Thought for the Day - Clifford Longley - 04/02/2013

The Government's new test for people wanting to become British citizens has been criticised for giving only a one-dimensional picture of what this country is about. The controversy reminded me of the time a small group of us as were shown round his family picture gallery in Arundel Castle by the late 17th Duke of Norfolk, who was the senior Roman Catholic nobleman in Britain.

As he described how this and that ancestor of his was beheaded for treason or died in chains in the Tower of London, it became clear that what we were being given was an alternative history of England from the received official one, where the heroes and villains were reversed. For instance Elizabeth I, Good Queen Bess, was, in this Catholic family's history, the Very Bad Queen Bess.

It brought home the truth of the saying that history is usually written by the winners. Catholics, in this version, were definitely the losers.

They were, in a phrase I first heard used by the Jewish Labour Peer Lord Maurice Glasman, an exiled tradition. The exile he was referring to was more cultural than geographical, though the most obvious example were the Jews, expelled from England in 1290. They were physical as well as cultural exiles until Oliver Cromwell allowed them back in. Exile in the Roman Catholic case meant exclusion from the mainstream, kept out of sight, their view of the world not taken seriously.

There are other exiled traditions, not just religious ones. There are black people, who have been present in this country since the Middle Ages, and whose experience is fundamental to the story of empire; there are the urban poor, likewise; there are homosexual people who have certainly felt exiled and excluded; one could even put women as a group in this category. They are all people whose story of being British is different from the official mainstream version, and therefore tends to be neglected.

In our secular society, the gradual process of turning a deaf ear to what they have to say may be happening to the very people the Duke of Norfolk's exiled tradition would have said were once the winners - the Protestants. If we were ever to drive them into cultural exile we would have excluded something fundamentally important from the very fabric, out of which our national identity is woven.

Exiled traditions are rewarding, if sometimes uncomfortable, to listen to. They have an alternative list of heroes and villains and a different set of triumphs and disasters. They also have a different set of customs and values from the majority, and therefore something important to contribute to our common good. The rich story of "this island nation" has to include them too, otherwise it's just "history according to the winners".

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