History is not being rewritten; it is being acknowledged – Labour Article
The Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, is reportedly encouraging the UK’s heritage bodies to “defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”. This follows concern from senior levels of government that there are “attempts to rewrite Britain’s past”. I believe that this is a completely unfounded attack on truth.
Some MPs have accused Channel 4 and the BBC of “trying to appeal to a narrow band of north London metropolitan virtue signalling politically correct lefties”. There is such clear disdain in this country for anything that appears to acknowledge the negative aspects of Britain’s past. Anything that deviates from the nationalist perception of British history is a “woke” attack that “talks Britain down”. What does this really mean though?
As far as I can see, “talking Britain down” seems to be a way to silence anyone who doesn’t blindly celebrate British history. For example, to reject the common narrative that Churchill was an irrefutable hero is seen as an attack on Britishness itself. In reality, people should be able to look at history objectively without being accused of “talking Britain down”.
This is so much of the problem though. People are accused of rewriting the past by highlighting pieces of information that are challenging the mainstream discourse. It is not rewriting history to highlight Churchill’s responsibility for the Bengal famine. When this is acknowledged, however, the response always focuses on him “single-handedly winning us the war”.
Even if we were to accept this narrative as truth, does winning the war exempt you from all other moral shortcomings? I highly doubt this is true. Otherwise, Stalin would be seen in a far more positive light in the UK, given the USSR’s involvement in defeating the Germans. The fact that Stalin is so widely detested in the UK proves that we are able to acknowledge that atrocities cannot be excused by winning wars. So why are we all expected to love Churchill so much?
Ultimately, we are expected to do this because there is no real concern for historical truth and accuracy when looking at British history. Instead, it is better to preserve an emotive and triumphant perception of British history, even at the expense of truth. It is a narrative that is devoid of any critical thought and objective analysis. Essentially, we should just support these things because they represent Britain.
I believe this is not only dangerous but borders on the authoritarian. We should be able to re-evaluate the way we view our own history. Acknowledging the past, even if it defies ultra-nationalist myths, is not rewriting history. It is engaging with it in an effort to better understand it.
The same can be said of the statues debate that arose a few months ago following the toppling of Edward Colston’s in Bristol. Whether you agree with the manner in which it was removed, there cannot be any serious argument that this is “rewriting history”. It is completely false to say that statues serve to teach us about the past. In reality, they serve to deify and immortalise people of note. Colston’s statue did not have any mention of his association with the slave trade, so what exactly are we supposed to have learned about him?
In reality, we should be much more worried about the rewriting of history that has already occurred. So many of the monuments in this country celebrate people who were actively involved in Britain’s colonial enterprises and the slave trade. Many of these monuments were put up at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century as a way of trying to cement the British Empire as an identity.
The cost of this is that the victims have been consistently ignored. Meanwhile, the very people who committed the atrocities have been commemorated as admirable men. The narrative has relinquished these men of their crimes because ‘it was a different time’. This is the rewriting of history in action; a narrative in which morally bankrupt criminals become heroes and countless victims are ignored.
So, I agree with Oliver Dowden that there have been attempts to rewrite Britain’s past, but not from where he thinks. These attempts are much older and much more deceitful than what we are seeing now. The “rewriting of history” that we are seeing now is the culmination of centuries of ignorance that sought to preserve British symbolism at the expense of historical accuracy. This is not a “rewriting of history”, it is a “recovery of history”.
Written by Senior Labour Writer, Jack Rolfe
Point of Information
“History should not be rewritten or removed” – A Conservative Response
I praise Jack for writing such an important piece that raises some very interesting points. Unfortunately, I am going to disagree with you. You stated that “it is completely false to say that statues serve to teach us about the past.” That is exactly what they are there for. They are there to teach us and remind us of historical events.
Boris Johnson argued that “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history”. He is absolutely right. Your own leader, Keir Starmer, even stated it “was completely wrong” to tear down the statue in Bristol.
I suggest a better, alternative solution than spending more money having the statues removed and completely disregarding historical events. All statues should have information signs giving a brief history and perhaps a QR code that can be scanned to access more information. Education is key, but to completely censor these pieces of history would be ludicrous. If you are looking for a “recovery of history”, which you have stated in your piece, then this is the solution.
It is too dangerous to remove statues. This would cause absolute chaos among the people, pressure groups, international organisations and more. The right thing to do would be to acknowledge past events and to educate the people. We are not “expected to love” all figureheads such as Winston Churchill. You can make up your own decision whether you adore him or not. Those decisions should be made by the actions he made. Therefore I am calling for more information to be provided at statues to educate the people.
Written by Senior Conservative Writer, Max Jablonowski
Education, not negation – A Liberal Response
As a nation, our knowledge of our past and interaction with it is something that will always be important. As a history student, I felt as though I had to respond to Jack’s article. He makes a number of very interesting points but, whilst the sentiment is right, he makes sweeping generalisations.
I agree that there are people in this country that blindly and unwaveringly defend figures such as Churchill. But this isn’t the attitude of an entire country. In any case, tearing down statues serves little purpose. Defacing the statue of one of Britain’s most-loved national heroes does nothing. We need to educate people much better about all areas of British history – especially the controversial parts. I didn’t learn about Britain’s colonial past in school, and children are still not being taught it. The only way I learnt about the British Empire was by researching and reading up on it myself.
This is the problem. My passion for history led me to learn about events such as the scramble for Africa and the partition of India. But most of the population know very little about these events – both of which were, and still are, hugely significant.
I think Jack is entirely wrong to say there is “no real concern for historical truth and accuracy when looking at British history”. Yes, it has been left out of the national curriculum by politicians for far too long. But it is a lack of education that causes people to passionately defend an empire that they know little about, not a failure of historians to discuss it.
Only through a proper education of Britain’s imperial past can we seek to acknowledge and debate our history. Tearing down statues doesn’t help debate, it stifles it. Removing the statue of a slave trader cannot reverse their actions. But educating people about these figures does lead to a more fruitful debate and a more aware society.
Written by Senior Liberal writer, Fergus Harris
I am a third-year student at the University of Exeter, studying BSc Politics and International Relations. After graduating in the summer of 2020, I will be completing an MSc in Applied Social Data Science. I will also be the Treasurer of the Politics Society, as well as of the Uni Boob Team for the 2020/2021 academic year.
I am Max Jablonowski, a second year student studying French and Politics at the University of Exeter, and I am about to go on my year abroad to Paris to complete two internships. I was Academic Events Manager of the Politics Society in Exeter and I was privileged enough to organize events such as Question Time, co-host the 2019 General Election Hustings with MWEXE and host the Rt. Hon. James Brokenshire MP, the current Minister of State for Security.
I am a second year student reading History and International Relations at the University of Exeter. After my degree, I am hoping to do a Journalism MA.