Monday, 8 July 2019

Whose history?

A while ago, in the wake of the release of the film “Darkest Hour", there was something of a debate about the nature of the leading character portrayed by the film.  Was Churchill a great wartime leader whose resolve and stirring rhetoric motivated people throughout the empire (and it was the British Empire which went to war with Germany, not the United Kingdom) to fight and win, or was he a white supremacist, a vile racist who believed other races to be inferior, and a war criminal prepared to order killing on a horrific scale in order to achieve victory?  In truth, he was all of those things; but there’s also a sense in which he was none of them, in that none of them alone paint a rounded and complete picture of a complex character.  Yet both sides in the debate demand that the other accept their assessment, that he be considered an out-and-out goodie or an out-and-out baddie.  The fact that, within the UK at least, prevailing culture regards him as a hero owes more to the fact that history is written by the victors than to a balanced assessment.  
From Churchill’s viewpoint, the Empire was unquestionably a ‘good’ thing; he came from an age in which ‘civilising the natives’ (even if they would, nevertheless, always be inferior) was part of the beneficence of European rule.  It’s an attitude which is mirrored by one of the candidates for the Tory leadership – in 2002, writing in the Spectator, Boris Johnson said of Africa, “The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore.”  There are others who would argue that such attitudes are based on a very superficial understanding of what the Empire was about and what it did, and that understanding could be improved if a more balanced view of history were taught in schools in the UK.  In truth, the problem isn’t so much that pupils don’t learn anything about the history of the Empire, it’s more that they learn a very superficial version of that history which largely glosses over the negatives.  Again, the history we think that we ‘know’ is based on that written by the victors; changing that ‘knowledge’ is a long slow process.
The question raised by that article – about changing the history which is taught in schools – brings me to the point raised in the Assembly recently by a Plaid AM in relation to the teaching of Welsh history.  Whilst I entirely agree that pupils should learn more about the history of Wales, the real issue is about which version they learn.  To take one example: is the history of Wales over the last few centuries the story of a nation valiantly clinging to and promoting its own unique identity and language in the face of the overwhelming dominance of our neighbour, or is it the story of a nation being slowly but surely subsumed and assimilated into a greater whole?  The ‘facts’ and ‘events’ are the same, but what matters is the selection, interpretation, and emphasis placed on those facts and events.  There is no such thing as ‘objective’ history, and little point teaching students dates and facts without also teaching them how to interpret and understand those dates and facts.  (For what it’s worth, my answer to the question I asked above is similar to that attributed to Zhou Enlai in relation to the French Revolution – “It’s too soon to say”.)
I’m reasonably certain that the version of history that I’d like to see taught would be very similar to that which Siân Gwenllian wants to see taught, so I don’t disagree with the point which she is making.  Bearing in mind, though, that history is always written from the point of view of the victors, I wonder whether demanding that the version written from the point of view of the ‘losers’ be taught instead isn’t putting the cart before the horse.  The state – any state – always wants its citizens to know the version of history which most promotes the unity and continuation of that state.  There’s an element of chicken-and-egg, (or perhaps interdependency) here – changing the ‘official’ version of history depends on first creating or controlling the necessary elements of the nascent Welsh state; but one of the factors involved in creating a full Welsh state is giving people a better understanding (or, rather, a different understanding) of their own history.  Of the two, I tend to suspect that making a different version of history the ‘official’ one will follow, rather then precede, the political change.  After all, it’s the winners who decide what history is.

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