Time for some lessons in British history—from the Frenchby Chris Patten / April 24, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
What do you mean, “If?” All its more extreme critics know that the BBC already rules the world. So as chairman of this Trotskyist conspiracy, sedulously dedicated to a Stakhanovite work plan to undermine western civilisation, my dominion is already assured. But just in case you don’t buy this deranged version of events, let’s imagine that the “if” is for real, and that my dynasty doesn’t open its account until next Monday. What can you expect of Patten’s world rule? An early capitulary will be issued from my south-west London bunker introducing a prohibitive tax on the ownership of Chelsea Tractors by those who only ever use their 4×4 SUVs for driving on tarmac roads. A few Saturday mornings ago, driving to the local farmers’ market in my suburb (where else would I be going?), I counted 26 of these wretched environmental criminals in the space of about a mile. “From Playground to Stomping Ground” as the Toyota Sequoia advertisement used to put it. So from SW13 kerbside to scrap heap. But the most serious early change will be the establishment of the global history commission. We will assemble the best historians from around the world and set them to work looking at the way history is taught in countries other than their own. Thucydides wrote that history was philosophy teaching by examples. The trouble is that we tend to choose the examples that suit our own tribal narratives and versions of events. So most communities and nations are encouraged to forget the things they should remember and remember a skewed account of things they should forget. Bad history can therefore become the servant of bad politics, for example the sort of identity politics that has caused so much bloodshed down the centuries. Good history is usually subversive, chipping away at national stereotypes and xenophobia, and questioning the yarns that regimes spin to justify their power and assert their legitimacy. Distortion and the attenuation of a true account of events are not always particularly harmful. Look, for instance, at the relationship between the cross-Channel cousins, Britain and France. School history classes in Britain do not normally major on the fact that England lost her French Empire. We were booted out of l’hexagone by the “militarily hopeless” French. Well, they were hopeless, weren’t they, whenever their armoured aristos faced the sturdy English yeoman with his long-bow and arrows? On the other side of the water, General de Gaulle’s own history of the French army does not mention Waterloo, and when President Giscard d’Estaing arrived at Blenheim Palace for a European Council meeting he is said to have remarked, “What a very large house for a very small battle.” Elsewhere history plays tricks, encouraging the memories that are most convenient. America’s own story of its ndependence struggle forebears to mention that one cause of its hostility to the British crown was the colonists’ thwarted desire to seize native American lands. The Republican congressmen who have ascribed sacred attributes to the original US Constitution, and who read it out in public at the beginning of the present congressional session as though it were the equivalent of the Nicene Creed, tend to forget to read the article that condoned “the importation of Persons”—that is, slavery. Think what fun our commission will have when Chinese historians arrive in Britain and British historians in China. The Chinese will find few references in British history books to the way that Blighty globalised the Chinese economy in the nineteenth century by obliging the Qings, under armed duress, to open their market to opium. True, the Chinese sometimes collaborated in the trade themselves and actually smoked the stuff. True as well, as Jung Chang among others has pointed out, that Mao and the communists financed their fight against the Kuomintang in part by trading drugs. But the British role in the opium trade (to protect the finances of India) was one of the several less glorious chapters in the story of the British empire. To their credit, Edmund Burke and others condemned such “smuggling adventures,” and objected to the “Great Disgrace” of British character elsewhere in the empire. For their part, the British academic stormtroopers who arrive in Beijing and spread out across the country will carry with them containers full of Frank Dikotter’s book, Mao’s Great Famine. This magnificent work of history will provide an introduction to an open discussion of the extent to which the Great Helmsman and his pliant and servile colleagues added their own home-grown contribution to everything outsiders had already done to wreck and ravage China. For those who prefer novels to history books, Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma will be added to the reading list. Mendacious, censored and plausibly doctored history books have been used to justify great and terrible crimes, from anti-Semitism to nationalist aggression, from racism to religious persecution, from Islamophobia to ethnic cleansing. So, historians to the rescue—minus (needless to say) their SUVs.