Perhaps it’s the Silly Season, but over the past couple of days Twitter has been afire with the debate about whether Britons should be proud or ashamed of our past.
How British history is seen by voters matters politically, both by helping us form political opinions and by affecting our reaction to such opinions. Traditional Conservatives, classical liberals and traditional Labour voters often have views formed by a positive interpretation of British history.
They often like the sort of society and governmental system we have in Britain (albeit emphasizing different merits thereof), note that this was a system we developed ourselves (rather than having it imposed on us by invasion or revolution) and see British history positively as at least partly the tale of how we got ourselves to this good place.
By contrast, there are three key groups who either see Britain’s history actively negatively or for whom it is important that it is not regarded positively. These include certain sorts of pro-Europeans, “modernisers” and Far Leftists.
To pro-Europeans and “modernisers” it is important that British history is not interpreted as demonstrating any unusual merit to our governmental systems that is not embodied or duplicated in European structures (in the case of pro-Europeans) or international best practice (for the “modernisers”). Far-Leftists regard our current society as fundamentally flawed and thus the tale of our history must be a tale of failure — of how we came to this bad place.
These political aspects to the interpretation of history become interleaved with important points of principle in the interpretation of history. Some would contend that it makes no sense to see any country as virtuous or wicked — such concepts only ever apply to individuals not countries. Others would say it makes no sense to draw an overall moral conclusion about a country’s history — like individuals, countries are only ever good on some occasions and bad on others. We can only ever be proud of some of our country’s past and ashamed of other bits. No overall judgement can be drawn.
My view is that there are different roles for historical analysis, but that one central goal of political and social history is to tell the tale or tales of how we got to where we are today. In my view, in the tale of the nature of the modern world, the chapters covering the period 1707 (the Acts of Union) onwards, Britain is one of the central players.
Much (perhaps most) of what we regard as best practice in government and society today is the product of the ideas, aspirations and systems of the British. Liberalism, freedom of association, freedom of commerce, freedom of conscience and religion, private property, restrictions on the powers of the Executive, limited corruption, clear laws and clean judges, political and moral equality of the races and sexes, democracy — these and many similar notions are regarded as definitive of good societies and good governments because the British thought they were good. Having managed to develop them internally, they were spread them abroad while at the same time fighting against and defeating countries based on other social and governmental models.
For this reason, Britain should be seen as one of the Good Guys (perhaps the central Good Guy) of international history’s narrative arc since 1707.
The vast majority of Britons agree with me on this. As one illustration of that, back in a 2014 YouGov poll, 76 per cent (excluding don’t knows) said they believed the British Empire is something more to be proud of than ashamed of. This kind of statistic deeply upsets those from our pro-European, “moderniser” or Far Left groups. They believe it demonstrates how ignorant the British are of our past. They talk of how we should be more like Germany — believing ourselves to have a fundamentally wicked history but prepared to come to terms with that and move on.
They point to this episode or that. “What about the Potato Famine? What about the Indian Mutiny? What about the Mau Mau?” They seem to imagine that some episode of wickedness or other from our past demonstrates that we should be ashamed of it, not proud. But in every good story the Good Guys do bad or incompetent things or just plain fail. All of us are sinners, so of course all governments there have ever been, are or ever will be are wicked. Saying “Britain did some wicked things in the past” is not news. It is a statement of the axiomatically obvious.
What counts for Britain’s contribution to history is how Britain was relative to other states, how it used its power and merits, how quickly it recognised its failings relative to other countries and how effective it was in improving itself and passing on its improvements.
Some challenge that, saying: “So if other similar countries killed 10 million people per year but we killed only one million we should be proud of that? Or if all of us kept slaves but we gave up keeping slaves 10 years earlier than everyone else, we should be proud of that?”
Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes! For government is only ever a matter of choosing between more or less flawed alternatives. If others murdered 10 million per year and we murdered only one million, then that’s nine million people the use of our system meant were not murdered. That really really matters. Of course we should be proud of that.
Every society in the world was appalling in 1707 by our standards. And I hope that humanity will have improved the ways it organises things such that every society in the world today will be appalling by the standards of 2500. Does that mean we should be ashamed of today’s societies? By no means! So am I saying the things done in the eighteenth century (eg slavery) were fine? Of course not — it’s precisely because we don’t think it’s fine that we’ve abolished it.
So I say to those who believe that the favourable way the British regard our history demonstrates we need to learn more of it: sure. Teach young people about bad things the British did in the past. But also teach them that other folk did those bad things. Teach them how those bad things came to be stopped (often by the British). Teach them what would actually have happened in countries if the British hadn’t been there (which would almost always have been being taken over by some alternative power, such as the Russians or Ottomans or French or Japanese, and in many cases dealt with much worse than the British ever did).
And let people draw overall conclusions about whether to be ashamed or proud of Britain’s role in history based not on one or two favourable or unfavourable incidents but, instead, by a dynamic sense of the tale as a whole and where it has led.
Being proud of Britain’s history might be a mistake. But it is not a mistake by definition and those that teach history should not assume that if Britons draw pride from our history, that can only be because the teaching of history has failed.