My objection to the ‘rewriting history’ argument and narrative

‘I think it’s time we stopped our cringey embarrassment about our history, about our traditions and about our culture. And we stop this general bout of self-recrimination and wetness’.

The decision by the BBC to play only an instrumental version of the songs ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and Rule Brittania’ at the Last Night of the Proms. Of course, since the story ran at the start of the week it has brought about a rage of fury from those who would argue against ‘wokeness’ or that in some way we are erasing our history. That was a sentiment shared by the Prime Minister [Pictured above; Image from BBC] back in May when protestors vandalised the Winston Churchill memorial, as are the words in the above quote

Personally, I do not watch Last Night of the Proms and don’t know anyone who does; ironically I suspect it will probably have a higher than average viewer numbers this year as a result of this foax outcry. As the debate continued in the public life during the week, This Morning hosted by Eamon Holmes and Ruth Langsford had Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage and campaigner Femi Oluwole to discuss it. A link to the debate is provided below but there is a line in Ruth’s questioning as well as previous comments from the Prime Minister that has prompted this post.

Around the five minute mark, Ruth has this to say (I hope I have copied this right)…

People are saying why are we wasting time trying to rewrite history; the points you make are very valid. There are many bigger issues moving forward, particularly fighting racism and getting people’s understanding and awareness, here we are talking about something in history, that we can’t rewrite, we can’t change. We can move forward and change it.

I have two degrees in History so I should bloody hope I know what I am talking about. This is something I am passionate and deeply care about. I will start with the above comment from Ruth Langsford. She gets some things right but she gets others hopelessly wrong.

She is certainly right that there are bigger issues right now, we are living through a pandemic after all! People are dying and people are losing their jobs through no fault of their own as we have the worst death rate and economic results from the coronavirus pandemic. In regards to fighting racism and raising awareness, she is right. However, the thing with history if you do not learn from the mistakes of the past you are condemned to repeat it. You cannot hope to progress if you do not fully understand your past and that is why I oppose this ‘rewriting history’ narrative.

Of course, the events are in the past. It is our understanding and scope of history that either increases or decreases. History has many different strands; you have political history, social history, economic history, environmental history, local history and so on and so forth. The political used to be about focus before its expansion from the 1960s onwards so if anything it is increasing.  

As for the songs, being brutally honest how many people know the words? I mean the real words and not the colloquial version involving Chinese crackers more popularised through Auf Wiedersehen Pet. I don’t. Do you? Nigel Farage despite all his protestations doesn’t!

The reaction of David Baddiel probably summed my view accurately in words I will not publish on this site but embarrassingly Farage got the lyric wrong. The lyric is instead, ‘Britains never will be slaves’. I did not know that line was in the song until I was in my first year at University and it did not sit too well with me. Is that really something we want to be proud of? 

The song was written by Scottish poet and playwright James Thompson and first performed in 1740 to mark the ascension of King George II to the throne. This was also at the height of the Transatlantic slave trade which Britain was an active participant. Between 1662 and 1807, some 3,415,500 Africans were estimated to be transported over to the America’s from 12,103 voyages and around half a million dying on the journey. This was part of the past behind the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol back in May; he was responsible for 150,000 dying on the voyages whose corpses were thrown overboard. 

The counter-argument being peddled is that Britain did a lot to end it after abolishing it. This was pointed out by Andrew Neil on Twitter in the above Tweet, the Royal Navy intercepted 1,600 and 150,000 Africans while sustaining heavy casualties. This is not an area of my expertise and while that is a significant effort you have to remember one critical question; if you are in a position to abolish and enforce its abolition, you have to have been an active and influential participant in it in the first place. You have to be involved in something either active or passively to abolish it. Does that make up for the mistakes that have gone before? If someone with no knowledge or experience of football told you to change the way you play, would you listen? Of course, not. Or, in the case of F1 when team orders were briefly banned by the FIA, they were complicit in allowing it to happen beforehand.

This is not always told in the history classrooms. Education is a key element of raising awareness of history and racism. In the long term, that is where racism will be defeated. Instead, History in our schools does not give much if any attention to it. Although not every school is the same, it primarily follows the same, predictable lines: we have the Romans then the Saxons, Vikings and Norman Conquest, skip a few centuries the Tudors; Henry VIII and his six wives, Elizabeth I, skip another few hundred years as no one wants to know about the treachery of beheading a head of state and so to the rise of British democracy, giving women the vote and WW2 where seemingly it ends. 

What is taught in schools reflects the history of our country we want to remember as a society. They are all important yes, but it is narrow. There is an obsession with WW2 and we see it all around us in the Brexit debate, invoking the Dunkirk spirit and the concept we stood alone then and were great? Only, Britain was not alone. You had resistance movements in France, in Poland and other occupied nations. It is a myth.

Instead, our schools teach the history as we as a society want to remember it; effectively looking through a tinted glass. We teach the good things; like how Britain was the first country to give women the vote in 1918 but not much emphasis on the struggle to achieve it other than a few hunger strikes and Emily Davison’s martyrdom. We won WW1 and WW2 and not much attention given to the mistakes such as the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 which earned Field Marshall Douglas Haig the nickname ‘butcher of the Somme’, or the unnecessary bloodshed on the final hours of the war knowing the armistice had been signed. 

What about the Irish famine and the impact of British laissez-faire policies as 400,000 people died of starvation while food was still being exported from Ireland to Britain? What about the Bengal famine of 1943 and the role of the British government in either misunderstanding it or wilfully caused or ignored the plight of starving Indians as between an estimated 2.1-2.3 million died?

Staying with Colonial India, the Julianwbala Bingh massacre saw as many as 1,000 civilians killed by British troops. This, one of the biggest atrocities in British History is not widely taught; I only learned of it at University. I wrote on it last year as the event marked its centenary, no formal apology has been made. Or, before then in the Second Boer War, which country was the first to use concentration camps? It was not the Nazis. 48,000 died in camps under British care due to the scorched earth policy, poor sanitation, something Jacob Rees Mogg got mostly wrong with some controversial comments last year. 

British troops opened fire on civilians in Armistar, India in 1919. No formal apology has been made.

Only one of them made it into my schooling from what I remember and that came from the English classroom discussing a Seamus Heaney poem. The latter made it into A-Levels. History as an optional subject means that not everyone gets to know a bigger picture of their past.

So, returning to the idea of erasing history who’s history has been massaged into a distorted, narrow and selective view?

As for, rewriting history, that’s something else.

History as an academic discipline is always being rewritten, researched and reshaped based on new evidence or interpretations of events. That is what academics are paid to do alongside teaching at Universities through publishing so many academic journal articles and books within a set timeframe as part of their terms of employment. No academic discipline stands still. If our views and understanding did not change with time, we would probably be convinced King Arthur or Robin Hood was real. They evolve and changes increased understanding which is perhaps why the government’s following the science mantra has helped sow confusion as understanding around the new coronavirus has changed.

Other European countries have had these difficult discussions about their past. German history has Vergangenheitsbewältigung. This is an attempt to digest and learn to live with the difficult past, in particular, the Holocaust and the philosophy that ‘those who never learn the past are condemned to repeat it’. France has conflicting narratives between the divisions of collaboration and resistance to the Nazi regime during WW2. France also has a complex colonial history to look back on which Emmanuel Macron noted in 2017 that their colonial period was a ‘crime against humanity’. We don’t look back on our colonial past in that critical way, it is celebrated. 

These difficult discussions are not something Britain has necessarily had as the empire is considered something to celebrate and look back on with nostalgia. Other than the illegal war in Iraq, we as a country seem to have a problem in accepting we have ever done anything wrong such as Bloody Sunday in Ireland with the outcry over the prosecution of Soldier F last year. When politicians and political commentators speak of ‘wokeness’, rewriting history or wetness as Boris Johnson put it, they are on the defensive. The Prime Minister is fairly well versed in history having had a few books published himself, he knows this. They do not want these conversations to be happening and will use any excuse to do it or to distract from their failings. 

So, let’s return to the BBC. The composer for this years Night of the Proms, Dalia Stasevska has had personal threats which are unacceptable. She had no input on the decision made by the BBC as outlined by the Director general Tony Hall that it was a ‘creative decision’. A spokesperson also added, ‘For the avoidance of any doubt, these songs will be sung next year. We obviously share the disappointment of everyone that the Proms will have to be different but believe this is the best solution in the circumstances and look forward to their traditional return next year’. 

Crucially, no one made the suggestion to the BBC the songs should be banned. That is a crucial fact. It is a nothing story; A distraction by a government trying to avoid being centre of attention of the worst deaths and economic outcome from COVID in Europe, the A-Level fiasco and the fallout that will inevitably ensure from Brexit at the end of the year. I do realise the irony of me saying that having written a post on it but history is something I have studied and passionate about. 

The two songs will be back next year with lyrics and all next year, CVOID dependent, when quite possibly not many people will notice…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *