Monday, 14 September 2015

Battles of Britain?

Yesterday, the BBC launched an online poll to see which was the most decisive battle in the history of the British Isles. The link is here:

I won't dwell on the fact that it suggests that 1066 was 'The Last Invasion' (it wasn't even the last successful invasion, that was William of Orange).

What strikes me is that it is asking which was the 'the most decisive battle in the history of the British Isles', yet is limiting the choice to 'battle[s] ... fought here' (on British soil, although the Armada is included, as is the Boyne, in Ireland).

The list, therefore comprises of:
  • Boudica

  • Brunanburh

  • Hastings

  • Bannockburn

  • Bosworth

  • Armada

  • Naseby

  • Boyne
  • Battle of Britain 
Lots of early modern then, but nothing between Boyne (1690)  and the Battle of Britain (1940). This is easily explained by the fact that most of the truly game changing battles (Plassy, Nile, Trafalgar, Plassy....) occur outside the British Isles. But they are hugely important events (arguably more so than some of those chosen). Britain was (from the eighteenth century), and arguably still is, defined by its imperial identity.

To suggest that because these events happened overseas they do not count is very short sighted. I know it is just a quiz, but it links itself with many of the anniversaries of battles upcoming or recently passed (Waterloo, Battle of Britain etc.) Moreover, the BBC is a global brand with a huge reach. Although perhaps implicit, it is suggesting that we can explain Britain by only looking at Britain. If recent historiographical advances have told us anything, it is that exactly the opposite is true. Britain is influenced by its empire and its overseas actions as much as it impacts on the world. Plassy was the beginning of a huge Indian empire, and completely changed the nature of Britain's empire, trade, and domestic identity. The battles of the Napoleonic Wars not only guaranteed Britain's continuance as a sovereign state, but also defined what it meant to be British by juxtaposing it with France.

We cannot ignore the fact that Britain was as much shaped by those actions and people beyond our shores. To do so encourages an incomplete, nationalistic, parochial, and most importantly, incorrect, version of Britain's history.

Or as Salman Rushdie said: "The British don’t know their own history because it was made somewhere else". (Thanks, Dave)

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