Thursday, 6 October 2011

Bad history: Cameron's speech was just wrong

At the end of an intensely depressing political conference season, marked by three quite bad leaders' speeches, there was a final kick in the teeth for those of us who think that we should link the past to the present, use evidence wisely, and draw on expertise.

For the Prime Minister (above) made a series of historical errors in his own address - British History blunders so fundamental, and so glaring, that I couldn't let them pass without comment. Have a look at what he said:
Britain never had the biggest population, the largest land mass, the richest resources - but we had the spirit. Remember it is not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog.
Well, yes - and no, no, no. Britain had a much smaller population than France at the time of its Industrial Revolution, it is true. But it grew much faster than its rivals, and its population became much more concentrated. It's not about the size of your population, but where they are, who they are, and how old they are. It never had the largest land mass, but it done have one of the longest coastlines in the world, full of good harbours that allowed it to take advantage of the age of commercial expansion and trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And as for 'the richest resources' - well, this is nonsense indeed. What about (as Nye Bevan had it) the coal of which Britain is made, and the fish with which its surrounded? What about its rivers, which provided it with motive power? Its temperate mix of rain, winter warmth (for a country this far north) and its rains?

Overall, Britain's ascent to world economic and diplomatic leadership was due to a complex mix of institutional factors (institutional stability, a patent system which allowed inventors to keep the benefits of their gains) and - yes - the resource endowments and population which the Prime Minister pooh-poohed. It had nothing to do with the nebulous 'spirit' he has invented and invoked.

And yes, I know that politicians are not supposed to be academic experts, but this was really poor stuff. Rhetoric we can cope with, and indeed it's a critical part of the practice of real politics. It's never done President Obama any harm - and indeed the heights of his oratory may well be important if he is re-elected. Winston Churchill famously sent the British (and particularly the English) past to war for him - a mythical and slanted view of history (and History), to be sure, but at least he'd read a lot of it.

This was thin gruel. It was full of errors. And it does no-one's national past any good - particularly from the leader of a government obsessed with 'our national story'.

We are constantly being told that voters are disillusioned with politicians. Is it any wonder?

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