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“We should not hold current states accountable for what happened in the distant past”

But consigning events to history should not preclude the need for apology for ancient wrongs: they can help heal rifts. 

Spring is a time to start again, and that may involve deliberately putting out of one’s mind what has gone before. The discomfort and dark of winter should be forgotten. Many years ago a friend of mine lent somebody his tent. This was in Scotland, where tents – and everything else – will inevitably get wet. The borrower used the tent and then stored it in a damp state before giving it back. The owner was a tolerant man but was nonetheless outraged by the mould he discovered, and we all got to hear a great deal of the incident. This all took place more than 30 years ago, but I am not sure whether he has yet forgiven the borrower.

I had occasion to think about the mouldy tent on a recent book tour of Australia. I was reminded of the issue by the custom of prefacing public occasions – such as talks at literary festivals – with a reference to the original inhabitants of the place where the meeting is being held.

Not everybody likes it, and some regard it as irritating tokenism, particularly where the original inhabitants have long since dispersed. The main argument in its defence is that it reminds us of a past that has not entirely lost its capacity to determine who has or gets what today. In the case of Australia, it underlines the fact the continent was not terra nullius when Europeans first settled in it, but was already inhabited by people who had been there for a very long time. What happened to those people is something that today’s Australians are prepared to face up to, even if there are some who would prefer that the matter be ignored. So even if it is a form of tokenism, it is symptomatic of a healthy assumption of responsibility for what our ancestors did.

But the problem with this is deciding the limits of historical responsibility. When should history be deprived of its impact on how we see ourselves and how we conduct our lives? This year it would be impossible to ignore the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. That war was an appalling disaster, but is it still “potent” history, in the sense that it affects the modern world? The answer to that must be yes: many of the contours of the modern world are the discernible result of that conflict. Going back into the 19th century, one will find plenty of historical events that still cast their shadow today, but the further one reaches into the past the safer it is to relegate matters to “inactive” history. This distancing of ourselves from the past is necessary if we are to face the world without the clutter of too much historical baggage.

Of course the idea of insulating oneself from the past suits those who are unwilling to redress injustice. Slavery is an interesting example. In this country we like to think that history remembers us as the abolitionists. Actually we were a major part of the problem in the first place, and amnesia cannot let us off the hook quite so easily. If one travels to some of the poorer parts of the Caribbean, one can still see the scars of slavery. This is what fuels the current calls for reparation. We may feel that it is just too long ago – ancient history. It is, perhaps, for us – but it is not, quite understandably, for them.

Should we have some sort of 100-year rule, akin to the rule that allows official papers to be opened to historians after a certain period? That would relieve Britain of current blame for the concentration camps of the Boer war but not for the treatment of prisoners during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.

This is not to say, though, that we should forget entirely; rather it is to suggest that we should not hold any current states or groups accountable for what happened in the distant past. As a Scot, I rather doubt that the Highland Clearances can be laid at the door of anybody who is around today, although I know that there are those who would put the spotlight on those descendants of landowners who still enjoy ill-gotten gains. Nor do I think that we should invest too much emotion in Bannockburn, another anniversary coming up this year. We have a referendum in September at which we do not really need to think too much of William Wallace.

Consigning events to the past should not preclude the need for apology for ancient wrongs. It may be absurd to expect today’s Scandinavians to issue an apology for the behaviour of the Vikings, but the Queen’s bowing of her head in Ireland was a helpful gesture, even if it did not amount to an explicit apology. National apologies can heal rifts, just as failures to apologise in sufficiently unambiguous terms may prolong friction. Japan has discovered that in the reaction to its various official, often rather half-hearted statements of remorse over atrocities committed during the Second World War.

Back to the referendum. I have a friend who is, quite astonishingly, still sore about the Stuarts and the failure of attempts at their restoration. Whatever one’s views on
Scottish independence, perhaps we should move on from whatever ancient baggage we lug around with us – a resounding cliché, and yet a good one, as is the proposition that wherever the future lies, it is not in the past.

Alexander McCall Smith’s latest novel is “The Forever Girl” (Polygon, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.