The Future of History

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Why History Matters

Watching the endless succession of images from the Queen's Diamond Jubilee over the long weekend, I was reminded of the importance of history.

Part of the disconnect I felt had something to do with the fact that I was writing up the section on the Gunpowder Plot in my book about William Shakespeare.  (For the uninitiated, the Gunpowder Plot was apparently an attempt by certain Catholic fanatics to destroy the King and the Parliament in a massive explosion in 1605; the exposure of this diabolical conspiracy is still celebrated every year in the UK on 5 November.)

If you were able to watch the TV images of the Jubilee with the sound turned down, you would have enjoyed a remarkable spectacle.  But the incredibly asinine commentary throughout ruined the occasion.  Or maybe it didn't - for some, at any rate, it would have been a fitting narrative on the last 1,000 years of British history.

It all depends, of course, on what narrative you believe in.  Take Scotland, for instance.  Only 60 street parties were held in Scotland to celebrate the Queen's Jubilee.  Of those, 20 were organised by the extreme Unionists of the Orange Order, with funding from Glasgow City Council.  So, apart from a few hard line Protestants, the whole of Scotland managed just 40 street parties.  The rest of the UK held some 9,500 street parties.  What does that tell us about the state of the Union?

Well, you could say that it merely reflects a different view of history.  In Scotland, the narrative of British history is largely one of cruelty and repression.  England, of course, sees things differently, and continues to spin myths about the Scots being subsidy-reliant whingers.  The spectacle of David Starkey weeping on Sky TV was symptomatic of the English view of their own history: simplistic, imperialist, and about as realistic as Downton Abbey.

The Gunpowder Plot is a good example of how history gets skewed, then and now, to shore up a certain set of prejudices.  Going through the contemporary accounts and records, one thing really stands out: there is, in fact, more evidence that there never really was a Gunpowder Plot, and that the entire thing was manufactured and manipulated as a propaganda coup for a harsh and corrupt State, than that the plot was genuine and was opportunely discovered by a hyper-efficient government, with a little help from God.  Even so, every fifth of November we light bonfires and burn effigies in memory of a plot which, in all likelihood, wasn't anything like what we were told it was.

What we celebrate, in other words, is a phantom conspiracy which in fact allowed the King and his ministers to round up and execute a whole range of "enemies", real or imagined, and to impose even more stringent and unpleasant laws against Catholics (who were merely remaining true to the religion which had prevailed in these isles for a thousand years).  Even senior Anglican churchmen came to doubt the government's story of the plot.  No one challenged the official account more than Shakespeare.  But Shakespeare, too, has been the victim of ongoing historical revisionism.  You think we don't know very much about William Shakespeare?  Well think again.  We know a great deal about him.  But to maintain the fiction that he was a good little Protestant patriot and well-behaved family man, we have to pretend that we know nothing.

The BBC commentators over the Jubilee weekend didn't have to pretend that they know nothing: it was abundantly clear that they had no idea what they were talking about.  A historic river pageant involving a thousand boats was ruined by a gormless soundtrack of ignorance and sycophantic nonsense.

The problem, at least in part, was a woeful lack of historical knowledge.  Even the BBC's own Radio Times magazine has run a piece in next week's edition, bemoaning the frantic dumbing-down of history on TV.  "Celebrities" who have little or no grasp of history are set the task of presenting history sections -  including a hairdresser who was invited to comment on the execution of King Charles I!  History, in that sense, has become a pointless section of a magazine-type show, a kind of endless soap opera of trivia and falsehoods.

Even a slightly more intelligent history programme this week managed to muddle up the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 with the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  Women achieved a visibility in London as a result of the Restoration of King Charles II to the throne which was promptly denied them in 1688, when parliament overthrew the legitimate King - Charles's brother James - and brought in a foreign monarch.  James was Catholic, so he had to go.  William, a Dutchman, was Protestant, so he was appointed King in a remarkable coup d'etat which ushered in another Reformation.  But much of this detail was lost in the programme.  Why?  Well, we need to maintain the fiction of hereditary succession of the monarchy, and to overlook the fact that the freedoms achieved by the Restoration of a legitimate monarch were sacrificed in order to bring in a monarch of the Protestants' choosing!  Somehow or other, the Restoration of a popular monarch and a political coup designed to bring in an alternative monarch - one more acceptable to the puritanical fanatics - became the same thing!

This trivialisation of history, and the perpetuation of nationalist myths, has a political purpose.  It means that we are all encouraged to wave a flag, the history of which we simply do not know.  We do not know that the monarchy is a political construct.  We do not know the crimes that have been committed in its name.  We simply cheer a woman in her eighties, even if we're not sure why.

Those long-term job-seekers who were bussed into London to act as unpaid stewards at the river pageant, and were then abandoned to spend the night under London Bridge, were as much a part of the history of these isles as the current inhabitants of Buckingham Palace.  They are, if you like, the flipside of the bejewelled dream of British history - they are the serfs, the slaves, the underclass whose exploitation keeps the dream alive.

Which makes Scotland's ambivalence towards the weekend's celebrations rather encouraging.  For King Arthur is as much a part of the dream of British history as anything.

If you buy into the centuries of propaganda which have sustained the English crown, then you'll probably think of him as being essentially English, and certainly a Christian.

But then, when you get down and dirty with real history, you find that he wasn't.  His enemies were the English, or their ancestors, at any rate.  His legend was stolen from Scotland, just as an English king stole Scotland's royal Stone of Destiny.

The Scots were right to look askance as England celebrated its faked and fictionalised history.  Whether or not Queen Elizabeth II is the true sovereign of the United Kingdom is irrelevant.  It is the mass amnesia of the English, the ongoing process of forgetting and the creation of myths, which made the Jubilee distasteful.  With the sound turned down, the whole event was a fantastic advertisement for Britain.  But when the commentary was audible, it was a foolish, tabloid misrepresentation of almost everything that has ever happened.

And for as long as august bodies like the BBC are allowed to wreak havoc with history, turning it into the silliest of subjects, then many, many people will continue to buy into the dream - even though it is, in reality, a travesty based on a nightmare.

For the sake of national sanity and the good of our children, it is high time we jettisoned these propagandist myths, delved deeply into the historical evidence, and recognised the reality of our national past.  And that includes restoring Arthur to his proper place and time and no longer kidding ourselves that Shakespeare was a Protestant conformist.  Those myths hold us all in check.  They prevent understanding.

Worse, they encourage the continuation of atrocities.  Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.  We need to reclaim our history.  Otherwise, we will never be free.

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