Why political conservatives should embrace free historical inquiry – rather than imposing and promoting an official version of the history of the United Kingdom

15th February 2021

Another weekend, another Sunday newspaper splash from the government and its media supporters hoping to have a culture war to which their opponents will come.

From yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph:

Now, having digested (or otherwise) this ‘torpedo’, let us go back thirty-or-so years to a time when political conservatism in the United Kingdom was in a far more intellectually confident state.

The late 1970s and 1980s was when a range of conservative (big ‘C’ as well as little ‘c’) academics and public intellectuals were challenging (perceived) orthodoxies in many intellectual disciplines: economics, sociology, and so on.

In the historiography of the United Kingdom, in particular, many received versions were being questioned.

Jonathan Clark and others were subverting the ‘whig’ or ‘Enlightenment’ view of the ‘long eighteenth century’ of 1660-1832 and were urging instead that religion generally and Anglicanism in particular be taken seriously as an explanatory means of understanding political and social change – and lack of change.

For the nineteenth century, John Vincent and Maurice Cowling were disputing that the widening of the franchise in the 1860s was to do with any sense of democratic progress, and were contending instead that it was far more about the cynical political opportunism of the politicians involved.

In respect of the twentieth century, Correlli Barnett was confronting the comforting origins of the post-war welfare state consensus with an equally discomforting counter-narrative in his Pride and Fall sequence.

A brilliant young historian named Andrew Roberts took on head-first the most cherished of recent British myths in a book entitled Eminent Churchillians – the poundering revisionism of which would make even the most devoted admirer of Netflix’s The Crown blush.

(Eminent Churchillians remains Roberts’ best book by a country mile – and its demolition of Arthur Bryant’s patriotic history a delight.)

There were many others.

It was a fascinating – exciting – moment to be a student of history (as I was).

And all this at a time when communism (in its post-war form) was about to come to an abrupt end, notwithstanding the claims from a few (if not the many) that such a system was historically inevitable.


Thirty years later, no doubt little of this intellectual energy has perhaps left a lasting historiographical mark.

The weaknesses and faults of these historians and their histories have, in turn, been exposed.

Historiography has moved on.

But at the time it signalled an unafraid seriousness to take on and replace versions of history on which liberal and progressive pieties often rested complacently.

And it was not an accident that these academic challenges were concurrent with the politics of Thatcherism that also sought to take on the certainties of left wing and centrist positions.

So it seems telling that the conservatives of today do not share the intellectual confidence of their counterparts of thirty-or-so years ago.

Instead of taking on histories that show the precariousness of the ‘Union’ of the United Kingdom, or how much British economic development depended on the ownership of slaves and the system of slavery, or how the British empire was as just as exploitative and brutal as any other empire – these discomforting challenges to the conservative worldview are to be ‘torpedoed’ by bureaucratic directions instead. 


Many ideologies have, as a component, a theory of history.

Certainly many ideologues do.

And this is true for internationalists as well as nationalists, liberals and progressives as well as conservatives, Remainers as much as Brexiters, and so on.

One test of the soundness – indeed robustness – of that ideology is how it copes with fundamental challenge.

Are the ancient tools of ‘heresy’ and ‘blasphemy’ re-fashioned with modern guises so as to do the work of closing down unwelcome subversions?

Or are the foundations of the ideology more robust than that?

(And there is always the question of whether a thing is an ‘ideology’ just because you say it is.)


A great deal of modern political conservatism – now hardening into the worship of plaster and plastic heroes – was based on the questioning of received historical conventional wisdoms in the 1970s and 1980s.

And now conservatives want to pull their intellectual shutters down, pull up the historical drawbridge, and fill the moat with torpedoes.

Those who support the current government of the United Kingdom – and the view of the British past that it promotes – should relish taking on the historiographical challenges presented by a more-rounded understanding of the history of these islands and of their economic and imperial history.

For if that ‘Brexit’ understanding of British history was valid then current Brexit positions will be validated.

And if those understandings are invalid, then it will show that the Brexit endeavour may itself be misguided.


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19 thoughts on “Why political conservatives should embrace free historical inquiry – rather than imposing and promoting an official version of the history of the United Kingdom”

  1. Well said. I am utterly dismayed by the idea that any UK government would be discomfited by the idea of the fascinating, and sometimes dark, history of this country being told with warts and all. We did engage in the slave trade; much of this country’s wealth depended on it for a lengthy time in our history; and, much of our empire was created by gunboat diplomacy in the most literal sense. Why deny that, or seek to airbrush it from the historical record? It implies a country, and a governing party, no longer at ease with itself.

    1. The fact you are having to ask that question highlights the issue. I used to live in the Bristol area and the issue of the Coulston statue was something that most people wanted to be resolved with a plaque that stated that simple point of history that his wealth and philanthropy was based on his deep involvement in the slave trade but this was thwarted firstly by merchant venturers and then by conservative elements elsewhere.

      The problem is that people try and airbrush this sort of stuff out because that is not the history they are taught. As a black person it is often the history we find out after the fact. So imagine if you are a person of my age in his 50s being told about the mau mau uprsing and the fact that a British civil servent described the UK actions similar to those that were performed by Nazi Germany then the idea of your country as being an unalloyed good is often broken

      Simply put we tend to forget that most people knowledge of history is seen through a lens that was so economical with the truth that even though I studied WWII history. I was in my 30s when I understood the how important the eastern front was and how most of the fighting/deaths occured on the eastern front. Even if you went through the famous series about the second world war “World at War” the actual war is seen not through an objective lens but a partisan one

      The reality is that a large proportion of the country’s world view does air brush out the more unsavory part of history and are uncomfortable about what they would see as having it thrusted in their face.

      In term sof reaction for many that do know about the real history it feels like being a teenager and having their parents constantly remind them they used to wet the bed. For those that dd not have that level of knowledge it is like a trump supporter that has been constantly told that Biden lost the election only to find on inauguration day that Biden is president. Their reaction may seem weird but given the information they have been given actually their reaction is quite rational.
      So part of this is a government that has lived with a partial view of history for such a long time that any review of this history seem like a wholesale rewriting of it.

      For the Coulston Statue the real issue was that it was only in the 1990s that the history of Coulston involvement in the slave trade was even talked about. So again imagine you are a child of the 60s your view of Coulson is not as a person that help perpetrate the slave trade but that ex MP that was full of philanthropic vigour.

      What I do find more interesting is that Nancy Astor who has a statue which was unveiled by Theresa May. AStor was a virulent anti semitic. But any cursory view of history does not reveal that.

  2. ‘Historical knowledge works like a slow accretion of sediment. There is always a new layer being added’ […] ‘Generational change is also part of the story. In each era, we see the past differently, according to how we see ourselves and our own experiences. One era will notice things about the past that another will not. This is one reason that history is, and has to be, constantly rewritten.’

    This is how Benjamin Carter Hett put it in the introduction pp.9-10) to his recent book on the rise of Hitler ‘The Death of Democracy’ (in answering the question of why the world needs another book on this well trodden subject).

    Trying to stop ‘re-writing’ history is therefore just nonsense.

  3. Revisionism assumes an Enlightenment epistemology, based on Evidence and Reason. Johnsonism, Brexit and Trumpism, in contradistinction, lean towards a Romantic epistemology where feelings and intuition have more salience than facts and expertise.

  4. It seems to me there’s a loss of confidence here. If some conservatives are unwilling to debate history, that suggests to me that they expect to lose the debate.

    I am reminded of a very different issue in the late 1980s, when the Thatcher government legislated to stop councils spreading the idea that homosexual couples were as valid as heterosexual ones. A generation later, the debate on that point had moved on so far that it was a Tory government that introduced equal marriage. Sometimes, what seems at the time to be a harsh clampdown is actually the last flailing of the old order. A glance at the Tory benches, and the big increase in the proportion of non-white MPs, might suggest that a similar change is under way.

    Or then again, I may be being over-optimistic. There are plenty of example of that in history, too.

  5. It seems to me that the purpose of the article in the Telegraph was to appeal to the slightly dimmer conservative (and Conservative) readership, and try to promote a reaction from the less dim, be they conservative or otherwise, in order to try to paint the opponents of the government as unpatriotic.

    The best response is to laugh at them.

      1. Indeed.

        If the article is designed to try to promote a reaction, then even if laughing at it is an appropriate reaction based on the strength (or lack of it) of the arguments, to do so plays straight into the hands of those who will inevitably see this response as coming from ‘sneering liberal elites’.

        A reasoned argument such as that presented here by DAG – to convince rather than to dismiss – should surely be the preferred method.

        The problem of course is getting such an argument visibility with the desired audience. In today’s hyper-partisan world, where such a large proportion of people get their news and opinion only from their chosen echo-chamber, the will to seek out counter arguments is fast disappearing.

        (and yes, I am aware that I am probably guilty of response-policing the laughter response)

  6. So, for those who would “ relish taking on the historiographical challenges presented by a more-rounded understanding of the history of these islands and of their economic and imperial history”, a suggested reading list of recent history books?

  7. Having been a University lecturer for forty years, and as a founding member of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, I am appalled that ministers could contemplate imposing a curriculum (and this is not hyperbole) on any branch of learning .

  8. There is an odd dissonance between the government wanting to punish universities which “stifle freedom of speech” in parallel with an effort from the government to, well, stifle the freedom of speech of heritage groups.

    Most heritage groups are charities, and many have missions that run into political territory – not party political, but political in the sense of engaging with and seeking to change the rules, organisation, and distribution of resources within the polity. For more, see https://andrewpurkis.wordpress.com/2020/12/01/charities-and-culture-wars/ which discusses the political campaigns of the RSPCA, the RSPB, the NSPCC, Barnardos, etc.

    In the quote attributed to the Brazilian archbishop Helder Camara, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

  9. I wonder whether the Conservatives’ moat-filled-with-torpedoes defensiveness (I love the image!) derives from fighting a culture war on two fronts, against the liberal-left but also against large parts of their own heritage, the pro-European and economically-liberal parts especially. For this reason, their culture heroes Churchill and Thatcher in particular have to be very carefully ‘curated’ so that they are seen only from the ‘right’ angles.

    Perhaps New Labour were doing something similar, but they had to confront the definitive failure of Marxian socialism after 1989. The EU and its single market are not by any means the post-Soviet east.

  10. An excellent analysis. I particularly agree with the final point you made about “that ‘Brexit’ understanding of history”. Brexit as a project always seemed to me to be predicated on the idea that Britain’s success as a global power was down purely to the ingenuity and resilience of ‘the British people’, culminating in World War Two where, as the myth goes, ‘we stood alone’ – the sole remaining nation standing up to Hitler.

    What their reading of history fails to recognise is the fact that Britain’s status as a world power rested on its empire – particularly the resources of places like India and Egypt. In the years after the loss of empire, Britain has had to work closely with allies to achieve things on the international stage – a fact which sensible Conservative voices like Kenneth Clarke have articulated very strongly in recent years.

    But sadly, this government has resorted to the simplistic history of Daily Mail front pages and Discovery channel documentaries, where it is the British spirit and nothing else which has driven British success through history. And it is because that is the only reading of history which can support the national navel-gazing exercise that is the Brexit project. A serious and reasoned reading of history dictates that international co-operation is the only way for Britain to succeed in the modern world, and there is no way to square that with the inward looking, confrontational approach the majority of the Tory party has taken to the post-referendum world.

  11. Michael Oakeshott, a political philosopher, conceptualised history as a dry stone wall. When one stone is removed or another inserted, the shape of the wall changes. And with it the history changes.

    Recently the history of Britain has been changed by the insertion of a few stones in the wall. The current incumbents in Westminster do not like the shape of the new wall. Hence they are taking action to conserve the wall that they preferred. In effect, a preservation order on a myth.

  12. The phrase “ history is bunk “ is attributed to Henry Ford.

    Technically Ford never used this phrase although he did display a clear ability to move forward profitably.

    Nearly five years after Brexit a discriminatory Press should perhaps be asking why have voters not received their promised tax cuts and increased economic opportunities and how this is to be remedied in the short term.

    1. Technically? Well, according to these – https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/182100.html and https://www.hemmings.com/stories/2018/01/14/fact-check-what-henry-ford-meant-when-he-said-history-is-bunk – Henry Ford is quoted in 1916 as saying: “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.”

      Profitable, yes. Also overtly anti-semitic. Like most people, he defies being categorised neatly into a box labelled “good” or “bad”.

  13. Can’t help suspected that the law of unintended consequences means that all this will came back and bite them somehow.

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