cw: Colonialism, the British Empire, crimes against humanity committed in the context of empire, transphobia in academia
For a while now, I’ve been meaning to write something about the use and abuse of history in politics. In Poland, a deliberately vague 2018 amendment to a National Remembrance law has threatened to make criminals of scholars who wish to consider Poland’s role in the Holocaust. There, the ruling far-right Law and Justice Party has sought to portray Poles as the victims of Nazi persecution, and nothing else. To so much as dare consider that Poland was complicit in the Holocaust is, according to many interpretations, against the law. As someone who studies the history of Holocaust memory, I find this to be a frightening overreach into scholarship that has no place in modern Europe.
The ugly truth is that history is a powerful political tool. Away from the Holocaust, it turns out that Britain’s increasingly populist and nationalist government is by no means above bending history to suit its own whims.
As it happens, the Black Lives Matter movement and the events of last summer in the United States have come at an inconvenient time for the Government. More than ever before we’re closely considering Britain’s colonialist legacy. It’s a legacy that still lives alongside us; that still, in many ways, benefits us here in the UK. (In few places is this more apparent than in Oxford.) Under the pretext of the Empire, Britain committed many unspeakably heinous acts. Take the partition of India, the 1919 massacre in Amritsar, the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau uprising, or more generally the brutality of colonialism that maintained the Empire. I didn’t learn any of this in school. And it certainly isn’t something unique to the United Kingdom. Many countries have terrible colonial legacies - but Britain’s apparent refusal to confront its own past is almost unparalleled, and it is entirely inexcusable.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives are in the midst of a nationalist frenzy. The reality is that Post-Brexit Britain is a fragile nation. Largely through the ruling party’s own doing, the country is split down the middle on Europe and those wounds won’t heal any time soon. Scotland is going its own way - at this point that feels like an inevitability. The economy is in tatters, compounded by the entirely self-inflicted wound of Brexit. In order to keep favour with his voters in a political system that thrives on dividing the electorate, Prime Minister Boris Johnson - a man who charmed his way into office in spite of being grossly underqualified for the role - is resorting to the nationalist playbook in what feels like an act of desperation. The Britain that Johnson wants to ‘sell’ is the myth of Britain that many of his voters grew up with. Ever correct and blameless, this myth of Britain is the image of national exceptionalism.
In plans for a ‘twin assault’ to combat the ‘issue’, made public by the Conservative-leaning Daily Telegraph in an article that reads like it could have been written by the Conservative Party’s propaganda wing, it was announced by Education secretary Gavin Williamson that powers given to a new ‘Free Speech Champion’ would sanction universities or student bodies that attempt to ‘cancel, dismiss or demote’ people for their views. This could mean (I'm taking a guess here, using the limited information currently available) that it would be more difficult to remove academics who hold persistently transphobic views, or perhaps it could mean bigots or fascists who are 'no platformed' could sue for damages. But more tellingly, we learnt that the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden, summoned twenty five heritage bodies and charities to a meeting where they will be told ‘to defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down.’ Organisations, Dowden said, should be ‘making people proud, not making them feel guilty about being British.’ There are many countries where open, unsilenced academia and teaching are considered by the Government to be a threat. I didn’t think that I lived in one.
The Government wants to stifle the activities of organisations like the National Trust who are doing valuable work in exposing links between our heritage assets and the nation’s colonial past. Britain’s right-wing (at times far-right) press responded with fury to the Colonial Countryside project which investigated the ties between National Trust properties and the slave trade. The Government wants to paint these activities as being driven by ‘ideology’ - in a similar vein to Priti Patel’s bizarre rant against the criminal justice system’s ‘lefty lawyers.’ There’s no red scare-style conspiracy in academia or heritage here - only facts that complicate the task of winning elections for a Prime Minister who has bet his career on being the voice of the exceptional Little England.
It would appear, then, that the British Government, so decidedly in favour of freedom of expression, wants to promote these values by… inhibiting freedom of expression. And such is its desire to teach this country’s history that it wants to prevent us from doing so. It wants to stop historians from ‘rewriting’ history - which is strange, because that is all that historians do. History is the conversation that exists between ‘me’ as the historian - with all that I have been taught, and all of my implicit biases - and the infinite number of facts that make up the past. As long as time moves forward, historians rewrite history. So I’m not sure that ‘rewriting’ is the word they really mean to use. I think it is a deplorable, cynical ploy to stoke the fires of cultural and racial division in this country, and return to the ‘ignorance is bliss’ model of British history that was undoubtedly taught to Johnson and much of his Cabinet.
It is sometimes said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. We are not our ancestors, of course. But the world that they built is the one we live in. This much is clear in Oxford (alma mater of, by my count, seven Cabinet members), where evidence of colonialism and empire surround us in the city’s very fabric. We can either acknowledge that past, or we can plug our ears and feign outrage when ‘Rule, Britannia!’ is dropped from the setlist at the Last Night of the Proms. The former, I think, is the very least that we should be doing.