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Neil MacGregor: “A consistent element of Britain’s image has been the lonely fighter standing against foreign tyranny”

Neil MacGregor talks to Matt Elton about the new season of his BBC Radio 4 series As Others See Us, which – on the eve of Brexit – explores how countries around the world view Britain and its history

Neil MacGregor photographed in London. “It seemed a good juncture, as Britain sets to leave the EU and operate alone on the world stage, to get a sense of how other countries view us,” he says. (Image by Chris McAndrew)
Published: September 6, 2019 at 3:27 pm
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Matt Elton: For people who missed the first season of As Others See Us, can you explain what the series sets out to do, and what it covers this time around?


Neil MacGregor: It seemed a good juncture, as Britain sets to leave the European Union – following the Brexit referendum of 2016 – and operate alone on the world stage, to get a sense of how other nations view us. Britain is going to have to renegotiate its position with a whole range of countries around the world and, as we undertake those negotiations for future relationships, it’s going to be important to understand a little better what they think about us.

The first season covered Germany, Egypt, Nigeria, Canada and India. How did you choose which countries to explore in the five episodes this year?

We wanted as broad a global range as possible, and to focus on five countries that have been identified as key partners in Britain’s future after Brexit. So, obviously, we needed to address the United States.

But it’s so enormous that we decided we would take a different approach, focusing on Los Angeles and Boston – two cities with very different relations to Britain. Boston was, of course, the old colonial city that rebelled against Britain in the 18th century, but it was also transformed by the Irish famine of the 19th century [the city was a major destination for Irish emigrants]. So it’s a place with historical links to Britain in two separate ways.

Los Angeles, meanwhile, has never been part of British North America – but, as home to Hollywood, it’s a place that has altered how the world thinks about Britain. 

We also wanted to look at Australia, because that country has been talked about by British politicians as one that is ready to be an early trade partner in a post-Brexit world. And, of course, it is also a country with very long historical and imperial connections, and in which a large population has direct links with Britain. 

Similarly, we chose Singapore because of Britain’s imperial role, but also because British politicians have talked in recent years about Singapore as a model for the UK in the future. We wanted to find out more about what Singapore [which gained independence from Britain as part of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963] thinks of Britain now, and whether its people think that, after Brexit, Britain could become Singapore writ large.

Finally, we wanted to choose the two nations inside the European Union with the greatest connections in terms of population. Spain has more British people living in it than any other European country – around 300,000 – while, conversely, there are well over half a million people from Poland living in Britain. 

The Spanish Armada, depicted in a 16th-century engraving. England’s stand against Spain has become a cornerstone of its self-image. (Image by Bridgeman)
The Spanish Armada, depicted in a 16th-century engraving. England’s stand against Spain has become a cornerstone of its self-image. (Image by Bridgeman)

To get to the heart of the matter, then: is Britain’s history and its historical relationship with these countries a key factor in shaping how they now see us?

It is – in every case. What is always striking is that, without exception, these countries seem to know a lot more about us and our history than we do about them and theirs. Our view tends to be much more insular, and restricted to knowing only about the history
of Great Britain and Ireland. But, strikingly, different parts of history are important for different nations depending on their preoccupations, their concerns, and the specific historical relationship that they had with Britain.


What major areas of history are important in the five nations you visit?

Perhaps inevitably, for three of the countries we explore in this season – Australia, Poland and Singapore – the Second World War plays a very important part in the way in which they think about Britain. But what also emerges is that people from all around the world are very surprised by the extent to which British politicians in recent years have defined Britain in terms of its behaviour in historical wars. They are struck by the fact that Britain talks much more about its past in war than its past as a parliamentary democracy. 

This also applies specifically to the way in which Britain addresses its relationship with Europe and the rest of the world: it often uses language of confrontation and struggle. So much British political rhetoric is about Britain at war, and particularly the Second World War. There’s a huge discrepancy in how Britain sees itself in that conflict and how others see us.

Indigenous Australians dance to music in this 20th-century bark painting. The treatment of these peoples by European settlers remains a sensitive political issue in Australia today. (Image by Bridgeman)
Indigenous Australians dance to music in this 20th-century bark painting. The treatment of these peoples by European settlers remains a sensitive political issue in Australia today. (Image by Bridgeman)

Is it fair to say that Britain defines its identity in terms of war more than other countries?

I think so – and not just the Second World War. In Spain, for instance, they’re very struck by the fact that Britain still defines its relationships so much in terms of the supposed little, heroic England that fought alone against mighty Spain in the intermittent conflicts [sparked by political and religious tensions] of the 16th century. And, for them, that has distorted the way the British think about Spanish politics to this day. 

Both of those aspects are concerning to them: the focus on war, and the idea of Britain being alone. They don’t see that as historically true, either.

Do you think that Britain is singularly obsessed with such myths in a way that other nations aren’t?

As I say, Britain’s rhetoric about itself and its place in the world is largely about conflict, and the most recent conflict in which it played a major part is the Second World War. Because of that, the reading of that war plays a much bigger part in British self-understanding than in any other country – with, perhaps, the exception of Russia. 

Poland, obviously, is also completely shaped by the memories of the Second World War, so we’re not unique in the fact that it’s a foundation myth. But I think our own reading of the Second World War is often regarded as being dangerously selective.

Did the people you spoke to have a sense of why Britain focuses on these aspects of its history to such an extent?

The general view is that, since that struggle with Spain in the 16th century, the British have wanted to see themselves as the small force on the edge, fighting against one predominant, tyrannical power. Whether that power is Spain, or the France of Louis XIV, or Germany, or Russia, a consistent element of Britain’s self-image has been the lonely fighter standing against foreign tyranny. And, for the people we spoke to in making the series, it was very hard to see the present-day EU as fitting credibly into this narrative of an oppressive, dominant power.

A Second World War propaganda poster from Poland. “For Polish people, their history with Britain is essentially the history of the Second World War, and of promises not kept. It’s a story of abandonment,” MacGregor argues. (Photo by: PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
A Second World War propaganda poster from Poland. “For Polish people, their history with Britain is essentially the history of the Second World War, and of promises not kept. It’s a story of abandonment,” MacGregor argues. (Photo by: PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The British empire was also a key historical factor shaping Britain’s relationship with the world. How was that viewed?

Australia and Singapore have direct historical connections to the empire, and they couldn’t be more different. Descendants of European settlers in Australia have a complex view of it. They’re clear that they were beneficiaries of the imperial system – which, for instance, is why the Australian government so willingly supported and sent troops to fight in the First World War. But they’re also aware of the fact their forebears often did some terrible things to the nation’s Indigenous population: dispossession, destruction and deliberate killing.

That, clearly, is a very big political issue. One of the great surprises in making this series was to hear the view of a distinguished Indigenous historian, Marcia Langton, who suggests that Indigenous Australians view the crown as having in some measure defended them against the settlers. In particular, Langton is very eloquent on the role of the present queen in acknowledging the significance and the dignity of the Australia’s Indigenous population as citizens of her realm. 

What is the view of the British empire in Singapore?

It’s a very different story. While people in nations around the world have been removing emblems and statues of imperial rulers, in Singapore they actually have two versions of a statue of Stamford Raffles, who founded the British colony in 1819. This tells you something very remarkable. 

This year, to mark the bicentenary of its founding, four new statues depicting other people who helped make Singapore – Chinese, Indian and Malay – were erected alongside the newer Raffles figure. This is a statement in sculpture that Britain’s contribution was free trade and the rule of law for everyone of all races. They’re clear that this was an enormous gift, and imperial history is, on balance, seen as a very positive part of Singapore’s present prosperity.

But – and this is very important – what’s clear about the Second World War narrative for both Australia and Singapore is that the turning point was the fall of Singapore in February 1942. That changed everything. Britain had loudly promised that Singapore would be defended until the end, and that it would be protected along with Australia. The failure of the British to be able to keep their military promises is, really, the central lesson that both nations took from the war. 

It changed their view of Britain forever, and they took two things from it: that Britain on its own was not able to shape its own future or the world around it, and that Britain on its own – without its allies, the Soviet Union and the US – could not keep its promises. It’s a very different view of the Second World War from the one most people in Britain grow up with and were taught about in school.

That’s an interesting point. How is British history presented in the education systems of these countries?

The situation in Spain is particularly interesting in this context. First of all, they’re very clear that it wasn’t the English who defeated the Armada, but the weather! But they also really do believe in the persistence of what’s called the ‘Black Legend’ [a sustained distortion of a nation’s history by those outside it]. In their case, it was the Elizabethan propaganda of the 16th century about the inquisition of Spain – stories lauding the heroic, buccaneering English, perpetuated in the 19th century by the poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. They believe that these works have coloured everything since – which has a certain amount of truth in it. 

The other element of Spanish history that’s fascinating is that, as it emerged from the Franco dictatorship in 1975, the examples of Britain’s constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy were seen as perhaps the best guarantee of stability. The Spanish are, therefore, very distressed by what are often seen as the current crises of British democratic procedure and breakdown of parliamentary traditions. 

Spain, of course, has its own experience with referendums, having had its own independence referendum (since declared illegal by Spain’s constitutional court) in the autonomous community of Catalonia in 2017. So it is very concerned about how to combine parliamentary democracy with a referendum. The feeling there is that referendums require very careful thinking and planning. So, rather fascinatingly, the Spanish regard the Britain of 2019 as a political model that they hugely admired but which has got itself into a serious predicament. 

They’re not talking only about the EU referendum – they’re also talking about the Scottish independence referendum [held in 2014, and which resulted in Scotland remaining part of the United Kingdom, although calls have persisted for a follow-up if Britain leaves the EU]. Their concern is that a referendum entrenches division within a country in a way that a general election doesn’t, which is why it’s dangerous.

What is the view in Poland?

We spoke to Radosław Sikorski, a former foreign minister of Poland, who said that British people are taught that they went to war in 1939 for Poland [the Nazi invasion of which, in September of that year, sparked the Second World War]. His view is that this just isn’t the case – instead, Britain declared war and then did nothing as Poland was dismembered. So, for Polish people, their history with Britain is essentially the history of the Second World War, and of a series of promises not kept. For example, Britain was too weak to help 1944’s Warsaw Uprising, in which the Poles rose against the Germans as Soviet armies drew near. It’s a story of abandonment. 

Their argument is very clear: they saw in 1939, and again in 1944, that Britain on its own cannot do what it wants to do. It’s never really been able to control events and has, instead, always worked with allies. Yet it talks about its own history without properly referring to the part those allies played in it.

Did the people you spoke to in Poland worry about what the future might hold?

The big worry now in Poland now is about the future of the European Union. They still have a memory of what they see as Britain’s betrayal of Poland to the Soviet Union at the 1945 Yalta Conference [at which world leaders met to discuss the reorganisation of Europe once the Second World War had ended; see our Perspectives feature starting on page 48]. They felt that the EU was the great hope to protect them against Russia, and to give them a level of security that they hadn’t previously had. Their huge worry is that Britain leaving will weaken the EU and expose them again to the danger of domination by Russia.

What other concerns do people in these countries share?

It’s worth remarking, I think, that at no point in any of the conversations I had in the course of making this series did the economic aspects of Brexit feature as a question or a concern. People focused instead on the political contribution that Britain has made and could continue to make, and what the Brexit decision is doing to the British constitution. What is it doing to Britain’s reputation for stability, for pragmatism, for being able to resolve things in parliament? What is it doing to the notion of a parliamentary democracy? Those are the key issues that were raised in all of the countries that I visited. 

Many of the people we spoke to have a deep understanding of the rules of British parliamentary democracy, and appear to have a much deeper grasp of those areas than many of our own politicians and commentators. As a result of the confusion of a referendum and parliamentary democracy, there’s confusion about where power now lies. Is it with the people, via referendums, or with MPs in parliament?

That issue is seen as being extremely concerning in what was, for centuries, the model parliamentary democracy. The people that I spoke to regarded those principles and practices as being at risk – and, because they feel that Britain has, for centuries, been such a model, there is a real worry that this will have deep significance for the whole world. 

Neil MacGregor is a historian and former British Museum director. His books include Living with the Gods: On Beliefs and Peoples, set to be reissued in paperback by Penguin in October 2019.

All episodes of As Others See Us are available now on BBC iPlayer


This interview appear in issue 18 of BBC World Histories on sale 12 September 2019


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