‘We won’t allow people to censor our past,’ Robert Jenrick, then communities secretary, said in January. ‘It is our privilege in this country to have inherited a deep, rich, fascinating and yes, often complex, past. We are mature enough as a society to understand that and to seek to pass it on, warts and all. To do otherwise would leave our history and future diminished.’ A month later, Oliver Dowden, then culture secretary and now co-chair of the Conservative Party, made a similar point: ‘Proud and confident nations face their past squarely; they do not seek to run from or airbrush the history upon which they are founded … Purging uncomfortable elements of our past does nothing but damage our understanding of it.’
Jenrick and Dowden’s emphasis on the freedom of historians to carry out research into uncomfortable topics, and their recognition of the complexities and ambiguities that characterise Britain’s history, is salutary. No historian would disagree. But if we look closer, we find that Jenrick and Dowden’s statements are not quite what they seem. They rightly condemn any threat to erase significant parts of British history from the record, but this threat doesn’t originate from the ‘woke worthies’ and ‘the flash mob’ of the left, as Jenrick thinks, or the ‘cancel culture’ that Dowden condemned at the Conservative Party Conference in October, but from the Conservative government itself. As Dominic Dean, of the University of Sussex, put it in his blog in February, ‘the UK government is currently engaged in an open and multilayered campaign to control and change the nature and quality of historical research in Britain and, in particular, of its presentation to the public.’
It is a sad reflection on British politics that this is all the result of deepening research into Britain’s role in the slave trade. As part of this work, and spurred on by the Black Lives Matter movement, many institutions in Britain have been examining the extent to which they directly or indirectly profited from the trade before it was outlawed in 1807, and from plantations worked by enslaved people in British colonial possessions before the formal abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833. One of these institutions is the National Trust, a public body responsible for managing many of England’s historic properties, including a large number of stately homes. In 2018 the trust launched a schools-focused project called Colonial Countryside, pointing out that
British country houses were influential centres of colonial wealth and bureaucracy. As historians take new approaches to British imperial history, utilising recent resources like the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership database, less familiar and often newly discovered colonial stories of our places are being uncovered … The project’s legacy will be to ensure that colonial connections are integral to the stories that audiences discover during their visit.
Discovering and presenting to the public new knowledge about the English country house is an admirable way for the National Trust to deepen and broaden appreciation of the complex histories of the buildings in its care. But the project has attracted fierce criticism from Conservative politicians and journalists who clearly think it a subject best left in decent obscurity. In February, Marco Longhi, Tory MP for Dudley North, called for government funding to be withheld from such initiatives, run by people who ‘hate our history and seek to rewrite it’. The National Trust’s plans (as well as the National Maritime Museum’s scrutiny of Nelson’s involvement with slavery) were, Longhi alleged, ‘a form of Marxism applied to our cultural and heritage sector’ by people ‘who want to apply today’s standards to events and people of decades and hundreds of years ago’. It was entirely wrong, he said, to use taxpayers’ money ‘to effectively besmirch our heroes to suit their left-wing woke narrative’. In the Telegraph, Charles Moore complained that the National Trust had been ‘rolled over by extremists’, and Andrew Brigden, another Tory MP, that it had been ‘overtaken by divisive Black Lives Matter supporters’. The Telegraph, the Express and the Daily Mail all reported that displays at Jane Austen’s house in Chawton would carry out ‘historical interrogation’ of ‘Austen’s tea drinking’ and its links to slavery. This, the papers solemnly declared, was ‘woke madness’. In fact, Austen’s father was a trustee of an Antigua sugar plantation, worked by enslaved people. The museum responded: ‘We are increasingly asked questions about this by our visitors and it is therefore appropriate that we share the information and research that exists on [Austen’s] connections to slavery and its mention in her novels.’
One of those involved in Colonial Countryside is Corinne Fowler, a professor of postcolonial literature at Leicester University and co-author of a list of 93 National Trust properties built on money earned from plantations run by enslaved workers, or from slave ownership, or furnished with the lavish compensation paid to former slave owners after abolition. She feels that academics pursuing work like hers are being misrepresented, maligned and intimidated. ‘I think we should all be worried when academics are targeted in this way, when the evidence can’t be disputed.’ The National Trust’s director-general, Hilary McGrady, noted that complaints had only been received from 0.05 per cent of its 5.6 million members, and that a great many members had voiced their support of the Colonial Countryside project. There was no ‘revolt’ of the membership, as had been claimed in parts of the right-wing media. A 2020 survey found that more than three-quarters of the trust’s members thought it should do more to educate visitors on its properties’ colonial connections. The resignation in October of the trust’s chairman, Tim Parker, widely hyped in the same places as a victory against ‘wokeness’, was coincidental (his two-term tenure had come to an end, having been extended for a year because of the pandemic).
None of this made any difference to Dowden, who while still culture secretary said he would ban the use of public funds for Colonial Countryside. ‘Public funds should never be used for political purposes,’ he said, suggesting that the trust was violating the Charity Commission rule to this effect. And yet it was he who was disregarding the Haldane principle, which holds that decisions about the allocation of research funds should be made by researchers rather than politicians. This principle has been essential to the rise of British science and scholarship over the past hundred years and more. Where politicians have dictated research funding, as in Nazi Germany, the results have been catastrophic. German science has never recovered the eminence it enjoyed before 1933. Now, however, the British government has declared the Haldane principle obsolete. Dowden said so quite openly: ‘I would expect arm’s length bodies’ approach to issues of contested heritage to be consistent with the government’s position.’ No matter that if they follow this expectation, they will no longer be ‘arm’s length bodies’.
Dowden’s statements prompted the Royal Historical Society, the Historical Association (the national organisation of history teachers) and other academic bodies to register ‘concern’ about his ‘illegitimate’ interference in the funding of historical and heritage research. Referring to the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s support of Colonial Countryside, they pointed out that while the fund is not specifically protected by the Haldane principle, the Lottery Act does not make ministers responsible for funding decisions. In addition, the Charity Commission, which oversees the National Trust, had formally determined that Colonial Countryside wasn’t political. Political interference of the kind Dowden was attempting, the historians warned, ‘stifles the capacity of historians to do their work and exerts a wider chilling effect. It may deter – it may be intended to deter – historians from embarking on difficult or sensitive research.’ There is also evidence of interference in the museum sector, where trustees have apparently been threatened by the government with the non-renewal of their trusteeships if they endorse the ‘decolonisation’ of their institutions. When Mary Beard was put forward as a trustee of the British Museum, the government rejected her on the grounds that she was pro-EU (the museum appointed her anyway).
Another example of the government’s willingness to weaponise the past is Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents, the information booklet on which applicants for naturalised British citizenship are examined as part of their admission process. In July 2020, the Historical Association posted a letter signed by 175 historians denouncing the document as ‘fundamentally misleading and in places demonstrably false’ in its account of slavery, the slave trade and the process of decolonisation. The first version of Life in the United Kingdom, produced in 2004 by the Labour government, acknowledged the presence of enslaved people in Britain and of Black people more generally in the British Isles in the 18th century, and pointed out that enslaved people played a significant role in securing their own emancipation. The 2013 edition, the first published under Conservative rule (at that time, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats), omitted all this and characterised emancipation as a gift to enslaved people from the British, who were seen as acting solely on moral grounds. The fact that tens of thousands died on British slave ships, mentioned in the 2004 and 2007 documents, was omitted from the 2013 version, which mentions only the ‘horrible conditions’ under which they were transported. The document also claims that slavery was illegal in Britain in the 18th century (it wasn’t – slaves were advertised for sale in newspapers). Slavery, it says, was an ‘overseas industry’. The 2005 and 2007 editions had conceded that any account of history ‘is only one interpretation. Historians often disagree.’ They also noted that contemporaries were themselves divided on matters such as the costs and benefits of empire. This pluralism disappeared in 2013, and instead we were told that ‘the great majority of British people believed in the empire as a force for good in the world.’
As the Birkbeck historian Frank Trentmann recently pointed out in his excellent analysis of Life in the United Kingdom, more recent history is similarly distorted by the 2013 document. Cutting out all reference to the appeasement pursued by British governments in the 1930s, the narrative simply says: ‘The British government tried to avoid another war.’ Churchill is denied the credit for opposing appeasement, jumping onto the stage of history when he is made prime minister in 1940. Hitler’s racism, mentioned in the 2004 and 2007 versions, doesn’t appear in the latest edition, which says merely that he ‘wanted to conquer more land for the German people’. Antisemitism doesn’t come up either. Nor does the word ‘Holocaust’. The document also claims that in the postwar period ‘there was, for the most part, an orderly transition from empire to commonwealth, with countries being granted their independence’, ignoring the millions of deaths that accompanied the partition of India, the Mau-Mau rebellion in Kenya and the ‘emergency’ in Malaya, to name just three violent and chaotic instances of decolonisation.
In trying to impose a single, supposedly patriotic narrative on historical teaching, research and public presentation, the Johnson government is far from unique. In September 2020, Donald Trump set up the 1776 Commission, an advisory body intended to encourage ‘patriotic education’. Trump had previously condemned the teaching of American history in schools, calling it a ‘twisted web of lies’ articulating a ‘radicalised view of American history’ which ‘vilified [the United States’] Founders and [its] founding’.
Packed with conservative ideologues, and without any historians of the US among its members, the commission reported the day before the election that would bring an end to Trump’s presidency. It told schools to reject ‘factional ideologies that demean America’s heritage, dishonour our heroes, or deny our principles’, and described universities as ‘hotbeds of anti-Americanism, libel and censorship’. American history, it affirmed, consisted of an ‘unprecedented achievement toward freedom, happiness, and fairness for all … Americans yearn for timeless stories and noble heroes that inspire them to be good, brave, diligent, daring, generous, honest and compassionate.’ Within hours of his inauguration, Joe Biden dissolved the commission.
Rewriting the nation’s past as a story of continual and unbroken success isn’t just an Anglophone phenomenon. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s government, dissatisfied with the historians of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, has created its own historical ‘research institute’ and charged it with re-examining the history of the last 150 years ‘in the interest of national unity’, aiming ‘to strengthen national consciousness’. The government has also erected a memorial in central Budapest to the Hungarian victims of Nazism, one of many ways in which it is seeking to erase the memory of the Arrow Cross movement, the native Hungarian fascist regime installed by the Nazis in 1944, which played a central part in sending 450,000 Hungarians to their deaths at Auschwitz.
It should be said, of course, that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with ‘rewriting’ history. Historians rewrite history all the time: it’s our job. Our success and prestige depend on our discovering new facts and advancing new interpretations. There’s nothing very left-wing about this. Conservative historians like Lewis Namier and Geoffrey Elton have rewritten history in hugely influential ways. Historians of all stripes need to reclaim history as a contentious, critical and diverse discipline against the attempts of ignorant and mendacious governments to force citizens to conform to a particular version of it.
In Britain, one of the most depressing things about the purported defenders of history is that they seem to view school pupils, university students and indeed the general public as brainless receptacles for any old story. In reality people are more than able to think for themselves. It is time that this was accepted and used as the basis for teaching, writing and researching history in a way that helps citizens to distinguish fact from fiction, propaganda from truth, myth from history.