Historian and broadcaster Michael Wood on national identity
Travelling around Britain for The Great British Story: A People’s History has been fantastic fun, and a great eye-opener. We were not talking to politicians and commentators but to ordinary people: sitting on a bench outside Sunny Govan Radio or in a Wetherspoons in the Black Country – Halesowen and Harlesden rather than Hampton Court and Holyrood! – these are not the kind of places historians usually go to for the grand narratives of British history.
The first thing that struck me very strongly is that we Britons have many identities today: you can comfortably be Mancunian, Sikh, English and British all at the same time. That’s one thing I took a lot of pleasure from: the enriching, positive contribution of the many cultures in Britain today.
That said, our regional identities, if anything, have become sharpened over recent years: and not just Scottish or Welsh Nationalists. In many parts of the country people think they should be better represented – that, for example, there is huge disparities of wealth and opportunity between the north and south in England.
There is even a strong Cornish independence movement, and of course we’ve got the Scottish independence vote coming up in 2014.
The fact is, we have no idea whether these jubilee celebrations will be the last time that all of us will be celebrating such a grand national event as Britons.
We are in a peculiarly fluid time, and there is both interest and anxiety about these divisions, even though there is a lot of pride in our regional and local identities. Govanites are very proud of their history of building ships for the world; the Black Country and Sheffield are proud of their role as Workshops of the World. These identities were shaped in the industrial age.
More than two million people still worked in coal mining when I was born. There are no Durham mines left now. My first job as a journalist working in Yorkshire was reporting on the miners. In my lifetime, that has largely gone.
So we have lived through tremendous historical change. And we are still living through it. Standing on the edge of the BAE yard in Govan, looking at the derelict slipways of the old shipyards down the Clyde, in Corby or Ancoats or Jarrow, was to feel the power of truly great historical events; thinking of all the people who came there to reshape their identities as workers in the industrial age.
In two or three generations that world has gone, and I found that very moving. So the nation has been really tested in the last 100 years. Two world wars, industrial decline, massive social changes – these are huge things to go through as a nation. It’s obvious, I know, but that presents us with great challenges for the next phase of our history.
I feel that the very deep historical experience of our people and our culture, and our sense of group feeling, will serve us in good stead. For a small island off the shores of Europe, it’s easy to forget our achievements have been huge, and I’m not talking about imperial triumphs but about our creativity: invention, the arts and literature, technology.
Our ideas about rights and freedoms, which have gone across the world, were the creation of the people themselves, hard won through struggle. We are also a very practical nation. A lot of the British people’s proudest achievements were not theoretical (although we have produced great theorists), but they are practical. So we have great resources in our culture, memory and experience.
With the 2014 vote looming, whether we will face future challenges together as Britons is an interesting question. I have no take on that. All I can say is that seeing the story from the streets of Liverpool, Moss Side, Corby, Dudley and Govan, has given me a strong sense that though our individual identities as Britons at the start of the 21st century remain obstinately distinct, our destinies will remain inextricably intertwined.
The Great British Story: A People’s History is on BBC Two on Fridays at 9pm