The Guardian view on British history: we need to know

By stirring people up against an honest reckoning with our past, ministers are doing the country a huge disservice

Chartwell House, the family home of Sir Winston Churchill, near Sevenoaks in Kent
Chartwell House, the family home of Winston Churchill, near Sevenoaks in Kent. The estate was listed in a National Trust report highlighting owners’ links to colonialism and slavery. Photograph: Alamy
Chartwell House, the family home of Winston Churchill, near Sevenoaks in Kent. The estate was listed in a National Trust report highlighting owners’ links to colonialism and slavery. Photograph: Alamy

Last modified on Mon 15 Feb 2021 16.15 EST

The summons issued to 25 leading heritage bodies by the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, calling them to a meeting to discuss the government’s approach to controversial artefacts, is a calculated escalation of the “war on woke” being waged by ministers on behalf of their party’s right wing. In a letter to arts organisations last year, Mr Dowden underlined – literally – his opposition to “the removal of statues or similar objects”. With a report from the commission appointed to decide the fate of the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oriel College in Oxford due imminently, the government has upped the ante.

It is not difficult to see what it hopes to gain by stirring up popular sentiment in favour of the status quo. Inflammatory warnings of mobs coming for the nation’s heroes (Winston Churchill, Lord Nelson), and Labour councils in London threatening to rip the dead from their tombs, are designed to portray their opponents as unpatriotic to the point of indecency. The Policy Exchange thinktank, which keeps a tally of changes made by councils, universities and other institutions to their displays, curricula and so on, has described history as “the most active front in a new culture war”.

To anyone who remembers the political correctness battles of the 1980s and 1990s, when “loony left” local authorities (Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council above all) were the objects of an anti-left crusade, the dynamics are all too familiar – including the key role played by the rightwing press. But several decades on, as the UK adjusts to its altered role in the world post-Brexit, and the union with Scotland comes under renewed pressure, Tory culture warriors are doing the country a deep disservice.

History is how we understand ourselves, as the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, one of just two history graduates in Boris Johnson’s cabinet (the other is Kwasi Kwarteng), ought to know. Without knowledge of the past, including the many legacies of slavery and imperialism both here and abroad, we cannot form an honest view of Britain in the present. This is not a high-minded abstraction, as the Windrush scandal showed. Wendy Williams’ official report pointed to a weak grasp of colonial history as one of the causes of the cruel injustices that took place.

Jingoism is a thread running through our politics, as every school child who studies the first world war learns. But while a minority may cling to sanitised versions of the past in which Brits are heroes, evidence suggests that most people are open to fresh information and interpretation – history, in other words. One recent survey found 76% in favour of the National Trust doing more to educate the public about colonialism, with just 13% against. Books and television programmes that examine complex episodes from new angles are warmly received. Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell is a case in point.

What makes the current Tory alarm calls about history all the more egregious is that in over a decade in government, they have neglected it. In schools and universities, the humanities have been relegated behind literacy, numeracy and science. Against this backdrop, the work done by public heritage bodies is of vital importance. Ministers should back off and let them get on with it.

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