The Tories want our children to be proud of Britain’s imperial past. When the right-wing colonial historian Niall Ferguson told the Hay Festival last weekend that he would like to revise the school history curriculum to include “the rise of western domination of the world” as the “big story” of the past 500 years, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, leapt to his feet to praise Ferguson’s “exciting” ideas — and offer him the job.
Ferguson is a poster-boy for big stories about big empire, his books and broadcasting weaving Boys’ Own-style tales about the British charging into the jungle and jolly well sorting out the natives. The Independent’s Johann Hari, in his capacity as young bloodhound of the liberal left, sniffed out Ferguson’s suspicious narrative of European cultural supremacy in a series of articles in 2006, calling him “a court historian for the imperial American hard right”: Harvard-based Ferguson believes that the success of the British empire should be considered a model for US foreign policy.
This is exactly the sort of history that British conservatives think their children should be learning. “I am a great fan of Ferguson, and he is absolutely right,” Michael Gove told the Guardian.
The new Education Secretary has declared his intention to set out a “traditionalist” curriculum “celebrating” Britain’s achievements. Andrew Roberts, another historian lined up to advise on the new curriculum, has dined with South African white supremacists, defended the Amritsar Massacre and suggested that the Boers murdered in British concentration camps were killed by their own stupidity. It looks like this “celebratory” curriculum might turn out to be a bunting-and-bigotry party, heavy on the jelly and propaganda.
What should shock about these appointments is not just the suspect opinions of Roberts and Ferguson, but that the Tories have fundamentally misunderstood the entire purpose of history. History, properly taught, should lead young people to question and challenge their cultural inheritance rather than simply “celebrate” it.
“Studying the empire is important, because it is an international story, but we have to look at it from the perspective of those who were colonised as well as from the British perspective,” said the historian and political biographer Anthony Seldon, who is also Master of Wellington College. “We live in an interconnected world, and one has to balance learning about British history with learning about other cultures.”
The ways in which schools and governments structure and promote stories about a country’s past, the crimes they conceal and the truths they twist, have a lasting effect on young minds. It is not for nothing that the most fearsome dictators of the 20th century, from Hitler to Chairman Mao, altered their school history curriculums as a matter of national urgency.
Even now, the school board of the state of Texas is rewriting the history syllabus to sanitise slavery and sideline figures such as Thomas Jefferson, who called for the separation of church and state. That the Tories, too, wish to return us to a “traditionalist” model of history teaching should thoroughly disabuse the left of the notion that the present-day Conservative Party has no ideological agenda.
The drive to rehabilitate a nostalgic vision of Britain’s imperial past is part of the same bigoted discourse in which the new Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, recently described Afghanistan as “a broken 13th-century country”. It appears to be forming Conservative thought at home and abroad.
This week, an ugly caricature of inner-city teenagers appeared on the Tory-affiliated website ConservativeHome. The post, which laments that in Hackney “the white middle-class people disappear as soon as it gets dark”, is titled “How the east was lost” — drawing an explicit parallel between the resistance of colonised populations to British military rule and resistance of voters in inner-London areas with large ethnic-minority populations to Conservative ideas. The writer parodies the accents and eating habits of Hackney teenagers with the revolted fascination of a Victorian colonel writing about the natives, implying that these “fatherless, swaggering, out-of-control” youths need a firm white Tory hand to keep them in line.
Michael Gove’s wish to re-engineer how history is taught to children is, quite simply, about social control. It is part of a broader political discourse that seeks, ultimately, to replace the messy, multivalent web of Britain’s cultural inheritance with one “big story” about dominance and hierarchy, of white over black, west over east, rich over poor.
But history is not about the big story, the single story, the story told by the overculture. History is not about “celebrating” the past, nor about making white kids feel good about their cultural inheritance. History is a process of exploring the legacy of the past, and questioning it — including the ugly, uncomfortable parts. No wonder the Tories want to tear it up and start again.