X Close

Why the Tories need to rewrite history The Government is creating historical myths for nakedly political ends

Who can tell the best story? (Photo by Colin Davey/Getty Images)


May 12, 2021   8 mins

History is suddenly politically salient in a way it has not been for years, certainly not within living memory. We are soon approaching the first anniversary of the killing of George Floyd in distant Minnesota, as a result of which Britain’s statuary, the symbolic means by which the British state commemorates the nation’s history, became for a while the centre of political discourse, even in the middle of a lethal pandemic. 

Britain being a northwest European kingdom with a very different demographic and historical context to that of the US, the political effects of this were not what our local imitators of American fashions intended, a fact alluded to by the Labour frontbencher Khalid Mahmood when he deplored the loss of Hartlepool with the observation that “the loudest voices in the Labour movement over the past year in particular have focused more on pulling down Churchill’s statue than they have on helping people pull themselves up in the world”. 

No wonder, then, that Sadiq Khan, like an arsonist complaining about the growing prevalence of fires in public life, pleaded after his unexpectedly slender victory in London’s mayoral race for an end to the culture war. By making history a political battleground in a fundamentally conservative country more obsessed with its past than any other nation in Western Europe, our America-aping intelligentsia have unwittingly handed the government a ready and easy source of endless political victories. 

Like other divided polities — think of Northern Ireland — we have entered the realm of symbolic politics, where historical memory looms large and where the state possesses a clear advantage. Observe how our newly-Gramscian Conservative government seems set on replacing museum staff to defend one narrative of the nation’s story from assault by another: this is more than an online  “culture war”. Instead, the British state, perceiving a threat to its legitimacy at a time of existential political disorder, is acting as any state would act: by culling challengers to its authority and reasserting the moral validity of its existence.

Yet underlying this war over historical memory, on both sides, is a simplistic understanding of what history actually is. On the one hand, the statue-topplers argue that they are uncovering the dark objective realities of Britain’s colonial or slave-trading past from within an obscuring shroud of national myth-making. On the other, the Government and its supporters assert that they are defending the truth of our island story from the nihilistic and destructive myth-making of race-obsessed radicals. 

Both are right, and both are wrong. All history has a mythic quality, as observed by Foucault in his 1976 lectures at the Collùge de France when he noted that “we can understand the discourse of the historian to be a sort of ceremony, oral or written, that must in reality produce both a justification of power and a reinforcement of power
 Like rituals, coronations, funerals, ceremonies and legendary stories, history is an operator of power, an intensifier of power.” What we are observing then, though still only dimly appreciated, is a battle over political power, in which Britain’s history is both the weapon and the field of contest.

To understand this interpretation of the historian’s art — for art is what it is — we should turn to the work of the recently-deceased American historian Hayden White. In his 1973 work Metahistory, and later in the essays collected in the 1978 Tropics of Discourse, White took aim at the folk understanding of history as a simple record of events that happened in the past. Using his specialisation in medieval literature, White drew a contrast between the chronicle — a simple, chronological record of events more or less devoid of interpretation — with the historical narrative, encompassing history as we understand it, which is precisely how it sounds: a narrative, a literary construction which assembles an inherently moralising story or myth from the raw data of historical events, a process he termed emplotment.

As White observes: “The historian arranges the events in the chronicle into a hierarchy of significance by assigning events different functions as story elements in such a way as to disclose the formal coherence of a whole set of events considered as a comprehensible process with a discernible beginning, middle, and end.”

As a literary construct — a product of the personal aesthetic judgment and moral worldview of the subset of writers we term historians —and through the conscious or unconscious selection of raw events into an overarching narrative, “history” is  revealed as a literary genre analogous to fiction, which is not to say it is not “true.” As White suggests, historical narratives “succeed in endowing sets of past events with meanings,” as the tropes of fiction unconsciously shape the historian’s art when he sets down to write. The historical narratives he produces follow the form of these fictional narratives — indeed, they depend on them to work.

How does this apply, in practice, to our national culture war? White, deconstructing 19th century historiographies of the French Revolution, distinguishes between a politically “radical” understanding of history as analogous to the Romance, and a more or less conservative one drawing on the tropes of Tragedy. In the first understanding, which characterises the “woke” narrative of Britain’s urgent need to transcend a dark and morally disfigured past, history-as-Romance is “the sort of drama associated with the Grail legend or the story of the resurrection of Christ in Christian mythology. It is a drama of the triumph of good over evil, of virtue over vice, of light over darkness, and of the ultimate transcendence of man over the world in which he was imprisoned by the Fall.”

In the conservative, tragic reading of history, by contrast, the historian is concerned with “the resignations of men to the conditions under which they must labor in the world… man cannot change them but must work within them. They set the limits on what may be aspired to and what may be legitimately aimed at” in an imperfect world of frail and fallible human beings.

In the former worldview, the past is a world of torment and oppression which must be erased in the construction of an imminent Utopia; in the latter, the past, though perhaps morally imperfect, simply reflects the bounds of human nature. Man is what he is, and the construction of Utopias is as dangerous as it is fruitless: all we can do is build upon our shared inheritance from the past. We can see this dynamic play out in the United States with the New York Times’s construction of the mythic “1619” narrative centred on America’s essential, founding sin of slavery in opposition to the previously dominant “1776” narrative of America as a promised land of liberty and moral renewal. Neither is true, exactly, just as neither is false: they are merely opposing narratives constructed from the same raw data in pursuit of opposing political projects, differing in emphasis, narrative style and moral worldview. All history is, in this reading, a moral fable about the present.

Viewed in this way, there is a liberating quality to this understanding of history. White claims in The Historical Text as Literary Artefact (1976) that “if historians were to recognise the fic­tive element in their narratives, this would not mean the degradation of historiography to the status of ideology or propaganda” but instead “would serve as a potent antidote to the tendency of historians to become captive of ideological preconceptions which they do not recognise as such but honour as the “correct” perception of “the way things really are.” Through this self-awareness, “we should be able to identify the ideological, because it is the fictive, element in our own discourse” just as “we are always able to see the fictive element in those historians with whose interpretations of a given set of events we disagree; we seldom perceive that element in our own prose.” Thus armed with self-awareness, he argues, the contentious work of History can proceed with a greater, more productive detachment. 

Let’s consider this point further: “we are always able to see the fictive element in those historians with whose interpretations of a given set of events we disagree.” When we apply this insight, as conservatives of one kind or another, to such masterpieces of the modern historian’s craft as “52 Times Britain Was A Bellend,” or to the crop of Twitter academics who pronounce to the world with the now-customary appeal to authority of “Hi, Historian Here!” that actually St George was Turkish or that one or other government pronouncement is just like fascism in the 1930s or that actually Anglo-Saxon England was a multiracial utopia, we are freed from the need to engage these fantasies as historical truths but instead as political statements, new narratives or myths constructed as part of a political project centred on the present. 

It is not worthwhile to state that these claims are not true in a meaningful sense, because they are not meant to be. These are not “truthful” claims about what Britain was but modest literary fictions, political demands about what Britain should be now or in the future citing a mythicised past as a claim to authority.

The purest essence of this trend is the backwards projection of the tropes of late-stage liberalism through all time and space; though it sees itself as an urgent defence against nationalism , through constructing a mythicised past in pursuit of a present day, contested political project, such a worldview is nationalism’s child, not its negation. Indeed, anyone who has studied the starring role of history in the construction of nationalist projects will recognise the ironic parallels: like the classic nationalism of Europe’s 19th century, the anti-national cosmopolitanism of the modern Historian Here is a construct of liberal journalists, academics and schoolteachers, aiming to transcend what they see as a restrictive and oppressive near-past in pursuit of a glorious future, itself prefigured and justified by an idealised distant past. 

For any modern European, ultimately, there is therefore no escaping the tropes of nationalism and the nation-state, even if the aim is to overthrow them: they shape our worldview just as the world of throne and altar shaped that of the medieval mind. Aiming to surpass nationalism, the 21st century cosmopolitan liberal, like the FBPE activist turned-EU nationalist, finds himself reproducing its tropes, entirely unconsciously: whether furiously hunting through ancient bones to find continuity with modern migrant populations like the Ahnenerbe hunting for Germanic ancestors in the steppes of Eastern Europe, or constructing modern political mythologies on the slender records of the dim and distant past.

Returning to the culture war over statues, the adoption of America’s new racialised mythic narrative came at a politically infelicitous time for its partisans, as Labour is now discovering. The British state is threatened by rival peripheral nationalisms, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and it is not hard to discern the first glimmerings of a British nationalism in a manner that has never yet quite existed. Sturdily independent of foreign rule then distracted by imperial concerns, Britain never experienced the nationalist wave that swept the rest of our home continent in the 19th century — even the high jingoism of the Victorian era spent itself on preventing Russia’s conquest of the Ottoman Empire, rather than focusing on domestic rivals. 

In the nascent British nationalism being forged as a reaction to both separatism and the still-contested relationship with the European Union, many parallels with the classic nationalisms of 19th century Europe can be discerned. Instead of dismissing devolution as merely a failed constitutional experiment, we can perceive an almost irredentist quality, aiming to reunite a unitary people divided by artificial borders. The nationalisms of the periphery have thus birthed a new nationalism of the centre, and the consequent construction of a single British people defined against internal and external rivals in a way that we have never yet quite experienced.

If this is the case, then as in other nations experiencing a nationalist wave we can expect symbolism and history to become the central matter of politics, in a way that hands great advantage to our current Conservative government. The new politicisation of history is just a taste of what is coming our way. The British state, in Tory hands, will find itself engaged in a war of historical narratives to ensure its own survival. All the affective tools of nationalism and nationhood — the symbolic politics that is the very stuff of nationalism — will be employed to this purpose. The funeral of Prince Philip, a sombre festival of Britishness, was merely an early glimpse of this symbolic realm: we can expect the Queen’s funeral, whenever it comes, and the coronation that follows it, to be profoundly political and fundamentally nationalist spectacles aimed at shoring up the state and the self-identification with it of the British people. 

In this, ironically, we can argue that the government will be more postmodernist than the alleged postmodernist deconstructors of British history: where our soi-disant radicals see themselves as uncovering an objective reality from within the myths of British nationhood, the government will have the need and capacity to construct new-old national myths with all the resources of the state behind it. As others have noted, a postmodernist worldview, whether adopted cynically, or playfully, could be productive territory for a Right-wing political project. We are all postmodernists now, the government as much as its critics: each has the power and will to consciously create mythic narratives for nakedly political ends, yet only one controls the levers of the central state.

Dismissing this dynamic as mere “flag-shagging” is a dangerous trap for Labour — nationalism remains the most powerful political force in Europe, as it has been since the dawn of modernity — still powerful enough, indeed, to break up our country from around us. Once historical narratives, and the emotional bonds of nationhood and solidarity they conjure up, become the central ground of politics, the realm of myth and symbol conquers all. If Labour wants to win power again, it will need to think up better stories for the country to gather around.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

arisroussinos

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

130 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Alexander Morrison
Alexander Morrison
3 years ago

Stimulating as always from Roussinos, but I find it disturbing that his key references for understanding the Historian’s craft (and I see it as a craft, not an art, or a science) are Michel Foucault and Hayden White rather than, say, Geoffrey Elton or Chris Wickham. It is a clear sign of how degraded my discipline has become, given that both White and Foucault see the past as just raw material to be manipulated as the historian sees fit, whether as a function of power (Foucault) or to create ideological narratives (White). In both cases the assumption is that the past has no ontological existence beyond what historians make of it – and there can be no escape from the forces which shape the latter, whether Foucault’s omnipresent ‘power’ or White’s ‘metanarratives’. This is nonsense, but I can understand why Roussinos repeats it because it is nonsense that is regularly repeated by professional historians, who do not seem to realise that it means the death of their discipline. As he says, the ‘Twitterstorians’ have mostly swallowed these ideas whole, and see their task in life as replacing an older, oppressive set of historical narratives with new, progressive ones, without any particular regard to evidence.
The past happened, and there were chains of causation (the real matter of historical enquiry) which explain why it happened the way it did. We can never reconstruct these in full, but our duty as historians is to get as close to it as we reasonably can. Particularly once we get into the last 4-500 years, the evidence is often extremely abundant, but using and interpreting it requires some pretty complex skills and a lot of patience – you might need to learn new languages, have palaeographical training, master statistical methods or learn the techniques of oral history. Our universities now produce too many monoglot, Anglophone historians whose training consists of little more than having read some Foucault (in English translation, naturally) or other luminaries of postmodernism, and who don’t really believe that their discipline can tell us anything true about the past, or that the past is worth studying for its own sake, rather than as a source of carefully-chosen edifying stories we can tell about the present.
As for the statues controversy – I don’t even think this is really about the historical reality of the past, which neither side has shown much interest in. It’s about the symbolic control of public spaces. On the one hand you have modern-day Bolsheviks seeking an ideological monopoly for the present over who and what is commemorated, and on the other those (myself included) who think that public squares, churches etc should be a physical reminder of the past evolution of politics and morals – with new memorials alongside the old ones to show how ideas and attitudes have changed.
Finally, national narratives are a special case, more the preserve of governments (and above all the writers of primary school history curricula) than of professional historians. I used to think these were a wholly pernicious exercise (having encountered many very crude and wholly falsified examples in the countries of the former USSR) but I am starting to feel more sympathetic towards them, because political communities (and the nation is the pre-eminent example of this) do need to have a sense of shared history – some of which, at least, needs to be positive, and have elements they can take pride in – in order to hang together. It shouldn’t be a series of jingoistic falsehoods, and given the limited nature of what can be taught in schools there will have to be some selection, but a British narrative surely does have to have something to say about the extraordinary global impact of the English language and British commercial, legal and political institutions that is not wholly negative.
Finally, I disagree with Aris about Britishness – I think it has existed as a positive identity since at least the 18th century, but until the 1940s it was very bound up with the business of Empire, which was the shared enterprise of all the nations of the British Isles. It needs to be re-invented for a post-Imperial age.

Caroline Galwey
Caroline Galwey
3 years ago

Hurrah! Brilliant comment! ‘The past happened, and there were chains of causation (the real matter of historical enquiry) which explain why it happened the way it did. We can never reconstruct these in full, but our duty as historians is to get as close to it as we reasonably can.’ This – x 100.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

Preferably without calling people “You idiot”?

Kerryj J
Kerryj J
3 years ago

Excellent response.

David Fitzsimons
David Fitzsimons
3 years ago

Bravo!

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

I agree, a most impressive performance by New College via All Souls & Oriel.
In fact I think it deserves the Victor’s Palm.
However I am pessimistic about the final paragraph. History is the soul of a nation and it is an enormous if not impossible task to reinvent one’s soul.

Mark Irving
Mark Irving
3 years ago

A very considered response to an excellent essay by Aris. I agree with Aris that there is a renewed sense of Britishness in play, drawing of course on old tropes and narratives, but I think its present energy draws as much from a rapidly cohering sense of identity of ourselves as ‘not’ the other – the US, the EU, France (in particular), the raft of extremist ideologies including Islamo-fascism, etc. It is often said that to base your identity on what you are not is weakness, but this is to underestimate the power of the innate response to something repellent or discordant. It’s instinctive, and points to deep roots within the British psyche, which the spade and fork of Left and Right fail to reach.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
3 years ago

“Wie es eigentlich gewesen war”

John Smith
John Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

a bit of ranke contribution…

Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
3 years ago

I think it’s better!

William Murphy
William Murphy
3 years ago

Excellent comment. I don’t know if you have seen the statues park on the outskirts of Budapest. It is full of discarded statues of people who were big political names in Communist era Hungary. They were all blokes. Feminist consciousness didn’t work in practice, whatever the official ideology. The only names of these mighty fallen which anyone outside Hungary might recognise were Bela Kun and Lenin. Ho hum. At least they are available for hasty re-erection if the wind changes.

Last edited 3 years ago by William Murphy
Pete the Other
Pete the Other
3 years ago

Excellent comment and, yes, much more insightful than the original article.
It’s unfortunate that (what used to be) objective academic disciplines – history is not the only one – are nowadays being driven by a desire to support political positions, instead of the facts.

Last edited 3 years ago by Pete the Other
Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  Pete the Other

When was history a wholly objective discipline?
There are historical facts, approximated as closely as possible given the intervening time and the reliability and completeness (or otherwise) of our sources, and then there are interpretations and stories we tell around them so that they “make sense”.
The stories and interpretations (if they are to be more than costume drama) need some knowledge of the historical culture (since the past in after all a foreign country, where things are done differently), and actions, words and symbols have subtly or drastically different meanings – and quite possibly multiple meanings, depending on ones viewpoint (then, or now).
As an example, the Reformation was a political revolution, a heretical religious movement, or the recovery of Gods Truth after centuries of darkness (or some mixture of all of them and other things) – and through those different lenses, self-evident truths become violent provocations.

Last edited 3 years ago by Paul N
Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul N

Some historians try not to interpret, they work away at finding things out and record them in a way that makes sense, while actively avoiding interpretation as much as possible, allowing the facts to speak for themselves. That’s my preference anyway.

Last edited 3 years ago by Claire D
Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
3 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

I think it is useful to actively try and interpret things from a point of view that is not your own…but at the end of the day we just need more common sense.

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago

As for the statues controversy – […] It’s about the symbolic control of public spaces. 

Precisely. It’s about rubbing the public’s nose into the fact that they (the vandals) have the power (arrogance, privilege, entitlement) to do as they please. No matter whichever party is sitting in government, the vandals have the upper hand.

ed martin
ed martin
3 years ago

Fortunately, thus far the vandals haven’t formed a viable political force with public support.
Mr Kreisler has experiened that horrible alliance. Might we here more from him?

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
3 years ago

Happily the opposite of the *For evil to prosper it only needs good people to do nothing*, is that as soon as good people do something, especially early enough, then it blows away like so much chaff.
Labour is being destroyed because of the impossible demands of trying to , I don’t know what the word is really; ‘disguise’ the reality of many identarian causes in order to fool that old traditional vote into thinking they are the same Labour they ever were.
It worked for a few years Post-Blair, but now ordinary people are asserting themselves and surprise, surprise, they are not as thick , bigoted or reactionary as the post modernists assumed they would be.
I think whether we call it a more positive narrative of British History, or a realignment of politics in Britain, it is basically a victory for common sense, the first evidence for which we are now seeing.

Rich Pageant
Rich Pageant
3 years ago

Can we swap these and have the original article as a ‘counterpoint’ plaque on this statuesque comment?

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago

many very crude and wholly falsified examples in the countries of the former USSR

I grew up in one of the eastern-bloc countries (not the USSR but one of its colonies). All history curricula, beginning with the palĂŠolithicum, were mangled through the proletarian class struggle filter. It was beyond ridiculous.
And now i have to watch the very same absurdity happening in the “free” West, on steroids. In the 21st century. If someone told my teen self back in the 1980s that this is what the future holds, i’d have laughed that person squarely out of the room.

Diana Durham
Diana Durham
3 years ago

Thank you for this reply, with which I agree. I’m afraid I found the original article almost incomprehensibly over-simplified and confused at the same time. Too many odd, giant leaps to conclusions not warranted by the preceding precariously balanced arguments. Having lived for 24 years outside Britain (in the US) I know how daft and simplistic has been the response to the George Floyd incident; and I also know, beyond political theory, that British culture is worthy of respect and should be defended vigorously against the current crop of leadership in the police, the law commission, the universities and all the major British cultural institutions. None of whom seem to have any idea of the context in which Britain really exists in the world and historically. What the achievements have been. The quality of freedom of thought and tolerance and complexity and originality which has been allowed to grow up here.

Anton van der Merwe
Anton van der Merwe
3 years ago

Spot on. There is obviously a huge gulf between academic history, which can approach the truth, and how these facts are presented/selected, which will obviously vary, depending on the purpose of the presentation/selection.

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
3 years ago

Excellent comment. Geoffrey Elton MUCH more important than Foucault, a greatly over-rated reincarnation of Goebbels. Both F and G agree that a lie can be converted into a truth. On Britishness, the starting point must be 1603, and 1707, since when the peoples of these islands have grown together in such a way as to make it very difficult indeed to distinguish between them. The simplistic view that “the Scots” inhabit Scotland, “the English” England etc may have served for New Labour. But the reality is that we are all British. Its recorded on our passport. The passport records the fact that the key documents of our constitution is the Bill of Rights-whatever the Blairite Supreme Court assert-, and subsequent Acts of Parliament. Since 1975, we live in a bicephalous arrangement, where parliamentary sovereignty is reinforced by referendum. This arrangement states that no single geographic portion of our country has the right to vote on behalf of all-that 5 million people living in Scotland cannot vote on behalf of 65 million living in GB. It is OUR country. It is not for some half-cocked “progressive” to invent their categories in order to dismantle the UK.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
3 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Story

I feel the dynamic changes underway right now in British politics are in fact one of the most exciting periods in our history.
Only in Scotland is the political scene frozen in a kind of Thatcher era mindset that has become almost risible.
I don’t believe the history view on which SNP nationalism sits can survive much longer, and I don’t believe their empty caricaturing of Boris Johnson and Eton mates, will either.
Right now the SNP cartoonish view of Conservatism would not survive any interview with Ben Houchen the Teesside Conservative Mayor (who got over 70% of the vote) or any number of new Northern Conservative MPs.
So History is always present and I am glad that after some years of craziness we are returning to a more common sense view of it all, where nothing was, or is, ever just *evil and bad* and everything is in shades of grey.

One historical oddity never mentioned much is that Africa remained unconquered by European nations until after Slavery and the triangular trade was abolished. This is likely because the people who lived there were happy to trade slaves and anything else. No European expeditions went into the vast hinterland to seize slaves. They were provided by Africans who themselves were familiar with the idea of slavery and perfectly happy to trade them.
This doesn’t make slavery OK, or European’s who engaged in it (most slaves were taken from Africa by Portugal to Brazil, larger than those taken by Britain to the North Americas)…it just means no race is uniquely evil, or not evil, and the concept of progress means that stuff doesn’t happen any more because we have progressed from it, to the place we are now.
Hopefully we will keep progressing and build on the progress made, rather than engaging some payroll narcissists in their obviously bonkers view of history.

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago

I think the extremes of statue-mania don’t do the debate any service. Many of us can probably agree that common sense lies somewhere between “tear down any statue if they weren’t 100% politically correct by the standards of 2021” and “no statue, once erected, may ever be removed or even altered or annotated”.
I don’t see the harm in explanatory plaques to provide accessible and relevant information about the person’s historical significance and their flaws. It’s probably good for us to realise that heroes have feet of clay, and nobody is perfect.
There is probably a number of statues of historical nonentities which could usefully be archived (or moved over) to make room for more recent people or events that are worthy of commemoration in our limited public spaces.
And there are plenty of historical statues that absolutely should stay.
Or, you know we could shout “woke” and “racist” at each other, because that’s so constructive.

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul N

There’s also the matters of historical value and artistic / ĂŠsthetic value. The former warrants the protection of any object (statue) of a certain age & beyond. Typically it’s 100 years for an object to be regarded as ‘antique’ – those which qualify shall be protected and left unaltered / untouched, no matter what, even if they glorify the antichrist or Napoleon. Those which are newer shall be judged on their artistic merit, not on political points.

to make room for more recent people or events that are worthy of commemoration in our limited public spaces.

Who decides what/who is worthy of commemoration?

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
3 years ago

I am with you…some of the rash of football hero statues thrown up in every town are a) nothing like them and b) all down to a narrow moment in history when football took off with the Premier Leage…there are good ones of course, but there are some really bad ones.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

As I said before an excellent synopsis, but my comment was removed, perhaps at your instigation?

Was it the the very mention of your academic CV that annoyed you? I would have thought you would be proud of it, particularly the AS bit? As a former inmate of NC I was!

Either way, if I have caused any offence I apologise unreservedly.

Last edited 3 years ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Alexander Morrison
Alexander Morrison
3 years ago

Not guilty! I’ve no idea why it was removed. I certainly wasn’t offended.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

Thank you!
The dreaded Censor…..again!

google
google
3 years ago

It would be great if historians could be objective about the past; but since people can’t even agree about the present, the past is, in a similar fashion, going to be subjected to political interpretation. And, TBH, I’m happy with my mythologies. The purpose they serve is good enough for me.

Gayle Rosenthal
Gayle Rosenthal
3 years ago

A “craft” yes… with certain obligations to factual narrative to which art and science may not be suited. The choice of language may only go so far from the fact basis to maintain integrity. Art implies a free hand. Science is bound to a strict linguistic code, or should be anyway. Our current problem are the so-called “journalists” and “news outlets.” They have ditched any fealty to professionalism and will damage the historical record if not held to some shred of integrity.

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago

There is a related issue with films (and TV) about historical events and people. The makers tend to see it as art (or occasionally polemic) and feel less of a duty to the strictly historical. Perhaps there is a moral duty on filmmakers to provide accessible historical notes where the narrative trumps reality? Not sure how that might translate to a legal duty though.

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago

— nationalism remains the most powerful political force in Europe, as it has been since the dawn of modernity — 

Labour – well, the whole internationalist left – is still misunderstanding what ‘nationalism’ is. Or refuses to understand what it is. They insist it’s a conceited “my nation is bestest” hegemonic imperialistic urge, whereas in reality it’s just nationism. Acute awareness of / fondness for one’s own culture, history, language, landscape, people, flora & fauna = country, nation. Which [culture, language etc.] is distinctly different from the next nation’s culture language etc. across the border, which again is different from their neighbouring nations, and so forth. And that’s how it should be, otherwise Europe devolves into a dystopia of indistinct monoculture. But that’s perhaps the internationalist left’s idea of paradise on earth.

AC Harper
AC Harper
3 years ago

Quite so. Arguably “nationalism” is just another story or myth that people use as a template to understand what is going on around them. It is not necessarily always positive but it does wrestle chaotic events into some sort of ordered framework. And humans desperately seek order out of chaos.
I believe ‘the Left’ hate such thinking because it reduces the respect they deserve for their clear eyed view of Utopia and how to get there. All lead by them, of course.

Colin Haller
Colin Haller
3 years ago

Like everything, the poison is in the dose.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

AND: “anniversary of the killing of George Floyd”
I am not sure he was killed at all. The farcical trial says he was, but then that was per-ordained. Spend a life on self destructive habits, have a bad heart and a dozen other health issues, load up on fental, meth, and other drugs, commit a crime, swallow a load of illegal drugs to get rid of the evidence, struggle with the police wile acting irrational, and the chances of dieing from heart attack or other health issues is very high. If Floyd had not been doing the above he would not have been ‘Killed’, as the writer so ‘correctly’ put it, but in time would have died in a similar fashion elsewhere in great likelihood. Several reliable medical reports say he died of the drugs in combination of his heart and stress, not of the officer.

zac chang
zac chang
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Yeah that Rodney King got what he deserved as well,why didnt he just lie still on the floor instead of carrying on breathing?

Last edited 3 years ago by zac chang
Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I am not sure he was killed at all. 

I would say the accurate way to put it would be: “died of natural causes while resisting arrest“.

Simon Hannaford
Simon Hannaford
3 years ago

I am tangentially involved in the ‘culture sector’ and it was interesting to see how the sector leapt on the BLM/decolonisation bandwagon last year, almost as if it had been waiting for just such an opportunity to happen along. It was remarkable how so much was done with, it seemed, only a cursory discussion with museum boards (who saw a perfect opportunity to virtue signal, natch) and I for one was rather disappointed that the Government was so supine for so long in the face of such an onslaught, as artefacts were removed and ‘decolonisation’ programmes put in place without so much as a by-your-leave to anyone else, in particular the punters.
The irony is that now its the culture sector who are accusing the Government of inflaming the ‘culture wars’…and it was ever thus. This is one of the institutions that has most certainly been ‘marched through’ by the Woke and a standard tactic is to accuse the enemy of using your own tactics: just look at how the practitioners of cancel culture immediately start shouting about how they are losing their right to free speech when they are called out on their behaviour.
One thing I can now say though is that the Government has a more solid mandate than the museums to decide how the national story is presented. My experience is that the ‘culture sector’ is a small circle of the same old (usually wealthy, bourgeois and as self-regarding as any celebrity) faces.
On the subject of narratives, I do not know anyone, no matter how conservative they are, who has ever denied Britain’s involvement in the slave trade: however, recently I have seen an awful lot of people, some in very influential positions, who seem to be desperate to make us all forget that Britain was the first country to abolish and suppress it on a global scale. So it is not just a case of ‘you picks your narrative and you takes your chance’: it is more a case of some narratives are closer to the truth than others. To the Woke of course this means nothing, since they do not believe there is a truth, and providing verified data to support a particular narrative is at best irrelevant, at worst another act of ‘oppression’ for ‘denying’ another person’s supposed ‘experience’.

Last edited 3 years ago by Simon Hannaford
Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago

I think France was the first to abolish slavery in 1794, although they then reintroduced it to their Empire in 1802 and then abolished it again in 1848. Britain was the first to abolish the slave trade (1807) and relatively quick at abolishing slavery in its Empire (1833) but I think the Northern States of America abolished slavery in 1804. So depending on how you pick your narrative out from the dates Britain was either the first to abolish and suppress slavery on a global scale or in among the pack on the issue.

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago

Superb comment.
Spent most of my employed years in the museum industry (in another, eastern-bloc country) and still very much committed to it, it’s particularly painful to see how it got trampled over by the march of woke.

‘denying’ another person’s supposed ‘experience’.

Funny thing, any time i recount (in Guardian e.g. comment sections) my personal experience of living under state-communism, a chorus of “You are wrong! That wasn’t real communism! You just don’t understand it!” pipes up to deny my personal empirical experience.

Diana Durham
Diana Durham
3 years ago

Yes indeed, totally agree. Have been appalled at the truly herd-like behaviour in the cultural institutions, and in the church.

hugh bennett
hugh bennett
3 years ago

isn`t it now spelt “cultcha”?

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago

“I for one was rather disappointed that the Government was so supine for so long in the face of such an onslaught.”
This government has a stake in waging the culture war, less so in winning it. They gain votes from the unpopularity of ‘woke’ culture. Thus, the last thing they want is for ‘woke’ ideas to go away. Every time woke-ists taking a hammer to a statue, they simultaneously knock another brick out of the red wall.

Last edited 3 years ago by Basil Chamberlain
google
google
3 years ago

There is a whole layer of bureaucracy sitting at their desks, twiddling their thumbs, waiting to spring into action whenever something gives them an excuse to chip away at the native culture. This is the real triumph of the left.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
3 years ago

Really interesting things about all this are now perceptible to those of us not in the first flush of youth. So the phenomenon discussed are already operational within a single lifetime. People point out things to me from four and five decades ago in counter arguments, completely ignoring that I *actually lived through the events* they are taking at me about – albeit as child, teen, twenties. What is really comical, is that I must have done the same to the older generations around me at the time – the same disdain for their lived experiences – although I have no recollection of doing so. Looking back, I am also now aware of the schism between what I can only describe as different cultural-historical types I grew up with. I mean by this, I was aware of people around me of around my age who seemingly held outlooks very different from mine – more rooted in the older ‘Indianisms’ of their immediate circle and far less interested in the overpowering culture they, well we, were ensconced within. This was visible in interest in pop culture from the east as opposed to the culture we were living in. Also visible in attitudes that were far less skeptical and even cynical than mine. As the years blow by, both individuals and entire communities change of course. A few of the same people I know have mutated and have rewritten their own ‘personal myths’, subtlety reordering, emphasising/de-emphasising events and people, even altering minor facts to present a different picture of the past (and I guess they are doing this to themselves as much as to the external world); others remain completely static as though frozen in aspic, and I get a feeling of being transported back to the past when I talk to them – and it always begs the question to me: how much of this rewriting am I personally doing to myself?

Vikram Sharma
Vikram Sharma
3 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Bravo. You speak for many of us, especially the ones with histories we acquired in different lands.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Another very revealing and fascinating comment – food for thought. The readers of UnHerd are on a roll today!

Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
3 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

What I find interesting about this experience, which I share to some extent, is that as I gain a longer perspective within my own lifetime it has opened up my understanding to the changes in perspective that happened within the lifetimes of my parents and even grandparents. So the experience of age, which youth simply can’t have, seems not only to be the experience of one lifetime but of several.
The uestion of how much rewriting we do to ourselves can be a little disturbing however, sometimes I look back and feel as if I barley recognise the person who thought and felt at that time. It reminds me a bit of a novel I read where humans gained the ability to extend their lives by several factors. One of the side effects seemed to be that they began to forget or drop large chunks of memory, so that their pasts became something of a myth even to themselves, and they felt themselves to be wholly different people.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
3 years ago

Your comment about viewing your younger self as a different person certainly hits home. In truth we are not the same entity from instance to instance, but the change is imperceptible over short timeframes. What holds the ‘self’ together is the living thread of memory. But what if that memory can be altered by choice?

If you liked the novel you mentioned, you might perhaps like ‘Permutation City’ by Greg Egan, a novel I’m rather obsessed with. A book which can explain some of the science behind the Egan book is ‘The Recursive Universe’ by William Poundstone. ‘Permutation City’, amongst other things explores ideas around memory, ‘choice’, and what constitutes the ‘self’ to ourselves.

Say someone committed a murder, and got away with it, but guilt racks them. Then, in order to escape the guilt, they wipe the the memory of their crime. Is that person without the memory of the crime a different person? Is that person guilty or innocent? In which case, has the person with the guilt also been murdered? This is one of the themes the book explores.

Last edited 3 years ago by Prashant Kotak
hugh bennett
hugh bennett
3 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I enjoyed your reflections- Only once did I reluctantly go to a school reunion. I only recognised 50% of the attendees and only half of them recognised me. Even more disturbing was that i didnt even recall half of them; even after introductions.
More to the point, as we recounted events of the past, some that were poignant memories for me, that had stayed with me for 40yrs as markers and shapers in my life, were suddenly needing my revaluation. I left with enough "confirmed memories" so the plinth of my life remained largely intact!
I went with a collection of personal memories, i still hold many of those as "real" but also left with a collective view ( well those I could recall after a dozen beers!).I accept the sincerity of what my friends of old spoke but I was left cogitating over understanding of what exactly those â€œmemories” meant. When I got home, the next day, I got out old school mags, photos, cuttings and reports... the history?
Due to this very personal experience, I began to have an inkling of how complex is the weave of memory and history. Now when I delve into history books,memoirs and personal accounts I just relax, don
t get up tight, have a healthy awareness of manipulation… having decided that the best I can get is an educated feel for things past.The very personal event of the school reunion, mundane as it may seem to readers, changed and improved my understanding of how to look at any history of anything !

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Prashant, I always enjoy your personal posts. One thing I have never had was a past, essentially. My entire life was moving about, and as this was how I grew up, we never kept up with the old people once moving on. Every few years it was a new place and new people, then again, and again, coupled with decades of constant drifting, and I have not one person of my past I keep up with really – a couple from adulthood I still may hear from very rarely – but that has always been my reality – that I have no personal connections, other than immediate family, to my past at all.
I have attended a dozen schools, colleges, university, lived in dozens of places, and lived over a decade and half just as a drifter with no base. I now live in a town where the people’s grandfathers, great grandfathers, were in school together. I have never returned to live in a place I had lived before except to visit my old family home in London regularly, but as it was all coming and going from there I had no link to people once gone as an adult, do not know a single one I was in school with.

I always feel this kind of wonder about how it must be to actually have links to community and people, to have watched people grow up, evolve, and have tangible ties to community, because I have none – I do not wish I had that really as it would be so alien, but it is a thought I wonder about as it must be extreemly powerful. I guess I am one of those people who mostly are alone in the world, but wonder about having a past, and present, in community – I just cant really imagine it, like if you were colour blind imagining colours.

Andrew Best
Andrew Best
3 years ago

It’s very simple
Labour and the left despise our history and our culture
The Tory’s for all their many many faults dont
Guess which view on England, English people will respond positively to?

Last edited 3 years ago by Andrew Best
Johnny Rottenborough
Johnny Rottenborough
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

Andrew Best—I’m struggling to reconcile your assertion that Conservatives do not despise our history and culture with their record in government, where, since the war, they and Labour have conducted a joint policy of Third World immigration and Islamization. Replacing the people who made the history and the Christianity which sustained them seems an odd way to show love.

Andrew Best
Andrew Best
3 years ago

Who says they love us?
I did not say that are brilliant maybe they just don’t hate us

Johnny Rottenborough
Johnny Rottenborough
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

Andrew Best—I’m happy to replace ‘an odd way to show love’ with ‘an odd way to care for us’ or ‘an odd way to help us’.
Whether carried out by Labour or Conservative governments, race and faith replacement strikes me as a uniquely hateful exercise.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

Sadly both are as bad as each other.

Bevin gave us the bomb, and Lady T recovered the Falklands, but otherwise, with a few exceptions they have been a turgid lot at best, Philistines at worst.

Some might even say, Traitors.

Last edited 3 years ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

Plato advocated capital punishment for such people. Was he wrong?

Ann Ceely
Ann Ceely
3 years ago

The post-WW1 immigration was mainly about the peoples of our nation and Empire who won the fight.

We, I hope, are grateful not to have been brought up in Hitler’s empire! Of course we should be pleased to help.

Andy Paul
Andy Paul
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

The Left despise our history, our culture and people to the point that some on the Left deny the existence of the English as a people, yet the Tories are little better, happy to roll along with the narrative that has developed over the last fifty years and lacking the integrity to stand against it.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

Do the left not just have a different view of what that history and culture is?

Peter Turner
Peter Turner
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

I think the point being made is that ‘different view’ is wrong, distorted, and not helpful.

Toby Josh
Toby Josh
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Yes.

zac chang
zac chang
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

‘Labour and the left despise our history and our culture’ Are you lot actually really this retarded? seriously?Thats like saying ‘all Tories are racist’ although clearly a lot of them are, particularly you lot in here

Caroline Galwey
Caroline Galwey
3 years ago
Reply to  zac chang

The average standard of debate on here is courteous, well-informed and intelligent: let’s keep it that way, shall we?

Vikram Sharma
Vikram Sharma
3 years ago

Excellent essay, thank you. In the exploration of how historical narratives are constructed and maintained, one cannot assume that each person is driven by a similar drive for objectivity and truth. The problem with contemporary revisionists is that their feelings about a particular issue (racism ,colonialism etc) trumps any meaningful engagement with a messy truths of history.
I would urge readers here to read the essay ‘On Bullsh*t’ by the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt Junior. Frankfurt makes the important difference between a lie and bullsh*t. A liar knows the truth but wants to conceal it for some reason. A bullshitt*r does not care whether a statement is true or false; all they want to display is the superior morality of their position. The truth value of a statement means nothing to them; it’s sanctimonious beauty is what they seek. When there are calls for maths to be decolonised, this is not about truth but about an overt display of moral superiority of the caller. This is bullsh*t on display, cunningly labelled social justice.
revisionist history driven by search for truth is just better history. The one driven by pofaced sentimentality is just bullsh*t.

James Slade
James Slade
3 years ago
Reply to  Vikram Sharma

It’s the fundamental assumption that non revisionist history is done in bad faith reveals the biggest flaw. The overwhelming arrogance, coupled with glib statements shows the truth of the modern left.

Kevin Thomas
Kevin Thomas
3 years ago

Did Sadiq Khan really call for an end to the culture war? While he is presiding over a commission tasked to decide how many of the city’s statues and buildings need to be torn down or renamed? That’s reminiscent of when idiots accuse property owners who remove Banksy’s infantile graffiti from their walls of vandalism. If Khan wanted the culture war ended, he could close his Twitter feed and get on with running policing and transport in London like he is paid to.

Sidney Falco
Sidney Falco
3 years ago

“we can understand the discourse of the historian to be a sort of ceremony, oral or written, that must in reality produce both a justification of power and a reinforcement of power”
We can understand that Foucault really is the charlatan’s charlatan by noting the frequency with which his interminable BS is almost always started with “we can” or “we may”.

Janko M
Janko M
3 years ago

What the Left doesn’t understand (and I used to be that way), is that a country only has a future if its citizens believe in their own sense of community. I am no fan of the nation-state (an unusual construct), but switching to any other paradigm is a costly, wasteful and frankly luxurious goal, before I even start counting the inevitable conflicts that it would cause. Thus any person wishing to do one’s own community well is compelled to accept the community and institutions of the nation state.

The Woke Left is bizzarely trying to replace the nation-state with an intersectional feudal structure. From each according to intersectionality, to each according to intersectionality. I never thought I would see the day when the Left advocates racial tribalism, but alas reality has a sense of humour.

Last edited 3 years ago by Janko M
Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
3 years ago
Reply to  Janko M

The thing that strikes me is that any higher level version of the nation state is only going to be a bigger nation state. And while there isn’t necessarily some perfectly-right size for a nation, and larger or smaller both have trade-offs, surely it’s clear that scaling up just replicates the same structures?

William Murphy
William Murphy
3 years ago

Consider the Austro Hungarian Empire. For all its countless faults, it was hardly worse than the collection of unappealing regimes which ruled its former territories in the 1920s and 1930s. And some of the successor states are starting to reform into alliances, if not, as yet, into federations.

Colin Haller
Colin Haller
3 years ago
Reply to  William Murphy

It strikes me that there is a systole/diastole going on in some of these regions across the centuries.

Paul Sorrenti
Paul Sorrenti
3 years ago

Being a lefty myself, I can see clearly how we are much more at ease when slagging off our country, culture, race, etc. But I think – or perhaps hope – that this attitude is a modern fashion of the left that will be shaken off, and that our Atlee/Blair levels of patriotism remain as a latent energy, ready to explode as soon as we can shake off this idea that the nation state is a kind of evil. I recognise too that belief within many of us that, despite repeated batterings at the elections, that it’s okay because we won ‘the argument’ and so there’s no need to change. This is most apparent with Brexit, with many of my friends just sitting back and hoping we suffer terribly as the EU succeeds. I sometimes find myself – equally pathetically – hoping for the opposite, that the EU is taken over peacefully by the far right in the next few years, and I wonder who will become the British patriots then?

Caroline Galwey
Caroline Galwey
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Sorrenti

Good comment – I hope you’re right. Do you ever get the feeling that the present wave of statue-toppling, etc., is in large part a panicked and resentful reaction to Brexit – the proles had the nerve to vote for Britain as a nation state so let’s show them we’re still in the saddle and can rub their noses in it?

Paul Sorrenti
Paul Sorrenti
3 years ago

Yes, I think there’s a lot of truth in that. For quite a long time patriotism was a secondary concern for left and for right in the UK when it came to electability, but Brexit has brought it to the surface once again, and all those far-lefties who have embraced this supposedly progressive idea of belonging to something bigger, something more important than just the atavistic UK (even when the alternative is the pro-neoconservative semi-democratic socialism-blocking EU!) are throwing their toys out the pram (milkshaking Churchill statues or whatever) having sold themselves on the idea that the nation is for yesterday – a hurdle toward their confused plan of utopia. One of the underrated aspects of progressiveness, however, is that as progress requires a destination, and because that destination is always a figment of the imagination, there’s no reason why the post code on the ethical-satnav couldn’t be redirected toward saner lands! But I dream

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Well it was the likes of New Label and Khan who started the cultura wars so I very much hope they reap what they have sown. I wasn’t aware of the govt’s plans to replace some museum staff, but I’m very pleased to hear it. And I write as one was once something of a neo-liberal globalist.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

How did your Road to Damascus happen? I have a hard time thinking of you as some strident Liberal/Globalist.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
3 years ago

Fantastic essay, very entertaining. The quality of output from UnHerd writers keeps getting better and better.

J Bryant
J Bryant
3 years ago

I am not ashamed to admit I am literally in awe of the author’s facility with words and his ability to seamlessly construct a pattern of complex, interweaving arguments and bring them to a compelling conclusion.
The best I can do when faced with such virtuosity is grab onto a couple of his ideas and ride out the cataract.
When I read:
Observe how our newly-Gramscian Conservative government seems set on replacing museum staff to defend one narrative of the nation’s story from assault by another: this is more than an online â€œculture war”. Instead, the British state, perceiving a threat to its legitimacy at a time of existential political disorder, is acting as any state would act: by culling challengers to its authority and reasserting the moral validity of its existence.
I was immediately reminded of a recent report that the British government proposes substantial funding cuts for arts subjects in higher education (https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-57006961). When I read that report I was also reminded that the Australian government implemented similar cuts a few months ago (https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200728-why-australia-is-charging-more-to-study-history).
Both the UK and Australian governments justify these cuts, reasonably enough, based on a desire to produce more ‘job-ready’ graduates in STEM and other useful disciplines, but I strongly suspect both governments are determined to financially eviscerate the university departments that have produced the recent progressive agenda. Kudos to the Brits and Aussies.
Here in America, many politicians continue to believe they can manipulate the woke to their own ends, while business believes it can hitch its wagon to the woke and bolster its bottom line. They will both be consumed in the end.

Kristof K
Kristof K
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

In awe you may be, but I think you might have mistaken the author’s thrust: I don’t think he thinks that what the government is doing is a good thing. Likewise Dr Morrison’s on-the-nail response is critical of “the woke” (whom he sees as mostly poorly equipped but ambitious academics) because they are trying to excise from their spirit the partial myths of the history that binds, perhaps to varying extents, the peoples who have come to inhabit the British Isles over the last couple of millennia. Both sides, then, are using similar tactics which can generally be labelled “cancelling”. I of course don’t like it when under qualified historians re-interpret history to suit their ends and then try to “force” that interpretation on the rest of us. But I don’t tend to think of places where governments feel they can or have to do the same thing as well-functioning democracies.

J Bryant
J Bryant
3 years ago
Reply to  Kristof K

I of course don’t like it when under qualified historians re-interpret history to suit their ends and then try to “force” that interpretation on the rest of us. But I don’t tend to think of places where governments feel they can or have to do the same thing as well-functioning democracies.
Fair point, and I may have misunderstood the author’s attitude to funding cuts for arts subjects.
I think my attitude to academia has hardened over the past few years. I no longer regard most of the non-STEM departments as truly ‘academic’ in the sense of pursuing knowledge in an impartial manner. They are now political organizations promoting a harmful ideology while being funded at public expense. It’s time to cut that funding and try (perhaps too late) to repopulate these departments with genuine academics.

Graeme Laws
Graeme Laws
3 years ago

‘The British state is culling challengers to its authority.’ Evidence free tripe. And citing nut job Foucault as an authority is simply dull. We have moved from political correctness to critical race theory at breathtaking pace. The current Government has simply woken up to the fact that the greater part of the electorate is fed up with being lectured by what they perceive to be sanctimonious, arrogant, intolerant shouty minorities, egged on by second rate lefty so called academics, anonymous twitters and, among others, the BBC.

Historians have always written from their own personal points of view. Happily, there is invariably another historian whose point of view differs. It’s called debate, and is not usually conducted on the basis that if you disagree with me you are a racist, fascist or worse. What generally emerges is some sort of balance, which is of course anathema to the new woke religion.

S H
S H
3 years ago

I wonder whether Britishness is really the cross on which we must raise our swords and expect to mount our defences. There is a very large nation in Britain called England and I’m not persuaded that it would be much compromised if the other 3 nations were to peel away. (There would be short term issues of course.) This would be a more cohesive (and richer, I might add) country than the UK. Of course, it is a great emotional barrier to contemplate this, but we should, at least, be prepared to do so and see where it leads.

hugh bennett
hugh bennett
3 years ago
Reply to  S H

Do not forsake us Welsh Folk just yet. In 1997 I voted Yes in the Devolution Referendum…
“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”..
Now I say I am British, yes I am Welsh and live in Wales , but I am British. Whatever you hear Welsh Politicians spouting many, many, many of us in Wales feel this way.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
3 years ago

“Neither is true, exactly, just as neither is false: they are merely opposing narratives constructed from the same raw data in pursuit of opposing political projects”
History isn’t entirely fictive, people can look into the past for events that support their ideology, but sometimes it’s the data itself that means the story has to change. In Australia’s case the material that was copied from British government departments’ archives as a bicentennial project, revealed thousands of previously unseen documents and very much changed people’s understanding of the relationships between settlers and the Indigenous people. What was revealed in those documents can’t now be unknown, future history will incorporate it. Digitisation of records such as old newspapers also means that the new, fast searchability of historical materials will reveal more new things.

Last edited 3 years ago by Russell Hamilton
Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago

“White, deconstructing 19th century historiographies of the French Revolution, distinguishes between a politically “radical” understanding of history as analogous to the Romance, and a more or less conservative one drawing on the tropes of Tragedy.”
If historians are looking for a literary model, shouldn’t they dispense with pre-modern forms such as Romance and Tragedy and pattern their work on the nineteenth-century realist novel? Novels such as War and Peace and Middlemarch are practically history books already. They teach us that people act as conscious moral agents, with individual beliefs, motives and desires, but that their actions are nevertheless shaped by wider social situations and ideological assumptions. A historian approaching the past with these verities in mind can’t, surely, go far wrong!

Last edited 3 years ago by Basil Chamberlain
Caroline Galwey
Caroline Galwey
3 years ago

Good comment, and reminds me of another good article on here (was it?) last week about how the realist novel taught us empathy, and the decline of the novel and rise of ‘stay in your lane’ identitarian politics is dangerously eroding that legacy. The study of history, as I see it, very largely shares in that aim of the novel – teaching empathy. Approaching a very alien ‘other’, the foreign country of the past, and trying to understand it.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago

I absolutely agree. Within reason, “Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner” – to use the axiom that Tolstoy himself once borrowed.

Last edited 3 years ago by Basil Chamberlain
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

Whilst Middlemach is a wonderful evocation of the dawn of Victorian England may I lower the tone slightly by also recommending:
The Metamorphoses of Apuleius,
(which the somewhat deranged, Augustine of Hippo referred to as The Golden Ass), and is the only ancient Roman novel in Latin to survive in its entirety?

As a similar evocation of life in the Pax Romana during the second century of the Christian Era, as we now call it, it is not for the faint hearted, or for those easily outraged.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago

You may indeed recommend it. But do you recommend it as a model for historiography?

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

In the absence of any similar contemporary works, yes.

David Platzer
David Platzer
3 years ago

It is generally known as “The Golden Ass” and has been translated, at least twice into English, the first time by 1566 by William Adlington (a translation much admired by Compton Mackenzie) and much recently by Robert Graves for Penguin.

opn
opn
3 years ago
Reply to  David Platzer

The new Loeb is better that Robert Graves – who had rather a habit of printing what he felt the Latin ought to have said if it had been under the benign influence of the White Goddess.
That said, his Claudius novels are consistent in their historical interpretation, as he will consistently adopt the most salacious version of events.

David Platzer
David Platzer
3 years ago
Reply to  opn

I haven’t seen the new Loeb and it is a long time since I looked at the tattered Penguin Graves version. This afternoon. I took out a Wordworth copy of the Elizabethan Adlington. Compton Mackenzie has Michael Fane give a copy of this (in a more elegant edition than the Wordsworth) to Sylvia Scarlett.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  David Platzer

Thank you, but did you not read my comment?
GA is mentioned in line 6?

Jonathan Munday
Jonathan Munday
3 years ago

This is potentially the case. It is fervently to be wished that it is the case – that the government will finally wake up to the damage that has been done in schools, universities, arts and the media by the Gramscian march through the institutions of the children of 1968.
My problem with the theory is that I see not one iota of evidence that the government has, in fact, woken up to the danger nor has any plan to confront it. Appointments of its enemies are still routinely being made to regulatory, advisory and trustee bodies. And without that changing, there is no hope of any change of policy or myth being implemented on the ground.

andrew harman
andrew harman
3 years ago

The writing of history has always reflected both the assumptions of the writer and the time and place they live in: Herodotus, Livy, Tacitus, Polydore Virgil, Macauley, Hobsbawm – you could go on; they all construct their own narrative based on their interpretation of “facts”. The Marxists were the worst offenders, seeking to turn history into some sort of science to fit their dogma.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago

An excellent essay which demonstrates perfectly the danger of history. People choose history – episodes or quotations or the action of an idolised (by them) statesman – to support their own beliefs.
Deconstruction was and is easy – you just propose a lot of ‘what-ifs’ and come out with an alternative version. Philosophers have been doing this for the last 60 years and have been basing their careers on it. Now everybody is doing it and we have the phenomenon of woke.
Post-colonialism is a good example. You look at the history of a country from a different angle, you pick out certain criteria, you rewrite the history to produce a completely different result and you blame the dominant movers and shakers for creating the wrong history. Then you become a tenured professor.
But I personally think that to base your life on a historical theory is bad and leads you along all of the wrong paths. Old people have more history stoked up in themselves so battles always become old versus young – or today it is people who see themselves as old and people who want to see themselves as young.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Agree it’s an excellent essay but think it demonstrates the benefits, rather than danger, of history and an understanding what ‘history’ really is.
Deconstruction shouldn’t be easy – it should mean questioning your own unconscious assumptions about the ‘what ifs’ you are considering. If it’s ‘easy’ I’m not sure it’s deconstruction.
Post-colonialism is a good example. You look at the history of a country from a different angle, you pick out certain criteria, you rewrite the history to produce a completely different result and you blame the dominant movers and shakers for creating the wrong history. Then you become a tenured professor.
Is the point of the article not that there is no ‘wrong’ history?
‘To understand this interpretation of the historian’s art — for art is what it is’ (from the essay). 
History is not fact. That’s been understood for millennia. Herodotus was creating stories not documenting experiments undertaken in a controlled environment.
I think we all base our world views on a historical theory – be it personal or national or anything in between – and we all rewrite that personal historical theory as we go to accommodate/excuse/justify/explain ourselves to ourselves.

Andrew Raiment
Andrew Raiment
3 years ago

Excellent objective analysis and dissection of the culture war, almost how history itself should be examined.

Victor Newman
Victor Newman
3 years ago

Interesting. Under communism it was said that the past was always dark and uncertain (because it was constantly being re-written in terms of today’s narrative searching for culprits for today’s failure) whilst the future was always definitive, clear and bright (due to the dear leader’s new plan!).

Ann Ceely
Ann Ceely
3 years ago

But we don’t have “a morally disfigured past”.

We have a set of events which were no nastier than many others, and better than may others.

Alan Jackson
Alan Jackson
3 years ago

Perhaps we need to get back to the words I grew up with:
“Jingoism”- partial minded and simplistic; “Nationalism”-dubious and dangerous; “Patriotism”- admirable identification with and love of what is best in your inherited culture. Both jingoism and patriotism seem to have disappeared; and “nationalism” does not distinguish between the varying possible meanings of the concept..

Caroline Galwey
Caroline Galwey
3 years ago

yet only one controls the levers of the central state’ … and it ain’t the Tory party.

Anthony Lewis
Anthony Lewis
3 years ago

Hmmm, surely any academic worth anything looks at history from all perspectives, inquiring and probing – resisting the temptation to interpret according to their own biases and deeply held ideologies – acknowledging always that there will always be a spectrum of interpretation – this is where things have gone seriously wrong in the arts academies since the dystopian assault of the post modernists and marxists on all things enlightened – everything is not opinion, there do exist facts and evidence and its nonsense, absurd unhinged nonsense to suggest otherwise!

James Bigglesworth
James Bigglesworth
3 years ago

Rewrite History? Oh they surely, surely will. They will need to get themselves off the ‘Nuremberg Hook’ with regard to ‘Covid-19’ somehow.
What was it Churchill said – “History will be kind to me…. because I shall write it” ?
He didn’t live in a time of easy data access though, so Bozo Johnson ought to have a more difficult job there. Mind you, with the level of ‘compliance’ so readily exhibited by over 95% of the population, I could be wrong.
I wonder when he (or his sidekick Mad W@nksock) will be telling us via the Ministry of Truth that they have increased the chocolate ration from half an ounce to a quarter of an ounce?
…and we will all be on our doorsteps clapping like demented seals at the glad tidings. FFS.
We need only transpose two little letters to change ‘compliant’ into ‘complaint’. We should all be doing a lot more of the latter and be a lot less of the former.

John Riordan
John Riordan
3 years ago

Not sure I can go along with this wholly, interesting though it is. I dispute the notion that historical narratives are as arbitrary as argued; this comes across to me quite similar to the fallacy adopted by radical gender activists that social constructs are arbitrary. They are not: they are durable memes which survive a constant exposure to reality unlike their many more ephemeral competitors which are in fact arbitrary and do not survive contact with reality, irrespective of whether they may be convenient for governments from time to time (see Deutsch, Pinker etc).

On the final point, where Labour needs to think up better stories for the nation to gather around, it ought to be pretty clear that this failing by Labour is simply down to not wanting to do this. The recent culture war centred upon George Floyd and BLM is an obvious case in point, because Labour could have easily co-opted Britain’s unique role in eradicating slavery as a factually-rooted and nationally positive narrative which would have given both itself and Britain a much-needed defence. Labour did not do this, and the reason is reasonably obvious: it’s because Labour is a Party full of people who despise the nation they supposedly serve, and have no interests in rescuing it from alternative, hostile historical narratives.

Last edited 3 years ago by John Riordan
Colin Haller
Colin Haller
3 years ago

Historical narratives are essential to tribal identity — it’s at least partly why nation-states have universal public schooling.
In all cases it’s a matter of foregrounding and curation — what and how it is presented are crucial. In effect, you are directing the hand of the blind Indians to ONE part of the elephant so as to create the conditions for agreement as to what this creature must be.
For less salubrious applications of this process, see your Orwell.
I note with wry amusement that the author carefully manages never to mention English nationalism …

Simon Diggins
Simon Diggins
3 years ago

Interesting, in its discussion of ideas about history, but less credible when taking about its relevance to U.K.

Rousinnos claims to detect the first stirrings of a British nationalism; that would be news to historians like Linda Colley who have been describing its lineaments for years. More strange is that he cannot, apparently, bring himself to recognise the one nationalism that is on the rise, and will continue to grow, the more the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish assert their distinctiveness from a ‘Great British’ identity: ie English nationalism.

Beloved of the ‘liberal Ă©lite’ as the boorish bogeyman of nationalisms, Englishness actually describes probably the largest community within our Isles, as well as being the fount spring for many of our best, and most cherished, collective virtues: equality before the law, liberty, fair play, and a strong sense of belonging that can be traced back, despite tergivisations and the imposition of ‘the Norman Yoke’, over 1500 years. Britishness, by contrast is, at best 400 years old, with the accession of James VI to the English throne, and more realistically, some 200 years old, when the last flickerings of Stuart claims to the throne were extinguished by a pension paid by the monarch to the last Stuart pretender.

How will it play out? Not sure: the fantasists in Whitehall will still persist with the Westminster ‘Imperial’ Parliament for as long as they can; the logic of U.K. fissiperation dictates however that an English Parliament will be with us, inside a generation.

James Chater
James Chater
3 years ago

(

Last edited 3 years ago by James Chater
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  James Chater

“What is History? Lies about crimes”.*

(*the late Dr John Mann).

James Chater
James Chater
3 years ago

Couldn’t find that reference.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  James Chater

Given verbally at a symposium on the ‘function of Hadrian’s Wall’ many years ago.
‘

Chuck Burns
Chuck Burns
3 years ago

An excellent article that caused me to look up several words and acronyms. It is distressing to me that history is so politicized and used as propaganda to promote an agenda. I blame the Cultural Marxists and their end justifies the means approach to winning at any cost. I am biased but I can handle the truth and I understand that my Conservative side is not without sin. I just wish the Left would lay off the end justifies the means their way or no way tactics and allow us to Live and Let live.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
3 years ago

There is no need to choose between a 1619 narrative and a 1776 narrative. Both were critical dates in American history as the greatest of American presidents recognized. In his Gettysburg address, Lincoln started (“Four score and seven years ago”) with a nod to 1776. In his second inaugural address (“the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil”) there was a nod to 1619. The year 2020 doesn’t come close to either in its significance for American history, but, pace Aris, it is more likely to be remembered for a stolen presidential election than for the death of George Floyd.

Chris Hopwood
Chris Hopwood
3 years ago

This article confuses Britain with England. Sure the Tories, now effectively the English Nationalist party, did very well in England in the recent council etc elections, but not so in Wales and Scotland.

Alex Camm
Alex Camm
3 years ago

The linking of the holy grail myth and the historical validity of the resurrection made by, White seems to be dismissive of Christianity

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
3 years ago

We need to look to the future and those things that unite us and thereby make us stronger. We should try to learn the right lessons from history (even if the history itself is not exactly as it really was) in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past. History always has and always will be in the eye of the beholder.
When it comes to removing historical figures from our landscape, we should focus on removing the ones from very near history who still exert a baleful influence on us now, like the war criminal Phoney Blair.

Paul Marks
Paul Marks
3 years ago

Turning aside from the case of Mr Floyd….
Saint George, if he existed, was a Roman soldier from the Greek speaking east of the Empire (perhaps from Cappadocia – a popular recruiting ground for soldiers for both Rome and then the Byzantine Empire). This has nothing to do with “Turkey” – a country that did not exist at the time. Although, of course, neither did England.
“It does not matter if a claim is true” – well it does matter, if it is not true it is not history.
The writer does not clearly say what “historical myths” the Conservatives are creating, or how the Conservatives are “rewriting history”. There are certainly areas of history that are neglected – for example the long history of British people as slaves. In England this was officially ended by the Westminster declaration in 1102 (although this is actually just the start of a long series of legal judgements ending with that of Lord Mansfield in the 1770s, to some extent repeating what Chief Justice Sir John Holt had said many decades before, and Tudor judges had said before him) – but English people (and others) could still be enslaved by raids, or on the high seas. There is also the more than a century campaign, in the 19th and 20th centuries, by the Royal Navy against the slave trade – slavery being an evil practiced by most (although not quite all) cultures in history. As with the declaration against slavery by Louis X of France – I think we can all agree that it would have better if the declarations that slavery was against the Christian law inside a realm were also enforced OUTSIDE the Realm

Last edited 3 years ago by Paul Marks
Kremlington Swan
Kremlington Swan
3 years ago

I’ve got an idea: next time a bunch of woke thugs threaten to pull down a statue, superglue their nipples to it.
If they come back for more after that, fair play to them – they are showing proper British pluck.

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
3 years ago

Brilliant, well argued, insightful article.

Kremlington Swan
Kremlington Swan
3 years ago

I’m not sure the Tories need to do anything for the foreseeable future, other than to resist the demands of the woke.

The sensible thing to do is let Labour be the standard bearer for all that is woke and shouty. There are plenty more votes to be harvested, as Hartlepool demonstrated, and they can be harvested without getting involved in a wrestling match over our past.
If ten percent of the population want to pull down statues of Nelson and Churchill, it means 90 percent don’t want that to happen. They don’t need to make a noise about it or go on demonstrations, they just need to vote whenever an election is held.

Tone is important with these things. Politicians, by and large, are not terribly good at getting the tone right. Every time some Labour kid demands or decries this or that on Twitter, an adult who never voted anything but Labour decides he will vote Tory next time. He doesn’t need to be persuaded to vote Tory, he votes Tory because it is the only option open to him. Don’t ruin that by trying to persuade him with an invented narrative. He is sick of invented narratives.

If you want to know how badly politicians can get it wrong, listen to the still proliferating covid ads on the wireless..'(singing) … and the difference is you’ (for example). There isn’t a single person in Britain who would not beg for the opportunity to shoot whoever dreamed that one up.

Last edited 3 years ago by Kremlington Swan
Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
3 years ago

Nice one Aris. Fits quite neatly with the idea of the history of the people and the history of the land.

The former is buttressed by narratives that seek cultural cohesion underpinned by a sense of mutual ecological interdependencies and the latter is the raw events that have taken place on the land.

Thus what is contested is how to create cultural cohesion and the mutual ecological interdependencies that cohesion should centre on.

The Conservative narrative is, at least from my point of view, more evolutionary and Darwinistic so is a tale of adaptation/reformation in concert with human ecological changes and the Progressive narrative is more uchronic in which fictionalised revolutionary moments are imagined as an alternative to the perceived evil that happened.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uchronia

In the present, for Conservatives, the narrative is writing itself as we, as a Nation of Peoples, evolve and adapt in relation to viable fossil fuel reserves, the law of diminishing energy returns and the human growth crisis with social, economic and ecological productivity key.

Progressives on the other hand, will forment about global frameworks and the need to universalise egalitarianism and so will fictionalise uchronic moments about how capitalists set in motion the destruction of the world.

Cynthia Neville
Cynthia Neville
3 years ago

Oh, for heaven’s sake. Stop writing as if you knew something about a non-Foucauldian approach to history or historical writing.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
3 years ago

White’s book came out in 1975 and is old-hat; his ideas have been (often discredited) commonplaces for decades. Why summarise them now? The valid parts of his argument are obvious and hardly require pointing out.

Paul Marks
Paul Marks
3 years ago

The headline is that “the Tories” are creating “historical myths” – but then does not list any that the Conservatives are creating.
As for Mr Floyd – he did indeed die in Minnesota, this was never a slave State. He also died in the city of Minneapolis, a city under the rule of the left for almost the last 50 years. Sadly one can not have, in public, a rational discussion about his death – as there are massive riots (with lots of looting, burning and killing) if one points out his fentanyl overdose and weak heart. The police officer was certainly no saint (he has 22 complaints against him) – but the idea of a racist police officer (whose first marriage was to an Asian lady – but we must never let facts interfere with the narrative) murdering Mr Floyd because he was black, is one of those “historical myths” that, we are told, is necessary for social peace.
Sadly the American criminal justice system (at Federal, State and local level) is more and more concerned with “historical myths that are necessary for social peace”. In this particular case the accused was a nasty man (although his general nastiness should not have been the matter of concern for the trial), but other people in the sights of the American system of “justice” are not nasty (some are on trial for the “crime” of defending themselves against violent attack – because they have the “wrong” political opinions, and their attackers have the “correct” political opinions) – that is not a practice we should copy.

Karen Jemmett
Karen Jemmett
3 years ago

Excellent discussion. Amusingly, I just googled ‘Is postmodernism dead?’ and the following popped up: “The thing that most makes postmodernism feel dead-ish is that cultural relativism and nihilism have becomes culturally unpopular. People are more willing to take stands against other cultures and political correctness than they did, say in the 80s and 90s in the West.” I can’t help thinking the most significant cultural backlash here in the UK at the moment is against the uncultured and indolent rather than being rooted in race or ethnicity. Indeed, sociologists have warned about the long-term consequences of unbridled consumerism since the 50s…

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
3 years ago

I suggest reading GM Trevylan ” Social History of England ” and works by a Bryant favoured by Attlee and Wilson.Until 1800, at least 80% of Britons lived on the land and and at least 20% were connected to the sea.There are several aspects which Britain unique.

  1. Rise of representative government from 1215 to 1300. Monarch agreeing with MPs what to be taxed. That which affects all must be consented by all. Ed 1. Wool enables even serfws to earn cash.
  2. A land owning middle class who were trained to fight and were paid volunteers – freeman, yeoman, franklins. English army did not employ mercenaries
  3. Education in law outside of Church – Inns.
  4. Break up of monasteries creates large middle class.
  5. Royal power based upon navy not army post 1550s.
  6. Desire by all landowners to improve land from 1550s.
  7. Post 1660growth in knowledge. Royal Society spreads knowledge with emphasis on practical methods to improve life, does not control it.
  8. Agricultural and Industrial Revololutions, by landowners and merchants support crafstmen, many Non- Conformist , eg D of Manchester- James Brindley canals.
  9. People have freedom to think, speak, associate and innovate to improve their lives and keep thier wealth from the Monarch. Very little control from monarch over daily life compared to Europe- No Inquisition.
  10. Britain became a nation of hardy and enterprising people with the freedom under law to devlop their abilities.