All this, it might be thought, would be a matter for celebration. "Heritage" has given millions of people an active interest in the past and, as in the battle for Oxleas Wood, the defence of it has stimulated numerous environmental campaigns. It is one of the few areas of national life in which it is possible to invoke an idea of the common good. It has given a new lease of life - and a new visual form - to what used to be called, in the 1890s and 1900s when it found expression in municipal libraries, swimming baths and bandstands, the Civic Gospel.
We live in an expanding historical culture, one far more open to the stigmatised and hitherto excluded than those of the past. Family history societies, one of the true grass-roots movements of our time, working on the archives with an erudition which the professional scholar might imitate, have democratised the study of genealogy, just as the collecting manias of the last 30 years have made us all, in some sort, curators or memory keepers.
Yet heritage-baiting has become a favourite sport of the metropolitan intelligentsia. Barely a week goes by without it being targeted for abuse in one or other of the "quality" newspapers. The charge is that it wants to commodify the past and turn it into tourist kitsch, presenting a Disneyfied version of history in place of the real thing. "A loathsome collection of theme parks and dead values" is how Tom Paulin has described the British heritage industry. Heritage, according to the critics, is the mark of a sick society, one which, despairing of the future, has become besotted with an idealised vision of its past. It is a symbol of national decadence, a malignant growth which testifies at once to the strength of this country's ancien regime and to the weakness of radical alternatives.
For these reasons, denunciation of heritage has been as strong on the left as on the right. One of the most eloquent critics is Neal Ascherson, of this newspaper, who has written: "Where there were mines and mills, now there is Wigan Pier Heritage Centre, where you can pay to crawl through a model coal mine, watch dummies making nails, and be invited `in' by actors dressed as 1900 proletarians. Britain, where these days a new museum opens every fortnight, is becoming a museum itself."
Ascherson uses the word "vulgar" and that may seem strange from the lips of a socialist, a republican and a democrat. But as moral aristocrats, waging war on the corruptions of capitalist society, socialists, like the radical nonconformists who preceded them, have often been at their fiercest when denouncing Vanity Fair, or what Aneurin Bevan called the "vulgar materialism" of capitalist society. And from the time of William Morris onwards they have been apt to rebuke the masses for what another great Labour leader, Ernest Bevin, called the "poverty" of their desires.
"Heritage" has many different histories. One version is certainly aristocratic nostalgia, as exemplified by Brideshead Revisited. I am as indignant as others on the left at attempts to use heritage to promote a country house version of the national past. But I have come to think the dangers of this exaggerated; not the least attractive feature of Covent Garden is that it is a Sloane- free zone. Heritage is an idea which belongs at least as much to the left as to the right. Its French cousin, patrimoine, goes back to the Jacobin educational projects of the egalitarian priest, L'Abbe Gregoire. In the United States, the creation of black heritage centres and the rediscovery of African roots were central to the Black Power movement of the 1960s. In Britain, the National Trust was originally a progressive cause. Conservationism is now, arguably, the principal outlet for the reformist impulse in national life.
Today's open-air museums give pride of place to farmers, labourers and artisans and put a premium on the craftsman-retailer. Family, work and home are placed at the centre of history. The opponents of heritage charge it with imposing a conservative view of the past. On the contrary, it is part of a change in attitudes which has left any unified view of the past - liberal, radical or conservative - in tatters. Culturally it is pluralist. Everything is grist to its mill: the inter-war "semi", no less than the stately home. And, far from simply domesticating or sanitising the past, it often makes a great point of its strangeness, of the brute contrast between now and then.
The denigration of "heritage", though voiced in the name of radical politics, echoes some of the right-wing jeremiads directed against "new history" in the schools. It is accused of taking the mind out of history, offering a package-holiday view of the past as a substitute for the real thing. Still worse - a kind of ultimate profanity in the eyes of the purists - is the use of the performing arts, as with the ex-teachers who dress up in period costumes and act as demonstrators, interpreters and guides. Literary snobbery comes into play: the belief that only books are serious; perhaps, too, a suspicion of the visual, rooted in a Puritan or Protestant distrust of graven images.
There is social condescension here. It is a favourite conceit of the aesthete that the masses, if left to their own devices, are moronic; that their pleasures are unthinking and their tastes cheap and nasty. Theme parks - doubly offensive because they seem to us to come from America and because they link history to the holiday industry - are a particular bugbear for the critics. As engines of corruption, or seducers of the innocent, they seem to occupy the symbolic space of those earlier folk-devils of the literary imagination: jukeboxes and transistor radios, or candyfloss and milk bars. In contemporary leftwing demonology they have become the latest in a long line of opiates of the masses, on a par with Butlin's holiday camps and bingo halls in the 1950s; "canned entertainment" and "Hollywood films" in the 1930s, or what JB Priestley feared was the "Blackpooling" of English life and leisure.
Historians are only too ready to join the chorus of disdain. Does envy play some part? Heritage has a large public following, mass membership organisations whose numbers run to hundreds of thousands, whereas our captive audiences in the lecture hall or the seminar room can sometimes be counted on the fingers of one hand. Heritage involves tens of thousands of volunteers. It can command substantial Exchequer subsidies, and raise large sums by appealing to the historically minded public. It fuels popular campaigns and is at the very centre of controversy about the shape of the built environment.
Yet historians are no less concerned than conservationists to make their subjects imaginatively appealing. We may not prettify the past in the manner of English Heritage or the National Trust, but we are no less adept than conservation officers and museum curators at tying up loose ends and removing unsightly excrescences. We use vivid detail and thick description to offer images far clearer than any reality could be. Is not the historical monograph, after its fashion, as much a packaging of the past as costume drama?
Education and entertainment need not be opposites; pleasure is not by definition mindless. There is no reason to assume that people are always more passive when looking at old photographs or film footage, handling a museum exhibit, following a local history trail, or even buying a historical souvenir, than when reading a book. People do not simply "consume" images in the way in which, say, they buy chocolate. As in any reading, they assimilate them as best they can to pre-existing images and narratives. The pleasures of the gaze are different in kind from those of the written word but not necessarily less taxing on historical reflection and thought.
And who are today's memory keepers? Museum curators? Clarice Cliff collectors? Professional historians? Vinyl freaks? One of my critics derides me for attempting to rescue the metal detectorists, the historical re-enactors and the steam engine freaks from the condescension of posterity. Yet today's vast army of collectors and detectors are not only creating an archive for the future but also pointing the way to what are likely to be some of its leading themes. When the history of the suburbs comes to be undertaken, the newly opened museum of the lawnmower in Southport will be as good a starting point as the British Museum newspaper library in north London.
Adapted from `Theatres of Memory' by Raphael Samuel, the first volume of a trilogy, published by Verso on 16 February, £18.95.Reuse content