Education Secretary Michael Gove is concerned by what he sees as left-wing revisionism about World War I. Photo: Getty
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Dear Mr Gove, we need to talk about the Empire in our schools

The Education Secretary wants to “encourage an open debate on the WWI and its significance”. If that's the case, it's time we talked openly about British imperialism, too.

I read with interest Michael Gove’s article in the Daily Mail, where he defended the changes that his government has made to the UK’s history curriculum. He writes that these changes “have been welcomed by top academics as a way to give all children a proper rounded understanding of our country’s past and its place in the world.” Mr Gove is particularly concerned by what he sees as left-wing revisionism about World War I, which by many has “been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.”

It is understandable that Mr Gove, at a time when public trust in institutions is crumbling, would want to mount a vigorous defence of those in positions of power. After all, he might argue, it is all too easy to snipe at those in charge. Gove contends further that “our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country…There is, of course, no unchallenged consensus. That is why it matters that we encourage an open debate on the war and its significance.”

I hope, in time, that this open debate extends to a thorough discussion of the British Empire in the curriculum. I wish that I had learned more about, for example, the Scramble for Africa during my GCSEs, yet despite the crucial role of imperialism in shaping our modern world it was largely absent from our syllabus. At school we had a good look at the Indian Mutiny, and the end of slavery, and that was about it. It always seemed odd to me how I could have gone through my adolescence without studying a period so pivotal in this country’s fortunes: particularly since the Scramble occurred in the thirty-year period immediately prior to the World War I (and provided the Allies with many of the resources it would need to fight it).

Mr Gove is rightly concerned that certain narratives may find themselves erased from the versions of history that we see in schools, and welcomes the fact that “the numbers of young people showing an appetite for learning about the past, and a curiosity about our nation’s story, is growing once more. ” Of course, there are elements of that past which many people may find an uncomfortable read. As the Guardian noted in April 2012:

Thousands of documents detailing some of the most shameful acts and crimes committed during the final years of the British empire were systematically destroyed to prevent them falling into the hands of post-independence governments, an official review has concluded…Those papers that survived the purge were flown discreetly to Britain where they were hidden for 50 years in a secret Foreign Office archive, beyond the reach of historians and members of the public, and in breach of legal obligations for them to be transferred into the public domain.

The article continues:

Among the documents are a handful which show that many of the most sensitive papers from Britain’s late colonial era were not hidden away, but simply destroyed. These papers give the instructions for systematic destruction issued in 1961 after Iain Macleod, secretary of state for the colonies, directed that post-independence governments should not get any material that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government”, that could “embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others eg police informers”, that might compromise intelligence sources, or that might “be used unethically by ministers in the successor government”.

Regrettably, this country’s government has erased some inconvenient truths from history. Boris Johnson, as concerned as his colleague Mr Gove that the tale of World War One is being cynically rewritten, wrote in the Telegraph that “one of the reasons I am a Conservative is that, in the end, I just can’t stand the intellectual dishonesty of the Left. In my late teens I found I had come to hate the way Lefties always seemed to be trying to cover up embarrassing facts about human nature, or to refuse to express simple truths – and I disliked the pious way in which they took offence, and tried to shoosh you into silence, if you blurted such a truth.”

Mr Johnson continues:

“We all want to think of the Germans as they are today – a wonderful, peaceful, democratic country…The Germans are as they are today because they have been frank with themselves, and because over the past 60 years they have been agonisingly thorough in acknowledging the horror of what they did.” (My italics)

I hope, in that vein, that Britain begins to interrogate its imperial past with the same rigour that Mr Gove and Mr Johnson have demanded of World War One’s historians. If we are indeed to look back into the past with a fearless spirit of inquiry, then our gaze should rest there too.

This post first appeared on Musa's blog, okwonga.com, and is crossposted here with permission

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician.

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Has Arlene Foster saved power-sharing in Northern Ireland?

The DUP leader's decision to attend Martin McGuinness' funeral was much more than symbolic. But is Gerry Adams willing to make a deal?

After some prevarication, DUP leader Arlene Foster chose to attend the funeral of Martin McGuinness in Derry today. Her decision to do so cannot have been an easy one.

A substantial part of her loyalist base has noisily resisted attempts to memorialise the late deputy first minister as anything other than an inveterate killer. Foster herself notes in today’s Belfast Telegraph that the former IRA commander was responsible for the deaths of “many neighbours and friends”. And in 1979 – aged just eight – she bore witness to the bloody aftermath of an IRA attack in her own home: her father, a reservist police officer, was shot in the head by a gunman later eulogised by McGuinness.

Her attendance at today’s funeral is thus noteworthy and has been the subject of due praise. She was twice applauded by the congregation: as she took her seat, and after Bill Clinton singled her out in his eulogy. It is, however, much more than the symbolic gesture it might appear.

Last month’s election, which saw the DUP lose 10 seats and unionist parties lose their Stormont majority for the first time in nearly a century, proved Foster to be damaged goods. She was – and remains – tarnished by the RHI scandal but also by her crass behaviour towards the nationalist community, particularly on Irish language issues.

Her carelessly won reputation as a truculent bigot will therefore not be easily lost. Her departure remains a red line for Sinn Fein. But with just four days until the deadline for a new devolution settlement, Foster’s presence at McGuinness’ funeral is the clearest indication yet of the DUP’s carefully calculated strategy. It isn’t quite a resignation, but is nonetheless indicative of the new manner in which Foster has carried herself since her party’s chastening collapse.

She has demonstrated some contrition and offered tacit acknowledgement that her election shtick was misjudged and incendiary. Her statement on McGuinness’ death was delicately pitched and made only oblique reference to his IRA past. In the absence of a willingness to allow Foster to step down, the decision instead has been taken to detoxify her brand.

The conciliatory Foster the DUP will nominate for First Minister on Monday will as such at least appear to be apart from the dogwhistling Foster who fought the election – and her attendance today is the superlative indication of that careful transition. There has been talk that this increases the chance of a deal on a new executive. This is premature – not least because the onus is now almost entirely on Sinn Fein.

Theirs is just as much a mandate to reject Stormont as we know it as it is to return and right the DUP’s wrongs. Gerry Adams, the last member of the Armalite generation standing, has made this abundantly clear – and has hardened his line just as Foster has made sure to be seen magnanimously softening hers. He said last night that he would not tolerate any extension of power-sharing talks beyond Monday’s deadline, and called on Dublin to prevent the UK government from re-instating direct rule.

Though Adams also maintained a deal was still possible in the coming days, his statement augurs badly. As the former UUP leader Lord Empey told me on the day McGuinness died, the Sinn Fein president – the ideologue to McGuinness’ Stormont pragmatist – is now entirely without equal within his party. Though he has set the transition to a new generation of female leaders in train, he remains in total control. His demand for Dublin’s involvement is also telling: as the leader of the third-biggest party in the Dail, his is an all-Ireland long game. Enda Kenny will soon depart, offering Fianna Fail – riding high in the polls – a useful pretext to renegotiate or scrap their confidence and supply arrangement with his minority government. Sinn Fein are on course to make gains, but implementing Brexit and austerity as partners in a Stormont executive would undermine their populist anti-austerity platform.

As such, Empey predicted McGuinness’ death would allow Adams to exert a disruptive influence on the talks to come. “I don’t think it’ll be positive because for all his faults, Martin was actually committed to making the institutions work,” he said. “I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed – and it was obvious from the latter part of last year that Gerry was reinstating his significant influence in the party. For that reason I think it will make matters more difficult.  I hope I’m wrong, but that’s my sense.”

He is not alone. There was, earlier this week, growing confidence in Westminster that some fudge could be reached on the most contentious issues. It isn't impossible - but Adams’ renewed dominance and rejection of the extended timeframe such negotiations would undoubtedly require suggests a new executive is as unlikely a prospect as it has ever been. With Foster quietly reinventing herself, the DUP could be the big winners come the next election (which could come this year and reinstate a unionist majority) – and the resurgent republicans might well rue the day they squandered their big chance.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.