Daily Telegraph, 4 November 2021
Apologising is something the British are rather prone to do. We are internationally known for saying, “Sorry”, when someone else bumps into us. This may be a deep cultural trait, a desire to avoid confrontation and embarrassment, and, literally, a dislike of seeming “pushy”. George Orwell thought it was a sign of the “gentleness” of our civilisation: nowhere was it “easier to shove people off the pavement”. I rather like this willingness to apologise, but there are those who regard it with suspicion as typical British hypocrisy, really meaning “I’m not sorry at all, I’m just being polite
Perhaps this was the Prime Minister’s true intention when he was being apologetic about the UK being the origin of the Industrial Revolution this week, as part of his argument for us going further and faster in our efforts to tackle climate change than other countries. He could hardly say, “We British led the world in the most important development in human history since the Bronze Age, lifting the human race out of abject poverty, making modern civilisation possible, and bringing hope of betterment to every part of the globe, so now let us lead you to a post-carbon future without going back to a time when the average life expectancy was 35.” One can see why a bit of purely rhetorical apology might work better – “just being polite”.
The problem is: what if his listeners really believe it? What if he really believes it himself? Another episode in our common story is discredited. We – or rather some vocal elements in our society – have become very fond of apology in recent years. They apologise for ancestral involvement in the horrors of the slave trade, and for any connection with slavery, however tenuous. They apologise for the empire, assumed to have been wholly bad in motive, action, and consequence. They accuse national heroes of a variety of bad deeds or just bad words.
The tactics are transparent. First, a shamelessly partisan rewriting of history: hence, the British empire was all about violence and plunder; or the Industrial Revolution was only a bad thing. Second, ruthless decontextualisation: Winston Churchill may have said something that nowadays might be thought racist – so forget his crucial role in saving the world from genocidal totalitarianism.
Third, systematic selectivity in choosing only British targets: stigmatise Hume and Huxley for their views on race, but not Marx and Engels; pick on Hogarth, but don’t worry about Poussin; condemn Britain for trading in slaves, but not Nigeria, Egypt, Turkey and all the rest. Thus you create a superficially factual account of the past, tailored to fit a certain set of prejudices, but one that is distorted. It has become a misleading commonplace that there is no historical truth, but only competing narratives serving ideological positions – so who can object to “my truth”?
There are several reasons why we should object. One is simple intellectual rigour: it is mentally and morally unhealthy to acquiesce in systematic falsehood, like the subjects of Soviet Russia. We have in recent years gone down this road to an extent that most of us would never have thought possible: people are afraid to say what they really believe, even if those beliefs are widely shared.
We also have a duty of honesty to other people: much of the rhetoric of anti-colonialism, for example, is a cynical cloak for appalling misgovernment in former colonies, whose politicians are only too happy to blame their failings on “colonialism” – a major reason why nothing good can be ascribed to imperial rulers. Why should we connive in this fraud?
Another reason is in the broadest sense political: we aspire to live in a democracy where there is trust and solidarity between citizens, and this requires a sense of common belonging. As Burke observed, once this has gone, government can rely only on compulsion.
A shared history is always and everywhere an underpinning of solidarity. It does not need to be whitewashed or mythologised: truth and regret about bad things that have happened is part of the story, as is a healthy degree of disagreement – in our case, some of our divisions go right back to the 17th century, when “Whig” and “Tory” emerged. But what we have not previously seen is a systematic attempt to trash the whole story. It seems significant that in recent weeks we have seen attacks on Drake, Nelson, Pitt and Churchill – none of them saints, but all revered for helping to save the country from invasion. Is this what motivates the attacks? Is the message that our national survival is worthless?
Britain has suffered far less than some of our closest friends. Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians are constantly told that their societies are founded on invasion, dispossession, even genocide: they must be made ashamed of what they are. In the United States, the “1619 Project” sets out to rewrite American history as essentially about slavery and racism. Ironically, it argues that the colonists rebelled against Britain in 1776 because Britain wanted to abolish slavery, just when we Brits are being told by our own “woke” propagandists that we were the pillars of global slavery. But truth and consistency mean nothing in the pursuit of – well, what is the aim exactly?
We are often told that we must “confront our past”. We should certainly study and learn from it, which is quite different. But “confronting” it implies guilt. There may be cases where such confrontation is necessary, as in Germany after the Second World War, when the generation responsible had to face up to its actions, purge its political class, and change its ideas. But what would we be “confronting” in the history of 17th and 18th century slavery? Practically the whole world practised slavery. We should honour those in Britain who campaigned against it in the name of humanity, overcoming huge vested interests to harness the power of the state against the global trade.
But this, of course, is not the “woke” version. Who profits from these nihilistic attacks on our past? As a society, they harm us, and we should reject them. If the West is indeed in decline, why would we undermine it to the profit of authoritarian states that despise democracy and reject Western values?