Like Unruly Children in a Citizenship Class

John Barrell

  • The Laughter of Triumph: William Hone and the Fight for a Free Press by Ben Wilson
    Faber, 455 pp, £16.99, April 2005, ISBN 0 571 22470 9

In a speech given early last month, Michael Howard shared his thoughts on education with the Welsh Conservative Party Conference in Cardiff. He was mainly concerned with the problem of discipline. ‘Guess which class children are most likely to misbehave in?’ The answer turned out to be Citizenship. And which subject would best teach children ‘respect for authority and the importance of discipline in school’? History. Not any old history, however, and certainly not the trendy kind that asks them to empathise with particular historical characters. Only by learning ‘what actually happened’, by studying ‘Britain’s past and her traditions’, would children learn to become ‘responsible citizens’.

As the Welsh Tory faithful no doubt knew, Howard was picking up on a speech made a few weeks earlier by Tim Collins, his shadow education secretary, to the National Catholic Heads’ Conference. In a zealous attack on the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the only school subject Collins had discussed at any length was history: ‘The problems surrounding it,’ he explained, ‘have become simply too great to ignore.’ He had come to announce a plan ‘to revitalise history’s place in our schools’. ‘Nothing is more important to the survival of the British nation,’ he declared, ‘than an understanding among its young of our shared heritage and the nature of the struggles, foreign and domestic, which have secured our freedoms.’

We cannot be surprised that some within the next generation do not value our parliamentary democracy if they know nothing of the English Civil War, do not vote if they are not taught about the struggles to widen the franchise, and do not value authority figures if they are not told the inspiring tales of the national heroes of our past.

A nation which loses sight of its past cannot long expect to enjoy its future.

It is for that reason that we must put history back where it belongs – at the centre of our school lives.

Collins’s speech fascinates me for so many different reasons that if I discuss it at any length I will be in danger of forgetting why I referred to it here in the first place. I have read it several times now, and it still boggles my mind: of all the possible reasons why parliamentary democracy has become devalued, and why so many fewer people vote now than they did twenty-five years ago, I would never for a moment have identified the QCA as the ‘heart of the problem’. For present purposes, however, what especially intrigues me is how Collins imagines he can square the belief he shares with Howard, that history, properly taught, will teach children ‘respect for authority’, with the idea that a proper history curriculum should include ‘the struggles to widen the franchise’.

Part of Collins’s plan to put history at the centre of our school lives includes commissioning ‘the distinguished historian and biographer Andrew Roberts … to chair a panel of academics who will draw up a simple but clear list of key facts, personalities and dates which every child should be taught’. I wonder, disingenuously perhaps, if one of those ‘key personalities’ will be William Hone. He certainly should be. Hone is one of the ‘national heroes of our past’ who struggled to secure our freedoms and to widen the franchise. He fought hard to resist the encroachment of the executive on the province of the judiciary, and now that the debates on the Prevention of Terrorism Act have taught us to look to the Conservatives to do the same, he can be embraced as a hero by the very party that persecuted him so mercilessly while he was alive. Where he scores poorly is in respect for authority, for like every other extra-parliamentary campaigner for reform of the franchise, from the Levellers to the Suffragettes, he didn’t have any. It was beaten out of him. Hone, indeed, regarded the politicians who attacked, often oppressively, sometimes illegally, the popular demand for parliamentary reform, not simply as corrupt – and they were certainly that – but as ridiculous.

Hone was born in Bath in 1780, the son of a devout Calvinist Methodist who three years later moved the family to London. After a brief formal education Hone was educated at home by his father, a solicitor’s clerk, who designed him for the same occupation. In his early teens he was a convinced anti-Jacobin; an enthusiastic loyalist song, a very good one, that he wrote aged 13 earned a letter of commendation from the Society for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers. Two years later, however, he joined the London Corresponding Society, and remained active in radical politics for the next thirty-odd years. At the age of 19 he married Sarah Johnson, his landlady’s daughter, and she brought him enough money to establish himself in Lambeth as a bookseller and stationer. He campaigned among other things for a new, more humane system of poor relief, improvement in the management of lunatic asylums, and a reform of Parliament. In 1817 he became a national hero, following his acquittal in three successive trials for libel.

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