New guide changes the course of history

28th April 2006 at 01:00
The Home Office has just published a booklet for UK newcomers which is riddled with historical errors of fact, writes Sean Lang

Hold the fireworks, cancel the bonfire. Guy Fawkes might be innocent. That, at any rate, is the implication of Life in the United Kingdom: a Journey to Citizenship, published recently by the Home Office on behalf of the Life in the United Kingdom advisory group as a guide for new British citizens.

In a list of important national festivals (which also gets wrong both the name and date of Remembrance Sunday) Guy Fawkes Night is explained as when a group of Catholics are said to have plotted to blow up the king, and poor old Guy was allegedly guarding the explosives.

Said? Allegedly? No historian seriously disputes that the plot was real and that Guy Fawkes's job was to light the fuse. Where is the Home Office getting its history from?

Presumably from the first part of the booklet, a bizarre tour of British history written by Sir Bernard Crick, a distinguished philosopher and the architect of the citizenship curriculum, but no historian, as this howler-riddled booklet amply demonstrates.

The chronology is often wonky: St Augustine and his Roman monks arrived a long time after the Irish missionaries in the north, not at the same time; the English conquest of Wales came before Edward I's invasions of Scotland, not after; Cromwell beat Charles II at Worcester after invading Scotland, not before.

Even when they are in the right order the facts are often wrong. Charles II had no heirs? Yes he did. Voting qualifications before the Reform Act were based on high levels of property ownership? No they were not. Bonny Prince Charlie was not claiming the throne for himself, and his highlanders were not "tribesmen" either.

The text quotes at some length Lord Mansfield's Judgement, which abolished slavery in England, but gets both the date and Lord Mansfield's title wrong. It even claims that Attlee's Labour government wanted to end colonial rule when, in fact, it wanted to maintain it and make it more efficient.

The only Scottish kings to get a mention are the ones people in England have heard of - Robert the Bruce, Mary, Queen of Scots and James VI and I.

No mention of Scotland's great renaissance prince, James IV.

But the Scots are luckier than the Irish: no Irish leaders get a mention at all. Instead, Irish readers will learn to their surprise that during the "penal times" of the 18th century, when Ireland's Catholics were denied education, the right to own land or carry guns, and all rights to vote or stand for parliament, "a policy of conciliation and tolerance was pursued".

Tell that, as they say, to the marines.

Incredibly, the Home Office even gets the name and construction of the UK wrong. Great Britain does not include Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man; the Act of Union between England and Scotland was not a treaty of union, however much Scottish nationalists like to claim that it was, nor did it create the UK.

The UK was created by the 1800 Act of Union with Ireland which, incredibly, is not even mentioned. And this in an account called The Making of the United Kingdom.

You could forgive anyone a lot who tries to put the essence of British history across in 25 pages, were it not that the Home Office was well aware of these, and many other errors, because the Historical Association pointed them out a year ago. In May 2005 the then president of the association, Professor Harry Dickinson, an Englishman living and working in Scotland and therefore keenly aware of such issues, sent the Home Office a detailed critique of the draft text, then buried away in the department's website, including a seven-page list of errors.

No reply. The association wrote again in September 2005. "Sorry, guv", said the Home Office, "we never got no letter."

The association sent the list again. This time the Home Office asked if the HA might help amend the text. The association replied that it was beyond redemption but offered to write a new one.

But this did not fit in with the HO's tight schedule, which is why you can now buy Sir Bernard's text, warts, typos (a surprising number), factual errors, sweeping generalisations, gross misrepresentations and all. Yours for Pounds 9.99.

This strange saga raises a fundamental point of principle. What is the Home Office doing producing official histories of the UK in the first place? This should not happen in a free society.

From its HO cover to the official endorsement by David Blunkett as Home Secretary (sic) this looks and feels like an official document. Still, it should go well on this year's bonfire. Allegedly.

Se n Lang is honorary secretary of the Historical Association and the author of British History for Dummies

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