Schools in the UK need to teach the history of all four nations, the historian David Olusoga has said, warning that ambivalence and indifference risk pulling apart the union.
The fact that A-level pupils in England do not learn much about the history of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and vice versa means that Britons struggle to understand key contemporary political issues in the other nations, for example the Scottish independence movement or sectarianism in Northern Ireland, Olusoga said.
“I just don’t think ignorance is ever really a positive background factor in nations being drawn together,” he said. “Not knowing each other’s stories is a weakness we are one day going to have to address.”
Speaking to the Guardian before the launch of his new documentary exploring the past, present and future of the union, Olusoga said: “We underestimate the complexity and potential fragility of the UK, especially in England.
“When you talk about the union in Scotland, everyone knows what you mean. When you use the word union in England you realise it’s not a phrase you hear very often. I think we are in England less familiar with the architecture of the country and the history that explains it. That’s why I really advocate better teaching of this.”
He said he had first realised how little history is taught about the other three nations at GCSE and A-level when he arrived at university and made friends from Northern Ireland.
He thought this lack of awareness was how unhelpful, simplistic stereotypes about other parts of the UK arise, for example the idea that everyone in the south of England is rich, when some of the UK’s most deprived areas are located there. He added that it propagates the view that the union is a purely “English project”, and an under-recognition that “our ancestors crossed borders”, similar to Olusoga’s own, some of whom moved from Scotland to Newcastle during the Industrial Revolution.
Olusoga described the United Kingdom as “quite a strange state” as well as only 100 years old in its current form. “What we mustn’t do I feel is imagine that we on these islands are separate from the great forces of history,” he said, noting that the map of Europe over the centuries showed constantly shifting borders.
The historian said he had been moved to make the new documentary because Brexit has made this a “moment when people are thinking about the union, one of the many moments of turbulence in its history”.
This is also partly because “many of the forces that have made the union successful and acceptable to a great number of people are in decline”, he said, citing the Protestant religion, and the wealth and opportunity spread throughout the region and nations by the Industrial Revolution and the imperial project.
This contrasts with the postwar period, which historians have referred to as “peak union”, when its benefits to all citizens were clear: the NHS was created, lots of social housing was built, there was economic opportunity around the country.
To address the shift towards an unequal society, political leaders should “think radically about what we need to do to create a sense of how to rebalance the country”, he said. Olusoga suggested that the decaying state of the House of Commons could provide a motive to move some political business outside London.
He added that the “other nations need to be encouraged to feel like partners rather than small players”.
Citing a recent IPPR report on the “ambivalent union” in which fewer than half of voters in any UK nation see maintaining the union in its current form as a priority, Olusoga said: “It seems very strange that we are discussing something that would be so seismic with one of the key emotions around it being ambivalence and [a lack of interest]. The irony is that we think what posses a risk to the union is strong anti-union sentiment rather than just indifference.”
Union with David Olusoga airs on Monday 2 October on BBC Two at 9pm and will be available on iPlayer