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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