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The history makers

Might Boris change the course of history like these figures did?

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July 17, 2019

Next week, the UK’s new prime minister will be named. We know who it’s going to be. And with Brexit on the horizon, there’s a chance his actions will change the course of our country forever. (Or he may go down in history as the man who blew it.) With that in mind, we asked our contributors to pick an individual who did change the course of history – even if, these days, we underestimate their legacy.

 

In August 2014, I stood at a rally in Trafalgar Square, watching a friend’s four-year-old daughter dancing joyfully around the lion statues in a tartan dress. We Londoners were there to ask the people of Scotland, ahead of the independence referendum: please stay. The thought that part of my country – a part of my heritage – might be split from us, broke my heart.

We won that referendum. But since then, unionism has gone out of fashion in our Brexit-induced culture war. That inconvenient border in Northern Ireland has inspired leaders of the (now ironically named) Conservative and Unionist Party to turn their back on history. Conservative party members, polls suggest, don’t care about Scotland and Northern Ireland or their place in our union. They just want Brexit, at any cost.

In the absence of any decent leadership on our nation’s unity in today’s politics, I want to pay tribute to a unionist hero, Queen Anne. She brought the nations of Scotland and England together under a shared government for the first time in 1707: she helped shape the political legacy our leaders are now trashing.

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It’s time to reclaim Queen Anne’s reputation, which has been unfairly traduced by the Oscar-winning film, The Favourite. Olivia Colman, who played the ailing monarch, gave a glorious performance, and a wonderful acceptance speech at the Academy Awards, which rightly claimed her place as a national treasure. But Queen Anne was not a demented, childish old sot, and fiction should not replace history in our national consciousness.

More importantly still, we need to make unionism fashionable again – if not for Queen Anne’s sake, then for our own.

Queen Anne came to the throne in 1702, replacing William III, who had ruled alone since the death of his wife Mary (Anne’s sister). It is a wonder she accomplished anything during her 12 years as Queen, given what she had lived through by the time of William’s death.

She is often referred to as “childless” because, by the time she died, she had no heir. But this is an extraordinary contortion of the truth. Anne lived through seventeen pregnancies, and was mother to nineteen babies, only one of which survived infancy. Seven miscarriages, two of twins. Five stillborn babies, at least two of which had lain dead inside her for over a month. Two babies who died within hours of birth. Two little girls carried off by smallpox before their second birthday. And one, Prince William, who was born with hydrocephalus. He suffered from ill health throughout his childhood, and died from pneumonia less than a week after his 11th birthday, with his mother holding vigil at his bedside until she passed out from exhaustion.

If I had lived through a tenth of the adversity that confronted Queen Anne, I’m not sure I’d have got out of bed each day. Perhaps she was a tiny bit crazy. She was certainly obese, had failing eyesight, and could barely walk. But to live through loss on an unimaginable scale, to battle on through disability, and still to govern? These are accomplishments that should not be ignored. And Anne did not just govern: she governed well.

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Queen Anne was always considered too weak to be a decent monarch, even in her own time. But the evidence shows she was diligent, patient, and capable. Her first speech to Parliament, on her accession to the throne, was admired for its insight and skill – foregrounding her patriotism and Englishness, and building instant popularity. Anne worked hard, despite her ill health. She met with ministers daily, attending more Cabinet meetings than any of her predecessors. It was only 50 years since the end of the Civil War: the absence of disputes between the monarch and Parliament should not be considered a sign of her weakness, but a sign of judgement and a willingness to help settle in these new constitutional arrangements, by respecting them.

The Acts of Union were her greatest legacy. In her first speech, she declared it “very necessary” to conclude a union between England and Scotland, two nations that had shared a crown since 1603 but were still governed separately.  It was essentially to prevent the Scots from choosing a different monarch and taking a different political direction.

In 1705, fresh negotiations were opened between England and Scotland, which concluded in 1706, and were followed by the Act of Union in 1707. This granted Scotland – still reeling from the financial collapse of the Darien scheme to start a colony in Panama – access to England’s domestic and colonial markets. It also protected the Scottish Presbyterian church, and separate legal system, allowing Scotland to retain much of its separate identity within a supranational structure.

I’m not starry eyed about the history of these islands. Too often England sought to obscure other national identities, and subjugate or abuse the peoples of Scotland, Wales and Ireland rather than share sovereignty with them. But at the heart of unionism is the idea that peoples with differing senses of their national identity might, nevertheless, be willing to share a government, to the benefit of all.

 Anne’s leadership enabled us to establish a system of government which permitted that, establishing a political union which has lasted longer than any other in global history.  It’s an idea worth saving; an idea worth celebrating.

Unionism stands opposed to the narrow nationalism that is dominating politics these days. We are increasingly in thrall to the idea of self-determination: the idea that every people must be able to govern itself, alone, without the interference of anyone who defines their identity differently.

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But self-determination is the wrong idea for an age of complexity. Nations need to work together in the common interest, whether it’s to govern multi-national corporations, fight cross-border crime, or combat climate change. And there’s no such thing as a pure national identity, where everyone is of a single tribe. We are complicated people, and getting more complicated, as migration transforms the demographic landscape of almost every country on earth.

That’s what I’ve always loved about being British: the acceptance of a complicated, trans-national identity. I was born in England; I spent half my childhood in Wales. My father is Scottish, and my mother traces her heritage to England, Ireland, Scotland and the Netherlands. I have roots in every one of our nations, with a smattering of continental Europe for good measure, and this always struck me as exactly what it meant to be British. Britishness is not an ethnic identity: it’s a civic one, where all are welcome.

For Queen Anne, unionism was simply about holding together Scotland and England. In our era, it needs to be bigger, if it is to counter the seductive call of ethnic nationalism in an age of diversity. But, as the proud inheritors of the world’s oldest political union, we should have the confidence that Britain can lead the way. In our age of complexity, this is the kind of identity politics we need to build: where we can be all things, and one.