Mary Seacole, in an illustration from Punch in 1857. Photograph: Getty Images
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Michael Gove is air-brushing black people out of history

The Tory party’s extreme right must recognise that multiculturalism has given Britain the richness and diversity which propelled it into its current place amongst powerful world states.

Black voices are rarely heard in classroom history lessons. Now, Education Secretary, Michael Gove, wants to eliminate the few last visible narratives of black people in British history taught within schools.

According to newspaper reports, Mary Seacole is to be dropped from the national curriculum so history teachers can concentrate on Winston Churchill and Oliver Cromwell. Tellingly, teachers themselves have not been coming forward to offer support for this move. The idea that schools must silence black voices so teachers can talk about Churchill, Cromwell or Nelson is one that barely merits serious argument. But bearing in mind that the abolition of slavery occurred during the lifetime of Mary Seacole in 1840, and the gigantic military presence in the British West Indies – 93 infantry regiments serving between 1793 and 1815 – not to mention her own crucial role, Seacole is ideally placed to mark out hugely significant historical events.

Michael Gove must trust teachers to decide what is in the best interests of children, instead of air-brushing black people out of history. There is no question that historical black role models such as Seacole give children of all races important tools in overcoming racist assumptions about black and Asian peoples’ contribution to Britain. Knowing about black history educates all of us, promotes respect and helps to inculcate shared multicultural values.

Mary Seacole was a woman famous mainly because of her services during the Crimean war when she nursed British soldiers. Her story is remarkable not because of the countless lives she saved, or, for the valour with which she served her nation. Of much greater significance is the immense white privilege and patriarchy she fought just to get to the frontline, struggling against resistance from the state. When the war office rejected her appeal to become an army assistant in the Crimea, she decided to come to London anyway. Even though she was rejected by Florence Nightingale, Seacole spent every penny to risk life and limb so she could heal wounded British and allied soldiers. Forced to take loans in order to make the 4,000-mile trip, she travelled on her own, in dangerous times.

Known as “Mother Seacole” by the British military who loved her, 80,000 people, including Major General Lord Rokeby, who commanded the 1st Division in Crimea, turned out to a fund-raising event for her when they heard she was short of funds. Clearly, Seacole had the adoration of several tens of thousands of people during her lifetime, if not more.

Compare this to the current state of affairs. Although the department of education currently seems to be experiencing something of a “Little Britain” sick scene, it was only last year when Seacole was held in great esteem by the Department of Health. In February, the department invited applications from nurses, midwives and health visitors in England to participate in a “prestigious Mary Seacole Awards programme”. The aim, of which, was to carry out health care and educational projects to improve the health outcomes of people from black and minority ethnic communities.

Maybe Michael Gove didn’t get the memo, but last week David Cameron called for greater respect to be shown towards black and minority ethnic communities. Surely, this is not what the PM meant when he said MPs should “increase their presence in the ethnic minority press.” In making these curriculum changes, Gove is out of touch with modern voters, giving the PM a proverbial middle finger, and seriously putting in danger current work to encourage diversity.

As a patriot, Micahel Gove should honour the memory of Britain’s war heroes. In 1856 William Howard Russell, special correspondent of the Times and influential journalist, wrote: "I have witnessed her (Mary Seacole) devotion and her courage...and I trust that England will never forget one who has nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead".

The Tory party’s extreme right must recognise that multiculturalism has given Britain the richness and diversity which propelled it into its current place amongst powerful world states. The sooner black and Asian history is told loudly and clearly, the more quickly we can all benefit as a united nation.

Imran Khan is an executive member of Conservative Muslim Forum and a former Conservative councillor

He writes in a personal capacity

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The "people" have spoken on Brexit - listening to them is another matter

The Athenians had another word for them. 

Commentators are right to point to the fury and frustration of the "left behind", who are, everywhere it seems, rebelling against establishments they believe have betrayed them. 

But they may understate the threat we now face. Many of those who voted for Brexit or Donald Trump were not just rejecting economic injustice or "broken politics" but also perhaps the very principles of our system of government. For them, democracy itself may have lost its appeal.

If that is the case, we can’t blame the elites alone. We, "the people", are complicit. In associating democracy almost exclusively with economic advancement, we have begun to forget that it is also, and principally, about shared values, rights and responsibilities. In the UK and the US, voters in their millions have traded one against the other. The citizens of the Netherlands and France may soon do the same.

It's too early to panic. Perhaps we’ll come to see that Brexit was not the calamity some of us predict; perhaps President Trump will turn out to be better than we fear he may be.  

But we would be foolish to ignore the precedents. 

The great democracy of ancient Greece lasted two hundred years. But then, subverted by demagogues and oligarchs, and overwhelmed at last by autocrats, it disappeared from the world for 2,000 years. For all that time, the citizens of today’s democracies were the subjects of tyrants, elites and ideologues but never of themselves.

Modern history provides no greater reassurance. Even when democracy has apparently been secured, it has consumed itself at the ballot box with awful consequences. We are not in that place. But in the UK and the US we have taken a step in its direction.

Rights and responsibilities

The dilemmas we face are as old as democracy itself.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles set out for his fellow citizens the precepts of their remarkable democracy. He spoke of the equality of their rights before the law. But he laid particular emphasis on their duties to each other. The word he used for the "socially useless" individuals who placed self above public interest provides the origin of our own word – idiot. 

What would Pericles make of us? Certainly, we remain jealous of our rights, especially when we feel that they are threatened by others. But our preoccupation with personal aspiration has long since eroded our sense of common cause, whether measured by our engagement in civic affairs, our contribution to community life or the civility of our relations with others.

On these grounds, we are doubtless idiots.

A reasonable principle

But for the Athenians, democracy was founded on a third key principle. Alongside rights and responsibilities, they regarded the exercise of reason as indispensable to good politics. As Pericles put it:

“We reach decisions on public policy only after full discussion, believing that sound judgement, far from being impeded by debate, is arrived at only when full information is considered before a decision is made."

Can we honestly claim that in the EU referendum or the US Presidential elections, voters collectively exercised sound judgment based on reliable evidence, rational deliberation and open-minded debate? 

More likely, we recognise that what passed for public discourse throughout both campaigns was poisoned by deceit. The goal of the politicians who set out to mislead was clear. But instead of punishing them for their cynicism, millions suspended their disbelief and voted for them, often quite consciously choosing not to test their instincts against the evidence or their own opinions against other views. As much as they were misled, they also misled themselves. 

This was precisely the concern of democracy’s earliest critics, Plato and Aristotle among them. They worried that the system was inherently unstable not least because the people could be too easily swayed by their emotions and too readily seduced by shallow populists into decisions which were neither reasonable nor just - nor sensible. 

Representation

But if democracy is in danger, where are its defenders? When the people have been so badly misled and when the potential consequences are so serious, who should protect them if not their elected representatives? Isn’t that why in both UK and US we favour a representative system?

At least until now, we have accepted that our elected politicians have a duty not just to check the power of government but also to mitigate public opinion when it undermines sound or just policy. Our legislators should be the servants but not the slaves of their electorates.

The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke went further than most in believing that he would be betraying his constituents were he to sacrifice his judgement to their opinion. When in 1778 he defied them on the issue of free trade, he expressed the hope that if he forfeited their votes:

“It will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong."

He lost his seat but perhaps retained his integrity.

As the democratic franchise was extended, other thinkers worried about the potential for conflict between public opinion and sound policy. In the 1830s, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, a close observer of the developing American democracy, warned against any decision "which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence". John Stuart Mill, in his great essay On Liberty, feared for the rights of minorities when government is mandated by majority opinion.

All these critics favoured government by elites, be they philosopher kings or aristocrats. Our societies are considerably more liberal than those they envisaged, and that is to our credit. But even if we reject their politics, we should acknowledge that recent events have given their concerns new currency.

Whose people?

Indeed, the EU referendum was everything they dreaded - a triumph for unreason, a basis for unsound policy, a threat to democratic principle and, potentially at least, a suppression of the rights of minorities. 

But at the very moment when our tradition of representative democracy should be protecting us, it seems that Parliament’s responsibilities have been radically reinterpreted. The Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that “the British people have spoken” and that, even though she herself doubts its wisdom, their decision cannot be challenged. It has taken the intervention of the High Court to remind her of the role of a sovereign Parliament in the making of public policy.

We know, if only because right-wing newspapers have identified them for us, who are the enemies of the people. But who are those "people” whose judgement the PM regards as sacrosanct? 

Are they “the whole nation” for which she has publicly pledged to govern – or the 37 per cent of the electorate which voted for Brexit? Must the overwhelming majority which did not now remain silent and unrepresented? And in such circumstances is democracy served or subverted?

Too many politicians, cowed by campaigners whose objectives they fear, bullied by press barons they despise and apparently indifferent to their own constitutional responsibilities, have set aside their own judgement of the public good and fooled themselves into believing that when the people speak, their will must be done whatever it is and whatever its consequences.

But ultimately there is no such thing as "the people", only an aggregation of groups and individuals with a plurality of beliefs, opinions and interests. Talking about them in the definite article obliterates those differences. Precisely because it is so definite, it is intolerant, oppressive and undemocratic.

Back from the brink

Now, more than ever, we need parties and politicians with the courage not just to listen to but also to lead public opinion, and to stand against it when they believe it wrong. 

More than ever, we need a media which acknowledges its responsibility to inform as well as to influence, and show a far greater commitment to the truth.

More than ever, we the people should recognise that a strong and healthy democracy demands more of us than we seem prepared to give.

Democracies have come and gone – in ancient Greece and modern Europe. If ours is to prevail, we must both individually and collectively acknowledge our responsibilities as well as our rights and, critically, we must restore the importance of reason – and reasonableness – to the ways in which we deliberate, debate and decide.

As it is, we have already entered an age of unreason. Unless we come to our senses, it’s impossible to predict when or where it will end. 

Peter Bradley is director of Speakers’ Corner Trust and a former Labour MP.