In Praise of Acts of Union and Disunion

“The divided and contentious nature of these islands is hardly exceptional and it’s hardly surprising. Although Britain is sometimes viewed still as an old and stable country, these in fact are selective visions. Historically speaking, Great Britain and still more the United Kingdom are in some respects recent and synthetic constructs that have often been contested and in flux in the past…as they are now.”

I am working my way through, and thoroughly enjoying, the BBC Radio 4 series with historian Linda Colley Acts of Union and Disunion – putting this country in historical context and looking at the national myths and heritage. In short, 15 minute bites, she looks at different aspects – being an island, this country’s relationship with the sea, the monarchy, etc – to explore what it all means. Timely, given Scotland’s decision on the future of the Union, but also comforting, given the raging anti-migrant rhetoric that refers to some homogenous, static Britain that never existed, being corrupted by voices from the old and new world.

It’s poetic and rather glorious. I find myself intrigued but also reminded of what I find so fascinating about the UK: its idiosyncrasies, its nations and countries, how it sees itself, how it sees the world. I also find it comforting to take the long view of history, the reminder of how much is contested and constantly being negotiated, and renegotiated, and constructed and remade.

Colley is a witty, engaging host, easily drawing you in to the themes of the programme. In particular, I liked her commentary on identity and the difficulty of applying fixed labels to people. We are very rarely ever one thing, and the same goes for our countries. She points out that it’s not the break up of states that’s notable, but their ability to cohere in the first place – and evolving and believing stories about themselves helps.

If African countries did similar programmes it would be so interesting. I will never forget my visit to the dinosaur museum in Karonga, Malawi last year. It was a small exhibit but it packed a punch and put more recent events, such as colonisation, in their place.

So often history is a battleground for jingoism and confected nationalism – but I am really enjoying this clear-eyed, sometimes humorous, rather affectionate reflection on these islands, her nations and her peoples.

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