Launch of “Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents”: why history should be left to the historians

January 30th, 2013

Do you know that it rains in the UK? Well apparently this morsel of information is going to play a part in the advertising campaign for what the UK is really like. This goes hand in hand with the launch of “Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents,” which has been issued by the coalition as a guide for immigrants who wish to apply for citizenship.

The guide replaces the New Labour handbook “Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship,” which was first issued in 2007. In fact the desire of the Tory led government to put their stamp on how brand Britain is presented reminds me of a history essay we had to write at University entitled “History is written by the victors. Discuss.” Well this is a message the Tories have certainly taken to heart. 

Mark Harper MP, the immigration minister, said “The new book rightly focuses on values and principles at the heart of being British”. By which he means Tory values. This is intended to be a departure from the old Labour version which focused on the practicalities of living in modern day Britain – arguably handy if you are hoping to live in the UK on a permanent basis. Instead aspirant citizens will now be treated to a helping of British history and tradition with a distinctly Tory bent. The rather Whigish account goes through a whistle-stop tour of British history touching upon wars where we overcame such as Agincourt in 1415 and Wellington’s triumph over Napoleon in 1815. Of course there is the obligatory mention of Churchill. There is also reference made to cultural figures including artists from Turner to Lucian Freud and Rudyard Kipling to the war poet Wilfred Owen. To support their view of a progressive and flourishing culture, there is of course a list of the recent achievements of British Olympians and Paraolympians. See I told you it was Whigish.

Perhaps the most alarming matter is the partisan way that divisive figures and events are described. Margaret Thatcher becomes a beloved first female prime minister and economic reformer. Putting aside what left-wingers thought of her for a second, I imagine she didn’t feel so appreciated when her premiership was ended by an internal leadership challenge. This fast and loose attitude to the past is evident in the manner in which the British Empire was described in the 20th century. The new book describes a “for the most part, an orderly transition from empire to commonwealth, with countries being granted their independence.” Hmm. I wonder if they forget about partition in 1947 which is the largest peacetime displacement of people to date affecting over 10 million people and caused loss of life on both the Pakistani and Indian sides.

What irritates most is political opinion masquerading as historical narrative. Historiography represents the struggles of historians to strip bias out of their analysis of the facts. Rather than being a static thing, how we study the past has evolved some way from the grand narratives that focus around key people and events. No one seems to have told the Tories this.

Politicians of all political hues will attempt to harness past events in their story of what Britishness is. What they should not be allowed to do is to present their views as fact which is what the current booklet on citizenship does. The wranglings about what our collective past means should be left to those without a political axe to grind.

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