Historian: 'Britain has lost its way, but the past shows we can recover'

Dominic Selwood has researched and written Anatomy of a Nation

Dominic Selwood has researched and written Anatomy of a Nation - Credit: Dominic Selwood

Britain may be a country that has "lost its way" but history shows that solutions can be found - even for the culture wars - a writer has concluded.

Historian and barrister Dominic Selwood has turned detective for his book Anatomy of a Nation: A History of British Identity in 50 Documents - an investigation through time to find who we are as a nation. 

Holloway-based Dominic came up with the idea during the fallout from the Brexit referendum, believing that the population had a very different sense of "who we are as a country". The project developed with the protests around statues. 

“We have all these people very angry about the past,” he said. “But also we have those who are deeply angry and wanting to defend the past. These are not niche views. I was fascinated - what does this tell us about modern Britain?

“We are a country who has lost our way. We don’t really know who we are anymore. There are these views of who we can be, what is our role in the new world?”

The 50 documents are described by Dominic in the book in an accessible way that provokes an interest for scholars and casual history fans alike.

He has left out Shakespeare, the "obvious" choices of documents and those proclaiming big events in favour of artefacts that meet his fascination with ordinary people’s lives.

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For instance, instead of any important royal charter, Dominic has included the first ever Valentine’s letter written in 1477 and the oldest piece of recorded writing by a woman in Britain - a birthday invitation from 100 AD.

Among the 50 short chapters there are also entries for graffiti from the plague and Tony Blair’s entry to the Iraq "dirty dossier".

“We are a nation of immigrants,” Dominic said. “Even back as far as records began. There were complete changes of DNA through all of the conquests. There is not one DNA that is British and Britain has been so many different things.

“Britishness has been many things over the years. Ordinary people have lived many different lives that all these different ages have in common.

“Today, Britishness can be defined by being very internationalist and outward looking - well known for its sense of humour. That is what most people know us for abroad, Monty Python and Four Weddings.

“One thing we do have is extraordinary creativity - a notable creativity. If you look at the creation of language, literature, the beautiful books created in Anglo Saxon times.

"Then there is the industrial revolution - we revolutionised the world with steam engines and technologies. And then came computers, Sir Tim Bernard-Lee inventing the worldwide web. So much art, design, fashion, music… Britain has always been amazingly creative.”  

Have any times mirrored the present day? 

“We have been divided before,” Dominic said, “There was a period of immense division when the Romans left. 

“There was division after the Norman conquest when they really came and ruled, it gave rise to a lot of splits. Language changed and laws were passed in French, but 200 years later English returned.”

There is the Civil War but the Tudor period is the most similar to present, according to Dominic, with the change from Catholicism to Protestantism and the "biggest land grab in British history".

“There you really did have a divided country, people were standing up and saying ‘I am not accepting this,’” he said, “The vast majority did not want to become protestants. This continued from the 1530s to the 1600s, the country was bitterly divided over religion.”

But despite the changes in times, Dominic believes hope can be found from these examples throughout history. 

“I think this does offer hope. We came out of the reformation as a very strong country. After the Civil Wars, people united around a restored monarchy. 

“But in these cases a new identity is formed. That’s where we are at. Neither the Anglosphere-Churchill based vision of Britain nor the vision of Britain being part of a European family. Neither are fit for purpose. We have to find our new identity.

“We should look at history and all the amazing things we have been and continue to be. And let go of some of the baggage and allow ourselves to become a 21st century country.”

Anatomy of a Nation: A History of British Identity in 50 Documents is on sale now, RRP £25, from Waterstones, Amazon and others.