Are we an oppressor nation?

Marcus Walker responds to an article calling for a re-examination of Britain’s history

Sounding Board

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,

Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth,

Renowned for their deeds as far from home,

For Christian service and true chivalry.

—John of Gaunt, Richard II

How different from the description of Britain as “an ex-oppressor nation” by the Rev Dr Sam Wells, eminent theologian and Rector of St Martin in the Fields, in his six-point “Manifesto for a United Kingdom”, published in the Church Times last month.

Written with the ambition of trying to draw the nation back together after the agonies of the past four years, it is both insightful, in the way a reflection by an eminent theologian should be, and terrifying, for what it heralds as Britain’s culture war rages on. In the spirit of sharing his desire to see the nation brought back together, I hope Dr Wells will forgive a fairly robust response.

At its heart it demands a re-examination of Britain’s history. I beg your indulgence for quoting it at some length, for I think it captures a mindset peculiar to Britain’s intelligentsia and, more specifically, goes to the heart of a culture war that looks increasingly impossible to resolve:

We need to tell a truthful story about our past. The pilots who won the Battle of Britain were indescribably brave and sacrificial. But a lot of them were Polish. (One fifth were foreign nationals.) And the Second World War was won because Hitler overreached himself in Russia, and American forces eventually overwhelmed Germany and Japan…

We need to take active steps to recognise publicly the awed and complex history of our nation. The theologian Andrew Shanks talks of our vocation to be a pioneeringly honest ex-oppressor country…

We have told ourselves that we were the good guys in world and European history, and shouted down anyone who maintained otherwise. It’s not true. Only the truth will set us free.

Or, perhaps, as John of Gaunt put it:

That England, that was wont to conquer others,

Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

We are at a dangerous junction in our country’s story, where one part sees itself as the heir to a nation they would describe using words similar to those of John of Gaunt, and the other as heirs to an Oppressor Nation.

If Brexit, cancel culture, and the Rhodes Must Fall campaign are symptoms of a more general cultural conflict, this disagreement about our foundational historical narrative is what we find at its heart. Restructuring of Britain’s history, such that we are not only not the good guys but actively the bad guys, is hugely problematic and it strips history of its nuance.

No country is without its darker side. No country’s history is without shame. We should (for example) rightly look back in anguish on the slave trade, and all the structure of horror that went with it; and should be sickened by outrages like General Dyer’s massacre in Amritsar.

Dr Sam Wells: The British must confess their sins

But once you label a nation an Oppressor Nation, you strip away the subtleties of history: not just being the first major power successfully to abolish slavery but to use its military power to enforce the suppression of the slave trade; a country whose domestic and international record has vast amounts to be proud of, from the common law legacy left across the world to the decision to beggar ourselves, twice, in the twentieth century in wars against tyranny and, in the second instance, genocide.

It is sad that this manifesto, which has as its explicit intention the reuniting of our kingdom, gave no quarter to any alternative historical narrative. For there to be peace, the manifesto suggests, there must be total surrender to its revisionist history of Britain. Only then can the truth set us free.

This raises a serious problem for all attempts to speak across the cultural divide. If we cannot offer something to those who have a different reading of history than us, how can we ever expect them willingly to be a part in the creation of a shared future together?

Is there a way forward which both sides can comfortably live with? If there is, it definitely doesn’t involve demanding that the other side surrender reasonably held historical convictions.

A braver manifesto for a reunited kingdom might focus its guns on its own side rather than the opposition: to demand of the culture war belligerents that they find, recognise and honour the strengths of the other side’s narrative.

My feeling is that the right has had to do that already. Fifty years in the cultural wilderness has left no one ignorant about the importance of the Poles in the RAF or the evils of slavery; quite rightly, although there is much more work to do. But is this even conceptually possible for the culturally hegemonic left? And if it isn’t, can any talk of peace be anything other than a prelude to the making of a desert?

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