It may sound like some post-millennial fantasy. But it is not a new idea. As Sunil Khilnani says of Nehru's post-Independence idea of India:
We need to do more to dig beyond the good thing/bad thing debates about British history. Is it that we should stop apologising for the British empire or, as Paul Gilroy , that we never started apologising in the first place?
There is no "golden thread" of British liberty but a more complex story: the nation which campaigned to abolish slavery while it expanded its Empire. Of course, I take the anti-colonialist side of the historic argument, but not from genetic inheritance but universal values. (We even have a Human Rights Act in Britain too now.) Those histories created a society I am proud to be part of and, for good and ill, shaped much of the modern world too.
Perhaps some of us have an easier starting point when we try to see these histories from all sides. The larger British problem is that who wish to be most passionately proud of our history seem to know so little of it, so that public sense of our history seems to start and end with the second world war. Only if we know that history better can the argument start about its lessons, what we take from it, and what we choose to leave to the past. That must be how a new public awareness of British history can be built.