Better to ban history than teach supremacy

Did Tim Collins go to a school where pupils were taught a distorted history bloated with patriotic propaganda?
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The Independent Online

The Tories want history to be made compulsory in schools. Who can disagree with that? Kenneth Baker's educational reforms in the 1980s pushed history into the wilderness and many parents have long argued that the subject should be made mandatory again. Careful now. This latest idea tossed out by Tim Collins the Conservative education spokesman comes at a time when a nervous, possibly manic condition is spreading fast through Michael Howard's party as they anticipate the oblivion that awaits them in a few months. As desperation rises Tories start kicking up dust storms over immigration, asylum and terrorists, and now jingoistic history. They warn the survival of the nation depends on our young understanding "our shared heritage and the nature of our struggles, foreign and domestic, which have secured our freedoms". The problem is that "shared heritage" for this lot means enforced whitewash and reassuring collective amnesia.

The Tories want history to be made compulsory in schools. Who can disagree with that? Kenneth Baker's educational reforms in the 1980s pushed history into the wilderness and many parents have long argued that the subject should be made mandatory again. Careful now. This latest idea tossed out by Tim Collins the Conservative education spokesman comes at a time when a nervous, possibly manic condition is spreading fast through Michael Howard's party as they anticipate the oblivion that awaits them in a few months. As desperation rises Tories start kicking up dust storms over immigration, asylum and terrorists, and now jingoistic history. They warn the survival of the nation depends on our young understanding "our shared heritage and the nature of our struggles, foreign and domestic, which have secured our freedoms". The problem is that "shared heritage" for this lot means enforced whitewash and reassuring collective amnesia.

"There were Africans in Britain before the English came here," is the very first sentence in the seminal history book, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, by the white Yorkshireman Peter Fryer, who first became interested in the subject when he went as a reporter to cover the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury in 1948. Fryer is talking about the soldiers in the Roman imperial army who occupied parts of this proud island for more than 300 years. A division of Moors guarded Hadrian's Wall and for the next 500 years Africans were found in royal palaces and across the country.

Has Tim Collins read Fryer's tome? Or The Chinese Opium Wars, an old but essential book by Jack Beeching, the Thirties poet from Sussex who described how the British, through guile, bribery and violence, implanted opium in China causing widespread addiction, and grotesque profiteering? Does he know and acknowledge these facts? And if not is that because he never learnt history as a child or because he went to a school where pupils were taught a distorted history bloated with patriotic propaganda?

Some of the most learned and powerful among us are busily reviving reactionary narratives - that Britain was beautifully pristine, and well managed, and honest and nice before this dratted ship arrived from the Caribbean dragging in chaos, crime, and grime, the great unwashed from the colonies. And that the British rule over the world brought nothing but order and progress to the countries lucky enough to have these extraordinary and upright administrators.

Such partial knowledge is worse than no education at all. Better to ban history than create yet another generation of Britons who want to believe they are born to rule.

In 1992, Margaret Thatcher said in Bruges that Europe should be proud it conquered and civilised the rest of the world. In 1996, Tony Blair, said: "Consider British history and what it tells us ... an empire, the largest empire the world has ever seen". In Africa this month, Gordon Brown presumed to tell that continent that "we" should be proud of the people who built the Empire and that Britain should stop apologising for this history. Last week at the ceremony to reward contemporary great Britons, Brown roused the audience with more preposterous assertions about the unremitting greatness of this country and its history. Power does corrupt, the truth most of all.

There is no country on earth which can or should make such claims. Most don't. The endemic arrogance of our nation means it can do nothing else.

The festival of exaltation of Winston Churchill is upon us and again what we are being fed is dangerously skewed. Our citizens should mark the greatness of this leader who led the nation to victory over the Nazis but they should also be made to recall his racist belief that people of colour, Africans especially, were inferior humans in need of control and enlightenment. The right-wing historian, Andrew Roberts (a key advisor to Collins) believes these to be hugely admirable qualities which propelled Churchill to do good for the dark continent. Blair and Brown understand this conceit perfectly as they throw themselves into believing they too can deliver Africa from itself. Just as they rescued Iraq to become a modern civil state - the imperial narrative being written right now.

The academic Paul Gilroy excoriated these revisionists recently: "the resolutely air-brushed version of history in which gunboat diplomacy was moral uplift, civilising missions were completed, the trains ran on time and the natives appreciated the value of stability ... these dream worlds are revisited compulsively. They saturate the cultural landscape of contemporary Britain". Where are the television programmes and articles and films to wake us from these dreams?

Of course excellent, progressive developments happened during the long years of colonialism and imperialism. There is a long list of these - from the railways to the civil service, rule of law and education for the elites. We ex-colonials gained access to great writers, art, ideas, the wonderful English language. You could say that Apartheid also created a settled society and that crime and disorder were kept down by the authorities. But both projects were built on supremacist beliefs, on greed and racial hubris, which is why real democracy was never on the agenda.

There was a time when radical indigenous Britons understood the damage that was done to both sides by the Empire. I think of all those British and American supporters of Gandhi, of the Labour MP Fenner Brockway, the Theosophists. Kingsley Martin editor of the New Statesman in the Thirties. Not any more. It has become offensive to remind people of the atrocities and inequalities of the British empire. Study after study in the Sixties revealed that in equatorial Africa, epidemics of scurvy and rickets and even leprosy arose wherever European rule brought in economic exploitation reducing the native populations to poverty levels not seen in previous times.

We have just learnt about the atrocities committed by the British in Kenya during the Mau-Mau emergency. I remember these times well, when as a child, I was told all Africans ate human flesh and needed to be punished. My own racist uncle handed over two servants to the police because he said they had Mau-Mau eyes.

Undivided India had a flourishing cotton industry destroyed by the British. During the Raj, millions died in famines in India or were driven out - my ancestors included. After independence and the establishment of democracy - as Amartya Sen points out, such massive famines have never recurred. Then there is the damage done to the will and self-esteem of a nation, even one as indomitable as India. It is only now, after more than half a century, that there is a generation of Indians and Pakistanis who can define themselves and their destiny beyond the wretched Raj.

The good news here is that millions of us new Britons will not surrender to this invented history, this travesty even if the state demands it of us in exchange for citizenship entitlements. If this is what the Tories and Labour mean by integration they can stuff it. True, the Empire brought us together, but it was for better and worse.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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