Early in his tenure as Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove followed the historian Niall Ferguson in calling for history lessons in schools to “celebrate” the legacy of the British empire. In his new book, “Ten Cities that Made an Empire“, Gove’s Labour shadow Tristram Hunt offers a more equivocal, though not straightforwardly critical, exploration of that legacy. Hunt takes ten former outposts of empire, from Hong Kong to Bombay, and “traces the history of these cities, their ruling ideas and their place within the story of British imperialism.”
I visited Hunt in his Westminster office recently and talked to him about the book, as well as about Gove’s record in office, Labour’s plans to redistribute power to the regions and the future of the United Kingdom.
JD: One of the main claims in the book is that the debate about the British empire has become unhelpfully polarised in recent years with breathless boosterism on one side, represented by someone like Niall Ferguson, and unqualified criticism on the other—one thinks, for example, of Richard Gott’s book Britain’s Empire.
TH: One is often as unhelpful as the other. They’re in a symbiotic relationship and feed off each other. And that academic discourse begins to shape the public discourse. Is empire good or bad? Right or wrong? I thought the virtue of focusing on cities is that they provide a way of pursuing some more interesting understandings of imperial and colonial history and reframing some of the “right or wrong, good or bad” stuff.
That debate has spilled over into your shadow ministerial bailiwick hasn’t it?
When it came to Michael Gove rewriting the history curriculum, I had no problem with British history being foregrounded. It’s important in a multicultural, multi-ethnic society that there is that element of history which is about citizenship and civic sensibility. And having a sense of the nation’s history is part of that. But my criticism was always about not teaching that history in a global context. It comes down again to a kind of binary story—for example, Florence Nightingale versus Mary Seacole. The fight between Nick Clegg and Michael Gove over Seacole was so parochial. Actually, you could tell a very interesting story about Florence Nightingale and India and her support for female representation and progressive politics in a global context. So foregounding British history is great; but you can also give a sense of someone like Florence Nightingale in a broader perspective. And that’s the sort of path I think it’d be great for teachers to navigate. But poor teachers! They’ve only got an hour a week [to teach history to] the average 13-year-old. The argument about the history curriculum was very enjoyable, but the real argument is about space [for history] in the curriculum.
Your focus in this book is on cities. In the introduction, you draw a very interesting parallel between the growth of cities in the imperial era and what you describe as the re-emergence of the city-state today. There’s an echo in what you say there of the work of people like Benjamin Barber and Bruce Katz, who argue that it’s cities of a certain size that are best suited to meet the distinctive political and economic challenges of the 21st century.
I think the work of Katz and Barber is very powerful—especially on political leadership at an urban level. There’s an American dimension to this—the collapse of leadership at a federal level and the often reactionary nature of leadership at state level raises the question of where you can do progressive politics. The answer is that it’s in an urban, metropolitan context. China will continue to urbanise. India will continue to urbanise. And Africa will be where we see the next big wave of urbanisation.
There’s a British version of this isn’t there? An argument which says that the key to economic renewal and rebalancing in Britain is making cities outside London as dynamic as possible. And the condition of that is more autonomy—fiscal as well as political. I’m assuming, given what your colleagues Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas have said on the subject recently, that you’d be sympathetic to that kind of argument.
Absolutely. Part of the success of a city like Manchester over the past ten or 15 years has been them using every tool in the toolbox—strong civic leadership, sustained political leadership. But it’s not just about political autonomy. From a Labour perspective, what is important is trying to decentralise finance and have regional banking models and financial devolution. You can only have political leadership and economic autonomy with a much greater degree of financial devolution.
Would it be fair to say that thinking that through for a Labour politician means wrestling with a quite significant strand of the party’s intellectual heritage, which is about the exercise of centralised power?
This is why Jon Cruddas’s work is so exciting. We have a strong post-war statist tradition. But we also have a very strong pre-war civil society, mutualist, non-state tradition. How you revive non-state traditions in a context where people decry “postcode lotteries” is a real challenge. But we have also realised some of the limitations of the monetary transfer of social democracy and are interested in [the redistribution of] political power.
Politicians have often paid lip-service to “localism”, but one of the great paradoxes of so-called “public service reform” is that it tends to end up with greater centralisation, with more powers held in the hands of the minister in Whitehall.
What you have with Michael Gove is centralisation and secrecy. He’s ripping out all the intermediate institutions. So the schools minister in Whitehall writes a cheque to an academy school in Bradford—there’s nothing between the chair of governors at the school and the Secretary of State. So your ability either to intervene in fragile schools or to promote cooperation between schools is severely handicapped and limited. We’re inheriting a messy schools landscape. We want to protect school improvement by devolving power to a director of school standards. But that won’t be what some people might like, which is a return to complete local authority control.
What you’ll have is the appointment of a director of school standards from a list of experts. They will then have autonomy for five years. They’ll be able to open schools, close schools, and have new providers come in. We have to be clear that we still want new providers and innovation to enter the market. But we also have to be clear about the limitations of the school choice model. When you look at charter schools in the US and some schools here, they haven’t been particularly innovative. But we know what does work and that’s “London Challenge”, where you’ve got trust, collaboration and partnership.
Was New Labour too enthusiastic about the choice model, then?
No. There was a period time when you needed it [choice]. The academy programme had a lot more sense of strategic direction about it than the Schumpeterian, creative destructive vision of Gove and the free school lot, who want to smash the system and have high rates of failure in order to raise standards. It’s a philosophical difference—that’s their model. For hundreds of years we’ve had a strong element of choice in the English school system. We’ve had Anglican schools, Catholic schools… And that’s not going to go away—we’re not going to become Finland or Singapore overnight. You work with the grain of things, but you can have a slightly stronger hand on the tiller.
I’d like to return to the questions of citizenship and civic identity you mentioned earlier. Debates about empire have often been proxies for debates over the content and meaning of Britishness. But it’s interesting that with the at least theoretical possibility of the breakup of the union having been raised, the debate seems to have shifted from Britishness to Englishness.
What I like is a strong sense of Englishness and English identity within the framework of an effective and coherent union. At the moment, I’m a bit more worried about Britishness! I’m very hopeful that the people of Scotland will vote to stay in the United Kingdom. And it seems to me that just as you can have a revival of Scottish identity within that framework, so we should not be afraid of English identity within the United Kingdom. But at the moment the argument has to be about emphasising the merits of the union.
How good a fist do you think the “No” campaign is making of presenting that case?
It’s making a strong case for the union. Alistair Darling is a great man making an excellent case. But they’re up against a wily campaigner in the shape of Alex Salmond. They’re also up against a media which likes change, up against quite a lot of money. We have to convince Labour people and Labour voters that it’s not in their interests to vote for separation and also to remind them that the SNP is not a progressive party—look at the cuts they’re making.