Do the histories of nations like the United Kingdom and United States preclude any form of patriotism or nationalism? Many prominent voices today would answer in the affirmative. One leading scholar, however, argues that the answer depends on proper – not merely popular – historical understanding.
Nigel Biggar, Anglican theologian, priest, and ethicist, is Emeritus Regius Professor of Moral Theology at the University of Oxford and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Pusey House, Oxford. Following the release of his recent book on British colonialism, Biggar wove together the topics of history, politics, nationalism, and conservatism in his talk “Why History Matters,” presented at National Conservatism’s UK conference in London.
National identity is heavily built on imagination, Biggar said: “we imagine ourselves to be part of a national narrative or story which endows our little lives with larger, if not ultimate, significance.” This national story includes “common endeavors, heroes, the laying down of traditions, and the building of institutions.” In short, things which are viewed in a given nation as good, valuable, admirable, and inspiring.
Biggar listed several examples of events, heroes, and institutions with which the British people identify. These things are good, the scholar suggested, and thus national identification with them is a moral activity. Continued national identification must also, he posited, must also be conservative, seeking to preserve the good aspects of a national story and identity.
“But there are dangers here,” Biggar warned, “the dangers of national idolatry and of oppressive national self-righteousness. The dangers of imagining us to be simply good, and them to be simply bad.” Biggar illustrated this point by recounting a story from his youth. As a child attending school in Scotland, Biggar watched a film about a battle between Scotland and England. Biggar immediately identified with the Scottish fighters against what he perceived to be English oppression. Later in life, however, Biggar realized that if he had lived at the time of the battle, he would have sided with the English.
From this illustration, Biggar argued that “history matters,” especially with regards to politics. Most who favor Scottish independence today, Biggar suggests, do “not because they’ve analyzed policies. They do it in large part because they inhabit imaginatively a vision of the past that is false.” The outworking of this false vision could have disastrous unforeseen consequences, Biggar said, noting the concern of some experts that the fragmenting of the United Kingdom through Scottish independence could embolden Russia and China. It is thus imperative, argued Biggar, that history be properly understood.
Biggar also argued this point from the British Empire’s increasingly negative reputation in contemporary discourse. This reputation “portrays the British Empire as nothing but a litany of racism, economic exploitation, cultural repression, and wanton violence,” Biggar summarized. “It refers to colonialism and slavery as if those two things were identical. But they are not.”
Biggar recognized that “the record of the British Empire is a morally mixed one.” The British Empire also, however, actively opposed slavery for 150 years, fought injustices in India, and stood almost alone militarily against the Nazis from May 1940 until June 1941.
“Britain’s imperial record was a morally mixed one,” Biggar repeated, “but so is that of any longstanding state.” Appealing to his Christianity and Burkeian conservatism, he also stated: “I don’t expect perfection in any human affairs. Those who rule, just like those who are ruled, are creatures and sinners, finite and fallen.”
Biggar thus warned against “the unforgiving, inhumane impatience of utopian perfectionists.” He also warned against “the political power of guilt,” which he argued is often misapplied due to inaccurate historical understanding.
Ill-informed guilt about Britain’s colonial history, Biggar said, is “determining the decisions and policies of our cultural institutions, weakening the soft international power of the crown, and making us vulnerable to infinite claims of reparation for ancient wrongs.”
Biggar concluded that Brits must instead understand their history rightly, and use the best elements of that history to move forward: “Much of what our forebears achieved was extraordinary. We need to remember it. We need to admire it. We need to conserve it. And then we need to build on it.”
Though Biggar speaks of British history and a proper understanding thereof, the principles underlying his analysis can also be applied to other nations, including the United States. Our history, like Britain’s, is certainly “morally mixed” given that we live in a fallen world replete with sin. We must, however, be careful to properly understand that history before jumping to conclusions about both the strengths and the flaws of our nation and integrating that into our national imagination. We must be especially careful before basing political decisions on our historical understanding. As Biggar repeated throughout this speech, “History matters. It matters politically.”