Sunday, 12 March 2017

Silly history, childish policy

Anyone who really knows a subject winces when Ministers talk about it. Internet security? Here's a Snooper's Charter that will build up a great big database hackers can steal. Higher Education? Here's some really tight and stupid limits on the numbers of (fee paying) foreign students you can take. Oh, and by the way, here's some ridiculous metrics of teaching quality that'll never work, and don't tell you much about teaching anyway. Austerity? Told over and over and over again that this won't close the deficit on the timescale the Government pretends to believe it will, Ministers go on reducing current spending. Early on in their ill-fated drive towards a much smaller state, they even pruned back productive capital expenditure at a time of very low interest rates. And so on.

It's the same when professional historians look at what politicians say about the past. In fact, it's even worse, because Ministers when they blunder into this sphere don't have civil servants to advise or constrain them. They don't have a load of briefing notes, or binders full of reports, keeping them at least in the neighbourhood of the straight and narrow. They show off their preconceptions and prejudices, sometimes for good, but often demonstrating a very dispiriting lack of grip on reality itself.

The latest example of this is one of the most illuminating: Trade Secretary Liam Fox (above) and his apparent desire to forge the Commonwealth into a sort of nostalgic new-old trading bloc to replace the European Union. That all looks a bit desperate in policy terms, actually, and not only because it comes from Mr Fox, no stranger to less-than-edifying controversy and disgrace himself. For one thing, such a strategy would give Commonwealth nations such as Australia and India a gold-plated opportunity to run the board on the Brits if the UK does look likely to crash out of the EU without a deal. The amount of trade that Britain does with them already is also puny compared to links with its European neighbours. And many countries - particularly poorer Commonwealth nations - are not even that keen on what sceptical civil servants have apparently dubbed 'Empire 2.0'. Why should they help Britain sell them a load of cars in return for slightly better terms on Britain's commodity imports? There would seem to be no better way for them to worsen their terms of trade.

Mr Fox says that he doesn't use the term 'Empire 2.0', and nor does he want civil servants to use it. That would apparently belittle Britain's global role, rather than its post-Imperial identity. He has form in just this sphere, though, having tweeted in 2016 that 'the United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history'. It's a statement that will lead almost all professional, responsible and reflective historians to scratch their heads and say: er, we're not sure that's quite right. For British Ministers to claim that they don't have anything that they might be embarrassed about, or which many people might choose to forget, is a frankly bizarre assertion.

Let's tread carefully. Condemning and judging, rather than understanding, risks the fatal historical error of anachronism. Your analysis is not going to get very far if you just say how terrible it all was. And Britain's Empire was a complicated thing - a huge, multifarious, many-faced enterprise that lasted hundreds of years. So it's important to go lightly here. No doubt it was better to be governed by the British than (for instance) the Belgians in the Congo. Of course British administrators and settlers became less rapacious as the idea of a 'liberal empire', preparing new states for independence, gained a hold in the twentieth century - though we still wouldn't have recommended getting in their way. During the 1950s, many Kenyans found to their cost just how nasty the sting that remained in the British tail could be - a dark and brutal story that was then covered up for many decades, until historians dragged it into the light.

The final acts of the British Empire also became apparently self-mitigating acts of abrogation and heroism in the British mindset - perhaps one reason why the British public still perceive the Empire-Commonwealth through a warm glow of nostalgia and regret for its passing. The 'Spitfire Summer', in which Britain 'stood alone', in the end seemed for many to wash off the guilt of Empire itself. John Maynard Keynes said famously that 'we saved ourselves, and we helped save the world'. There's a lot of truth to that. But it's also more than important to note that it was the British Empire that 'stood alone', not just the peoples of the United Kingdom. Caribbean airmen fighting in the skies above the South of England; Indian soldiers in North Africa; Australian infantrymen in Burma and at the fall of Singapore: they were taking the brunt of the disaster just as much as were the British themselves.

So was the British Empire really a free-trading group of complementary peoples? Is Britain really unique among Europeans because it 'does not need to bury its 20th century history'? No. No-one should be burying any history, least of all the British. The Amritsar Massacre of 1919, the ferocious attempt to suppress opposition in what became the Irish Free State, the catastrophic Partition of the British Indian Empire, the nuclear testing programme in Australia, the Suez debacle of 1956 - none of them covered anyone in glory, that's for sure. Each was by turns a toxic mix of the violent, the destructive, the negligent and the chaotic. Each speaks to Imperialism's deeply interwoven history of arrogance, greed and hatred.

There's a lot of wishful thinking about these days. According to Mrs Thatcher's biographer Charles Moore, Britain might now become a grounded semi-idyll rather like The Shire in J.R.R. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings - an honest place of attachment and belonging, where no doubt yeoman farmers labour manfully in the service of a rightful order. Melanie Phillips has brought her trademark historical insight to the party by claiming that Britain is a 'real' nation in a way that, say, the Republic of Ireland is not. We should have the courage to call this out for what it is: baloney. It's a comforting warm bath of half-facts and thinly-remembered pasts that never did exist and never could have existed.

It's not just an academic argument. Good history is essential to evidence-based public policy. Our view of the past tells us what we think of the present, and by extension the future. If we really start to believe that Britain once ruled over happy groups of merchant adventurers, a band of fellow-feeling settlers and subject peoples set on their way to liberty, we will make a grave blunder. We might, in terms of our broad preconceptions, start to forget the real suffering that the British have inflicted on the world - something to weigh alongside all the good that they have done, whenever and wherever we write about it all.

But there's also a more acute danger - a pressing one that's relevant to the Government's choices right now. That is to see the victors at Blenheim and Waterloo, the people who lived under first a Dutch and then a German monarchy, the land with French law and language, the people who defeated European fascism and framed the European Convention on Human Rights, as a power that has always engaged in Empire rather than the continent they must still call home. That has never been an adequate picture of British history. Today, more than ever, it should not be meekly accepted just because some amateur politicians and commentators want to use the past for their own ends.