Do we need a national story? – The Guardian
We’ve heard much about the importance of stories in recent years. It has been said that Vote Leave won the Brexit referendum because they told a better story than Remain; that Donald Trump won the US election in 2016 because he told a better story than Hillary Clinton, and lost in 2020 because his story fell apart. Some think the Labour party has struggled to turn the tide decisively against a corrupt, chaotic government because it doesn’t have a clear story to tell.
Stories have been central to community organisation for as long as communities have been organised. As Nesrine Malik writes in her insightful collection of essays, We Need New Stories: “Every social unit, from the family to the nation state, functions on the basis of mythology, stories that set them apart from others.” National stories can support any viewpoint: left or rightwing, liberal or authoritarian. They are integral to nationalism and represent a form of identity politics. While many across the political spectrum dislike nationalism and identity politics, the world is mostly made up of nation states. Unless that changes, those nations will continue to be part of how we identify ourselves – whether or not we embrace or reject their dominant values. Politicians of all stripes ignore the power of national stories at their cost.
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National stories may encompass science, the arts and religion, yet they are rooted in history: they create a narrative of how a nation, uniquely, was formed. These stories are always exceptionalist, suggesting that “our” nation is different from (and usually superior to) others. They are intended to exclude as much as they are intended to unite.
In Britain, there have been many attempts to construct national mythologies from a complex and chequered history. Our Island Story by HE Marshall, first published in 1905, is still often referenced today; in 2010, the then prime minister David Cameron named it his favourite childhood book.
Marshall emphasised that Our Island Story “is not a history lesson, but a storybook”. She advised her young readers: “I hope you will not put this beside your school books, but quite at the other end of the shelf, beside Robinson Crusoe and A Noah’s Ark Geography.” Whether or not this advice was effective, many of them internalised her depiction of …….