Thursday 31 March 2022

The past won't conform to prejudices


As far as I’m aware, none of those arguing about whether a book which has been commissioned to tell the ‘patriotic’ story of the English Monarchy should or should not be circulated to children in Wales via schools has actually seen the content as yet. Certainly the public at large hasn’t yet seen it, and debating whether to distribute it or not without seeing the content can only be based on a mixture of supposition and prejudice. Having said that, one thing of which we can be certain is that any book which sets out to tell a story from a ‘patriotic’ standpoint (and that is the clearly-stated intention of those who have commissioned the work) is, by definition, not setting out to give a balanced or objective view. That, in effect, makes it, wholly intentionally, a work of propaganda rather than information. Whether a work of propaganda should be distributed in schools is a matter of opinion; for what it’s worth, I see no harm in that at secondary level if the intention its to study and analyse the work in comparison with other versions of the same events; critical analysis is a valuable skill. There should surely, though, be no place for the distribution of one-sided propaganda in primary schools – not in a democracy, anyway, or even a semi-democracy like the UK.

There’s something rather Soviet-era about such a blatant approach to ensuring that a particular version of history is inculcated into children as part of their education, but in truth all states seek to ensure that their citizens share a common understanding of history, as a means of building a sense of commonality and belonging. The problem in this instance is that the current rulers of the UK are stuck in a time-warp, and are trying to reinforce a narrative which has become outdated, using the methods of a long-gone era when people had no other sources of information, methods which simply look crass in the devolved landscape of the twenty-first century. I don’t believe that it would be impossible to build a new narrative of the UK fit for the current era, but it would look nothing like the immediate post-war narrative to which the current government seem to want to return (let alone the eighteenth century narrative more favoured by the Rees-Moggs of this world). Whilst ‘history’ is built on a series of facts which are themselves unchanging, the interpretation and relative importance of those facts is always changing, as new facts come to light and new perspectives are applied, in a process which exceptionalist Anglo-British nationalists seem incapable of grasping.

It isn’t just the much-debated book which underlines the attachment of our rulers to an outdated view; we’ve recently had the Education Minister, Nadhim Zahawi arguing that pupils should be taught about the benefits of the empire and colonialisation as well as the brutality. In a limited sense, he has a point. People probably should know and understand that when they look at grand old houses in the countryside and grand old buildings in our city centres, they are indeed seeing the benefits of colonialism – for the colonialists. And it would be far from an entirely bad thing if many of those railing against immigrants and refugees coming here from poorer countries had been taught, and had understood, that much of what makes the UK a wealthy country was acquired by transporting stolen wealth from those poorer countries. I suspect, though, that that isn’t what Zahawi and his ilk have in mind. His statement referred to the way the colonists set up administrative systems and exported the British Civil Service (and others have referred to building railways) – he’s talking about the ‘benefits’ which should be taken into account on the plus side of the equation when the exploitation, the massacres, and the slavery are being criticised. To call these ‘benefits’ of colonisation, though, requires us to assume that leaving those areas uncolonized, letting them benefit from their own natural resources and developing links through trade and commerce rather than conquest, would not have left them better off, and that they would never have developed such administrative systems of their own accord. It’s an arrogant assumption, to say the least. It might be less pejoratively-worded, but at root it’s simply a modern variation on the old idea that Britain brought civilisation and cricket to the savages, in return for which they should be grateful enough to overlook the worst excesses.

Whether we are talking about the monarchy or the empire, understanding our history is important in giving us a sense of who we are, but that requires an ever-changing analysis of the facts. We cannot change the past. Whilst some of us might wish that it were possible to airbrush the monarchy and the empire from history, that would be no more honest than presenting them as unchanging symbols of what it means to be British. Trying to imbue our children with a biased view of either the monarchy or the empire does them no favours when they will eventually find themselves in a world which has a totally different understanding. Addressing that is rather more important than sloganizing about the distribution of a book.


dafis said...

Ironic that a guy like Zahawi should be getting all sentimental about the Empire and its "value". I find it incredible that a man whose roots are certainly not in any part of his beloved UK can muster the servility to laud the very institutions that ripped off, possibly raped, his nation of origin. This is what governs us today - a bunch of shallow opportunists who obey the instructions of the Establishment/Dark State.

Spirit of BME said...

Your last paragraph sums it for me.
I was born a ‘Subject of the Empire’ –(just) and remember the Coronation (again, just) of Dear, dear, Betty, and we were given all kinds of trinkets , but what has stayed with me was they had the confidence to proclaim the fundamental importance of the monarchy to the sovereignty and legitimacy of government and we as subjects, expressing our wish via the ballot was a consultation.
As for the English Empire, it was explained that when Africa was discovered the people were so backward that they had not invented the wheel, so taking them in hand was an act of Christian duty, along with securing strategic (or stealing) raw material to boost the engine of commerce that paid for all this. The C of E and sadly non-conformist churches bought into this big time and were the SJW `s of their day.
The badges of Empire (or bling) were recognised as a reward to those that believed in this great mission, those today who receive the OBE, MBE, CBE, etc. thinking that it has no past, are ever so slightly delusional.