A shortened version of this interview will appear in the Big Issue in the North magazine shortly. I found the book to be very easy to read and highly informative. I didn't agree with everything Colin Brown wrote, but I would recommend this book to anyone.
Our Ten Proudest Years - the glory and the spin
Veteran political reporter Colin Brown travels to the places where British history was made to sort fact from fiction.
- Why did you write this book?
Because David Cameron provoked a heated national debate in 2010 by saying 1940 was our ‘proudest’ year. YouGov did a poll which showed a split in the nation – women chose years of social advance – the abolition of slavery (1833), equality of voting with men (1928) or the birth of the NHS (1948) while men chose military victories – Waterloo (1815), Agincourt (1415), or the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588). I approached it like an investigative reporter, interrogating the past, the records, eye witness accounts, the places, and found loads of surprises. I did not realise, for example, that in the year Wellington defeated Napoleon, there were serious food riots at home. Was there a link between the riots in 1815 and those in 2011? There were big differences – the rioters in 1815 were protesting about the price of bread going up and they had no votes in the new big cities; those in 2011 were looting bling, not bread, and they have the vote if only they’d use it. But it is a reminder from history – street riots have been part of the British way of life for centuries.
2 Magna Carta is viewed as one of the great pillars of the British constitution – was that the intention in 1215?
It is almost certain President Barack Obama will be here in 2015 for the 800th anniversary ceremony at Runnymede meadows, where King John put his seal on the ‘Great Charter’. And I bet he will repeat the myth the Magna Carta lays down inalienable rights about the rule of law embodied in the US constitution. Magna Carta – the Great Charter – was a grubby deal reached between a bunch of rebellious landowners (the barons) and a weak king with his back to the wall. It was never intended to set out civil liberties. Magna Carta was a shopping list of Barons’ ‘belly aches’ about the king’s arbitrary use of his powers, right down to medieval measures of ale. The two key clauses that matter today prohibited the king from imprisoning any ‘free’ man except by lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land; and stopped the king from selling, denying or delaying a right to justice. But even these can be misleading – ‘free’ men were part of the upper classes; Magna Carta never applied to the mass of peasants. Claire Breay, the lead curator of the early manuscripts at the British Library where a copy is on display told me Magna Carta was ‘not a statement of fundamental principles of liberty’. What it did do was limit the powers of the Monarch. That was later embroidered and adapted by the Founding Fathers of revolutionary America for inclusion in their Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evidence, that all Men are created equal.” Magna Carta today gives power to Parliament over the Monarch (or a President, if he ever became a Republic again), but it remains powerful because over the centuries it has come to mean what we want it to mean.
- What is the double game you attribute to William Pitt the younger in the campaign to abolish slavery?
I came at this book as a political journalist of 30 years experience, and I asked questions that others had not raised. I sat on the same spot on the outskirts of Bromley where in May 1787 Wilberforce sat under an oak tree and his great friend William Pitt suggested he should take up the campaign to ban slavery with a Parliamentary bill. Everyone – including Pitt’s biographer Foreign Secretary William Hague – seemed to take it for granted that Pitt was being generous to his friend. I was more sceptical. Why should the Prime Minister have invited Wilberforce to take up a bill that was highly controversial and could block up progress in Parliament? Pitt had just heard that his great Parliamentary rival, Charles James Fox was going to do it. So I speculate (I think rightly) that Pitt had gained two advantages – he could spike Fox’s guns, and he could have some influence over the passage of the measure while it was in the hands of his friend. The bill to outlaw the trade reached the statute book in 1807, nearly two years after Pitt’s death, but it was not until 1833 – a shocking delay - that full abolition was achieved. And don’t let anyone pretend that slavery doesn’t exist today. Modern slavery survives in people trafficking, gangmasters and pimping.
4) What makes you believe Queen Elizabeth knew the Spanish Armada had already capitulated when she drafted one of history’s most inspiring speeches?
There were ten days – ten crucial days - between the fire ships scattering the Spanish Armada on 7/8 August, 1588, as it lay at anchor near Calais awaiting the embarkation of the Spanish forces and Elizabeth sailing by barge from Whitehall to Tilbury fort on 18 August to rally her troops under the Earl of Leicester with her great speech. Walsingham, her great spymaster, was receiving regular reports and it is stretching belief to breaking point to imagine he did not know the Armada had been sent flying up the north sea by the time she arrived at their camp. Elizabeth’s great cry of defiance against the Dons – which has inspired later generations of Brits faced with invasion (by Napoleon and Hitler) - was as much a piece of elaborate Elizabethan theatre as Shakespeare’s plays which she loved. American academics have doubted she even made her famous speech, but I am sure the manuscript I tracked down in the British Library was written on the day she delivered it : ‘I have ye body butt of a weak and feeble woman, but I have ye heart and stomach of a king…’ Whether it was spin or not, touching it was like touching history. It lifted the hairs on the back of my neck.
5) What was gained by visiting Azincourt, Dover, Brixham etc?
A sense of place. They all have a different story to tell to us today. For example, I visited Azincourt on St Crispin’s Day – and found the water lying in the muddy fields, just as King Henry V and his bedraggled army must have done. The battlefield is largely unchanged. I’d like Real Britannia to be read not just as history book, but as a travel guide to inspire people to dig into their own local history. It is written as much about Azincourt, Dover, Brixham, Hull and Manchester today as the past. I used as my guide the books of a former colleague at the Independent Bill Bryson (particularly his Notes from the Small Island). I had many amazing encounters by travelling to these places – the Orange Lodge marchers from Liverpool I met in Brixham, Devon; my guide at the Wilberforce museum in Hull, who told me about the real anger of the Afro-Caribbean visitors who still feel pain for their ancestors, the slaves; and the guide who allowed me to step out onto the balcony where Churchill had stood on the White Cliffs of Dover in 1940. History is alive and kicking out there, if you look for it.
6) Surely suffragette Emily Davison was intent on committing suicide when she ran in front of the King’s horse at the 1913 Derby?
That’s another myth, encouraged by the Pankhursts so that they could claim their first martyr. By the time she died, Davison had become alienated from the Pankhurst leadership because she was too radical. Pathe News captured the moment at the 1913 Derby and it is difficult to see what happened, but a remarkable enhanced version has been posted on YouTube (Muerte en el derby de Epsom - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TH_r6-JpO9Q) which shows she let three horses go by and picked the King’s horse to make her protest. The inquest never heard that she had a scarf in the Suffragettes’ colours (it’s now on show at the House of Commons). There is anecdotal evidence she had practised tying things to running horses bridles’ near her mother’s home in the Morpeth area of the north east. I think she was trying to tie the colours to the bridle. Her return ticket from Epsom to London Victoria and a ticket for a Suffragette event later that day (in the Women’s Library archive) add to the evidence she was planning a daring stunt, but I think the film shows she didn’t ‘throw herself under the king’s horse’…and the plaque put up by Tony Benn in Parliament is incorrect on that point! There will be a big exhibition at Westminster in 2013 to mark the first centenary of her death, so this controversy won’t lie down.
7) How important was the establishment of the NHS in postwar politics?
The creation of the Welfare State by the Attlee government was a crowning glory of the 20th Century Britain, in my view, and the NHS was the Cullinan Diamond. Sylvia Buckingham, officially the ‘first’ NHS patient at the Park Hospital, Trafford in Manchester, put it simply – before vesting day, her parents would not have been able to afford her life-saving treatment; after it, they didn’t have to pay a penny. Sir Winston Churchill, in my view, made a huge strategic mistake in voting against the legislation that gave birth to the NHS although he was right to have doubts about affordability. It is to the lasting credit of the coalition government that it launched Beveridge on the project in 1942, in the depths of war. It showed Churchill’s vision as a great war leader. Pity he didn’t keep it up in peace.
8) Do you have a favourite year and why?
I’d like it to be 2012 – the year Britain rediscovered its pride, reclaimed its flag, and re-united under the bunting we put out for the Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics and Paralympics. But I don’t believe that great feeling of being at ease with ourselves will last. So I’d plump – like the majority in the YouGov poll and the PM – for 1940 because without Churchill’s resistance, I wouldn’t be here. My father, like all males between 17 and 45 in German-occupied Britain, would have been sent off to a camp in Europe. This is something the Appeasers never understood in their anxiety to do a deal with Hitler. And it’s worth noting that that great peacenik, Michael Foot, was a secret co-author of the attack on the Appeasers – the Guilty Men. You don’t have to be a warmonger to fight for something you believe in.