A worker cleans the Churchill statue in Parliament Square that had been spray painted with the words 'was a racist' on June 08, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

History wars roll on

In Britain, contentious historical issues receive attention to an unprecedented degree

The culture wars of the present day scarcely answer to the accustomed pace of scholarship, but for the historian there is the interest of seeing public history and historiography at full tilt. In Britain, historical issues, such as the slave trade, empire and the reputation of Winston Churchill, receive attention to an unaccustomed degree, history of a type is thrust into public debate and (some) historians offered platforms in the media and their comments then picked over by critics. Welcome or unwelcome, this is different to the situation even a year ago when such debates, while already intense, did not enjoy comparable attention.

The present is fascinating, but also disturbing

For those, such as myself, who have published books on the subject – notably, but not only, Contesting History: Narratives of Public History (2014), Clio’s Battles: Historiography in Practice (2015), Imperial Legacies: The British Empire Around the World (2019) – the present is fascinating, but also disturbing in that the empirical basis for discussion of the current “history wars” is not to the fore. It is readily possible to envisage all sorts of links and explanations for the arguments made, but the relevant research is far less easy.

In particular, there is a tendency to write in terms of undifferentiated blocs of supposed alignment, to move freely back and forth across the centuries, and readily to ascribe causes in a somewhat reductionist fashion. Thus, the historian William Dalrymple, writing in The Guardian on 11 June 2020, linked the continued presence in Central London of Robert Clive, a hero of empire, to the Brexit vote:

A vicious asset-stripper. His statue has no place on Whitehall … a testament to British ignorance of our imperial past … Its presence outside the Foreign Office encourages dangerous neo-imperial fantasies among the descendants of the colonisers … Removing the statue of Clive from the back of Downing Street would give us an opportunity finally to begin the process of education and atonement.

And so on with the usual attacks on Brexit being apparently a consequence of an imperial mentality that has never been confronted. Leave aside the extent to which Dalrymple is strong here on assertion rather than evidence, and that “Little Englanders” and specific issues of the moment, such as David Cameron’s lack of popularity, were of far more consequence in the 2016 referendum, what you get is a running together of past and present with the modern British supposedly trapped by the past. Therefore, in this approach, the statues have to fall, and presumably the reading lists and libraries must be reordered.

For the historian, what is less common is evidence other than texts of this type of the attitude of minds and sources of ideas that are in play. This is particularly difficult when you are looking at the present as there are often questions of the typicality of the evidence that can be adduced.

Debate is now seen as oppressive

Concern about how best to discuss the issue may well up from another direction because the historians themselves find they are subject not to the usual conventions and constraints of debate, but to an increasingly more intrusive and even controlling attitude on the part of the outside world, not least some or many university authorities. That, indeed, threatens, far more than the debate already mentioned, a closure of the space for free thought and expression. Strident demands for ‘anti-racist’ affirmation can compound the latter issue.

Alas, given the bullying approach, tone and stance adopted by some universities, not least anonymous denunciations, those thus attacked will be anxious. With some universities apparently endorsing the idea that the workplace is the mission field, there is the language of impatient revivalism, as in concepts such as needing to grasp the moment, condemnation, and, I would suggest, the language and idea of decolonisation.

The historian will note that the direction of travel, the apparent attack on white male “privilege” has little to do with the most obvious and persistent “bias” in university entry in Britain, that toward a pronounced majority of female students. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is the most pronounced feature. Among students, there is also, whether state or private schools are the issue, a pronounced middle-class background to the British undergraduate population. As far as staff is concerned, and notably so in the Humanities and Social Sciences, the lack of “diversity” and “inclusion” are also most obviously the case as far as the representation of conservative staff are concerned.

Historians need to understand why practices we now believe to be wrong were legitimate in the past

What is possibly most striking is the apparent suspension of any real sense of critique of the new order. Maybe, debate is so beneath you when you possess all truth. Much better just to steamroll people into compliance. Debate is seen as oppressive. Those who hold contrasting views are readily dismissed and shunned: if you do not think you are a white supremacist, which is the subtext I would suggest of white “privilege,” that means that you are guilty. If you feel uncomfortable about being accused of being a white supremacist – that means you are guilty. This is like a blatantly constructed trap; as is the reference to having ‘a conversation,’ when, of course, that is the very last thing that is intended.

In practical terms, we are seeing a bringing to fruition of the attack on positivism that has been so insistent since the 1960s, an attack that is bridging from academic circles to a wider public. In particular, there was, and continues to be, a critique of subordinating scholarship and the scholar to the evidence; and a preference, instead, for an assertion of convenient evidence that was derived essentially from theory. Empiricism from then was discarded, or at least downplayed, as both method and value, and there was a cult of faddish intellectualism heavily based on postmodernist concepts.

Divorcing the Arts and Social Sciences from empirical methods invited a chaos that some welcomed as such, but that others sought to reshape in terms of a set of values and methods equating to argument by assertion and proof by sentiment: “I feel therefore I am correct,” and it is apparently oppression to be told otherwise.

The conventional academic spaces, the geopolitics of academic hierarchy and method, from the lecture hall to the curriculum, have all been repurposed to this end. And so also with public spaces: the statues that are unwelcome are not isolated residues of allegedly outdated and nefarious glories, but a quasi-living reproach to the new order in a culture wars of the present in which there is no space for neutrality or non-committal, or, indeed, tolerance and understanding.

Imposing anachronistic value-judgments is antithetical to the historical mindset of the scholar

In part, possibly, and as an aspect of decolonisation, the legitimacy of opposing views is dismissed, indeed discredited, as allegedly racist and anti-intellectual because there is an unwillingness to ask awkward questions and to ignore evidence which does not fit into the answer wanted and already asserted. Examples of the latter might include the extent of slavery and the slave trade prior to the European arrival in Africa, or the role of European powers in eventually ending both. It is possible to debate these and other points but debate often is not accepted if it involves questioning assumptions.

However, such questioning is crucial to understanding the past, which is the key aspect of history as an intellectual pursuit rather than as the sphere for political engagement. Historians need to understand why practices we now believe to be wrong and have made illegal, such as slavery or (differently) making children work or marrying them, were legitimate in the past. It is not enough, in doing so, to present only one side of, and on, the past simply because that is allegedly useful for present reasons. Nor to refuse to recognise debate in earlier, plural societies. People in the past believed that they were right for reasons that were perfectly legitimate in terms of their own times, experience, and general view of the world.

Imposing anachronistic value-judgments is antithetical to the historical mindset of the scholar and is inherently transient as the fullness of time will, in turn, bring in fresh critiques of present-day values, which, possibly, will also be wrenched out of their historical context, not least by ignoring inconvenient evidence. There is a somewhat fantasist approach at present in the academe in the assertion of present-day values as if transcendent universals, but maybe that is part of a religious imperative in a secular milieu.

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