Norman Davies and the Appalling Problem of a Failure to Stand

The occasion was my graduation from the University of Wales. The British Union Jack was raised, a young lady led us in singing a national anthem. But I could never understand why part of the faculty of the University of Wales refused to stand. I stood, not as a Brit, or course, but as an American, who was a guest in another nation. I stood out of respect and gratitude for the country which provided me with a significant part of my education, and which has been our closest ally through thick and thin. I was appalled at the apparent “protest” of others at such an event. And I couldn’t understood it fully…until I began to read Norman Davies.

Norman Davies, whose enormous and controversial volume, Europe, was followed by an equally voluminous tome, The Isles: A History. He began that 1999 work with words that should be remembered for all 1,182 pages:

“This book necessarily presents a very personal view [my emphasis] of history” (xxii).

History, these days, always seems to be “very personal.” There is, of course, a necessary place for “lower history” in which we discern the times through the individual stories of common men and women. “Higher history,” stories of history framed from the notation of kings and queens and wars and treaties, form the larger backdrop for understanding the times and staking markers through the ages. “Lower history” operates within these markers and gives meaning to the times, and even connects our lives to those days. The story of Ruth, in 1 Samuel, is such a “lower history.” Here God shows that, nestled in between Judges and the need for a prophet to lead the wayward people, a Gentile widow held the key to Israel’s future, and ours. This woman would be redeemed from her widowhood by Boaz and produce, from that family line, Jesse and David, and our Savior Jesus Christ. So “lower history” is important.

Having said that I do not believe that Dr. Davies’ The Isles is “lower history” per se. It is, rather, an opinion. Davies’ opinion. And his opinion is that Britain is not and never was a nation-state. He believes that England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland (now only Northern Ireland) were so different in culture, language, outlook and (he seems to infer) even basic DNA make up, that they could never have been a single, unified country. His dour assessment, in my take on it, comes, no doubt, from that first statement about his own personal view of things. Dr. Davies sees Wales, his own native land, as so distinct that it could never be thought of as British. Yet in the same way that California has little in common with Mississippi, the 50 states of the US are part of one nation. E pluribus unun our fathers put it. So too, England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, yea Jersey and Cornwall, Yorkshire and East Anglia are distinct but still part of the greater whole (and for the greater good). They retain their uniqueness in the nation. But there is a nation nevertheless. And the nation is stronger for the diversity, as long as there is a formal greater unifying interest binding the diverse peoples together. 

Dr. Davies concludes his magisterial reflection on The Isles with what he sees as a positive and hopeful sign for these people groups unable to make a British nation.

“Perhaps the main source of optimism lies in the existence of the European Union” (1054).

One might have guessed this from his previous book, Europe. The hope, according to the EU flag waving author, for England, Wales, and Scotland is not in the unity of people with a common language and heritage (albeit diverse and complex) and a common land, but with a bureaucratic confederation of countries who have been at war with each other, more or less, since Rome collapsed. Thus, he opines, Wales, under the protective cover of the EU, can be every bit as strong as modern Ireland or the tiny country of Luxembourg. This assumes that the EU can work better than the British nation. Yes, I prefer the word “nation” when I speak of Great Britain. But the truth is that it is unproven at best and already a miserable failure at worse. There is a nation of people over here, across the Pond, who enjoy with Dr. Davies and the disquieted spirits of the faculties at Wales, Oxford, and other such places, a common language, a common history, and a common hope. That leads me to this point:

I would argue that there must be a union of countries, of individual nations, in these days. But the union of countries I prefer is the union of English speaking peoples. This is what Winston Churchill foresaw. It is what Andrew Roberts proposed in his continuation of this idea in his book A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. Such a union of nations like America, Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and others, provides a NATO-like force which can preserve the heritage of English-speaking Western Civilization as we rush headlong into this young century. This union allows for a more comfortable relationship in terms of economy, defense, and even religion. It does so while holding forth the values of our common culture which allow for Welshmen to be Welshmen and Californians to be Californians. No other union can do this. It starts with a spirit that admits that we are better off in living together than in living apart. That, in the end, is what the faculty at Wales lacked: a spirit of unity built on the death of parochial pride. That is what was appalling to me as I watched when the faculty would not stand for the British Union Jack: scorn for a patriotism that values unity of shared values and dreams above self interests. That is the spirit that made Britain to become Great Britain. That is the same spirit, with all due respect for his extraordinary giftedness, that Dr. Davies seems to lack.

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About Michael Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D. (University of Wales, Trinity Saint David's College), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author. He is, also, an alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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