Michael Gove last week presented himself as a politician who listens and has the guts to change his own deeply-held policies. It was a jolly good act, but an act it was. The Education Secretary is storming ahead with his ideological agenda, reducing the arts and more disturbingly, history to a narrowly nationalistic PR pack. Meanwhile, the Home Office citizenship test forces incomers to learn by rote a fictionalised and incomplete account of Britain’s past.
The Tories are on course to diminish, cut-and-paste, and abridge our multi-layered, unpredictable, audacious, turbulent, incredible national saga. They want to secure the story, fix it like a dead butterfly with a pin through its heart, or turn it into propaganda. History is vital – contested, much of it only partially known, waiting to reveal itself and upend assumptions.
The Iranian exile Tina Gharavi is a talented director whose feature film on Iranian siblings was a Bafta contender last night. Last week, I watched her documentary about Muhammad Ali’s 1977 visit to South Shields to help raise money for a boys’ club. Newly with model Veronica Porsche, Ali had their marriage blessed in the local mosque. The mosque was built by Yemenis, settled there since 1890, seamen from Aden who worked on British ships and fought in the First World War. They intermarried and produced generations of British Yemeni progeny. It was all new to me.
At another event I just attended, an English, feminist post-grad told me she was researching Sophia Singh, who led the tax resistance movement for the Suffragettes, marched with Sylvia Pankhurst, and was harassed by the police. Sophia was the daughter of Duleep Singh, who, when a mere boy, was exiled to England, compelled to convert to Christianity and to present his Koh-i-Noor diamond to Queen Victoria. Then a reader wrote to me about 18th-century radical Thomas Spence, an indomitable fighter for land rights, fairer divorce laws and freedom of speech, for which he was imprisoned.
We need to know about these people to understand these isles. Yet Gove is busy purging black, Asian and working-class history from school syllabuses. Campaigners have just saved Mary Seacole from their barbaric scissors.
We know that tyrannical regimes like Taliban despoil the past. But Britain? A sophisticated democracy? Yes, not with bombs, but by using power to control knowledge. Although, to their credit, the Lib Dems are trying to hold him back, Gove is a ruthlessly reactionary Education Secretary, a neocon and man with a mission to re-educate Britons. And for all that talk of U-turns, the past and future belong to him.