History need not be bunk - in fact, it can be put to positive use

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THE hand of history has rested heavily on our shoulders this week. In London, veterans of the war in the Far East whistled and hooted half a century of bitterness at the Emperor of Japan. Tony Blair called for Britons to look to the future and was ignored.

In Northern Ireland, in spite of all the talk of a new start, the return of something like conventional politics has unleashed a barrage of recrimination.

And in the Indian sub-continent, two nations which can still barely afford to feed their people have come to the brink of a war that could escalate 50 years of conflict into a hideous nuclear exchange.

In each case, there are many still alive who played a part in the historical events, and who can still offer a version of them to explain the reason for keeping the wounds open. The pain of the protagonists is still real and their losses are undeniable.

The argument deployed by those who want to keep these events alive in the public memory is that used by the American philosopher George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".

Perhaps; but the past is the past and history moves on. The future should be informed by history, not imprisoned by it. It would be tragic if new possibilities were spurned in order to settle old men's scores, the detail of which most people cannot recall.

A knowledge of what has gone before should be used to set us free from the shackles of the past; instead it seems to be dragging us back into bygone conflicts and traditions. And it is possible to do something positive with painful memories.

For the past year, I have had the opportunity to work with the survivors of another historical event that took place 50 years ago, which has shown a rather different face of remembrance.

On June 21, 1948, an old troopship called Empire Windrush brought 500 young men and women from the Caribbean to seek the adventure of a new life in Britain. What they found was not what they expected; and the accumulated anger over decades of alienation gave us the fires of Brixton in 1981 and 1985.

Last week, the BBC and the charity that represents those who came on that first voyage launched a season of celebration. Some of the talk at the launch was of a history of exclusion and discrimination; but it was also of pride in overcoming the hostility, and in resolving the conflicts.

The reliving of this history is not just for the benefit of those who made it, but for their descendants. The Windrush survivors are being honoured for one principal reason: telling their tale for the first time offers Black Britons a secure place in the story of the British people. In this sense, I have seen history being used to heal a divide rather than to widen it.

But does any of this matter in Cool Britannia? I think it does. Times of rapid change are precisely the moments when history matters most. One reason is that we need to know where we are going.

As we pelt headlong into the uncharted future, propelled by new technologies and huge global shifts in economics and politics, the only map we have is the past. It cannot be definitive; but it is the best we have.

The error we too often make is that instead of using the past a guide to the future, we try to retrace our steps.

In Northern Ireland, the extremist parties on both sides see themselves as the keepers of the flame for traditions and cultures under threat from hostile forces. There's nothing wrong with that, except when you use the light of the flame to march resolutely backwards.

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote that "if men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us ... but passion and party blind our eyes". The Rev Ian Paisley, Mr Gerry Adams and the governments of India and Pakistan should read those words with care.

The other reason for us to pay attention to history is that as well needing to know where we are going, we need to know who we are. History is the key to identity, and without recourse to it, societies are easy prey to tyrants who want to impose their own vision of the past on the people, in order to serve their present purposes.

Henry Ford's famous dictum "history is bunk" is not often read in full. But the whole quotation reveals the depth of Ford's authoritarianism and his certainty that technology could revolutionise the world. What Ford actually told the Chicago Tribune was that "History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history we make today."

Ford was speaking in 1916, as men died by the thousand in the trenches of Europe. The Bolsheviks were about to usher in a regime that would so refine the art of rewriting history to serve the present that a generation of Russians would virtually forget their own traditions.

Ford's uncompromising modernism, set against this background made some sense - mass production would offer a standard of living and security to workers they had never before experienced, in exchange for their becoming efficient elements in the production process.

But his words might just as easily have been uttered by Stalin or Hitler, both of whom shared Ford's certainty that modernism would make history unnecessary, except as a tool of propaganda. It was all of a piece with a vision of society that would crush individuality in the service of the state, whether capitalist or otherwise. And we know where all that ended up. Thank God for the dustbin of history.

None of this should prejudice us against the value of history as a vital key to our present and future. We simply have to ensure that the account we use is complete and inclusive.

In this country, perhaps the most important test over the next few years will be the way that we redefine and reassert what it means to be English. One of the consequences of Scottish and Welsh devolution has been to awaken the English to the fact that they too have a history that tells them who they are now.

But most English people have very little clue what that history and identity is, and some express it in the most reactionary and negative way: which we will probably hear much of during the upcoming World Cup. But books are being written, films are being made and documentaries shot that discuss the idea of Englishness.

The most powerful image of England ever cast must surely be Blake's Jerusalem. It has become a cliche for rolling green hills and neat little chocolate box villages. Actually Blake's Satanic mills lay on the south bank of the river Thames, and his England was a nation of workers; his appeal was for dignity for the labourer.

We need history; but we need to see the past for what it was, not what we want it to be. Otherwise, we end up inventing new reasons to relive old conflicts. The Indians and Pakistanis, the Northern Irish and the Far East veterans need not let go of the past, but they should no longer be enslaved by it.