We should indeed not edit history.
Yet in Britain we are mostly blind to historical damage we have done, and its lasting consequences.
Churchill’s statue, photographed (by the author) at the Unite for Europe protest, March 2017. Curiously his part in founding what would become the European Union isn’t something often celebrated by those who idolise him for his leadership through World War II.
The Prime Minster, Boris Johnson, recently made a statement regarding the Black Lives Matter protests and far-right reactionary riots, and drew particular attention to the renewed efforts to review statues and historical monuments. He noted:
I am also extremely dubious about the growing campaign to edit or photoshop the entire cultural landscape. If we start purging the record and removing the images of all but those whose attitudes conform to our own, we are engaged in a great lie, a distortion of our history
I agree with this sentiment, we should not seek to edit our history, but to understand in its full context. Yet it feels like our country, culturally and institutionally, does that editing constantly. Considering the Black Lives Matter movement, there is a poetically appropriate term for how we treat our history: A whitewash.
We like to congratulate ourselves as a nation for being a driving force in ending slavery, but we should not celebrate that turning point in history without also recognising that for centuries prior we were a driving force in creating the international slave trade. The abolition of the slave trade has had a lasting effect on the world, but so too has the existence of said trade in the first place; fostering historical inequalities and cultural attitudes that lead us right up the recent events in the US, and racialised injustices that persist in the UK too.
We are a nation obsessed with the World War II, and certainly we should be proud of our part in defeating the horrors of the Nazi regime. But that is so often presented to us as the result of British resolve, with help from our American friends. Seeming to forget Russian forces were also allies in that fight, or that troops from across the British Empire were pulled into the conflict, and fought in Europe and the Pacific. Let us make sure to remember the global effort we were a part of, but not the sole actor in.
What followed in Europe was an unprecedented period of peace. Something we should celebrate; our part in creating the peaceful collaborative Europe that emerged — An achievement which Winston Churchill, whose statue Johnson was seeking to defend, was a key figure in creating — Yet we are curiously not so keen to embrace that achievement. Are we so obsessed with power as a nation that we can only celebrate domination, not collaboration?
Alas dominion is at the heart of our history. We seem to like to quaintly adore how we brought railways to India, and romanticise images of the old steam trains. But let us make sure not to forget that those railways were built to enable us to extract resources from India. Nor should we forget the famines and massacres delivered to India under British rule (some indeed at the hand of Churchill no less). Or the horrors of partition — The latter moment in history is something never touched upon when I was at school, and once I found out about it years later the stories from that period haunt me. Yet people of Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi origin make up substantial communities right here in Britain, in large part directly because of partition. How is it we do such a disservice to our fellow country-persons that we seem to forget their history; which is all of our history. In doing so we are left ignorant of how we came to be the country we are today, and the effect we had on other nations, which has lasting consequences for all the people there too.
And that brings me to one of the most recent examples of our nation, and in this instance our government, seeking to rewrite history; the appalling treatment of British citizens in the Windrush scandal. Decades of rewriting the rules in a bid to make our immigration system ever more aggressive, resulted in people who came to this country as British citizens, and their children who never knew a life anywhere else, being considered alien to us. People have been detained and deported for having the tenacity to exist in a country that invited them to make a life, but then betrayed them.
So I agree we should not “purge the record” or “photoshop” our history. Yet that is exactly what we have been doing for decades by glorifying our successes while being blind to our failings, and the costs, of our history. Missteps and abuses litter our history, and have inflicted pain on people across the globe, and right here in the UK, historically and contemporarily. History lives on through inequality and institutional bias, yet we shy away from recognising Britain’s historical contribution to that. We cannot celebrate amassing the largest Empire in history (a dubious thing to celebrate at all), without being aware of the exploitation, persecution, and injustices of colonialism.
How we treat British history today is truly the “great lie, a distortion of our history”. If we are to have knowledge of our history unedited, then we need a shift in our national understanding, to see the truth of our history, and correct the injustices it has built into our society. To do that we need a much broader teaching of history in schools, and much less myopic reflection of history in wider society.
Our history reaches far across the globe, and enriches us with the diverse communities we have in Britain as a result. But until we can accept and understand our history, it will be very hard to have a just society that recognises and truly values that diversity in our present.