These are interesting times to be teaching and writing the history of modern Britain. Britons remain often unable to acknowledge, and yet haunted by, their imperial and European histories. The debates around Brexit and the legacies of slavery and colonialism frequently occasion an effort to restage a national past where Britons were always great, white and well-intentioned (most recently with Historians for Britain and the Ethics and Empire Project at Oxford). That national past is endlessly recuperated in the nasty nativism on display in British television and film from Downton Abbey, The Crown, Dunkirk to whatever the latest movie is about Queen Victoria or Winston Churchill. Not surprisingly, it is this screen history of Britain that is most familiar to students in the United States, but more worryingly it largely remains the one taught in British schools even at A-levels. The conceit of this nationalist history is always that Britons - usually privileged, white, male ones - went out in to the world and made it in their image (and the world really should be pretty grateful).
Now, of course, most of us who teach and write British history know how absurd this nativist history is. Wherever we work we have all had to grapple with postcolonial theory, women’s and gender history, new imperial history, indigenous history, transnational and global history. We understand that British history, the histories of its four nations, and this very staging of white, male supremacy were products of slavery and imperialism. As universities in Australia, the United States and England increasingly advertise posts for historians of the ‘Britain and the World’, we are beginning to acknowledge that the world may have made Britain, that its history was partly shaped by transnational or global processes over which it had no control (see the forthcoming forum of ‘Britain and the World’ in Journal of British Studies, 57, 4 (2018)). Some even suggest that national histories themselves are in crisis.
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