The Black Lives Matter campaigns of 2020 following the appalling murder of George Floyd highlighted serious issues with the traditional view of Britain’s past. The idea that Britain spread democracy around the world and benevolently transformed the Empire into the Commonwealth came under fire. Suddenly history was in the spotlight and in the middle of what some called a cultural war. Figures like Churchill, Nelson and Baden- Powell were attacked as imperialists and white supremacists by some and defended as heroes by others. Were we at risk of becoming a nation divided by its history?
There is obviously a need to reassess the way Britain views its past. However, the potential for division is worrying. We don’t want a situation where half the population believes in a national story that is a myth whilst the other half are disengaged with the story of the country that is their home. I have as much in common with medieval crusaders as my friend born in my home town to Nigerian parents. We should be able to look at the heroes and villains of our country’s past through the same moral lens and with the same sense of admiration and horror.
My interest in this topic started in 2019. I started my career in museums working at the Museum of London for 12 years until 1997. Recently I got involved in saving the heritage service in my home town of Guildford. I re-joined the Museums Association and attended the 2019 conference which was all about decolonisation.
Initially as a white middle class person from a sheltered Surrey town I did not feel qualified to comment on such issues. Then came 2020. I was shocked to discover how ignorant I was about certain aspects of our past. The more I read the more I realised that a major gripe is the way many traditional English people think about their past. Their rosy view of Britain’s imperial legacy might seem harmless, but it fuels a climate in which more extreme racism can exist and more subtle racism is never resolved. Much of the problem lay with people like me or in my community, people I understood. As someone with a passion for history, perhaps I should be helping to do something about it.
If my own family experience is a guide, then a whole generation came out of the Second World War believing they had won a great moral victory against the most evil regime in history. They had lost loved ones and experienced unimaginable horrors. They wanted to believe their sacrifices had been worth it. So, the view that Victorian Britain spread democracy around the world, saved democracy from Hitler and benevolently retreated from Empire as countries matured was a powerful one. And because history gets tied up so closely with identity it is still a difficult view to shake off as articles in the tabloid press have shown. Criticisms of Empire quickly get turned into attacks on British values. It is nuts but the tabloids do it.
But Britain has changed, and large chunks of the population have a different perspective on Empire. I do not want to live in a country where we are constantly arguing over conflicting views of our past. History for me is about understanding, not conflict.
As I see it museums and heritage organisations have a big role to play. On the one hand they are part of the problem as many of our built heritage sites are monuments to one side of our story. However, museums and heritage sites have the networks and the experience to run projects and can help make the change.
Before thinking about what can be done, however, there are some home truths that must be accepted. For many people history is about nostalgia and justifying preformed views (This comes out very strongly in The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan). This has to be accepted as a starting point. It will not change. Secondly, communities define themselves through their struggles. It amazes me how much I hear Americans bang on about the farmers who defeated the British in 1776 when America is such a world power. Russia framed the invasion of Ukraine as a response to threats from the west and referenced the Nazis as if it were still 1943. Britain focuses on Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain and conveniently forgets it had a global empire.
What this highlights is the extent to which nations uses stories to inspire and feel good about themselves. No wonder criticisms of a nation’s history quickly get regarded as criticisms of the nation itself. This is another fact that has to be accepted and Susan Neiman, author of Learning from the Germans recognises this issue. “Nobody wants to look at the dark sides of their history,” she said in an interview with The New Yorker. “I think it’s really important…that we also remember heroes.”
In her book Learning from the Germans Neiman proves that countries can change their perception of the past. Initially after the Second World War the Germans were in denial about their history under the Third Reich. It was the Nazis who were to blame, they felt, but more recently they have found ways to accept and talk about what happened.
Our response to history is often driven by emotion which perhaps explains why we cling onto myths and falsehoods that seem to make us look good. Modern generations are not to blame for the sins of their forefathers but somehow we are shamed by them and don’t want to admit these horrors. Perhaps it is because they were our forefathers and somehow our identity is tied up with them. Somehow, we need to change this thinking. Britain is a country that many look up to with laws and a proud health service. History is just the story of how we got here but we choose where we are heading and if nations need stories to believe in then there are plenty of positive ones.
I work in change management in major companies, and this influences my thinking. The best way to change people is not to wind them up and tell them they are wrong but to take them on a journey. That journey starts with understanding where they are.
And there is plenty I can do in my own town. Guildford often regards itself as an insular, white middle class town but I have come across several stories that show it has plenty of connections with communities across the globe. There were Italian prisoners of war who settled in the town, a medieval synagogue, Māori soldiers in a local hospital during World War I. There are plenty of stories to tell. But crucially I feel we need to do more than recognise and tell the stories of different communities. We all need to take an interest in those stories and recognise them as our stories, part of the story of our nation, part of the explanation of why our country is the way it is. Only then will we see ourselves as one community.
I am reminded of the ability of history to divide us every time I look at the Houses of Parliament in London. I was brought up to think of it as the Mother of Parliaments but as an adult I often wondered how many people thought of it as a symbol of an oppressive Empire. But there is a truth about this building that everyone who subscribes to basic values can share. For centuries people have come here in the hope of making the world a fairer place and although the journey is far from over, they have succeeded on many occasions. From the knights who left their swords at the door of Westminster Hall and walked in wearing full armour to make a point to Henry III, to the Parliamentarians in the Civil War, to the Suffragettes, this place has been a symbol of hope. Surely, we don’t have to let our history divide us.