“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner’s epithet arose in a story about a prostitute convicted of murder. I was surprised, therefore, to find it applies equally powerfully to the National Trust. Yet history has become a political battleground. Lobby groups and increasingly authoritarian-inclined governments are using a confected crisis, claiming that history is being “rewritten” to suit the “woke agenda”, to suppress any account of the past that challenges the establishment-approved version.
The National Trust was accused of a “betrayal” of its purpose after commissioning research into its properties’ links to the transatlantic slave trade. In November a “grass-roots” group called Restore Trust attempted to take over the NT board with a mandate to oppose the so-called “wokery” (its failure to win a single seat suggests it doesn’t represent as much of the “grass-roots” membership as it claims).
The NT is not alone. Policy Exchange’s History Matters project claims to “address widespread public concern about the growing trend to alter public history and heritage without due process.” Another group, History Reclaimed (also claiming to be a “grass-roots” organisation of historians), has alleged that BBC documentaries investigating slavery and imperialism are “rewriting history”. Historians are under increasing scrutiny for what they teach and research. Even the national curriculum is under threat.
The “woke history crisis” is, of course, largely invented. In reality, its proponents object to research and teaching which (well past time) takes historically marginalised perspectives into account. The NT’s crime was not to invent new historical events but simply to research the existing (but hitherto undocumented) history of its properties. History Matter’s list of complaints primarily concerns attempts by museums and universities to broaden the perspectives they present. The removal or contextualisation of statues (a bête noire for the purveyors of the “crisis”) never involves the erasure of history but, rather, the decision to stop celebrating that individual ahead of others or to present a fuller account of their actions.
History is inherently controversial
The so-called “grass-roots” groups are nothing of the sort. Policy Exchange is a “dark money”-funded lobby group which has campaigned for some of the most repressive laws of recent years. It has a history of inventing crises to justify authoritarian policies. Restore Trust and History Reclaimed are both linked to a network of ultra-conservative lobby groups centred around 55 Tufton Street. These are “astroturf” organisations: ginger groups that claim to be “grass-roots” yet are created and controlled by members of the social and political establishment.
History is inherently controversial. Historians are supposed to debate and disagree. The “crisis” lobby, however, treats any disagreement with its own version of history as illegitimate. Moreover, it has engaged the power of the state to silence all other views. The UK government has enthusiastically embraced the lie. Ministers have used the coercive power of the state to enforce an officially approved version of the past. As Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden threatened to withdraw funding from museums that removed statues of figures of which the government approved. As Education Secretary, Michael Gove tried to rewrite the national curriculum to eliminate criticisms of past government policies. In November I attended a conference of historians and educators who told of the constant pressure to avoid teaching about the history or legacies of slavery and imperialism.
Britain is not alone in this. Right-wing lobbyists and governments across the world are intent on eliminating any deviation from their own version of history. Thirty-seven US states have banned certain history books, put limitations on teaching or ordered teachers to portray slavery in a positive light.
This is not just another culture war sideshow. Control of our collective understanding of history allows elites to dominate public discourse and even impact election results. As a nation, our history is integral to our self-perception. The belief that Britain could return to an imagined past of buccaneering imperialism was an important factor in the Brexit referendum. Societies that have confronted the atrocities of their past (such as Germany) tend to be less likely to embrace culture wars and far-right tropes.
Restore Trust/History Reclaimed’s Kipling-esque version of the past, in which Britain is preordained to lead/dominate the rest of the world, promotes the toxic nationalism that dominates our public discourse. The “approved version” of history is one that legitimises the political establishment. Today’s politics are still dominated by people from the same backgrounds as those who dominated them 100 or even 200 years ago (67 per cent of UK prime ministers, including two of the past four, have been educated at one of nine elite schools). The version of history approved by History Reclaimed etc is one in which the UK has always been governed by wise and brave leaders.
Finally, our understanding of history impacts on contemporary public policy decisions. Questions over the legacies of slavery, the reasons for structural inequality, and even the return of looted artefacts are live in contemporary political debate. Delve too deeply into the perspectives of global majority people and/or the victims of colonialism and a range of issues begin to take on a different light.
As the writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin put it: “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”
Sam Fowles is a barrister, Director of the ICDR, and a lecturer at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. He tweets at @SamFowles