England and its history – why Brexit didn’t come as a surprise

Das Buchcover von James Hawes: Die kürzeste Geschichte Englands vor britischen Flaggen (Buchcover Ullstein Verlag / Hintergrund (c) Ole Spata/dpa)

England does not even mean England, as writer James Howes has already identified the first gulf in the country between north and south: 2,000 years ago, 55 BC, Julius Caesar first set out for the island – initially Not as a conqueror, but as an explorer.

In the interior of the country they encounter long-established populations, but on the southern coast they encounter Belgian immigrants who are still highly controversial. 150 years later, the Southeast has arrived with the Roman conquerors. The region is a prosperous and peaceful colony. On the other hand, the west and north make it difficult for Rome – and perhaps itself – to do so. This division is the common thread that has run since then through “The Shortest History of England” by James Howes.

“Three centuries before the Norman conquest, the boundaries between England and its neighbors were basically the same as they are today. And even then there was talk of a north-south division between the British.”

Geographical and Cultural Division

Soon the Vikings will attack. They reinforce contradictions. And the Normans? With their campaign against the North and their cultural hegemony, they are bridging a gap that now separates the French-speaking elite, Hawes says, from ordinary English to date.

“The common English – 90 percent of the population – were left without leadership of their own. By adopting the language and culture of their conquerors, the remaining English elite were permanently removed from the rest of their population.”

In the Wars of the Roses, the language of the South becomes a symbol of education, the North continues to decline.

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This disparity is still echoed today, says James Howes: “The country was always divided by geography, geology and culture, and then – it’s too easy to forget English – it was ruled for 400 years by an aristocrat, speaking French. Which follows that to this day the English elite and the English people speak almost different languages.”

“The world empire is long gone”

The Germanist and writer Haus drew attention to himself four years ago when he wrote “The Shortest History of Germany”. In it he argued that the division into West and East Germany was not artificial in any way, but was determined already within the boundaries of historical Germany along the Elbe.

Now it overlooks England and once again the historical dividing lines run along a river: according to Hess, what was the Elbe in Germany is the Trent in England, which flows through the Midlands. The river draws not only a geographical boundary that cannot be overcome for a long time, but also a linguistic, economic, political, religious and social one.

In addition, there were class differences, which were further aggravated when collectively used farmland was given to individual landlords in the 16th century.

“Fences made landowners richer, helped better farmers, and created the biggest destabilizing factor in any society: a section of the poor with the hope that anything better could happen to them.”

Industrialization also only allowed the North to flourish for some time with its natural resources and labour. He does not manage to catch up with the elitist South. The Empire and the United Kingdom are expanding their rule, but in Howes’ interpretation they are only able to create national unity temporarily, if at all.

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sleight of hand

James Hawes: “The country, with its deep historical divisions, has been hidden for 300 years behind Great Britain, behind the United Kingdom and of course behind the World Empire, so to speak. But now the world empire has been around for a long time. Gone. Ireland is long gone, Scotland will soon be gone and then we are all alone in the English world and finally we have to ask ourselves the question of who we really are.”

What Howes is describing is, of course, the result of Brexit – and here we move on to the core of his narrative. While those in favor of leaving the European Union seem to see Britain moving towards the new old shape and unity, Howes is convinced of the exact opposite.

To them, Brexit is a sleight of hand from a conservative faction around current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who played a key role in the country’s long division by pretending to be the savior of the English people.

“This is not the first time that the British have been asked to kick off their Europe-friendly, freedom-robbing, aristocratic, foreign-speaking elite by a full member of that elite. And it is not the first time that they have simply That’s what it’s done.”

history and controversy

He is not writing Haus, he is writing the history of England. His approach is particularly interesting at a time when the history of England and Great Britain is highly controversial. Brexiters acknowledge the greatness of England on the one hand, while critical voices question the empire’s colonial past on the other.

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From the outset, the book has been driven by Howes’ thesis of division. And it helps to keep an eye on them. Otherwise, with the breakneck speed with which Howes trawls 2000 years of history on 385 pages, you could lose the thread. Especially in the first part, the names of kings, princes and counts just fly by.

But anyone who is willing to follow Howes’ thesis – or to rub against it – and to understand his book not only as a historical treatise, but also as a controversy, “England’s most Short History” reads with great advantage.

James Hoss: “England’s Shortest History”
Translated from English by Stephan Pauli Paul
Ulstein Verlag, 400 pages, 10 euros


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