Monumental mistakes

Heritage wonks have colonised the past for profit, replacing understanding with kitsch. Give us back

In 1974, the Victoria and Albert Museum hosted an exhibition entitled "The Destruction of the Country House". The cry then was "heritage in danger", and an influential establishment combination of the National Trust, the House of Lords and a consortium of conservation bodies hoped to stave off an attack on the country house imperium by the incoming Labour government. The campaign was a success: Wilson had other things on his mind, and the next quarter of a century witnessed an extraordinary renaissance in the ownership and running of Britain's stately past.

Yet this week's report by English Heritage into the condition of the historic environment is headlined with an eerily reminiscent lament: "heritage in danger of becoming history". After undertaking a national audit of our ancient monuments and listed buildings, it concludes that the historic environment is "under attack from all sides" and "urgent action is needed to prevent England squandering its most valuable resource".

Curiously, it is almost impossible to conclude from the report's accompanying facts and figures that heritage could, under any rubric, be regarded as "in danger". In 2001, there were 57.7 million recorded visits to 983 leading historic visitor attractions, while during the weekend of the hugely popular Heritage Open Days, some 800,000 people took the opportunity to visit 1,831 properties outside London. More broadly, the National Trust now boasts 2.9 million members, while involvement in local history societies and conservation trusts is mushrooming. Political scientists have yet to compute it, but this historic constituency now comprises a powerful component of British civil society.

A shared passion for the historic environment is merely one element in our broader national veneration for all things historical. History is booming. The TV repeats of Simon Schama's A History of Britain continue to pull startling audience numbers, while the sales figures for Berlin: the downfall show that the Antony Beevor military juggernaut isn't slowing down. More interestingly, the popular appetite for the past is now feeding through to academia. Today, there are 15,000 sixth-formers taking A-level history, 30,000 undergraduates reading history, 3,000 research students studying for higher degrees and 3,000 university teachers. According to David Cannadine, director of the Institute of Historical Research: "More history is being taught, researched, written and read, and is concerned with a larger part of human experience, and embraces a wider spread of the globe, than ever before." Cannadine regards this as "a wholly unusual and unprecedented state of affairs".

Yet outside of higher education, the report confirms just how large a number receive their impressions of the past through the museums, historic theme parks, stately homes and the whole panoply of often kitsch sometimes spectacular institutions and "experiences" that comprise the heritage industry. Given that history in schools is compulsory only up until the age of 14 and, according to Bernard Crick, the government's citizenship guru, new immigrants to this country will not be required to learn about Waterloo or anything else, the heritage sector is an essential medium for the public understanding of history.

From its popular coinage in the mid-1970s, the notion of "heritage" has received plentiful attention - for while the British public might be drawn to it, British intellectuals are mesmerised by it. During the 1980s, a critical industry quite as successful as the heritage sector emerged to berate the unthinking, Conservative ethic of "Brideshead Britain". The poet Tom Paulin voiced it most succinctly: "The British heritage industry is a loathsome collection of theme parks and dead values" - a thesis expanded upon at great length in Robert Hewison's The Heritage Industry, Patrick Wright's On Living in an Old Country, and David Lowenthal's The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. The transformation of cotton mills into museums showed the cultural (as well as financial) bankruptcy of Thatcher's Britain. These Arnoldian Pooh-Bahs suggested that our vulgar thirst for heritage was evidence that any proper understanding of history was "over". But it wasn't history but their history that was in danger.

Traditionally, it was left to the Ruskin College tutor Raphael Samuel to defend the democratic lineage of heritage. In his wonderfully rich collection of essays, Theatres of Memory, he lovingly listed the regional enthusiasts, radical campaigners and quiet obsessives who built up Britain's local museums and visitor centres. Raphael passionately argued for the empowering, eclectic character of heritage to be appreciated; indeed, "one could see its advent as part of a sea change in attitudes which has left any unified view of the national past - radical or Conservative - in tatters. Culturally, it is pluralist."

Sadly, Samuel is no longer with us and the case for the defence has now passed to English Heritage. Inevitably, the dread hand of quango-ese has taken over, and any sense of the radical potential of heritage has been horribly lost amid talk of the historic environment as "a major economic asset" providing England with a "unique competitive advantage". And here lies the real danger. The growth of London bureaucracies in control of heritage means that the democratic voice of popular history that Samuel celebrated is itself under threat.

The means by which we access heritage affects our very understanding of history. The self-fulfilling momentum of bureaucracy has seen English Heritage and the National Trust, bodies filled with well-meaning, public-spirited individuals, increasingly colonise the informal networks of living history. With impressive personnel and extensive government grants, they have the ability to turn history into "heritage", and with one administrative allocation remove local identities from their past. With this audit of history (a deeply peculiar concept in itself), we are left with an impression of historic reification rather than identification. A distant codification of the icons of the past.

For while more and more people might consume history, it remains unclear how many feel a greater sense of identity or continuity with it. With the imposition of unitary heritage branding and centralised edicts, the personal, emotional pull of the past can be deadened. The modern heritage industry doesn't need to worry about its monuments turning into history - instead, it needs to worry more about how it invites the public to appreciate the past.

This week's report comes at an important juncture in heritage politics. Since its embarrassing foray into Cool Britannia, new Labour has at last begun to take a more considered approach towards these islands' history. But while it might have dropped the modernisation mantra, the recent British Tourist Authority adverts depicting Buckingham Palace and grinning British bobbies shows that it has yet to think outside a narrow conception of what constitutes heritage. In this, it is not alone. For one of the great errors of late 20th-century progressive politics was to allow the hijacking of "heritage" as a Conservative concept. All the more strange since historically the Labour movement has expressed a warm admiration for heritage - as distinct from tradition. The Attlee administration, a wonderful Edwardian hangover imbued with the spirit of Edward Bellamy, William Morris and Fabian outdoor rigour, established the contours of the National Trust's postwar prosperity, as well as securing green belts and national parks. Like Samuel, they understood the profoundly progressive calibre of heritage.

New Labour is currently intent on dismantling the excesses of the centralist welfare state and allowing a return to local provision in health and education. They should do the same with the heritage sector. The radical voice of heritage can best be voiced not through heaving London bureaucracies but local, self-governing civic associations that identify with and celebrate their particularist past. English Heritage appears to be cynically utilising the current vogue for matters historic in order to extend its bureaucratic reach. Yet it is precisely when heritage becomes the sole remit of distant government agencies that it can collapse into the archaic and antiquarian. It is up to us to maintain our heritage - and our history.