‘The wokerati have declared war on our history’
‘Our heritage, our history, our culture, our society, our communities, our identities as men and women, as sovereign individuals, all of it is being undone… This is deliberate and must be resisted at all costs,’ says Neil Oliver on GB News, whilst Zoe Strimpel in the Telegraph tells us that ‘the woke left has declared war on our history’. Meanwhile Douglas Murray on Spectator TV asserts that what is going on in our museums is not education but ‘flagellation’ (of our history, one imagines).
These are examples of the endless victim narrative peddled by the far right, but what are these people talking about? Whilst there certainly are some examples of political correctness being taken too far, in my view at least (and, let’s face it!, we are all sometimes guilty of foolish excess), people like Murray and Oliver pick on ridiculous examples and then pretend that all liberals subscribe to these views. When, for example the Tate Gallery feels it must close a restaurant because of some supposedly racist caricatures in a Rex Whistler mural, they pretend that all readers of the Guardian and The Financial Times are in agreement with this decision, just as they would, no doubt, claim that every West of England Bylines writer is in favour of sending the Elgin Marbles back to Athens. (Actually I would return them, but in the accompanying letter I would stress that this is no admission of guilt). Similarly, Oliver implies that all of us woke lefties and liberals are in favour of cancelling Christmas because a primary school in Lambeth tries to be more sensitive to the faith or lack of faith of its pupils during the festive season. And yet we hear stuff like this: ’That anyone would ever seek to silence those who want to celebrate Christmas is beyond sinister in my eyes,’ (Neil Oliver). Nobody is saying that, of course.
Oliver and Murray are so transparent. They have decided that they alone are equipped to be the final arbiters in all matters of British culture, history and ‘identity’, and any disagreement must be regarded as a violent assault on our very essence.
For the far right, history and identity are not fluid but fixed, and fixed by them. At some stage in the past (and it must be a rolling past since history keeps happening), a version of our history was somehow revealed to us. This is now our history, a narrative of which we can be certain and proud. It gives us a reassuring sense of who we were and who we are. Don’t fiddle with it!
Of course this is nonsense. The notion that history is something set in tablets of stone is absurd. Even when history was being made people disagreed about what was happening, and when it comes to interpreting it, history is fluid, ever changing. It is a social science and the scientific method applies, and there is always nuance in science. Absolute truths never remain absolute for long.
With Clive in India
When I was a wee bairn way back when, we had some books from the thirties: novels of Dornford Yates, a school of writing now referred to as ‘snobbery with violence’. I also recall one G.A. Henty, who wrote over 100 children’s historical novels between 1860 and 1902. There was ‘Under Wellington’s Command’, ‘With Lee in Virginia’ (yes, his hero fought for the South) and ‘With Clive in India.’ His introduction to the latter I really cannot abridge. It says so much.
In the following pages I have endeavoured to give a vivid picture of the wonderful events of the ten years, which at their commencement saw Madras in the hands of the French—Calcutta at the mercy of the Nabob of Bengal—and English influence apparently at the point of extinction in India—and which ended in the final triumph of the English, both in Bengal and Madras. There were yet great battles to be fought, great efforts to be made, before the vast Empire of India fell altogether into British hands.
This, I suppose is how many still see the story of the East India Company taking over India. A tale of derring-do of which every Englishman can be proud. Henty was obviously very proud of the East India Company’s takeover of much of India, and he had done his research, but one book he was unable to read was The Anarchy by William Dalrymple. In essence Dalrymple describes how by 1765 Robert Clive, working on behalf of a private trading company, had seized control of vast tracts of India with the help of certain local potentates, and made the East India Company the de facto government. Instead of just purchasing goods it was levying taxes and squeezing the province dry, and making large profits from exporting the goods it had purloined to Britain. This dangerously unregulated global company became a colonial power. In 1803 it had a private army of 200,000 men. Needless to say Clive, and his eldest son, amassed a fortune. No doubt G.A. Henty’s young man who accompanied him made a few bob as well.
The ‘shady, brutal and mercantile’ takeover of India embarrassed the Victorians, so to salve the British consciences the idea of a selfless ‘mission civilisatrice’ was invented. As for the collective looting that lies at the heart of empire there was, and still is, a collective amnesia and we are invited by the likes of Murray and Oliver to be ‘proud’ of our nation’s great achievements. This, for them, is what the study of our history is all about. No revisionism for these chaps.
This is not the sort of history I studied at school and later at Manchester, where I was taught by such luminaries as Christopher Haigh and Ian Kershaw (both ‘revisionists’). I do not think that I ever came across the notion of ‘our’ history, or ‘national pride’. Concepts like ‘nationalism’ came up and were subjected to scrutiny and Kershaw urged us to be sachlich (factual) when we studied Nazi Germany, and it was through my study of German and German history that I came to experience the German approach to the past.
For the Germans the very notion of national pride – in the Brexit English sense – is absurd. Yes, they can take pleasure in the fact that the greatest music in the world comes from the German speaking world and they still have the most powerful economy in Europe and a system that works well for most of its citizens, but the aberration of National Socialism is confronted head on. There is none of the flagellation to which the egregious Murray refers; rather there is a profound examination of the evidence, and of course, that changes as new discoveries are made, for history is never static. There is endless debate on the role of the Führer and has acolytes and the extent to which the Germans were willing, reluctant or just resigned participants in aggression and extermination. Only at the edges of society do some of the madder elements the far right seek to glorify the deeds of the German armed forces – and the SS – and a close watch is kept on these people, who are rightly shunned by the majority. There is very much the feeling that only through a head-on confrontation with their past can there be any moving on.
For many Britons this is also the case, but not for the Brexiter right wing. Brexit – which is English exceptionalism on speed – is based upon the assumption that we are special and somehow better, or rather we would be better were it not for the traitors in our midst who keep talking the country down and collaborating with dastardly foreigners. In this world view it such people who seek to undermine our identity and self-belief. Their approach to our history, allegedly, depicts us all too often as the bad guys and asserts that we should be ashamed of some aspects of our national past. There is talk of apologising for slavery – but didn’t we put an end to the slave trade; didn’t we fight fascism?
It wasn’t me! I didn’t do it
Now there may be certain parties who feel we should be ashamed of the ignoble deeds of our ancestors, but I think they are few in number. What organisations like the National Trust are doing is re-examining the source of the wealth behind some of our most beautiful houses. How can there be anything wrong with that?
If you read about the work of the Trust reassessing the sources of the Clive family wealth there is actually no mention of shame. We do not inherit the sins of our fathers. I reject any notion that I should feel shame for the sacking of Drogheda and Wexford or the crimes of the Black and Tans. I didn’t do it, but similarly I experience no pride in the fact the Britain stood up to Adolf Hitler in 1940. I wasn’t there at the time. I was there, but only just, in 1956 when ‘we’ tried to seize the Suez Canal, a debacle which propelled us into the Common Market. Not my fault either.
I rather think Brexit will be seen as a similar Suez-like moment, fuelled by delusions of grandeur (with added fear and loathing – and corruption), and that for me is what history is all about – a never-ending endeavour to reinterpret the past, and if it is our own past, we must try to see ourselves as others see us and not as we want to see ourselves, and it need never be painful, because we didn’t do it.
Robert Clive died in 1774. Addicted to opium he somehow severed his jugular with a penknife and bled to death. Samuel Johnson claimed it was suicide: ‘He had acquired his fortune by such crimes that his consciousness of them impelled him to cut his own throat’. For Dalrymple Clive is ‘an unstable sociopath and a racist’, hated both in India and England.’ The Victorians – G.A. Henty among them – reinvented Clive and the whole story of the origins of the Raj, and that is the sort of history that the likes of Murray want to preserve.
It makes you proud to be an Englishman.
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