Writing for The Telegraph, the Prime Minister had a few things to say about the statues controversy. For instance:
Some of our leading academics didn’t like it very much. Here’s a tweet from Robert Saunders of Oxford University:
If the Prime Minister had been attacking the Black Lives Matter campaign, Saunders might have had a point. But where in the piece does Johnson do that? As for “[writing] back in histories that have been erased” — that is precisely what Johnson goes on to argue for:
…Rather than tear down the past, why not add some of the men and women – most often BAME – who helped to make our modern Commonwealth and our modern world?
Another academic, Tim Bale of Queen Mary University London, responded to Saunders’ tweet with this observation:
However, “what historians do” is clearly not what the Prime Minister was referring to in his article. He was attacking political campaigns of cultural cleansing, which isn’t the same thing at all. Historians quite properly draw upon new evidence, sources and perspectives to challenge older accounts of the past. What they don’t do, however, unless they work for some totalitarian regime, is burn the books of previous historians. They don’t gather up the collected works of Herodotus, Bede and Gibbon and throw them into the sea.
Aside from the judgements required for translation, abridgement etc, modern scholarship is scrupulous in not even editing older texts — despite what we know to be error or suspect to be invention. In this respect, historians do indeed leave the past alone to speak for itself — finding ways to comment upon it without altering it.
As I say, Boris Johnson was mainly talking about historical monuments, not history books. But the same principle should apply: arguing with, but not rewriting the past — and certainly not erasing it.
By all means agree or disagree with his ideas on how best to do that — but at least engage with what he actually said.