Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Friday, December 16, 2005

Back to Year Zero

Greg Neale, BBC Newsnight's 'resident historian', has a piece in this week's New Statesman on just how little sense of the past there is among today's political class.

'Over the past couple of years, I have spoken to politicians from all the major parties who worry that British politics and public life have lost a sense of serious historical awareness, with implications for policy-making and national perspectives. "It's noticeable how little historical perspective and sweep many MPs now have, particularly when discussing something big such as Iraq," Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party leader, said when BBC History Magazine canvassed opinion at Westminster. "A little knowledge about Britain's presence in Iraq in the 1920s might have brought some understanding of the complexities of being an occupying power." Shortly before his death a year ago, the Liberal Democrat peer and historian Conrad Russell noted "an impatience with history" at Westminster...Among Labour MPs, there was qualified agreement. Speaking before this year's general election, Tony Banks suggested that "the Labour movement is less aware of its roots and traditions and history than it has been. Some might say that in the past it spent too much time in the past and now it's not spending enough."'

In part, this is the inevitable consequence of the three main parties moving closer and closer together around a neo-liberal economic consensus (witness David Cameron's appeal for Lib Dems to join the new 'liberal' Conservative party). Calls for 'modernisation' become new ruling political philosophy. The major shift right here of course has been in the Labour Party. As Neale notes, for the architects of New Labour, 'distancing the Blair project from "old" Labour seemed to them to require a "year zero" in which the party's past was forgotten.' Those who controlled the present were now to be in control of the past. Just as George Bush heard voices from God Himself ordering him to bomb Afghanistan and Iraq, Tony Blair was fortunate that 'the Angel of History' (to use Walter Benjamin's metaphor) was at his exclusive beck and call. Very quickly after Year Zero, Blair noted after the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland that while 'this is not a day for soundbites', 'I feel the hand of history on our shoulders'. This year, Year Eight of the Blair Revolution, Blair made a speech at the US Congress in which he declared that 'History will forgive' the attack on Iraq.

Neale however suggests that Blair's tight control of past, present and future is slipping. As he puts it, 'there are faint signs of change. At Westminster, party history groups - Liberal Democrat and, recently, Labour - have launched lecture programmes. The Labour MP and former history journalist Gordon Marsden is leading a drive to strengthen history teaching in schools and colleges. Gordon Brown, who studied economic history at university, has aired his ideas on British historical identity in a film for Newsnight. And intriguingly, before the election the Conservatives suggested raising the age to which history remains compulsory in schools to 16. Could history be a vote-winner? Well, last autumn a Tory education spokesman called for better history teaching as a basis for a broader education. That spokesman was David Cameron, and it will be interesting to see how he develops the theme now he is leader of his party.'

All this might well challenge Blair's grip - but simply having MPs take 'lectures' on Lib Dem history or general calls for 'more history teaching' (when they comes from the likes of Gordon Brown or David Cameron), are not going to help people understand the real role of Britain in the world. I have read Gordon Brown's 'ideas on British historical identity' and it is simply Margeret Thatcher's notion of '1000 years of British democracy' warmed up. There is almost nothing progressive or forward looking about it - still less any sense of trying to come to terms with Britain's - (and it is Britain's - not just England's) bloody colonial past. It is not too difficult to see why this past has to be 'sanitised' where it is not 'erased' completely - people will make too many connections with the bloody neo-colonialism on display in present Iraq and elsewhere. When will Winston Churchill finally be debunked once and for all? After all in 1920 he was in favour of using poison gas against 'turbulent tribes' of Kurds and Iraqis (as well as against other peoples in the Empire): 'I do not understand this sqeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.' As a result, gas was used against occupied Iraqis then by the British 'with excellent moral effect'. Cameron and Brown cannot risk British school children learning about this 'British history' - with its echoes in the US use of white phosphorus in Fallujah last November - the dangers are too great for not just them but the whole political class they stand at the head of.

Yet without such a reckoning, the 'angel of History' is doomed to remain where Benjamin left him: 'His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.'

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