I just read Sarah Vine so you don’t have to. The viperish columnist was splashed across yesterday’s Daily Mail with a headshot and the quote: “To erase our history, good or bad, makes me fear for our future.”
The main story below had the headline “TOPPLING THE PAST” and was a follow-up based on the statue of slave trader Edward Colston being dunked in the Bristol docks last Sunday.
Sarah Vine’s column was the usual anguished hand-wringing over the state of the nation. As is often the case, it wasn’t quite as hard-hitting as that quote made it appear – or as focused and coherent. It was far from my taste, but it was the way that quote was highlighted that ignited over in Twitterland.
Anyway, take a deep breath, Sarah, and calm down. None of what you complain about is erasing history. You are intentionally muddling history and the past. You can’t erase the past because it’s dead and gone: history is a living art that attempts to interpret the past – and let me say that as one non-historian to another.
Over in the Guardian, Charlotte Lydia Riley, a proper historian, makes the point well today, saying that historians are not worried about the threat posed by rewriting history. “This is because rewriting history is our occupation, our professional endeavour. We are constantly engaged in a process of re-evaluating the past and reinterpreting stories that we thought we knew.”
If you only tell one side of those stories, you end up with a one-sided version of history. If the history of the British empire is told only as a glorious progress that made this country great, you miss all the mess of misery, suffering and indeed lasting geo-political chaos we left strew across the globe’s carpet.
And if the history of slavery is told only through those who benefited from it, then the suffering and inhumanity remain unknown.
As for your worries, Sarah, about rubbing out history, that phrase “history good or bad” is a convenient get-out clause – as mostly we just like to hear the good: how we were saints for abolishing slavery rather than devils for ruthlessly pursuing it; how we point to countries we ‘made better’ by the Empire rather than the great cruelty wrapped up in Empire, and so on.
Over again to Charlotte Lydia Riley – people “want it both ways: to be free of guilt for historical sins, but to be proud of what they see as historical achievements”.
It’s not fair for others to always bring up Michael Gove whenever you erupt into print, Sarah, but there you go. Lots of things in life aren’t fair, including me having to read one of your columns by way of research.
As a leading Tory politician, your husband has been keen to reshape the teaching of our history as he sees fit.
At one time he wanted to imposed a curriculum for English schools based on the achievements of British national heroes – “history as celebration” in a shared national past, forgetting that many students in modern Britain come from different and often excluded cultures.
Tories like your husband love the notion of teaching our history by using imperial role models as national heroes: it fits their image of Britain, whereas the dragging down of statues does not.
That’s why we have statues to slave traders but not in general of slaves. Since 2007, however, the Museum of Slavery in Liverpool has tried to redresses the balance. It’s an excellent museum, but a tough visitor experience – as it should be.
Perhaps Mrs and Mrs Gove should arrange a family outing one day.