Richard Ingrams' Week: History is bunk, or so our politicians like to believe

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The Independent Online

In his latest volume of diaries as usual highly readable Tony Benn quotes from the speech delivered by Tony Blair to the 2003 Labour Party conference. "There has never been a time when ... the study of history provides so little instruction for our present day."

In a few well-chosen words Blair spelled out one of the crucial differences between his generation and mine which is that, unlike us oldies, not only are they not particularly interested in the past but also, like Blair, they don't see any reason in particular why they should be.

Blair's knowledge of history was practically non-existent. He seemed to think, for example, that the Americans, alone, stood by us during the Blitz and that the reason we went to war with Hitler was to stop him persecuting the Jews.

His ignorance extended even to the events of his own lifetime. Once, when engaged in a discussion about Iran with Channel 4's Jon Snow, he had to ask Snow to remind him what the American hostage crisis in Iran was all about a crucial episode to anyone wanting to understand the hostility to Iran still existing in the US.

It was suggested this week that politicians should in future employ embedded historians to help them to connect what is happening now with the events of the past.

But the suggestion will not be taken up for the reason Blair gave in his speech. And it is not just that politicians don't see any relevance in history. They don't want people to think back about what the Labour or the Tory party used to believe in days gone by. All that matters is what is going on now and of course the glorious future that beckons.

Missing, presumed waiting for appeal

Interviewed on TV the other day, a legal expert on extradition was asked where in the world you could go nowadays if you wanted to do a bunk. The only places he could recommend were Iraq and Afghanistan.

The question, which arose from the story of the missing canoeist John Darwin who fled to Panama, reminded me of Conrad Black, who is due to be sentenced next week. When he was first charged I couldn't understand why he too didn't follow the example of Mr Darwin and fly off to Panama. Of course the explanation, which I still find hard to understand, is that Black was convinced of his innocence and convinced that, even now, he can win an appeal. He even went on the BBC Today programme the other day to attack the American legal system something that would make his acquittal even less likely.

Black was closely followed into the Today studio by Professor David Southall, the notorious paediatrician who once decided that a man had murdered his child after he saw him being interviewed on TV. Southall was finally struck off the medical register this week when details were published of his misdeeds over a period of many years. As a result the police have now finally been called in to investigate.

But like Black, Southall will not be heading off to Afghanistan. He too is convinced that he did nothing wrong. He too is convinced that he will win an appeal.

* For years they have been talking about what to do with Stonehenge and now the decision seems to have been reached to do nothing at all.

The trouble has always been that Stonehenge stands adjacent to a busy major road a fact that considerably detracts from its appeal. There were only two solutions: one was to re-route the road, the other to construct a tunnel. Now after years of debate, the Government in the person of Transport minister Tom Harris has announced that he will do neither.

The tunnel project had become too expensive and the re-routing of the road was subject to what he called "considerable environmental restraints".

These, naturally, included possible threat to birdlife which nowadays climbs higher and higher on the list of priorities. In this case it was claimed that stone curlews might be threatened and an RSPB spokesman expressed himself delighted that there was to be no new road. Butterflies were also said to be at risk.

English Heritage, which runs Stonehenge, has yet to comment. But it has always been a little ambivalent on the Stonehenge issue. Being close to the road and easy of access it attracts hundreds of visitors especially coach parties and the money rolls in. If the road were re-routed and Stonehenge restored to its ancient grandeur, the takings would drop considerably. Hence the plan to construct a massive visitor centre at a suitable distance from the site and perhaps even to provide a plastic Stonehenge for those who couldn't be bothered to walk to the real thing.

None of this will happen now, but I doubt if English Heritage will be all that bothered.