Could there be a more timely advert for the Better Together campaign than on the field of sport? What the England football team manifestly need is the man who is now the best British player, an offensive winger with the speed of a cheetah and the tactical brain of Rommel — proud Welshman, proud Brit, Gareth Bale. My obsession during international sports tournaments is to find appropriate historic parallels for every game. Holland made it easy for me with a destruction of Spain reminiscent of the 1639 annihilation of the Spanish fleet at the Battle of the Downs off the east coast of Kent: a decisive clash that ended conclusively the age of Spanish naval hegemony. I was looking for an England performance against Italy akin to Boudicca’s rout of the IX Legion. We got Caesar’s 54 bc invasion, a sharp defeat, which was not terminal, but leaves all with a dark inevitability about future clashes.
People tend to take from history only what they need for the present. I was in Normandy last week for the D-day commemorations, and was struck by what D-day meant to people. For many, it represents a totemic national triumph. Onlookers on the beaches spoke to me of their frustration that we had thrown away the victory won by those brave men through surrendered sovereignty and liberal betrayal. But D-day’s lessons are more nuanced. We British have achieved our greatest victories, against Philip of Spain, Louis XIV, Louis XV, Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler, when we have been in lockstep with coalition partners. Each of these alliances was only barely tolerable, infuriating, inefficient, expensive and unpopular, yet ultimately ensured that we won. The most disastrous war of the last three centuries was the American Revolution, when, unusually, we found ourselves fighting all on our lonesome.
For those who see in today’s Britain a pale reflection of the nation that was the senior partner on D-Day (yes, providing more ships and men than the Americans), try the view in late September after a Scottish ‘Yes’ vote. J.K. Rowling did her bit this week, a cheque accompanied by a thoughtful and lucid explanation of her reasons for backing the union. I was sorry she did not venture into more positive territory. The Pope, by contrast, raised more fundamental principles, talking of the sadness inherent in all division. Reactivating a border formalised in the 13th century by two medieval warlords is a deeply uncivilised and recidivist step, particularly given that the small island that it would slice in half, Britain, enjoys an ethnic, religious, cultural and social homogeneity that is internationally admired. Borders are scars of past violence. We need less of them, not more. Just as the archaeology of Stonehenge suggests close links with the far north and even Orkney, Harry Potter was written in Scotland by an Anglo-Scot, about a kid from Surrey who boards a train in London to head to school in the Highlands. This combo proved world-beating, as it has done for generations.
Alex Salmond will also be focused on old battles with modern significance as the 700th anniversary of the greatest Anglo-Scottish clash at Bannockburn approaches. His greatest achievement is to make nationalism appear progressive. A century ago the first world war started. Within a few years nationalism had torn apart the sprawling, multi-ethnic, multi-confessional empires of eastern Europe and the Middle East. The nation states that succeeded them have been drawing lines on maps, killing or moving other minorities around and enforcing linguistic identities ever since. In eastern Ukraine people are terrified of being made to unpick an impossibly complex heritage and choose clumsy labels: are they Russian or Ukrainian? In the Middle East the badly designed and appallingly led successor states to the Ottoman Empire are still arguing about which bit belongs to which national or religious group. The news that an army of extreme Sunnis is threatening Baghdad is powerfully resonant to a lover of history. How many times has that ancient city, once the centre of the world, prepared itself for capture and ransack? We Brits have had it in our sights about five times in the past 100 years alone. The mind boggles.
What’s happening around the South China Sea has eerie Balkan parallels. Declining powers, rising powers, rigid alliances, demands for exclusive zones of economic control. This week it emerged that there have been hundreds of examples of Vietnamese and Chinese boats physically clashing at sea. Don’t worry — everyone knows that China harbours no territorial ambitions against its neighbours. Let’s hope that’s true, but it has fought violent conflicts with Vietnam, South Korea, Tibet, the USSR, Burma and India, all in the past 70 years. And now it’s got a navy.
Dan Snow’s television shows include D-Day: The Last Heroes.