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Laurie Penny on Niall Ferguson and the curriculum: Michael Gove and the imperialists

By inviting Niall Ferguson to revise the history curriculum, the Tories reveal their nostalgia for imperialism.

The Tories want our children to be proud of Britain's imperial past. When the right-wing colonial historian Niall Ferguson told the Hay Festival last weekend that he would like to revise the school history curriculum to include "the rise of western domination of the world" as the "big story" of the past 500 years, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, leapt to his feet to praise Ferguson's "exciting" ideas -- and offer him the job.

Ferguson is a poster-boy for big stories about big empire, his books and broadcasting weaving Boys' Own-style tales about the British charging into the jungle and jolly well sorting out the natives. The Independent's Johann Hari, in his capacity as young bloodhound of the liberal left, sniffed out Ferguson's suspicious narrative of European cultural supremacy in a series of articles in 2006, calling him "a court historian for the imperial American hard right": Harvard-based Ferguson believes that the success of the British empire should be considered a model for US foreign policy.

This is exactly the sort of history that British conservatives think their children should be learning. "I am a great fan of Ferguson, and he is absolutely right," Michael Gove told the Guardian.

The new Education Secretary has declared his intention to set out a "traditionalist" curriculum "celebrating" Britain's achievements. Andrew Roberts, another historian lined up to advise on the new curriculum, has dined with South African white supremacists, defended the Amritsar Massacre and suggested that the Boers murdered in British concentration camps were killed by their own stupidity. It looks like this "celebratory" curriculum might turn out to be a bunting-and-bigotry party, heavy on the jelly and propaganda.

What should shock about these appointments is not just the suspect opinions of Roberts and Ferguson, but that the Tories have fundamentally misunderstood the entire purpose of history. History, properly taught, should lead young people to question and challenge their cultural inheritance rather than simply "celebrate" it.

"Studying the empire is important, because it is an international story, but we have to look at it from the perspective of those who were colonised as well as from the British perspective," said the historian and political biographer Anthony Seldon, who is also Master of Wellington College. "We live in an interconnected world, and one has to balance learning about British history with learning about other cultures."

The ways in which schools and governments structure and promote stories about a country's past, the crimes they conceal and the truths they twist, have a lasting effect on young minds. It is not for nothing that the most fearsome dictators of the 20th century, from Hitler to Chairman Mao, altered their school history curriculums as a matter of national urgency.

Even now, the school board of the state of Texas is rewriting the history syllabus to sanitise slavery and sideline figures such as Thomas Jefferson, who called for the separation of church and state. That the Tories, too, wish to return us to a "traditionalist" model of history teaching should thoroughly disabuse the left of the notion that the present-day Conservative Party has no ideological agenda.

The drive to rehabilitate a nostalgic vision of Britain's imperial past is part of the same bigoted discourse in which the new Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, recently described Afghanistan as "a broken 13th-century country". It appears to be forming Conservative thought at home and abroad.

This week, an ugly caricature of inner-city teenagers appeared on the Tory-affiliated website ConservativeHome. The post, which laments that in Hackney "the white middle-class people disappear as soon as it gets dark", is titled "How the east was lost" -- drawing an explicit parallel between the resistance of colonised populations to British military rule and resistance of voters in inner-London areas with large ethnic-minority populations to Conservative ideas. The writer parodies the accents and eating habits of Hackney teenagers with the revolted fascination of a Victorian colonel writing about the natives, implying that these "fatherless, swaggering, out-of-control" youths need a firm white Tory hand to keep them in line.

Michael Gove's wish to re-engineer how history is taught to children is, quite simply, about social control. It is part of a broader political discourse that seeks, ultimately, to replace the messy, multivalent web of Britain's cultural inheritance with one "big story" about dominance and hierarchy, of white over black, west over east, rich over poor.

But history is not about the big story, the single story, the story told by the overculture. History is not about "celebrating" the past, nor about making white kids feel good about their cultural inheritance. History is a process of exploring the legacy of the past, and questioning it -- including the ugly, uncomfortable parts. No wonder the Tories want to tear it up and start again.

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Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser