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,, and is crossposted here with permission

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.