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by Ed West
Tuesday, 4
February 2020

Take that, Leavers: some British things might be slightly foreign

The Brexit-themed Horrible Histories has re-ignited a stupid debate
by Ed West
Another night of comedy gold. Photo: BBC

‘Thus from a Mixture of all Kinds began,
That Het’rogeneous Thing, An Englishman:’

So goes Daniel Defoe’s famous poem “The True-Born Englishman”, published in 1701 partly as a defence of King William III. The Dutch-born king had been invited to invade in 1688 by Whig politicians, but although suitably Protestant, he was a charmless figure and attracted a great deal of xenophobia. Defoe’s point was that this was not something to hold against the king, as we all had a bit of foreign in us.

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The argument behind the poem was given new life three centuries later when, during the last decade of the 20th century, the narrative of Britain being a “nation of immigrants” was born. It’s a highly questionable story — between 1066 and the Second World War the country had very small numbers of migrants — and it was more a case of America’s historical narrative being implanted onto ours (as with so many things).

But it was also a straw man; Britain is barely 20 miles from continental Europe, so of course there has been plenty of coming and going over the years, not just of people but goods, technology, culture and language.

So although our culture is historically Christian, England was Christianised by a number of exotic (and brave) individuals from far away, including not just the Italian Augustine of Canterbury but the North African Hadrian and the Syrian-born Greek Theodore of Tarsus. Theodore was sent to seventh century Anglo-Saxon Britain, at the time the very edge of the world and a land of barbarity, aged 66 — talk about going outside your comfort zone.

I find all these stories fascinating; history can be fun, something the BBC kid’s TV series Horrible Histories has really excelled in bringing out. It’s one of the best shows the Beeb has ever produced — up there with Blackadder — and I would actually list it among the top ten reasons to have children.

But the BBC’s decision to put out a Brexit-themed Horrible Histories with Nish Kumar was ill-judged. Unsurprisingly, lots of people were quite insulted, by the timing and tone, the host and one song in particular, “British Things”.

Yet the curious thing about the British Things sketch — which originally came out years ago — is that the argument can work both ways. That, because something originated in another country, it’s not really British. Journalist George Monbiot made a similar point about British things afterwards, as did Twitter personality Otto English, but the argument that something is not truly English if it has overseas origins is not the killer anti-racist point people think it is.

But anyway, my fellow angry conservatives, don’t let this put you off Horrible Histories, which is not only brilliantly funny and informative but includes a number of songs of pure genius — such as this number about those vibrant and multicultural 8th century migrants just trying to better themselves, the Vikings.

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