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.