by Peter Franklin
Monday, 15
June 2020
Response
18:14

What Boris actually said about purging the past

by Peter Franklin
A statue of the slave owner Robert Milligan being removed from outside the Museum of London Docklands

Writing for The Telegraph, the Prime Minister had a few things to say about the statues controversy. For instance:

I am also extremely dubious about the growing campaign to edit or photoshop the entire cultural landscape. If we start purging the record and removing the images of all but those whose attitudes conform to our own, we are engaged in a great lie, a distortion of our history – like some public figure furtively trying to make themselves look better by editing their own Wikipedia entry.
- Boris Johnson, The Telegraph

Some of our leading academics didn’t like it very much. Here’s a tweet from Robert Saunders of Oxford University:

This is a foolish piece by Johnson. Black Lives Matter is asking Britain to face up to its history: to talk *more* about histories of slavery & empire; to write back in histories that have been erased. It could not be less like ‘purging the record’ to make ourselves ‘look better’
- Robert Saunders

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:

We have brilliant sculptors and artists. Why should they not be commissioned to make fitting additions to the landscape and cityscape?

…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?

- Boris Johnson, The Telegraph

Another academic, Tim Bale of Queen Mary University London, responded to Saunders’ tweet with this observation:

Also revising — call it editing or photoshopping if you must — is *what historians do*. The whole point is they don’t leave the past alone or to speak for itself — they continually revisit, interrogate, shape, and present it in ways that are inevitably partial and curated.
- Tim Bale

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.

Join the discussion


To get involved in the discussion and stay up to date, join UnHerd.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up