Two documentaries this week made us ponder what our country, with its 1 per cent of the world’s population, exists for. How God Made the English (BBC2, Saturday) had the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch musing about the way we have believed for a thousand years that we were God’s chosen people, having taken that baton from the Israelites — thanks to the Venerable Bede.
I am not sure that he made the case. Most nations have believed at one time or another that God was their principal cheerleader. When the Israelites were in the smiting business, anyone they successfully smote, such as the poor wretches who lived in Jericho, were simply in God’s bad books. When they themselves were taken into slavery, it was because they had disobeyed orders. Many fundamentalist Israelis still believe this stuff. It’s a self-sealing argument, as convincing as footballers who make the sign of the cross before a match, as if God is going to give them that all-important away goal to get into the next round of the Champions League. And when they score, obviously God is a fan.
Naturally, countries that are rich and powerful believe it’s thanks to God’s benison. When God has been angry with Americans — 9/11, Katrina — it’s because they broke His laws, probably by allowing gay marriage. At least one bonkers bishop here blamed the flooding a few years ago on the same thing. I don’t doubt that the men who created the British empire believed God was driving them on; what I don’t find convincing is the notion that other nations didn’t think exactly the same way. The title of ‘Deutschland über Alles’ allegedly means you should put your country above yourself, but that’s not how it sounds. There may well be people in Somalia and Belarus who believe they are the chosen ones.
I had a primary school teacher who solemnly taught us that Britain was the finest country in the world in every respect. Even eight-year-olds wondered whether this was true of the weather, and she assured us that it was. Rain and cold kept us indoors working, not lazing round in the sun. French people are still taught that everything French — language, food, wine, art, music and public transport — is the finest in the world, which is why la France s’ennuie when it turns out not to be true. At least we British passed that stage decades ago, all of us except Tony Blair who, in his resignation speech, said that the world knew we were still the greatest nation on earth. Eh?
At the end, Prof MacCulloch conceded that the English were not the only nation to believe they were chosen by God, but ‘they have believed it longer and with more passion’. Hmm, maybe. Henry VIII may have decided that the birth of a son proved he had been right to usurp the Pope in England, but Henry was not someone who spent much time fretting about his relationship with the Almighty. It was a political power play.
There is a real problem with historical documentaries on television. Since there is no archive footage of Henry, or the Venerable Bede, chatting to Michael Parkinson, we inevitably see lots of the presenter. He was almost always wearing a panama hat. This snares your attention. If I read a book by a historian, such as, say, Diarmaid MacCulloch, I don’t expect him to inform me that he’s wearing a hat, or sitting in his dressing gown, or rowing a boat, as he was for no apparent reason except that he was near to where King Alfred fled from the Vikings. I don’t need that rattling round my head. God was, I fear, rather cluttered in that way.
Actually, we didn’t need God to tell us that the Falklands war was necessary. Apart from a few blithering idiots such as Morrissey, most people realised that rescuing our citizens from a loathsome dictatorship had to be done. One of the more chilling sections of Return to the Falklands (ITV1, Tuesday) showed how the islanders dread the Argentines’ return and a weakened Britain being unable to protect them again — with or without God’s help.
We saw Simon Weston, the famous soldier with the horribly burned face, Mike Nicholson, an ITN reporter, and Nick Taylor, a Royal Marine, returning after 30 years. It was extremely moving, especially the part where Taylor gave back to an Argentine officer the camera he’d found, complete with snaps. The two fell upon each other with comradely, almost homoerotic joy. The shot of them descending a hillside together could have come from Brokeback Mountain. Soldiers have far more in common with each other than they do with the rest of us. In this case, God seems to have been somewhere in the middle.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 24, 2012