Ireland: Contested Ideas of Nationalism and History

By Hugh F. Kearney | Go to book overview

Chapter Six

Thatcher's Britain:
Four Nations or One?
(1991)

Most of this audience, I take it, live in a political unit termed “the United Kingdom.” We all agree that our schoolchildren should learn something about its history. But how are we to characterize this unit? Some historians seem to see it as a single nation. They refer to “the story of our nation.” “In my opinion,” states Norman Stone, “it is essential for school children to know the elements of our national past.” Jonathan Clark tells us that “history is national property and the decisions to be taken on the history curriculum will be intimately connected with our national self-image, sense of heritage and purpose.”

But what is this nation to which they refer? It is here that we begin to run into difficulties. Mrs. Thatcher declared that “children should know the great landmarks of British history.” But, is there a British nation? And if there is one today, does it have a history stretching back beyond the early twentieth century?

Perhaps we do not have a single national history. Historians have taught us to see the rise of the nation-state as one of the signs of modernity. But suppose that the United Kingdom is not a nation-state like, say, France, but a multinational state like Belgium, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union—in fact like the great majority, perhaps, of so-called “nationstates.” In that case we will be distorting the complexity of our history if we speak of a single “national past” and a single “national image.” The “we” and “our” of all this are rather a mixed bunch.

The notion that we have several national pasts has been obscured by the understandable dominance of England, particularly since the Industrial

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