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!
Almost before the cyclists had put away their bikes and the rowing lake at Rio had returned to a mirror surface the campaign began. With British competitors winning 27 Gold medals, some like Hockey with multiple team members, would the rules allow them all to get a New Year Honour? Doubts were assuaged by Theresa May confirming that there was no fixed quota for sporting medals and everyone who ‘deserved’ one would get one. But behind that discussion lay an assumption – that the athletes concerned actually want an honour!
An Unacceptable Compromise
Lost in the excitement of the Olympics all was another story of a sporting honour, that of Howard Gayle. Gayle is a retired footballer, the first black player to take the field for Liverpool FC and a proud Briton. In mid-August it was announced that Gayle had rejected the offer of a MBE. Gayle’s reason was based on the title of the award, MBE standing for Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. As Gayle stated:
The fact is that I felt it would be a slap in the face for so many to be part of that British empire [my emphasis] process. When you look at what the empire did to my family and our ancestors, it just doesn’t bear credence. I would always have felt uncomfortable writing those letters after my name.
Gayle’s view is shared by others including prominent poet Benjamin Zephaniah In any civilized country an honour titled ‘British Empire’ should have been consigned to the dustbin of history a great many years ago.
But, irrespective of the title of the award, a more sinister process is at work in the honours system. For those recipients clearly uncomfortable with accepting an honour (radical activists, trade Union leaders, for example) the defence is often mounted that the award is not really a personal one, but is for their members, organization, community and so on. In some cases this may be a genuinely held belief but in some there is no doubt an element of self justification. The fact remains that by accepting an honour they are buying into a narrative of privileged control. As the higher honours (knighthoods for example) are awarded by the establishment including the Government it means they are arbitrarily deciding which activities or individuals are worthy and which are not.
It is possible that Prime Minister Theresa May is the luckiest British politician of our time. She seems to have completely dodged any responsibility for the debacle surrounding the instigation of the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). The fact that May has emerged politically unscathed with a reputation of businesslike competence is nothing short of remarkable, due in no small part to the Labour Party obsession with its leader rather than providing opposition. Needless to say. the people who have been forgotten appear to be the people in desperate need of closure, the abuse survivors.
A Weak Notion of Independence
As neither an abuse victim myself nor someone who has experience of supporting victims I am not qualified to begin to comment on the specifics this most sensitive of areas. But looking at the IICSA in an organisational context is a different matter and much is revealed about the attitude of the authorities, which casts doubt on a succesful outcome. I start by encouraging you to view the IICSA website. Looking at the About Us section we find the following statement:
Being independent means the Inquiry is not part of government and not run by a government department.
This seems a particularly weak interpretation of ‘independent’. It should go much further with a statement that it is neither subject to government influence nor censorship. The notion of independence is further weakened since much of the suspicion falls on establishment institutions which are outside the technical boundaries of Government such as the Police, Lords, the Church of England and the Judiciary. To this list can be added those members of the Royal Family aside from the Queen and Prince of Wales who are not part of the Government but most certainly part of the establishment. I shall return to this issue later.