Once upon a time, there was a story that every British historian knew. It went something like this: ‘Britain Is The Best’. It was the first to develop Enlightenment, Reason, and Science; it was the first to modernise through the Industrial Revolution; it had the most enduring tradition of democratic representation; and it benevolently shared these glories with the grateful populations of less divinely-favoured regions. This, widely known now as ‘Whig history’ (after the political party who championed it) was popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – not coincidentally the apex of British imperial power. Since the mid-twentieth century, however, much historical scholarship has shown that this narrative is largely, if not entirely, wrong.
Yet it seems to be making a comeback. There are more than traces of it in Michael Gove’s controversial curriculum reforms, and it is equally evident in David Cameron’s article in the Mail on Sunday, in response to the recent ‘Trojan Horse’ investigation and nicely timed to ride the wave of national feeling that swells around a football World Cup.
In the article, Cameron argues that Britain should be less ‘bashful’, ‘more muscular in promoting British values and the institutions that uphold them’. He defines these values as ‘a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, [and] respecting and upholding the rule of law’. He adds that ‘what sets Britain apart are the traditions and history that anchors them and allows them to continue to flourish and develop’. He cites his favourite book as Our Island Story, a children’s classic from 1905 that presents a strongly Whiggish version of British history; and he wheels out a dusty old Whig favourite, Magna Carta, as an example of these ‘traditions and history’. I don’t want to go into how this interpretation of the charter only emerged some hundreds of years after it was signed; that might be taken as nitpicking. Instead, let us look at those ‘values’ that Cameron identifies as quintessentially British, in historical perspective.
- Freedom (which is ‘rooted in our parliamentary democracy and free press’). Well, democracy is usually attributed to the ancient Greeks – it’s from a Greek word, demokratia. Britain may indeed have a long tradition of parliaments (incidentally, a word of French origin, from parlement), but this does not equate with democracy. It was not until the nineteenth-century Reform Acts that voting-rights were granted widely to men, and not until 1918 that women received (limited) voting rights for the first time. For most of its existence, then, parliament represented only the landed classes, working as a forum for economic elites to discuss their grievances with the government. Perhaps it hasn’t changed all that much. As for a free press, British governments imposed censorship, with various degrees of success, for centuries after printing became widespread.
- Toleration. This term has provoked a great deal of debate amongst historians but, to keep it brief, and in the context of the ‘Trojan Horse’ issue, it is worth making one point: for most of the medieval and early modern periods, Islamic states such as the Ottoman Empire were more tolerant of other religions than any country in Christian Europe. The Ottomans were not a ‘nice’ empire (if there is such a thing). Ottoman governors and regencies enslaved thousands of Europeans and ruthlessly exploited their subject populations. Nevertheless, they afforded some legal protection to other religions (at least Jews and Christians), and even slaves were allowed some freedom of worship. In Britain, at the same time, just being the wrong kind of Christian would get you fined, imprisoned, or even killed, and religious tensions resulted in the bloodiest civil wars ever witnessed in Britain and Ireland. As an example, Catholics were only granted full political and civil liberties with the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829.
- Rule of law. This one, admittedly, may be valid: even the famous Marxist historian E.P. Thompson considered law to be an ‘unqualified human good’ (as discussed in this article). On the other hand, the people who defined (in parliament) and imposed (as judges and other legal officers) law were, for most of British history, the rich, who also monopolised university education; and many courts conducted their business, or kept records, in Law French and Latin, which most people did not understand. Here, too, the ‘tradition’ of justice is not quite so straightforward as it might seem.
- Personal and social responsibility. This one is a bit more tricky, because it depends on what you mean, but I will focus on ‘social responsibility’, which I will (for the sake of argument) define as ‘the duty to care for those who cannot care for themselves’. The reign of Elizabeth I did see a new poor law introduced, which can be seen as evolving into forms of social welfare, but research has shown that this was as much about containing and punishing the ‘idle poor’ as it was about social care. The parallels to modern language of ‘skivers’ are obvious and often shocking. Indeed, the present government has used the rhetoric of debt (which, if it is anything like other countries’ debts, may not be legitimate) to push through ideologically-driven cuts to public spending, and to force health, education, and infrastructure to chase the golden calf of profit, rather than delivering good public services. As has been widely commented upon, the use of foodbanks has increased dramatically. The government has even come down hard on Oxfam for challenging its policies. This does not look much like ‘social responsibility’ to me.
Reading this, you may think that I would like to replace the ‘Britain Is The Best’ narrative with an equally simple ‘Britain Is The Worst’ one. This is not the case: all countries have much to laud and much to lament. That is exactly one of the two points I want to make. Simplistic, jingoistic sabre-rattling like Cameron’s is frankly untruthful. It is lying. These values are worth teaching in schools, but they are not really very ‘British’ at all, either in the sense of being exclusive to Britain, or in the sense of being part of British ‘traditions and history’. They are quite recent developments, historically speaking, and a ‘muscular’ approach to ‘protect’ democracy, toleration, law, and social responsibility could well crush them.
The second point is about what history is for. Cameron, in his article, trumpets the government’s endeavours for ‘bringing proper narrative history back to the curriculum [my emphasis]’. We should be very worried about that ‘proper’. To the Whigs – and, I would argue, to the New Whigs – history is about sustaining just such a ‘proper narrative’, one that is consistent with their ideology and political aims. The corollary of such narratives is to suppress complexity and discussion. For me (and I know I am not alone), history is about something else entirely: it is about critical inquiry, about sceptical thinking, about breaking down simple stories and trying, with imagination and empathy, to understand the lives of people who lived in other times and other cultures. A New Whig history, whether in newspapers or schools, will destroy the very things that make history worth studying at all.
Update – related reading: