Chris Skidmore is a former Universities Minister, and is MP for Kingswood. He is a member of Policy Exchange’s History Matters panel of experts.
Why does history matter? Well, as I wrote on this site nearly a decade ago, history can give us a common, shared body of knowledge and values which we then pass on to the next generation.
In recent weeks, however, it has become clear that there are vast gaps in that knowledge for too many people. A sense of national, shared values seems to be breaking down, as the vandalising of Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square so amply demonstrated. Graffiti labelling him a “racist” speaks volumes about how some on the political extremes approach our history.
The good news, revealed in Policy Exchange polling – published today to mark the launch of its History Matters Project – is that there is more consensus on our history today that one might imagine.
When asked if Churchill’s statue should stay put in Parliament Square, four out of five people said yes. Even among 18 to 24-year-olds, there was a large majority in favour of leaving him alone, despite what the leaders of recent protests have had to say on the subject.
In general, the polling revealed, British people are proud of our history, with only 17 per cent saying it is something of which to be ashamed. The vast majority recognise that it makes little sense to judge historical figures according to contemporary mores.
Yet there is serious concern that a minority of activists are being given too much of say over what happens to our national and local monuments. Who gets to decide which statues remain, and which are toppled? It surely cannot be the loudest voices, or an angry mob that chooses on the spur of the moment.
Companies and public institutions should also be wary of rushing to appease the noisiest activists. As Trevor Phillips, Chair of the History Matters Project, has noted, too much is happening too quickly. He urges a pause for reflection – “to consider what is being done, why and with what effect”. We might also remember the late Roger Scruton’s words here: “good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.”
With that wisdom in mind, what should we be trying to create? Difficult though it may be, I would argue for a greater understanding of our history that must begin at school. Some 60 per cent of those polled, I’m pleased to note, were in favour of children learning history to GCSE. This is a position I have supported for more than a decade, not only because I am a historian myself.
I also recognise that the humanities, these so-called ‘soft’ academic subjects, are worthwhile in themselves and can also lead to high-status careers. I applaud the excellent new “Shape” initiative, supported by the British Academy, which stands for “social sciences, humanities and the arts for people and the economy”, and will promote these subjects, and the sort of reasoning skills and wider perspective they can offer school pupils and university students. “Shape” is not in opposition to Stem, but should hopefully serve to remind people of the UK’s strong creative economy and the job opportunities within it.
The truth, sadly, is that while about a third of children take GCSE history, as Government research indicates, subjects like it are “much more likely to be taken by pupils from less deprived backgrounds”. The same research also shows that over a quarter of schools do not even offer history GCSE.
As I discovered in 2011, in 159 schools, not a single pupil was entered for GCSE History, with 13 per cent of comprehensives entering less than one in ten pupils for the subject. How can we possibly expect to have a shared body of knowledge and values if we do not give children the opportunity to learn about our past? There are still vast blackspots in the education system where history is inaccessible, especially to disadvantaged children.
What might help address this is history that has a local as well as national approach. Children should learn about their local area, as well as Britain’s national story. Field trips and hands-on activities should be encouraged. History should not be a dry and dusty subject, but seen as a living study, with local elements that they can see for themselves.
Children should also learn that revisionism and intelligent criticism of past historical works is central to the academic process. It is wrong to say we can’t change our history. We can: history is an ever-changing study of the past, with its multiple narratives and biases. It’s the past that we can’t change.
Those who don’t want to study or debate the past but tear it down should be strongly resisted. Emmanuel Macron put it well when he said France “will not erase any trace, or any name, from its history… it will not take down any statue.” Instead, he argued, “we should look at all of our history together”, with a goal of “truth” instead of “denying who we are”.
This is what worries me about those who cherry-pick historical figures, such as Edward Colston in Bristol, and decide that they must be erased from public memory, like a disappearing commissar in an airbrushed, Stalin-era photograph. How many Bristolian children will have heard of Colston in 20 years’ time? Far better, I think, that they should learn of him as in some respects a hero and a villain, a product of his time, whose life was exceptional in ways that today are considered both good and bad.
Unfortunately, there seems to be little room for nuance in the recent debate around history, which has become the latest front in a culture war between left and right. But those of us in politics should remember – as today’s polling indicates – that there is a large, silent majority who value the UK’s history, want to protect it, and fervently wish that more of us could learn more about it.