History is important to collective identity in the same way that memory is important to our sense of ourselves. It is difficult to explain who we are without reference to our past: place and date of birth, class background, education, and so on. A shared history can, by the same token, give us a shared identity—to be a Manchester United fan is to have a particular relationship to the Munich air disaster, the Busby babes, George Best, Eric Cantona, and so on.
Over the years, politicians of all parties have wanted to encourage that: to add to the pool of shared experience which knits us together as a political community. For Gordon Brown, “citizenship is not an abstract concept, or just access to a passport. I believe it is—and must be seen as—founded on shared values that define the character of our country.” While John Major hoped that ‘fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and, as George Orwell said, ‘Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’ and, if we get our way, Shakespeare will still be read even in school.”
But memories can be false, partial, and self-serving, and people select differently from the past in order to explain how we arrived at the present and what the present means. It also depends, of course, on who is asking. For some purposes, accounts of ourselves might ignore regional and class origin and tell instead of where we have lived, when and where we had our first kiss, or what sports we have played.
In other words, the aspects of the past that seem important vary according to the circumstances in which we reflect on it. This doesn’t mean that anything goes—I have never lived on the moon—but there is not simply one version of my past, or one version of the past, which is relevant to me. In effect we are, in part, our experiences and memories, but when we say who we are, we make choices about which memories to talk about; when we make those selections we are, in a sense, defining who we are.
That is why the current culture wars often focus on rival versions of the past—selecting events and personalities that reinforce our version of who we are and who we want to become.
There are always alternative memories to be dealt with of course, and conflict is more often about selection and interpretation than about what is “true.” When a remorseful celebrity is confronted with some embarrassment from their past, they don’t so much deny it as say that it is not a true indication of who they now are. In a similar way, no one says Britain did not have a slave trade, but some question what that tells us about who we really are and the significance we should attach to it.
It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that in the run-up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath of Brexit, these issues of history and identity have loomed so large. But past experience is not only about identity, either individually or collectively: it also yields experience about how to get things done. We draw on our own and others’ experience when we think about what to do, and how to do it. Perhaps we could put this at the heart of our history—the history of political agency, rather than identity. After all, that is also an issue of pressing contemporary importance. Perhaps it’s time to talk about that too.
Featured image by Aleks Marinkovic via Unsplash