One of the more pointed ironies of the current cabinet is a shared belief in the “great men” theory of British history: the notion that our “island story” has primarily been shaped by the singular and powerful individuals who now stand on plinths. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s lamentable book on eminent Victorians was only the most embarrassing document in this regard. Boris Johnson peddles a self-serving impression that it was the eccentricity of Churchill – and not the allied will and the sacrifice of tens of millions of citizens of nations across the globe – that defeated Nazism. Michael Gove, meanwhile, spent his tenure as education secretary insisting on a history curriculum based on a swashbuckling thread of insular national drama “so that we can celebrate the distinguished role of these islands in the history of the world”.
If these ministers were reminded of one thing last week, it is that the long-term stature of “great men” has only ever been dependent on collective will. History, as much as any discipline, is about truth-telling and truth will eventually out. The fallout from the symbolic toppling of the statue of the slaver Edward Colston, and his plunge to the bottom of Bristol harbour, was the most effective lesson many of us schooled in British classrooms will have had in the facts of the slave trade. (How many knew that taxpayers only finished paying the debt of compensation to slave-owning families in 2015?) It is only those who would rather not examine the past who demand it be set in stone.
Predictable arguments were raised suggesting that we should not judge men such as Colston by the morality of our own time, that “everybody kept slaves back then” and that “no one considered it a bad thing”. Those pronouns are always a giveaway. That “everybody” exposes the still ingrained belief that powerful – white – elites have a monopoly not only on the story told of the present, but also the narrative of the past. Did tens of millions of slaves not consider slavery a “bad thing” back then? Black Lives Matter is not a slogan confined to exposing endemic injustice in contemporary US policing. Several Conservative MPs quoted George Orwell in outrage: “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” Orwell would have been grimly amused by this appropriation of his words.
What more effective way to obliterate the true history of the descendants of slaves now living in Bristol than to maintain a bronze statue of a murderous profiteer such as Colston and label him only as “one of the most wise and virtuous sons of the city”. In a Twitter thread on Friday, Boris Johnson asserted that we should not “edit or censor our past”. What did he imagine he was doing when he claimed in print, for example, that “the problem [with Africa] is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more”?
Some of the conversations surfacing about empire are criminally overdue. By any reasonable reading of the past 400 years, the part of the national story that we tell ourselves about plucky freedom fighters standing against tyranny – “Britons never never, never, shall be slaves” – denies the contingent narrative of asset-stripping and land-grab justified by beliefs of moral exceptionalism and racial superiority.
It would be optimistic to imagine that we have reached a point of collective reflection on that legacy. The argument should not risk being dismissed as an effort to trash the war record of Churchill or censor the light entertainment output of the 1970s. Rather, it must be a commitment to understand the ways that a blinkered reading of Britain’s imperial past continues to drive systemic racial injustice. “We cannot pretend to have a different history,” the prime minister suggests. Quite right – and it’s time that pretence was acknowledged.