CCHQ issued a press release for Boxing Day’s newspapers headed "The Twelve great people who shaped our nation." The Times, Telegraph, Sun and Daily Mail all reacted by focusing on the exclusion of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. The list is meant, however, to be of Britain’s greatest institution-builders and not the greatest-ever Britons. Speaking to ConservativeHome yesterday David Willetts said that if it was a list of greatest Britons then Churchill would certainly be on the list. He also said that there was a good case for Lord Reith to have been on the list – as the founder of the BBC. He also agreed that William Wilberforce merited possible inclusion as the destroyer of the institution of slavery. The list of twelve was drawn up by historians Neil McKendrick, David Starkey and Michael Burleigh at Mr Willetts’ request:
- Saint Columba (521 – 597) – Christianity in Britain
- Alfred the Great (849 – 899) – The Kingdom of England
- Henry II (1133 – 1189) – The common law
- Simon de Montfort (1208 -1265) – Parliament
- James IV of Scotland (1443 – 1517) – The Kingdom of Scotland
- Thomas Gresham (1519 – 1579) – The stock market
- Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658) – The British Army
- Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727) – The Royal Society
- Robert Clive (1725 – 1774) – The British Empire
- Sir Robert Peel (1778 – 1850) – The police
- Millicent Fawcett (1847 – 1929) – Universal suffrage
- Nye Bevan (1897 – 1960) – The National Health Service.
Mr Willetts sees the list of twelve great people as a contribution to a national debate about the sort of history that should be taught to British schoolchildren. He is concerned to move the debate beyond abstract ideas of freedom, rights and democracy – that characterise the Government’s approach to citizenship – and earth British citizens in an understanding of the institutions that protect and nourish those values within the unique British system of government and society.
Footnote: The Shadow Education Secretary has certainly started a debate. The Independent lists its alternative institution-builders today. In a missed opportunity, however, the debate isn’t taking place on the Public Services Challenge website, where the Tory press release directed interested people to. Those wanting to comment on the Conservative ideas will find no mention of the Willetts initiative on the website (or on conservatives.com). The most recent post is a month old. These are exactly the opportunities that the party should be using to collect voters’ email addresses. A great shame.