The History Bores

Why “safeguarding and celebrating British values” is anything but common sense.

A recent letter to the Daily Telegraph by the so-called ‘Common Sense Group’ of MPs argued that “History must neither be sanitised nor rewritten to suit ‘snowflake’ preoccupations.”

The reason for the Group’s ire was an attempt by the National Trust, among other institutions, to provide a context for their collections. The National Trust had assessed some of the properties in its estate and considered their place within the slave trade and colonialism. According to the National Trust:

“The buildings in our care reflect many different periods and a range of British and global histories — social, industrial, political and cultural. As a heritage charity, it’s our responsibility to make sure we are historically accurate and academically robust when we communicate about the places and collections in our care.”

The organisation’s study into the properties it caretakes for the nation comes on the back of increasing public attention on the legacy of slavery; the Black Lives Matter movement; and the legitimacy of historical artefacts such as the statue of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston.

I can’t see anything wrong in the National Trust’s words above, but others do. The letter below claims it’s merely a matter of common sense:

The letter is a fine example of its type and, very possibly, a work of art. From equating the woke agenda to Marxism (or even suggesting that there is a coherent woke agenda!), to the sputum-flecked suggestion that the National Trust has tarnished the reputation of one of “Britain’s greatest sons”, Churchill.

The letter goes a little off target when it betrays a decidedly odd, Ballard-like preoccupation with the bullet hole that “pierced” Nelson’s Trafalgar coat. It closes with the summary accusation that a “clique of powerful, privileged liberals” are rewriting history in their image.

I’m not sure what that last part means — unless the authors are seriously suggesting that Islington supper table conversations will have more of an impact on British history than the populist psychodrama that is Brexit (and which most, if not all, of the members of this Group no doubt supported.)

The letter seems designed to appeal to those so uncertain of the cultural changes around them that the burning deck of HMS Victory is a more comfortable place than one of the UK’s increasingly multicultural high streets. It sails close to a call to arms.

Even the name is glorious: “The Common Sense Group.” I would previously have described the name as something out of a Monty Python sketch. This might once have elicited a knowing smile, but it appears that the UK’s descent into small-minded solipsism now renders impotent a phrase that was once the benchmark of the absurd. Among many things, we have lost our sense of the absurd over the last few years.

The first message on the associated and, no doubt, continually pinging WhatsApp Common Sense Group, er, Group, probably reads: “NOTHING WRONG WITH COMMON SENSE!!!” I expect its genesis lay in a bout of late-night, caps-lock fury as a red-faced Melchett stirred from his sleep to face another BBC TV programme about slavery during Black History Month.

I suppose that appealing to Blimpian notions of common sense is one possible response to increasingly volatile times, although agility and empathy might provide a better way of navigating the chaos that is 2020. But no, common sense is everywhere now, and is frequently invoked by the Tommies on Twitter with seven-digit usernames. It’s now the gold standard of British pragmatism and, at the same time, misplaced exceptionalism.

The trouble is, common sense is also rather subjective. Witness a Government advisor’s automotive eye test around Durham during lockdown, while most met the same Government’s appeal to use common sense by staying at home. As the pandemic has shown, different interpretations of common sense meant that one person’s lockdown at home was another’s lock-in at the pub.

Which brings us to the subject of history. British history isn’t wholly comprised of examples of sensible behaviour. Witness the Opium Wars. The Charge of the Light Brigade. The partition of India. Suez. Iraq. Maybe this is why another Telegraph correspondent wrote that, while a National Trust fan, she didn’t want history “forced down her throat.” Poor woman. History has a habit of getting stuck down there.

This is no bad thing; any fule kno that history is not the easily digested pap we give young children. It doesn’t exist to provide a cultural comfort blanket. Revisiting history in the light of new experiences and attitudes is essential if we aren’t to make the same mistakes over and over again. Why wouldn’t we, therefore, fully face our history, in all its messiness and mistakes? Doing so may make us smarter. Doing so is surely common sense?

We are a long way from book burning. Exhibitions of Degenerate Art aren’t on the cards. But when Governments start to interfere in the ways that cultural institutions are run — demanding that those museums that take public money must not remove or reconsider the items in their collection, for example — a line has been crossed.

History cannot be kept under glass. Much as politicians would like it to, culture does not exist to define a particular political stance. Reappraising the stuff that comprises our shared past doesn’t equate to a cultural year zero. Re-examining the figures that our ancestors chose to remember by committing to stone should not be lethal to a country’s self-worth — provided it hasn’t been telling lies about its past and is confident about its future.

And that’s the point. The reason why common sense is now invoked for the populist cause is because of the useful cover it provides. Common sense offers a reassuring alternative to the supposed madness of uncertain times ahead. Common sense masks self-doubt that could easily slip into self-loathing. Common sense provides a useful distraction from the lack of any actual planning for the future.

I’m not sure the Group’s letter is really about history. Their fear of looking afresh at our past is a sign of something more troubling: their concern for the future.

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James Tate

James Tate

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A pick and mix of words; now online, better packaged and more expensive, like everything post-COVID. The sour cherries are best. The opinions are my own.