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2 February 2022

The past is not a guide to the future, but remembering is still a vital act of defiance

Giving tours of parliament used to remind me of history's biggest lesson: most people don’t learn from history.

By Stephen Bush

One of the things I miss most about the era before coronavirus was the occasional day when – whether due to teacher training, an unhappy misalignment between parliament’s recess dates and the half-term holidays, or a childminder’s sudden illness – a colleague, either from the New Statesman or elsewhere in the parliamentary press gallery, would have a child in need of entertaining or showing round the Houses of Parliament.

I am an enthusiastic volunteer for this task as I like children, and particularly other people’s because you can hand them back at the end of the day. It’s also, I’ve noticed, generally easier to get other people’s children to like you than it would be your own, as you can keep them on-side by engaging in frankly extravagant levels of bribery that would become unsustainable if you had to do it every day.

I start at Westminster Hall for two reasons. The first is that there is a gift shop and a tea shop nearby, so you can kick off the whole tour with a bar of chocolate or some other confectionery. The second is that I’ve noticed that most children rather like blood and gore, and Westminster Hall is the bloodiest and goriest bit of the building.

It is where parliament put Charles I on trial and sentenced him to execution. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Oliver Cromwell’s body was dug up and beheaded, and his severed head hung in the hall for at least a decade before it was blown down in a high wind. The head endured a strange afterlife, passing from collector to collector before eventually being buried in the grounds of Cromwell’s old college at Cambridge.

The good thing about this grisly tale is that you have plenty of escape routes if you have misread the child’s appetite for violence and death. If their eyes widen in joy at the prospect of an executed king, you can risk the dug-up corpse. And if you’ve misjudged things and your charge starts to look upset, well, you’re within walking distance of another bar of chocolate.

A child who wants more can be further delighted by the history of divisions, which can also be linked back to executions and arbitrary violence, albeit tenuously. (The habit of MPs signalling assent or dissent by walking through one lobby or another came into vogue thanks to Thomas Cromwell. In his role as Henry VIII’s parliamentary fixer, Cromwell concentrated the minds of the king’s parliamentary opponents by forcing them to stand separately from his allies; it also assisted him in weeding them out of future parliaments.)

[See also: How history haunts the present]

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I don’t volunteer for tour duty just because I enjoy scaring small children – though it does, of course, help. I do it because I also love history, and it is fun to be able to share that with someone else. It’s a form of escapism as well: to a time when I believed that learning about the past was not only fun, but useful too.

I now work in a profession where a knowledge of history is genuinely valuable – in part because it allows one to assess whether something really is “unprecedented” or merely “rare”, and in part because a historical fact or two is always handy to pad out an article on a quiet day. But I no longer believe, as I did when I was studying history at university, that knowledge of the past leads to better decision-making in the future.

The international organisations founded to say “never again” after the Holocaust have repeatedly failed to prevent or even to recognise acts of genocide. One lesson the Bolsheviks “learned” from the failures of the revolutions in England and France in the 17th and 18th centuries was that the Romanov family had to be wiped out to prevent a restoration. Their state lapsed into its own Cromwellian autocracy with remarkable speed, and present-day Russia is once again ruled by a gilded elite.

This is one reason why so much of the recent debate about history leaves me cold. I don’t think that Jan Smuts, a South African segregationist, or Robert Clive, whose activities as the East India Company’s agent led to the deaths of at least a million people, are figures who ought to be honoured with statues within spitting distance of our parliament. But I also know that Smuts and Clive have already been forgotten by popular history and that their monuments, whether they stay or go, are essentially irrelevant. The biggest lesson history teaches you is that, in the main, people don’t learn from history.

So why do I still insist on bothering small children with historical trivia? While I don’t think historical knowledge is all that important to making better decisions in the future, I do believe that remembrance is a worthwhile act. What connects Charles I, Cromwell’s unfortunate head, the Romanovs and the victims of Robert Clive is that in each case their opponents wanted them to be forgotten – or, if they were to be remembered at all, to be recalled solely as figures in propaganda.

I don’t think having a more rounded understanding and knowledge of those people is either a prerequisite or a substitute for winning political arguments in the present. But I do think remembering the past is an important act of defiance against forgotten horrors and atrocities. And if nothing else, it’s an excuse to have half an hour away from my desk and to buy myself a chocolate bar from a gift shop, too.

[See also: Boris Johnson’s toxicity has an upside – it damages his potential successors]

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This article appears in the 02 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going Under