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Thursday, 31 January 2013

Tory Plans to teach His-TORY

"History" is what historians do to the past but unlike professional historians, the Conservative government does not do nuance, conflict, or the idea that there may be much wrong or to be critically  reflected upon. They don't much like the notion of historical evidence. This Conservative government, which boasts several historians with creditable achievements with the pen, thinks that the essence of British history is the unfolding of its "illustrious past" - Churchill, empire and Margaret Thatcher. There's lots wrong with this aim but what the current plans for "citizenship" testing for would-be Britons belies is the openly partisan character of the British state.

New Labour's big guns - Blair, Brown and the rest - were proud of the empire and refused to apologise for it. So nothing new about Tory imperialism. What this latest episode shows is the degree of emasculation of the British civil service in the face of the power of party.

One of the greatest of virtues of Britain - its openness to a variety of ideas about what Britain is, and its tolerance of a thousands flowers and strands of opinion - does not appear on the agenda.

What appears is Winston Churchill without his electoral defeat in 1945; Margaret Thatcher but no striking mineworkers who challenged the authority of power itself.

Britain, it appears, was "involved" in Ireland: no mention of the colonial plantation system and ethnic cleansing of Catholics.

Britain left in an orderly way from the empire - but no mention of a million-plus people killed in communal violence in India in 1947. Nothing about the torture and brutalisation of Mau Mau suspects, currently suing HMG in the courts. Silence on alliances with headhunters in Borneo and Malaya to thwart nationalist resistance to British rule.

And a bipartisan silence on the Iraq war's origins and course, currently subject of an official enquiry into unlawful killings and torture..

Providing a narrative with its critical counterpart: that's what wanna be Brits should learn to pass a citizenship exam. Many of them are fleeing precisely the sorts of regimes that provide a bland and celebratory version of history.

The politics of our time, however, militate against critique of an imperial past: that is because, as British troops engage in Mali, having already civilised Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya, the present remains imperial.

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