Writing in the Daily Telegraph Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden says that the Government “…won’t allow Britain’s history to be cancelled”. His argument is critical of the “Cancel Culture” whereby (in his words) “… a small but vocal group of people claim to have a monopoly on virtue and seek to bully those who disagree”.
Mr Dowden argues that it is “right that we reassess and interpret events as our understanding evolves” and that we should tell “… a balanced, nuanced and academically rigorous story – one that doesn’t automatically start from a position of guilt and shame and denigration of this country’s past”.
The problem with all this is that the past, foreign country that it is, is open to interpretation and the process of reassessment, as Dowden calls it, will lead people, including historians, to different conclusions. The British Empire, the subject of much of the “Cancel Culture” debate, especially. Niall Ferguson, seen by many as a historian of the Right, concluded in his 2003 history “Empire” that the “… British sacrificed her Empire to stop the Germans, Japanese and Italians from keeping theirs. Did that sacrifice alone expunge all the Empire’s other sins”. The answer to Ferguson’s question is, of course, emphatically “No it didn’t”!
Ferguson is very much relevant to the “Cancel Culture” debate. His description of the 1919 Amritsar massacre, one of Empire’s darkest hours, cannot be faulted. It is neither defensive nor lacking in accuracy. He tells it as it was and further draws interesting parallels with Ireland saying that Amritsar was “India’s Easter Rising, creating nationalist martyrs on one side and a crisis of confidence on the other”. Both examples of Imperial excess defy Dowden’s call for balance. If we do not have “guilt and shame” about them (along with countless other Imperial horrors) we are either ignorant or deluded.
Niall Ferguson’s historian’s instincts also allow him to venture into territory that I suspect Mr Dowden would shudder to consider. Between the wars in Britain, in part fuelled by India’s call for Independence as well as Ireland’s fight for freedom, there was “anxiety” about the Empire. However, Ferguson reveals. There was “one man who continued to believe in the British Empire” and who praised the British for “…holding the reins so lightly withal, that the natives do not notice… I claim that the English have governed India very well…”. That man was not, as you might think, Winston Churchill but Adolf Hitler writing in Mein Kampf! James Baldwin said that “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them”. In criticising the “Cancel Culture” Oliver Dowden seems to me to be wanting a distorted view of history to be promulgated, whatever he may try and say to the contrary. He himself is trapped in a faux-patriotic and simplistic view of Britain’s past as he confirms in the opening sentence of his Telegraph piece: “I am proud of our nation’s heritage”.
In the main proper historians do not do “pride”. Pride is subjective and partisan and if you try and write history with those things as your drivers you do not do history – you do propaganda. If Oliver Dowden genuinely wants, as he claims, to “expand the conversation” about our heritage I have a serious tip for him. Create an extensive, academically robust, nonpartisan museum of the “British Empire”. Let the historians report on the facts of our Imperial history warts and all. Tell the story as it was not as you might want it to be. This is not an argument for political correctness or for peddling self-regard. It’s an argument for truth. I agree with Dowden that “totalitarian moral certainty” is a bad thing. But much of it at present emanates from him and people like him who seem to want to hide forever behind the pomp and the circumstance of our past and the Union Flag.