Cancel empire culture

The Sunday Telegraph this morning have been banging on about how “Ministers will fine student bodies which stifle freedom of speech and tell heritage groups ‘public funds must never be used for political purposes’ in a major new bid to torpedo efforts at rewriting Britain’s history”.

As you may know, as an ex-history student and current history nerd, I have strong opinions about this, and it never fails to amaze me the brazen way in which current conservative thought can claim both that free speech is being impinged on campus and is constantly under threat AND that saying anything critical about the British empire is vorboten.

Firstly, and I think this is important from an academic point of view, our understanding of history shifts over time, as it always has done. There wouldn’t be any point studying or writing it otherwise. Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in 731 – why are you trying to re-write history, wasn’t it “done” and “fixed” then? Or as G H Bennett put it on Twitter, with this splendid example:

“History is re-written all the time as new evidence comes to light and our perspective and values shift over time. Back in the 1960s breaking ‘Enigma’ remained secret and broad sections of the public would have been ‘uncomfortable’ with Turing as a national ‘hero’.”

We’ve rewritten that bit of history so much that the man prosecuted for his sexuality in 1952 is now on our currency. Not a peep from the Tory “But you can’t rewrite history! Not one line!” mob over this, of course.

I’ve been reading Sathnam Sanghera‘s new book “Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain” – and the thing about it more than anything is that in 2021 how would you possibly tell the story of the history of Britain without referencing the brutal level of coercion required to maintain an empire? People didn’t just decide to give the Koh-i-Noor to the British crown for a laugh.

In his review of Sanghera’s book for the Guardian, Fara Dabhoiwala highlighted this story:

“More than 400 mule-loads of precious manuscripts, jewels, religious treasures and artworks were plundered from Tibetan monasteries to enrich the British Museum and the Bodleian Library. Countless others were stolen by marauding troops. Sitting at home watching the BBC antiques show Flog It one quiet afternoon in the early 21st century, Sathnam Sanghera saw the delighted descendant of one of those soldiers make another killing – £140,000 for selling off the artefacts his grandfather had ‘come across’ in the Himalayas.”

And yet if you suggest any kind of reparations for slavery or colonial looting you will be met with endless howls of protests that the money isn’t there and, well, honestly, how can you pay back for something so long ago? There’s clearly no restriction on profiting from something so long ago though, is there?

Ian Betteridge summed up what the government’s cancel culture plans for critical thinking about the history of empire are rather more succinctly than me here:

“To put it more accurately, ministers are attempting to undo decades of historical work based on sound research and facts in an attempt to boost their own distorted and inaccurate view of Britain’s past that they learned from the pages of comics in the 1960 and 70s.”