It’s a standard complaint in the progressive critique of Britain’s collective memory that we are fixated on the Second World War. Schoolchildren know this already; anyone else can step into a bookshop – mask on face – and head to the history section, which covers little else.
This year’s statue toppling was a particularly visual reminder of our contested history, but many of the same arguments were aired during a squabble over the history curriculum in 2013. Michael Gove, then education secretary, had outlined a British-centric timeline of world events, but later recanted under protest.
Historians were upset that Gove’s curriculum was overtly ideological, with the academic Richard Evans writing in the New Statesman that “history isn’t a form of instruction in citizenship. It’s an academic subject in its own right.” Lefties, who generally think history should be instruction against citizenship, meanwhile argued that the curriculum wasn’t rude enough about the British and didn’t include enough women, foreigners, or poor people.
Fair enough, I guess, although if leftwingers want to set the curriculum perhaps they might trouble themselves to win an election. History is after all inherently political in its judgements, and an elected government has a mandate to decide what kids should learn. Teachers are just hired help.
I was reminded of this while reading Ed West’s recent Small Men on the Wrong Side of History, a polemic-cum-memoir. He writes that Nazism “forms the main cultural memory of our world”, with our lingering horror contributing to our view of the civil rights movement in the United States and Apartheid in South Africa.
Our revulsion over Nazi crimes might explain why the British are generally more troubled by racism than sexism and classism. The history also explains our vigilance against resurgent fascism and receptiveness to warnings that “it could happen here”: see the risk that migration sceptics face of being called racist.
For conservatism, West argues, our narrow historical memory has been disastrous. The author concedes that his politics are ideologically closer to fascism than progressivism is. The association contributes to perception of the Tories as “the nasty party”, in the former prime minister Theresa May’s iconic phrase.
Nations probably get only one major event to build their national myth on. By nature the stories are simplistic, but the events set the tone for any political discussion. Americans, for example, have the revolution as their origin story, meaning many debates revolve around the founding fathers and the constitution.
In Britain some progressives wish we could rebuild our national image around imperial guilt, much as the New York Times’ infamous 1619 Project tries to reframe the US around slavery. This would showcase the British Empire as systemic looting like Shashi Tharoor did in Inglorious Empire, his book on the British Raj.
People are instinctively averse to hating their own country, so absent a German-style total military defeat such a story would be hard to impose on people. It’s also a partial reading of the British Empire, which was more spurred by great power competition and commercial interest than hating foreigners – but who cares about truth when there’s politics at stake?
Why though, would progressives want to change the background music? Their ideology has done well in a culture marinated in the morality tale of the Second World War. If anything it’s conservatives who should be campaigning for a more flattering founding myth. Unfortunately for them, the best tale is already being told.