The English Civil War forms an important strand of Conservative memory
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The danger of rewriting history

There is a concerted attempt to reconstruct what children are taught about their history

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


We really have everything in common with America nowadays,” said Oscar Wilde, “except, of course, language.”

Language unites and divides; it alludes to old stories and tells new ones. Listened to carefully, it explains why despite apparent commonalities, vast differences lurk beneath the water. We are beginning to see this within our own nation and politics, but right now the best example is probably transatlantic, as many British conservatives look in concern across the pond at our American confrères.

Although the US election has seen this dynamic played out in technicolour HD, it has been true of every election, even when the leaders of our respective right-wing parties are mutually sympathetic. It’s not that we lack areas of shared perspective and interest, though this was certainly stronger when both parties shared an affinity for the free market, global trade and the international rules-based order. It’s that the narratives we tell ourselves, about who we are as a party and a nation, have never aligned. The language we speak is different.

Trying to fathom the American approach to gun control is a sure-fire way of making our differences clear. Support for the Second Amendment and the right to own weapons of a military grade runs to the heart of the Republican Party’s understanding of the United States and its citizens. The Conservative Party, by contrast, was the party that introduced vast restrictions in the sale and ownership of guns in the aftermath of the Dunblane massacre, objections to which were on questions of scale and efficacy not underlying rights.

If we want any chance of preserving what we have in common, we have got to relearn how to speak the same language

This difference stems from our different narratives — the stories we tell ourselves about our very foundation. The British Conservatives have a clear historical trajectory from the Civil War, from support for the King against a great rebellion, from a suspicion of anyone other than the Crown having recourse to arms. 

The Republican Party, by contrast, harks back to the foundation of the American Republic, to a rebellion against the King and Parliament by self-armed men and women formed into private militias.

Put like this, the different perspectives on a practical issue like guns is clear. But it’s a division of thought that runs through everything. It defines your vision of the relationship between the citizen and the state, contingent or obedient, which then works itself out in policies. Different histories take us to different places. The way we speak about our past informs our actions today. Orwell got this, of course: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” When looked at across an ocean, we can see how we might have everything in common with America, except our language.

But we don’t need to look across the Atlantic for that. We can see competing narratives taking hold of different parties and groups within parties. After four years of Corbynism we are now well aware that a substantial body of political thought views the history of Britain as that of an oppressor nation, whose interventions abroad have been more often on the side of wrong. 

Where is the condemnation of China’s ethnic cleansing from those who are normally so vocal on foreign policy?

The outworking of that narrative leads to a hostility towards any action by the West against any foe, and the covering-up of the horrors committed by any power or group seen to be opposing this oppressor nation. Ask yourself where the condemnation of China’s ethnic cleansing of the Uighur Muslims is from those who are normally so vocal on foreign policy.

And what applies to political parties applies even more to nations. Orwell has been absorbed thoroughly. We can see a concerted attempt to reconstruct what children are taught about their history and their literature. And we should be in little doubt about the consequences: if the next generation can be taught that their forebears are immoral, if they can see no emotional or cultural link to previous generation and their successes and hardships (and, within that, their failures) then their actions will reflect this — and the world will be poorer.

So narratives matter. They matter far more than philosophies. And unless we understand the narratives that motivate people, unless we learn the language that they speak, we can never understand the actions that they take, no matter how many things we think we have in common. And, within our own country, if we want any chance of preserving what we have in common, we have got to relearn how to speak the same language.

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