The Prime Minister’s childlike affection for “Our Island Story” is clear and widely reported. What he may find harder to explain is why a badly-written celebration of English colonialism is relevant to a discussion of contemporary Scottish Britishness.
When David Cameron made his emotional-reasoning pitch for the Union at the London Olympic Velodrome, he based his appeal on, among other things, the ties of British History. In so doing, he recalled with childlike nostalgia his love for a children’s history book, which was also his Desert Island Disks pick, and a volume he has said he hopes his own kids will read in turn. As an appeal to Scottish Unionism however, this text would seem to have one fundamental flaw. It’s full and original title is “Our Island Story: A History of England for Boys and Girls” by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall.
Much has been written about this book; about its charms and deficiencies. To be fair, it adopts a kind, motherly tone, and sets out a moral (if somewhat misguided and patronising) view of the world, where events (as reported) are discussed in a childish ethical context. It’s deficiencies as a History are however obvious. It begins with a fantasy, psuedo-Classical myth of how Albion (an ancient word for Britain, not England) arose from the sea, moves on to incorporate the Arthurian legends as History, and later recounts a version of the life of Richard III which owes more to Shakespeare’s play than any contemporary source material.
Aside from the fault of being bad History, one does wonder how the PM, as a humanities graduate, and former PR man, could make such a monumental category error as to champion “A History of England” as a credential of his heartfelt love of Scottish Britishness? Was there some sort of mistake?
Perhaps PR man Cameron thought the book had been sufficiently rebranded? At some point between its original publication in 1905 and the 2005 centenary reprint organised by thinktank Civitas, its title changed from “England” to “Britain”, and some of the more obviously offensive references to the British Empire were toned down, or airbrushed from History. These changes were at best superficial though, and the fundamental text remains unaltered: a rebranding exercise not gone far enough.
Could it be that there was some sort of error in the early 20th century, and that an otherwise well-intentioned History of Britain was mistakenly labelled as English, in a less politically-correct age? To answer this question, we need only to look at the evidence – the book itself.
Following its narrative, it is very clear that this is a History of England in deed as well as in name. References to Scots, Welsh and Irish History occur only in passing, and only where they are required to intersect with the History of England. For example, it would be impossible to tell the story of Edwards I and II of England without mentioning Scotland. They spent a considerable part of their reigns attempting to conquer the country, and were together on campaign here when the father died. One could hardly explain the English Civil War without reference to Charles I’s attempted imposition of an Anglican liturgy and bishops on the Scottish Kirk, the chaotic mutiny they provoked, and how this led in turn to the National Covenant of 1638, and War. England would not be Britain without the 1707 Acts of Union, so even those deserve a passing mention.
Even in these moments of intersection, explanation of the History of Scotland, and its long term impact on Britain and the World is lacking. The section on the Scottish Wars of Independence does not mention either of those great shibboleths of Scottishness, William Wallace or the Declaration of Arbroath. The Declaration is one of Britain’s greatest legacies to posterity, a document which asserts the right of the people to dismiss unjust rule and choose their own leaders, and which formed the foundation of the 1776 Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. It also directly influenced the 1689 Scottish Claim of Right Act, which enabled the Scottish parliament to rule that James VII had forfeited his throne by failing in his responsibilities, and replace him with William and Mary, so that the Union of the Crowns could continue, events which were also necessary to the creation of Britain. The 1707 Acts of Union are described only as the actions of “wise men”. Nothing is mentioned of the economic sanctions by the English Parliament which precipitated an economic crisis in Scotland, the ensuing bribery, corruption and military intimidation which led to Union, or the riots which occurred all over Scotland in response to the sell-out by Scotland’s ruling classes.
It is clear then that “Our Island Story” is a History of England with necessary British bits. Could it be then, that this was just a well-intentioned attempt at a History of Britain by an English author unaware of a wider, Scots, perspective of Britain? To answer that we need to consider our second piece of evidence – the author.
Here the excuses run out, because Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall was born in 1867 in Bo’ness in Scotland, and educated in Melrose in the Scottish Borders. In the absence of other evidence, it would seem unlikely that a Scottish-born, bred and educated woman with a passion for the subject would have been so ignorant of Scottish History. But it gets even worse. In 1906, the year after the publication of her “History of England for Boys and Girls”, Marshall published “Scotland’s Story: A History of Scotland for Boys and Girls”. As a History, this book is every bit as compromised as “Our Island Story”, including, for example, Shakespeare’s version of MacBeth. But it at least tells a full fantasy version of the life of William Wallace, and mentions the Darien Scheme, and the bad behaviour of the English Parliament in the run up to the Acts of Union. It is, in fact, a badly written History of Scotland, and it demonstrates beyond doubt that “Our Island Story” is indeed a History of England, badly written by a Scot for an English market.
Nowhere in “Our Island Story” is this more evident than in its treatment of Edward I of England. While Marshall does refer to him as “The Hammer of the Scots”, and concedes he “had no right to claim overlordship of Scotland”, she implores us to remember him rather as “Edward the Lawgiver”, a king who “was loved” and “made good laws which people came to see as good”. So much for a man whose legacy is so reviled in Scotland, that our very National Anthem is directed against him. His genocidal massacre of the civilian population of Berwick-upon-Tweed doesn’t even warrant a mention.
The provenance of “Our Island Story” could not be clearer. It is a non-accidental History of England, written for an English audience by a pro-British Empire Scot, and it tells the story of English Colonial Expansion, from the Roman Empire they admired, to the Victorian British Empire they created. In choosing it as his favourite book about Britishness, David Cameron is being surprisingly candid. He is telling us, perhaps unwittingly, that he sees Britishness as a natural extension of Englishness, or at best an interchangeable identity. Unfortunately this is not how most (even pro-Union) Scots see the world, our view being rather that Britain is a federal arrangement, with distinct identities that come together to form a whole, which is greater than the sum of its parts.
Marshal and Cameron’s view of English/British History is essentially colonial. He could not have chosen a more inappropriate book if he had tried. He might as well have concluded his speech in London by saying “I have a naive and unquestioning love of the idea of Scotland as an English colony. Please phone your Scottish friends and tell them to keep it that way”.