A Reversion to the Whig Historians and their View of Progress?
Michael Gove’s determination to restore history as the genuine teaching of our island story should be applauded. In the teeth of resistance from left wing teachers who see controlling history as a means of preaching a politically correct outlook, he is fighting to ensure our next generation learns the narrative history that helps us understand who we are and invigorates patriotism.
The ideologues who resist this seem to think that the next generation will be inspired to virtue by having the guilt piled on about who they are. Generations have been taught a distorted view of this nation as being an oppressive and imperialist force in the world. To give the benefit of the doubt to the education establishment perhaps they believe that this will lead to future generations of virtuous citizens. More likely it will lead to an embittered nation that sees itself as guilty without any values to live up to.
Far better to teach the truth – that Britain has been, for the most part, a force for good in the world. When the facts, rather than politically correct interpretation, are taught then that conclusion will be difficult to resist. Great Britain abolished slavery and the Royal Navy policed the seas to impose a ban on slave trading. Great Britain defeated Nazism and the Kaiser, also saving Europe from Napoleon’s attempt to create one polity for the whole continent.
When we are taught what we have done in the world for good, this will act as an inspiration to true patriotism and as an inspiration to live up to those values. It does not mean distorting the truth to give an overly rosy picture of our nation’s history, in the mould of some despotic regime. Rather, it means teaching what actually happened rather than interpreting facts through the prism of a left-wing, semi-Marxist outlook that sees history as being the struggle for power between the oppressor and the oppressed. Teach history as a narrative and that interpretation crumbles away. This is why the Left wing ideologues fear Gove’s reforms for the teaching of history so much.
It is naïve though, to assume that even with the restoration of teaching history as a narrative all interpretation can be avoided. The great temptation will be to adopt a Whiggish view of the inevitability of progress. That would be a mistake and just as damaging as the Left Wing view of history now predominant in our nation’s schools.
If the history of our nation teaches us anything at all, it is that progress is not inevitable and history can take wrong turns and go down cul-de-sacs. The Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell, when two great institutions, the Monarchy and the House of Lords were abolished is the most glaring example of this. This was not progress, as demonstrated by the fact that both those institutions are still with us in the Twenty-First Century and certainly the former is held in higher respect by the public than the House of Commons of which Oliver Cromwell MP was a member.
Further the possibility of decline is demonstrated all around us: Great Britain now is threatened with dissolution thanks to the mischief of Alex Salmond. Its world stature has declined, its empire gone and its economy is smaller. Mass immigration has taken its toll, diluting our common values and leading to the corrosive relativism of multiculturalism that only now the political class is waking up to. Politicians are now more removed from the public than ever before, moving in a separate world, with different values and ideas from the people who vote them into power. Progress is by no means inevitable and there is always a high risk of decline.
No, if history teaches us anything at all it is that when we looked back we took our greatest leaps forward. The introduction of trial by jury under Henry II came from a looking back to Anglo-Saxon twelve thanes of the Wapentake. The same king’s development of common law relied on case law, which looks to precedent, reinterpreting it for each new situation. The Magna Carta was a reassertion of existing liberties and rights. Parliament itself looked back to Anglo Saxon times. Simon DeMontfort did not think he was innovating when he fought Parliament’s cause against Henry III, rather he thought he was fighting for ancient rights and privileges.
It is worth mentioning though that unlike common law, dominated by precedent, only Parliament violates this principle of looking back because of its power to pass statutes, laws that can be entirely new and overrule common law. Precedent and conventions dominate our constitution and our Parliamentarians would do well to respect precedent, rather than fall into the temptation of the novel and innovative. With the power to pass Acts of Parliament it can be seen why the political class falls into this temptation.
Our rights and liberties rely on the past for their legitimacy. We do not have to call on the flimsiness of abstract theory, with all the innate dangers that involves. We have precedent and we can rely on it because as a nation we have on the whole avoided disruptive revolutions.
With a legal system that relies on precedent and an island story that demonstrates that all our greatest moves forward were through looking back, it seems that the Whiggish view of history, with its emphasis on the inevitability of progress will not stand up to the facts. Rather, perhaps by restoring a narrative view of history we will see the development of a Tory view of history that emphasises change only working in the context of respect for the past. Forgetting the past can lead the nation into error.
If history teaches us anything at all it is that we do best to learn from the past and not forget it. That is why the teaching of history is so important.