As Michael Wood's "Story of England" debuts this week on BBC4, Maurice Glasman wonders whether Wood leaves the greatest questions unaskedby Maurice Glasman / September 22, 2010 / Leave a comment
Wat Tyler is killed by the Lord Mayor of London during the peasants revolt of 1381
The Story of England by Michael Wood (Viking, £20)
There is a political void where England should be. While Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland enjoy devolved government, the English do not govern themselves. Parliament, the traditional assembly of the English people, represents the union and not the nation. England, as a political nation, has no body and it cannot speak.
England poses difficult political questions for progressives. Football and the monarchy are the popular focus of English nationalism, and the expression of support for both has never been a comfortable one for the left. England, has become, in some ways, a foreign country. And yet Labour’s future depends on it being able to reconnect to England, to its traditions and language. As Michael Wood, the author of The Story of England, writes: “For a small country on the far western shore of the Eurasian landmass, its influence on the world of literature, language, politics, law and ideas of freedom has been out of all proportion to its size. Why that should have been is an interesting question in itself.”
It is not a question the book tries to answer. There is no thesis defended or method adopted beyond writing an account of the history of one village, Kibworth, in Leicestershire, from what he calls, with Anglo-Saxon brevity, “the bottom up.” Drawing on an impressive range of sources, Wood describes the impact of huge events and processes on the lives of ordinary English families in the centre of the country. The Anglo-Saxon and Viking invasions, the Norman conquest, the Black Death, the Reformation and enclosures exerted transformative force on the lives of the people of Kibworth. The village is constituted by people who live from the land, and the ownership of the land is what is at stake in each phase of its history.
There are moments when Wood grasps the dynamics of this: “An important part of the narrative of English history is the story of how the rulers asserted and enforced their claim to the labour and surplus of the working people, and how the people fought to establish their own freedoms under the law.” Here, the origins of capitalism, the rule of law and the sustained force of the “ancient constitution” in the minds of the people—all distinctive of England—are brought to…