DAVID ABULAFIA: We can never surrender to the woke witch hunt against our island story
All totalitarian regimes understand the power that stems from controlling history.
In Stalinist Russia, textbooks were revised so often that students frequently had to do without them.
Hitler wrongly blamed Jews – among other minorities – for Germany’s defeat in World War One.
As George Orwell wrote in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four: ‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’
Today’s woke zealots have learnt the same lesson. They exploit history as an instrument of propaganda – and as a means of bullying the rest of us.
The trend is everywhere, from tearing down statues and removing historical artefacts that do not conform with the new orthodoxy to the ‘cancellation’ of long-dead figures who fail modern purity tests.
To tar him as a ‘racist’ misses one obvious point: this was the very man who played a key role in defeating the Nazi regime, the foulest, most racist tyranny in history
Only this week, it emerged that a charity named after Sir Winston Churchill has taken the ludicrous step of distancing itself from the great wartime Prime Minister over his purported views on race.
The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust removed pictures of its namesake from its website and rebranded itself the ‘Churchill Fellowship’.
In a blog post, the charity opined: ‘Many of [Churchill’s] views on race are widely seen as unacceptable today, a view that we share.’
Furious volunteers accused the Trust of ‘rewriting history’ and surrendering to ‘cancel culture’.
Churchill, a racist? He was certainly a complex man who held a number of competing views throughout his life – and, over a long and distinguished career in public service, used language that many might now see as offensive.
But to tar him as a ‘racist’ misses one obvious point: this was the very man who played a key role in defeating the Nazi regime, the foulest, most racist tyranny in history.
Today’s woke zealots have learnt the same lesson. They exploit history as an instrument of propaganda – and as a means of bullying the rest of us
However, Churchill is only the latest example of this grossly oversimplified view of the past. Only last month, the Scottish government announced that it intends to tackle what it called ‘white privilege’ in the school curriculum by highlighting ‘the historical role of Scotland in the colonies and the slave trade’.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with Scottish schoolchildren learning about that terrible crime – and indeed their country’s proud record in helping to bring about its abolition.
Yet Holyrood’s historically illiterate new guidance to teachers goes far further than that.
It claims, bizarrely, that race is merely a ‘system’ that ‘serves to enable capitalism’, adding that the concept of race was invented ‘to justify… murder, exploitation and brutalisation’.
The Tate Gallery, meanwhile, recently issued a warning that the great British painter J.M.W. Turner should not be ‘idolised’, since he once briefly owned a single share in a Jamaican sugar plantation that used slave labour.
The Tate’s moral stance is highly questionable. The gallery was created thanks to the largesse of Sir Henry Tate, who made his fortune from a sugar empire built on the slave trade. Turner, for his part, was actually a liberal supporter of abolition.
Along with my fellow Cambridge historian Professor Robert Tombs, I am the editor of History Reclaimed’s website, on which we will publish briefings and articles that will pre-sent a more balanced view of the past: one based on evid- ence rather than fashion- able opinion
The contemporary obsession with imperialism and race has even seen the name of the 19th century Prime Minister William Gladstone removed from a Liverpool university’s hall of residence because of Gladstone’s family connection to the slave trade. In Edinburgh, a tower named after the 18th century philosopher David Hume has also been renamed because of his ‘problematic’ views on race.
But now, at last – and thank goodness – a fightback has started against these ideolo- gues who hold our heritage in contempt.
A group of university scholars has launched History Reclaimed, a campaign aimed at employing reason and evidence to challenge the distortions of the woke agenda.
Along with my fellow Cambridge historian Professor Robert Tombs, I am the editor of History Reclaimed’s website, on which we will publish briefings and articles that will pre-sent a more balanced view of the past: one based on evid- ence rather than fashion- able opinion.
We hope that the initiative will serve as a valuable resource of academic rigour and clear analysis in a climate of indoctrination and wilful falsification.
Clearly, many people in Britain have been crying out for such a step. On its first day, our website attracted no fewer than 25,000 visits.
As a historian, I am delighted that we seem to have tapped into the public mood. I share the widespread exasperation at the rise of the woke mindset, which views the past only through the narrow lens of present values.
It is precisely because I cherish the real study of history that I know it should never become a plaything of politics or a weapon in the culture wars.
Real history is about trying to view the past objectively, by marshalling and interpreting hard evidence. But social justice warriors are not interested in debating evidence, only in pushing their political agenda
Imported from the United States, where it has swept through the university sector, the so-called ‘social justice’ movement is already causing real damage in Britain. By disingenuously presenting our heritage as nothing more than a shameful narrative of exploitation, its woke warriors erode faith in western civilisation itself, pour scorn on our civic institutions and destroy the national solidarity that is vital for democracy.
This monomaniacal fixation with rewriting the past has other disturbing consequences. It is highly divisive, splitting everyone into two classes – ‘oppressors’ and ‘victims’ – and whipping up hostility against the former. It is inimical to freedom of thought and speech, which are as essential in academia as they are in wider society.
On campuses today, the atmosphere increasingly resembles a witchhunt against those who depart from progressive orthodoxy.
The distinguished Oxford professor Nigel Biggar discovered this when he dared to suggest that the British Empire was ‘morally mixed’ – that is, it had both positive and negative aspects. He was vilified for this heresy.
Real history is about trying to view the past objectively, by marshalling and interpreting hard evidence. But social justice warriors are not interested in debating evidence, only in pushing their political agenda.
That is why their version of history is so simplistic. Complicated events are shrunk to fairytales of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’. Great figures, not least Churchill, become pantomime villains, stripped of context and nuance.
A lifetime studying history has taught me one simple truth: to understand the present, we must examine the past. If only our leaders had a serious grasp of Afghan or Iraqi history, they might not have perpetrated such a litany of foreign-policy disasters in those countries recently – just as a deeper knowledge of Ireland’s past could have eliminated some of the terrible mistakes made in Ulster.
Ignorance is one thing. But deliberately manipulating history can have dangerous outcomes. Right-wing Holocaust deniers twist the facts about World War Two for their own grotesque ends, just as some Left-wing historians have downplayed the horrors of Soviet Russia and Maoist China.
Whatever the purpose, distorting history in this way can lead to dangerous ignorance about the past – and with it the risk of repeating its mistakes.
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