I was struck by a story from my neck of the woods on the BBC News website today.
The Welsh Assembly’s Culture Committee has released a report into its review of history teaching in Wales; and among the recommendations is some clearer direction and guidance on the key historical events and topics in Welsh history that must be covered as part of the national curriculum here.
It’s only been fairly late in life that my own lack of history education has become really clear to me. I only did one year of formal history after the age of 14, completing an accelerated ‘O’ level (yes – I’m THAT old) in the UK’s social and economic history (effectively the story of the Industrial Revolution). Prior to that, the only thing that I remember from secondary school history lessons is some stuff about the Tudors. This has meant that my understanding of why things are as they are in the UK, British Isles and European continent has been severely underdeveloped. I am grateful that two books that I’ve had the pleasure of reading in the last twelve months have started to fill in the gaps for me. I have previously reviewed Fergal Keane’s excellent memoir on the history of the island of Ireland on this blog. And I mentioned earlier this month that I was currently reading Simon Jenkins’ A Short History of Europe from Pericles to Putin. I will write a fuller review of this one later in the month.
What I wanted to reflect on today though was the fact that it is only through reading these histories that I have come to a fuller understanding of the challenges that the UK now faces as it wrestles with conversion of the Brexit referendum result into something that can work in practice. Only those with no appreciation of the history of the island of Ireland, the political compromises inherent in the creation of the Republic of Ireland; and the social, political and emotional knots that had to be untangled in creating the Good Friday Agreement, can believe that anything approaching a border between Ireland and Great Britain could ever be acceptable.
Similarly, understanding that the European Union’s roots are firmly embedded in the series of diplomatic and commercial partnerships that emerged after 1945, is critical to an appreciation of why so many French and German politicians in particular find it so hard to understand the UK’s position. The EU as we know it today has been a gradual journey from an initial steel and coal cartel in western Europe, to a wider Economic Community and then the European Union as we have it now. Its origins are very much in a desire to ensure that there could never be another major conflict in Europe; and to provide some social democratic barrier to the emergence of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc in the late 1940s and into the 1950s.
It’s interesting to speculate whether part of the reason why a small majority of people voted in favour of Leave in 2016 is because most people’s knowledge of 20th Century UK history is focused on the World Wars and the causes of them, rather than on the 75 years since and the peace and prosperity that has been achieved through closer collaboration with our continental neighbours. Similarly, in a Welsh context, I am embarrassed to say that I had virtually know understanding of the resentment that was generated in mid and north Wales as a result of the flooding of Welsh communities to provide water to English Cities. Cofiwch Dryweryn as a movement and rallying point for Welsh independence was a wholly closed book to me as a child growing up in Cardiff.
So on balance, I find myself supportive of calls for a common core to history curriculums. A series of themes and topics that helps today’s children to better understand their local history, their place in the United Kingdom, and the reasons why the European Union emerged and is so fiercely defended on the continent, seems to me like a very good thing to be doing – irrespective of whether we end up Leaving or Staying.