When I was 11 years of age I had a wonderful history teacher. We studied the Anglo-Saxons and he did his best to give us an idea of what it was like to live about 1,500 years ago. It was compelling stuff but sadly it did not last. By age 14 I had given up on history, my early inspirational teacher being replaced by a boring and lifeless one who made us learn facts and dates by rote. It would be many years before I started to realise that to understand our present situation we need to understand where we have come from. I also realised that the history I wanted to grasp was not the history taught in schools or on the TV and there were few monuments to the events I found significant. I learned quickly about the way in which the establishment controls the historical narrative. I wanted to understand the fight to be a free citizen, the struggle for liberty, the campaigns for equality and a fair wage. But the overwhelming narrative was about monarchs, wars, generals and empires. It was easy to find out why the Duke of Wellington was a hero of Waterloo, but not that he was despised in many places and physically attacked on the streets for his repressive attitude and support for the 1819 carnage in Manchester at the Peterloo Massacre. Many people have heard of Abraham Lincoln, but far fewer of the Englishman William Wilberforce who fought a long and courageous campaign to abolish the British slave trade in 1807. So why the blatantly one sided treatment of history?
The Necessity of Controlling the Historical Narrative
It turns out that there are a number of reason. Firstly it goes against the still prevalent so-called Whiggish theory of history. Briefly this says that the social history of first England and then Britain is one of gradually increasing liberty being handed by the government to the people at the point when they have developed the sophistication to handle the responsibility. ‘Don’t worry’, this narrative reads, as we are on a one-way journey to freedom. The reality is very different. Freedoms have been fought for and won, not benevolently bequeathed us by a kindly establishment. Here are just a few of the more prominent examples. The Thirteenth Century Magna Carta was signed because the barons threatened (yet another) bloody civil war; the autocracy of kingship was ended in the Seventeeth Century as a result of an armed Revolution; the increased franchise and social developments of the nineteenth century took place because the government feared another revolution following the growth of popular movements such as Chartism. But it was not a one way trip and freedoms could be taken away!
Consider for a moment the way in which the wars in these islands have been presented. As historian Richard Weight points out the establishment has been happy that people learn about the times when King fought King (for example the Wars of the Roses) or when the English fought those ‘pesky’ Scots (e.g. Culloden). But the English (actually British) Civil Wars are another story. Incredibly, until 2014 when the National Civil War Centre was opened there was no permanent museum for this defining event in English history. But the war was not a battle between nobility, it was an ideological conflict. Moreover it encourages the view that concerted mass action in furtherance of a cause could be successful. Strangely, the English Civil War was more popular as a call to action about a hundred years ago than it is today. The Liberal Party actually used the execution of Charles I in their campaign for House of Lords reform at the end of the Nineteenth Century. Onetime Liberal turned Conservative Winston Churchill was a great admirer of Oliver Cromwell (even naming an army tank after the man). Churchill, against all the evidence, saw Cromwell as the father of English democracy, but a more plausible explanation was that Cromwell fits into an autocratic narrative as ‘Lord Protector’ who wielded power on behalf of an elite (see my post here). The drive to control the narrative of history really started in earnest following the Second World War and discussion of English radicals and rebels such as the regicides and chartists almost disappeared from popular discourse. As Richard Weight mentions, out even many contemporary UK republicans remain reticent about discussing the Civil War.
The Physical Reminders – Stone and Soil
You can tell much about the official view of history by studying monuments. Go to the United States and their Civil War battlefields are carefully tended and preserved. In England our Civil War battlefields such as Naseby are treated almost with contempt. For the US the American Civil War is presented as a crusade against slavery, while it is ironic that although Britons are constantly told about their great history of opposing tyranny the places where that has occurred on home soil are viewed almost as an embarrassment. In London while there are major monuments to Admiral Nelson, Queen Victoria and a son of George III (Duke of York) the campaign to get even a modest monument to the courageous suffragette Emily Wilding Davison is still ongoing. Similarly there is only one monument to the great political theorist Tom Paine in his home town of Thetford. Even this was subject to controversy with one local politician demanding a comment be added to the monument that Paine was sentenced to death as a traitor. The demand was, fortunately, rejected! Moreover, despite the enthusiasm for tracking down the remains of historical figures such as Richard III and Henry II no resources are allocated for discovering the whereabouts of the bones of radicals such as Tom Paine. We know that his remains were brought back home by William Cobbett but their whereabouts today are a mystery!
It is said that each generation rediscovers the past and uses it in its own way. It is clear that the period following the Second World War has seen a stranglehold over the relevance given to events of history by an establishment who wish to present a past dominated by the benevolent rule of elites. They have deliberately tried to hide the change brought about by movements such as Levellers, Diggers, Chartists and Suffragettes and obscure the leaders and activists of these movements Things are changing. We live in a less deferential society with information readily accessible on the internet. It is up to us the people to seek out, understand and celebrate their achievements. As our leaders will not carry the story of the great men and women who fought for our liberty, it is up to us the people to ensure they have a prominent place in the story of these islands.