Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
Along with Jon Bon Govey, thanks to the Prime Minister another hero burst into our collective consciousness last week: Hereward the Woke.
The PM’s Conference speech might have skirted around the many challenges facing the United Kingdom, but he was clear whose side he was on in the country’s culture wars, highlighting a key battleground: history.
Hereward the Wake (or Watchful) led a five-year insurgency against William I’s all-conquering Normans around 1070. They were fighting in what by then was recognisably England, even if it seemed more like Game of Thrones’ Westeros. The frequent descriptions of the legendary Hereward as one of the ‘greatest Englishmen’ might, however, be pushing it: the resistance leader could well have been as much Danish as Anglo-Saxon.
If only there were more 11th century texts to view through the post-modernist lens of critical theory, Hereward might be the subject of numerous academic papers on identity and colonisation. Wake or Woke; structure or agency.
Voted the greatest Briton in a 2002 BBC poll in which more than one million took part, it is Winston Churchill rather than Hereward who has come to embody the current cultural conflict within history – and indeed within wider society.
As the author of History of the English-Speaking Peoples, our most illustrious Prime Minister also joins the fight as participant, as well as prize, in today’s history wars. His style is less the drums and trumpets school and more Land of Hope and Glory: ‘… on that little Anglo-Saxon island there was kindled the flame of freedom and equality for the individual … This idea grew and was spread over the earth by the English-speaking peoples, and has now brought democracy to the whole free world …’
If Prime Ministers Johnson and Churchill are battling for history in the metaphorical blue corner, in the red is the seemingly self-hating Churchill College, Cambridge. In July, it announced it was disbanding its Churchill, Race and Empire Working Group.
This follows a panel discussion ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill’ – still available on YouTube – in which various publicity-hungry academics denounce the British Empire, which is given moral equivalence with Nazi Germany, while among other howlers, apparently mixing up Nye Bevan and Ernest Bevin. Historical accuracy; so yesterday, right?
Last week’s report from the Office for Students stated that universities were ignoring poor spelling, punctuation and grammar. ‘To achieve or promote inclusivity’ some institutions are turning a blind eye to the rules of basic written English. Not only is this jaw-droppingly patronising, but harming students’ career prospects. But who cares about the future of £9,250 a year fee fodder, when there is decolonising the curriculum to get stuck into?
‘They Kant be Serious’ was The Daily Mail’s Johnson-esque response to reports that students at School of Oriental and African Studies wanted to side-line various philosophers, including Plato, as part of its Decolonising Our Minds campaign. Across Britain, universities are following suit, treating the canon by dead white men as if it were radioactive.
Exeter University’s History Department declares that it is ‘working to decolonise the way we teach, research and work with one another’. Its counterpart in Durham is not only committed to decolonisation but to creating an ‘all-inclusive culture and environment’.
With about one-third of their students privately educated, Exeter and Durham aren’t too far off the top of the posh list. Are we quite sure that this current fad for new narratives, which was given fresh momentum with the Black Lives Matter movement, is nothing more than Britain’s academic leaders appeasing their noisier students? After all, they are happy to pander to student-led, mind-closing gestures like no-platforming.
It is ironic that so many of the country’s higher education institutions are making a virtue of decolonisation while structural inequality is obvious in many lecture theatres. It must be questioned how far the cause of social justice is served by ensuring Josh and Jemima, whose schooling cost £40,000 + a year, have more non-white radicals on their reading list than Frantz Fanon.
Last week the Prime Minister warned that our national story is being rewritten. Just as Trotsky came to be air-brushed out of the Stalin-era Soviet picture, whole periods of our collective past are being re-interpreted to fit in with today’s orthodoxies. Statues must fall, links – however tenuous – with the slave trade denounced, street names changed. Supposed guardians of Britain’s history, including the Church of England, art galleries, museums and the National Trust, pander to present mood of iconoclasm.
In March 2001, the Taliban destroyed the giant statues of Buddha in Bamiyam province, smashing 2,000 years of history. A decade later, not content with burning alive or beheading opponents, ISIS obliterated artifacts and ruins of the Greek and Roman empires across an arc from Libya to Iraq. In trying to wipe out any trace of a pre-Islamic past, these cultural nihilists decimated a common global heritage for future generations. They could not, however, change the immutable past.
In the context of today, Britain’s history is a litany of uncomfortable and inconvenient truths. Most of it is problematic, some of it heart-stirringly glorious. The current canyons in social equality in this country are not going be bridged by obsessing over what happened hundreds of years ago.
In the current rush to re-write and re-interpret it, what is overlooked is how little history many know. This mass ignorance was reflected last year, when Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, called for a disclaimer on the Netflix series The Crown. Viewers needed reminding that the events depicted were fiction, not historical fact.
As Black History Month continues, it is apt to reflect on the words of Marcus Garvey: ‘A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.’ Last week, the Prime Minister declared that ‘we Conservatives will defend our history and cultural inheritance’.
To the barricades.