Whose history?

Publication of the Chilcot Report in July confirmed Britain’s participation in what most people now agree was a mistaken if not criminal venture. Some consideration of the ‘lessons of history’ has been unavoidable, but efforts to rewrite history in self-serving fashion have been laughable. Owen Smith might now insists he would have voted against the Iraq War, even though, in 2006, well before he had to try to shore up left‑wing credentials, his views were somewhat different. Others might claim they were victims of ‘flawed’ intelligence. If only we knew then, etcetera. Of greater import, perhaps, has been the irritation expressed by those long fed up of having to defend ‘Blair’s war’ – it’s time to move on (for example, David Miliband in 2010; or Blair himself in 2011; or Hilary Benn last December). There is, after all, something so unfair about the anti-war brigade who will keep going on about it. The past is the past, get over it.

What this discussion reveals, of course, is a profound ambivalence about the role played by history in political discourse. Ignore history when it is more convenient to do so; and, whenever possible, rewrite it because it now suits us to remember. Benn has been criticised (for example, here and here) for the way he dragged the Spanish Civil War into the Syria debate. If his speech showed that history can always be exploited and spun to provide authority to otherwise empty rhetoric, the same might be said whenever Smith challenges Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on NATO and Trident. Here, Smith insists that Britain has a duty to remember its place in the world, as though this ‘place’ is fixed for all time. Because it suited him, Smith could invoke history, albeit one dependent on a no doubt sanitised version of what Britain, in past decades and centuries, did get up to. If nothing else, this should be seen as remarkable complacency on the part of one who would be prime minister.

To take one example to illustrate how this approach is problematic – it might be argued that, far from simply repeating the boast that Britain’s place in the world is no more than confirmed by membership of the UN Security Council, there is clearly a case for reforming the (‘anachronistic’) UNSC (see, for example, here, here and here). Clearly, the UNSC produces authority rather than simply describing it. Any consideration of the history of the world since 1945 will mean acknowledging the extent to which the UN has changed and reasons why. At the very least, one should remember that history has had to be written, and that means interpretations fought over. Kundera put it well when he said the struggle against power was the struggle of memory against forgetting; and so, if that means not forgetting Britain’s part in the Iraq War, it also means remembering why Britain can still call itself a great power. In common with most politicians looking to make cheap flag-waving points, Smith thinks Britain has a responsibility to pretend it is still 1945; but perhaps a greater responsibility is for politicians to acknowledge how and why that is no longer the case.

This post was first published on heavymetalpolitics.com (18/9/16)

 

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