Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Reading a book might not help much

There is an old story, probably apocryphal, about the Soviet historian who said, “In my country, only the future is certain.  The past is always changing.”  It was a reflection of the Soviet-era habit of rewriting the past, and even doctoring photographs of events, as and when different members of the Politburo went up – or more usually down – in favour.  It also reflects a more general truth, however: what we know as ‘history’ isn’t just a simple sequential series of events.  Facts and events are selected, importance is assigned to them, and they are interpreted, and all of those things are done from the viewpoint of the particular historian.  And yes, as part of that process, history often is re-written; the importance assigned to events, let alone their interpretation, can and does change over time.  A book on the story of the British Empire written now would not say the same as one written 70 years ago – nor as one written 70 years from now.  And for most of us, the version of ‘history’ which we carry in our heads is probably the version which was mainstream at the time we were in school.  It is hard to avoid that ‘remembered’ history colouring our judgement when we look at alternative views.
Yesterday, a spokesperson for the EU Commission reacted to some of the Foreign Secretary’s comments in his party’s conference by suggesting that Hunt could benefit “from opening a history book from time-to-time”.  My instinctive inclination to agree was tempered by the caveat that it depends which book, when it was written, and by whom.  The issue of different interpretations of history goes right to the heart of the problems which the Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all are having in their negotiations with the EU.  The two sides have completely different views of European history; even when they agree on the basic facts, the importance which each assigns to those facts and the way in which they should be interpreted leaves them talking past each other with a complete lack of comprehension.  I doubt that getting him to read a history book would help at all – even if the book were chosen for him, he (like most of us) would be unable to read it without his judgement being coloured by his ‘remembered’ version of history.
I can’t really blame him for that; like all of us, he is a product of a particular era and culture, and it is always hard to escape that.  What it is entirely reasonable to blame him for, however, is his apparent complete lack of understanding that not everyone will share his particular historical perspective.  And not just him either – all the Brexiteers seem to be guilty of the same belief that theirs is the only valid historical perspective.  One of the keys to success in any process of negotiation is to understand the perspective of the ‘other side’, and especially to understand that what drives them may not be what drives you.  Even if you think they’re just plain wrong, you still need to understand their perspective and try and work with it.  The problem with the world view of the Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all is that they ‘know’ that they are right and that everyone else is wrong.  As a starting point for a negotiation, it doesn’t get past first base. 

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