Artillery Row

An undemocratic elite is waging war on Britain’s past

Removing statues and atoning for our past is a guilt-induced, one-sided rewriting of history perpetrated by anti-democratic elites

Historical judgment as usually understood is about context, but that is clearly lacking in the ahistorical way in which Britain’s past is currently being buffeted. It is worth considering how the present moment may be assessed in the future.

Great fun can be had with that approach if we imagine future commentators as focused on their own sensitivities as are so many of the present group. Presumably all will be damned by the standards of the future, and icons of the present who were praiseworthy in some respects may be brought low, and literally so if statues, for what are held to be social crimes, as in surely King cannot be honoured as he committed adultery or Mandela as he ate meat. And so on. No-one will be left in this waste of shame.

Probably there will be interest among future historians in why a minority was able to impose its agenda

More interesting might be the suggestions of historians who have found, in some closed library, shuttered in 2020, for the works it contained, works that offer insights different to the modish orthodoxies of present (or even future). Would an historical sociologist analyse a struggle by one group of the middle-class, mostly in the public sector, to gain power, profit and kudos at the expense of others? Might, indeed, the entire furore be presented as an anti-democratic attempt by a would-be élite to strengthen and cement its position? A Policy Exchange poll published on 28 June, revealed that 69 per cent of British people are ‘proud’ of their history, with only 17 per cent saying it was something of which to be ashamed. When asked if Churchill’s statue should remain in Parliament Square, four-fifths said yes, including a substantial majority among 18 to 24 year-olds. 65% of those polled believe it is wrong ‘to make judgments about people in the past based on today’s values’ and agree that ‘statues of people who were once celebrated should be allowed to stand,’ the position taken by the Macron government in France. 77 per cent agreed ‘we should learn from history not rewrite it’ and 75 per cent that the police should have acted more robustly. Only 20 per cent agreed that ‘we should question how we look at British history and no longer recognise success if it caused misery or suffering to some victims.’ Similarly, a Newcastle University student poll found 78 per cent rejecting renaming Armstrong Building, his ‘crime’ to have sold arms to Cecil Rhodes.

Probably there will be interest among future historians in why a minority was able to impose its agenda. After all, whenever voters have been asked to comment on what John Gray terms ‘hyper-liberalism,’ they have been unsympathetic, most notably so when Labour under Jeremy Corbyn failed to win power in 2017 and 2019. Yet, in the aftermath of those elections, aspects of this agenda have been imposed, with a highly oppressive public culture, extending from the law to entertainment, everyday conversation to political analysis. Those who do not concur risk obloquy, unemployment or even criminal sanction. I know many are genuinely fearful for their university positions as the requirements to conform to newly-asserted norms are increasingly incompatible with free-expression.

To understand the situation, it is best to consider who possesses the power to decide. Clearly not the electorate. Instead, it is those who run public institutions, of various kinds, with the power to act located in those institutions, and the decision being simply what they choose to do. Thus, we have individuals such as Mark Damazer, ex-BBC, ex-Head of an Oxbridge College (one of very many of such who has never published a work of scholarship), who, as Chair of the Booker Price Foundation, has driven out Baroness Nicholson because she is allegedly transphobic. Elections cannot apparently curtail the power of these cliques and their ability to limit the practice of liberal values, such as freedom of opinion and speech, and, having classified those whom do not approve, to thwart their careers. To describe this as Orwellian might strike some as disproportionate, but I find worrying historical parallels to their illiberal and anti-democratic ethos and practice.

Let us simply turn back in British history. The merits of the 2016 referendum will continue to be widely-discussed, but the impression subsequently was of a wish to block its implementation. It appears as if we now see a similar iteration of this division, one that throws into prominence the character of democracy in modern Britain. Views among readers will vary I know about the merits of particular issues. Yet, the idea that all of us, disagreeing as we do, should accept the legitimacy of others expressing their views is a central aspect of democracy and indeed the freedom to live in a community of difference. It is that which has been compromised. No, that is my being overly bland. These values have been deliberately discarded in all too much of the university life of this country, and the rot of unreasoning cant is spreading rapidly.

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